4 Key Insights about What Consumers Want from Sustainable Destinations

Consumers don't have a consistent understanding of the definition of sustainability, which can make it hard for travel providers to meet their expectations.

Sustainability in the tourism industry was a hot topic as the World Travel Market (WTM) convened earlier this month in London, bringing together an estimated 40,000+ travel professionals from more than 150 countries across the world.

In the midst of the two-story trade show booths, elaborate exhibits and in-booth entertainment—not to mention the generous amounts of carbon dioxide emissions created in getting people to London from such diverse places as Malawi and Montana— the show featured three days of events, seminars and discussions focused on responsible tourism.

Are International Tourism Sustainability Standards a Realistic Goal?

One high-level panel discussion, brilliantly moderated by Stephen Sackur from BBC HARDtalk, dug into the topic of greenhouse gas emissions. One of the panelists was Gerald Lawless, president and group chief executive officer of Jumeirah Group. During the debate, after much grilling by Sackur, Lawless indicated that he expects it will take three years for the hotel industry to finally agree on worldwide standards of measuring sustainable efforts in the hotel industry.

However, that doesn’t mean that important sustainability practices aren’t already in place at Jumeirah and countless other travel providers. Or that there isn’t a spirit of collaboration among the tourism industry—even among competitors—as demonstrated by the launch of the Sustainable Destination Leadership Network (SDLN), my primary purpose for attending the WTM.

A New Organization Leading the Way

SDLN is the first global collaboration of its kind for decision-makers and practitioners from tourism destination authorities. The network, being convened by Sustainable Travel International, held its kick-off event in a conference room space overlooking the formidable River Thames with more than 70 media members, destinations and industry leaders—many of who could be considered competitors—in attendance.

One of the collaborating partners, Geoffrey Lipman, the founder of International Coalition of Tourism Partners, even called out in his remarks that his organization could be considered a competitor of Sustainable Travel International. But in the spirit of working together for the greater good of really digging into what destinations can be doing to continue to elevate the importance of sustainability, that naturally competitive nature was put aside. The launch also included endorsing and inspiring remarks from:

  • Zoltan Somogyi, executive director, UNWTO
  • Todd Davidson, CEO, Travel Oregon and chair of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board
  • Louis Twining-Ward, president of Sustainable Travel International

(Keith Bellows, editor in chief of National Geographic Traveler and vice president of the National Geographic Society, was unable to attend but his organization is joining the network as another collaborating partner.)

India's impressive and extensive multi-story booth at the World Travel Market.

Key Consumer Insights

At the launch, I shared the consumer insights research that we conducted—2013 Traveler Perspectives on Destinations and Sustainability—as part of our partnership with SDLN. The purpose of the research was to understand the consumer perception of sustainability and travel and the role destinations play in that experience. Here are the four key takeaways that I shared with the audience:

1. Current consumer trends are showing a desire for guilt-free consumption.

Trendwatching.com just came out with their monthly brief that highlights guilt-free consumption: people want to continue to consume but in a less guilty way—including their guilt about what they cause to other people and other living cultures, and guilt about their impact on the environment at large. With this continued trend, the commitment of sustainability and travel at the destination level will continue to be extremely important.

2. An attractive place to live is an attractive place to visit.

This type of traveler—people who value travel, outdoors and sense of place—wants to localize as much as possible when they travel to new destinations. That key trait essentially puts them in a position of evaluating a destination not just as a destination but evaluating that destination as if they were local residents. If a place (city, region, country, etc.) has good sustainability practices in place for its residents, then it becomes a more desirable destination for travelers.

3. It’s better to promote the benefits rather than the practices.

Consumers don’t have a consistent definition of sustainability. Sustainability practices are complicated and not always tangible. And sustainability is not top of mind and/or is not the only factor in why the target audience chooses a destination. However, they would not have an interest in traveling to that destination, if it weren’t for the outcomes of its sustainable practices. Talking about the direct results of those sustainable practices—e.g., vibrant local cultures, pristine beaches, convenient public transportation—is more impactful than describing the destination as “sustainable.”

4. Destination managers can best serve as guardians, facilitators.

The consumer believes that everyone is responsible for the sustainability of a place and that each entity plays a different, and sometimes overlapping, role. They see a destination management/marketing organization being the guardian of the destination and also providing coordination and communication between the multiple entities—including the government, the suppliers and businesses, the local residents and the travelers. It’s a complicated and critical role that involves heightened levels of collaboration.

And that’s what the SDLN is committed to doing as a group: learning from one another, tackling complicated topics related to sustainability and travel at the destination level and then setting the high bar for best practices, based on consumer insights.

If you are interested in learning more about the full range of insights contained in the 2013 Traveler Perspectives on Destinations and Sustainability research report, get in touch with me.

You can view the slides from my presentation below, or head over to our presentations page to download the full hi-res version including notes.

Maclaren Latta


Maclaren is a leading expert in connecting brands with consumers who are passionate about travel and the outdoors. When she’s not leading MERCURYcsc’s research team and uncovering insights, she’s finding time to fly fish and ski with her family.

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