Tourism is the world’s largest industry, and it grows larger every year. In 2012, for the first time in history, international tourist arrivals surpassed one billion. In 2011, international tourism receipts exceeded $1 trillion. Hand in hand with this extraordinary development of global tourism is an unprecedented level of interest in responsible travel. In a landmark study, the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, DC, and affiliated with Stanford University, conducted a meta-analysis of tourism surveys and market studies that took place during the last five years. Using data from a number of countries, including the United States, Russia, Namibia, Botswana, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other nations in Europe and the Americas, CREST found that for the first time, abundant evidence at the consumer, business, and destination levels indicates that responsible tourism is economically viable as well as ethically sound.
“Never before has there been such an abundance of evidence demonstrating that socially and environmentally responsible travel has now entered the mainstream. It crosses age and income groups, different types of tourism, and destinations around the globe,” CREST Co-Director Dr. Martha Honey said in a press release.
At the consumer level, numerous pieces of market research indicate that the desire for greater social and environmental sustainability is a growing trend among travelers. This coincides with a drive to get away from “cookie cutter” vacations in favor of travel experiences that are unique, authentic and meaningful. CREST’s meta-analysis shows that travelers are not only seeking out unique and ethical experiences, but are also prepared to pay for them. In addition, the rise of traveler’s philanthropy programs and voluntourism indicate that consumers increasingly desire to give back to the communities that they visit as tourists. These twin desires for unique and ethical experiences along with “giving back” have placed increasing pressure on tourism suppliers to improve their social and environmental responsibility.
Partly based on this demand from consumers, a growing number of businesses are paying more attention to sustainable operations. In the words of Bruce Poon Tip, founder and CEO of G Adventures (quoted in the CREST report), “Sustainability is at the forefront of our business model because of customer demand.”
Embracing responsible business practices at the environmental and social levels has a number of benefits for businesses. In addition to meeting a growing consumer demand, responsible practices give a competitive advantage in terms of branding and product differentiation. Beyond these advantages, businesses can also reduce costs and improve efficiencies, meet emerging legal and regulatory requirements, and improve employee satisfaction by engaging staff in corporate social responsibility (CSR). Even more compelling, however, is that companies that adopted environmental, social, and governance policies in the 1990s outperformed those that did not, according to a 2011 report by the Harvard Business School. In other words, responsible business practices are not just good for public relations. They are actually a vital factor in predicting business success.
The strongest case for responsible practices in tourism, however, is the fact that the tourism industry as a whole depends on the health of the destination. Even beyond the scope of individual businesses, attention is now being focused on enhancing environmental and social sustainability within entire tourism destinations. Criteria for “green” destinations are currently being developed, most notably by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), as well as by the European Union, National Geographic’s Geotourism Program, EarthCheck, and Green Globe. CREST also highlighted Ethical Traveler’s annual report on the World’s Best Ethical Destinations in this context.
Hand in hand with sustainable destination criteria, destination partnerships are emerging as a holistic, multi-stakeholder approach towards achieving sustainability. And since integrated ecotourism can return as much as 95 percent of revenues to the local economy, as opposed to about 20 percent for standard package tours, incorporating destination-wide sustainability goals can be a key force in achieving the maximum possible positive impact from tourist arrivals. Building on the success of the trends study, CREST is currently planning an Executive Symposium for Innovators in Coastal Tourism to bring together the movers and shakers of the coastal tourism industry.
The findings from the CREST study indicate beyond a doubt that responsible travel has entered the mainstream travel market, and that its influence is growing. “The tourism sector is embracing responsible tourism not as an option, but as a condition for its continuous growth,” Luigi Cabrini, director for sustainable development at the World Tourism Organization, said in the CREST press release. With the knowledge that sustainable tourism is backed by sound economic data using a triple bottom line, a move toward improved sustainability in all aspects of the tourism industry seems a reasonable expectation for the future .
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