The COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on the tourism industry, with more sustainable and environmentally friendly tourism at the heart of some of the recovery effort, or at least of the official discourse. Sustainable tourism has become a key element for tourism strategies across the globe, but these strategies are often still hard to implement without the buy-in of local tourism stakeholders, especially tourism businesses who are focused on profit and financial recovery after the pandemic. In practice, the summer of 2022 has seen extraordinary numbers of tourists flocking to known tourism destinations in order to catch up after two summer seasons of reduced travel due to the pandemic. This has put renewed pressure on selected destinations that were already known for over-tourism. For many businesses, attracting tourists this year has been essential for survival and for making up lost revenue. Under these circumstances it is questionable, how many businesses and destinations really focused on switching to a more sustainable offer to attract new audiences. However, there has been a growing demand for different types of certifications across tourism businesses and destinations and for the implementation of sustainable practices in the sector. There is no doubt, though, that a lot more needs to be done for all tourists to be presented with the option of an accessible and environmentally sustainable tourism offer.
Guide Me Green is a truly innovative project that focuses on a target group, which has so far been largely neglected: Travellers with a limited budget. They have been mostly overlooked as consumers of sustainable tourism experiences, partially because of their socio-economic background sometimes linked to other disadvantages, such as a disability. This means that this target group has less budget to spend and can be harder to cater to, which makes it seemingly less attractive for businesses to reach these customers. Going sustainable can also demand some initial investments that budget hotels, restaurants and tour operators are not willing to make since the profit margin is lower.
The financial benefits and business case for the development of sustainable offers needs to be communicated much more clearly in order for businesses, aiming at the budget traveller, to switch to more sustainable options and offers.
When searching for sustainable tourism offers and experiences online, there is no shortage of trendy and flashy destinations with high-end facilities that implement sustainable practices. Travelers can experience immersive experiences close to nature in impact-positive hotels or resorts to recover from their busy work schedule. However, when one looks at the promotion of low-budget destinations, the word “sustainable “rarely appears in the description of the offer. Booking sites such as Booking.com now introducing information about the sustainability credentials of hotels or an increase in certified hotels might contribute to some positive changes in the industry.
Research by CELTH (Centre of Expertise, Leisure Tourism and Hospitality) as part of the Study 'Sustainable Travel in an Era of Disruption: Impact of COVID-19 on Sustainable Tourism Attitudes' shows that this is not a chicken or egg question in the sense that tourism professionals and destinations are the ones who need to develop affordable sustainable options for tourists to choose them. Although the demand for sustainable tourism is growing and some segments are willing to pay more for greener holidays, many of them do not want to spend more and price will take priority over sustainability. According to the study, it is up to the industry and the government to push for more sustainable offers for all target groups, including those travelling on a low budget.
Supporting the sustainable tourism recovery requires that a systemic approach is in place, involving not only all parties in the tourism value chain, the supply-side, but also the active participation of consumers, the demand-side. This means that low budget tourists need to be educated about sustainable travel and tourism and the benefits it can bring both for them personally and local communities and the planet. Guide Me Green is working with adult educators to support the development of more conscious travel and tourism of the low-budget segment and is at the same time aiming to increase the support of destinations to also cater to this target group.
The study by CELTH can support European destinations in better understanding consumers’ attitudes in the pandemic era, and more specifically the extent to which tourists are ready to make concessions and adopt more sustainable approaches while travelling. Understanding travellers’ behavioural trends and expectations in a pandemic world will become paramount to improving customer experiences, while considering the principles of a sustainable tourism recovery and ensuring the sector’s resilience in both the short- and long term.
Today there is an opportunity to challenge traditional tourism models and strategies and define ambitions goals to build the sector for tomorrow.
Includes some excerpts from 'Sustainable Travel in an Era of Disruption: Impact of COVID-19 on Sustainable Tourism Attitudes' by CELTH (2022)