WHY ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY IS NOT A SELLING POINT AND THE FUTURE OF INTEGRATED SUSTAINABILITY

Consumers are becoming increasingly conscientious about the impacts of their travel decisions, but selling environmental sustainability alone is not enough.

The way the numbers tell the story, people still want to travel but their priorities are beginning to shift. According to MMGY Global’s 2019–2020 Portrait of American Travelers®*:

  • 13% of travelers’ behaviors were influenced by perceptions of a provider’s efforts toward environmental sustainability – up from 8% in the previous year.
  • 60% say that concerns over climate change will likely inform where they travel in the next 5 to 10 years.
  • 47% agree that overtourism will likely have an influence on their choices.
  • Millennials, and especially Millennial families, are leading the charge in this way of thinking.

This heightened awareness can and will impact where people decide to travel, and they’re taking an average of 3.5 trips a year, up from 3.0 the previous year; and 21% plan to travel even more in the next year, while 49% plan to take the same number of trips.

It’s becoming increasingly important to attract those conscientious consumers for whom sustainability is becoming a higher priority. Research from MMGY Global’s 2019–2020 Portrait of American Travelers® shows that 33% of American travelers indicate they are willing to pay 10% higher rates/fares on travel service providers who demonstrates environmental responsibility. This “conscientious traveler” took more vacations, intends to take more vacations, spent more, and plans to spend more on vacations than the “non-conscientious traveler.”

To reach this important audience, we first have to debunk the common misconception that sustainability is solely an environmental issue; based on the UN World Tourism Organization’s definition, sustainable tourism must be fully integrated – taking into consideration present and future economic, social and environmental impacts, while also factoring in the effect on visitors, the industry, environment and host communities.

In order to anticipate the future of sustainable tourism development, it’s worth looking at industry stalwarts. The Central American nation of Costa Rica has built its tourism identity around integrated sustainability. In a country that is abundant with natural resources – harboring 5% of the world’s known biodiversity and 3.5% of all marine life – it’s only natural that environmental sustainability is at the forefront. But its success is built on an even more comprehensive vision for tourism.

“The framework is intentional, strategic and structured,” says Greg Oates, senior vice president of innovation at MMGY NextFactor. “In Costa Rica, sustainable tourism development is led by the highest levels of government, and it’s aligned and accessible to all business operators.”

Government-led initiatives are purposefully designed for integrated sustainability built on three pillars: environmental, economic and social. By 2021, Costa Rica aims to be the world’s first carbon-neutral country by incentivizing cleaner transportation methods and investing in carbon offsetting programs. Officials are looking to expand from 10 to 32 tourism development areas to encourage rural development and tourism dispersion. And the nation’s celebrated Certification for Sustainable Tourism program – currently awarded to more than 400 tour operators, lodging, restaurants and other private entities – was designed around positive environmental, economic and social impact.

Even these forward-thinking initiatives alone aren’t enough. Whether it’s banning Styrofoam or eliminating single-use plastics, achieving LEED certification or developing community-based tourism initiatives — what’s good for a brand’s health doesn’t necessarily drive conversions.

After all, Costa Rica doesn’t position itself as “we’re sustainable, so choose us above all others.” Its public relations platform is built around “pura vida” experiences designed for niche audiences: zip lining in rainforest canopies (adventure); thermal spa treatments (wellness); farm-to-table foraging (culinary); wildlife spotting (family); and beachfront weddings (romance). Even if the MICE audience is intrigued by the new convention center’s solar water heating and rain water capturing system, it’s really the capacity, amenities and airlift that seal the deal. Rather than trying to create a standalone product out of sustainability, Costa Rica’s most appealing products are wrapped around the core of sustainability.

Tying into the ongoing PR narrative, Costa Rica’s newest North American integrated marketing campaign highlights “Only the Essentials” ­– capturing the essence of Costa Rica as a place to reconnect with nature, each other and oneself. The campaign features five simple words – Balance, Thrill, Recharge, Alive and Connect – in a custom font that was hand-illustrated from real images of Costa Rica’s flora and fauna. Launching with out-of-home bus and trolley wraps, taxi toppers and activations in key markets, the campaign integrates with media efforts that include television spots, display banners, and print and native content.

Oates, whose firm has developed master tourism plans around data-driven measurements and public-private collaboration, also points toward New Zealand’s Tourism 2025 & Beyond framework. Within this newly amplified set of actionable strategies, sustainability is at the heart of four pillars: visitor, community, environment and economy.

Going beyond its original dollars and cents tourism goals ($41 billion by 2025), New Zealand’s vision expands the very definitions of success. Those tourism goals include:

  • Measurable visitor satisfaction of 95%
  • 90% rate of community “happiness” of the level of tourism and support growth
  • 90% of tourism businesses to have environmental plans
  • $450 billion annual tourism spend by 2025

The good news is that sustainably driven frameworks are scalable, down to a city level. Even destinations that may have to walk back their current model to adopt a more sustainable vision can do so, if they implement the right set of strategies.

It won’t always be an easy path to success. Cities muscle against counties for public infrastructure dollars; larger hotel groups and transportation companies put up a fight when they think an integrated sustainability plan is too expensive. But when a plan is intentional, strategic and structured, it begins at the top with a long-term vision bolstered by actionable goals and clear communication.

*Portrait of American Travelers 2019–2020 was based on a survey of 2,971 active leisure travelers with an annual household income of $50,000 or more and took at least one leisure trip of 75 miles or more from home during the previous 12 months requiring overnight accommodations.