While COVID has upended the $8 trillion global travel industry, the pandemic has also paved the way for tourism and hospitality professionals to reflect, rethink and reshape the sector, making it better – and ultimately more sustainable – for people and places around the world.
As UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said:
Sustainability must no longer be a niche part of tourism but the new norm for every part of our sector. That means an opportunity to build back better and create and industry that is more resilient and aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Which key findings and statistics will help inform hospitality and tourism professionals as they recover from the impact of the pandemic and prepare for a more resilient and sustainable future?
1. Sustainability is in growing demand
While the term “sustainable tourism” is tossed around with increasing frequency, many professionals have only a vague understanding of what sustainability really means. Essentially, sustainable travel refers to tourism that supports the natural and cultural heritage – as well as the economic viability – of destinations.
Not only is sustainability essential for our collective future, but tourists are demanding it. According to the digital travel platform Booking.com, over half (53%) of global travelers want to travel more sustainably in the future, and the company expects to see a more eco-conscious mindset in 2021 and beyond, as coronavirus has amped people’s awareness of their impact on the environment and local communities. In fact, over two-thirds (69%) of respondents anticipate that the travel industry will offer more sustainable travel options.
2. Beyond sustainable
While sustainability refers to harm reduction, a new concept has recently cropped up among tourism professionals: “regenerative travel”. Built on the sustainability concept, regenerative tourism, which is even more ambitious, refers to leaving a place even better than you found it. Six nonprofit organizations – including the Center for Responsible Travel and Sustainable Travel International – have established the Future of Tourism coalition, which aims to “build a better tomorrow”. Dozens of hotel groups, destination marketers and travel organizations have signed on to the coalition’s 13 guiding principles, including “demand fair income distribution” and “choose quality over quantity.”
3. Generating economic opportunity
In 2020, the world economy shrank by 4.3 per cent, over two and half times more than during the 2009 global crisis. The economies of tourism-dependent regions have been hit particularly hard. Women, young people and workers with low education, who make up the bulk of hospitality employees, have been most severely affected. In fact, job and income losses have pushed millions of people in tourism-dependent places like Latin America and the Caribbean into poverty, wiping out all economic progress made over the past 15 years. At the peak of the pandemic, nearly nine in ten hotels had to lay off or furlough workers, and the hospitality and leisure industry lost 7.5M jobs.
On a somewhat encouraging note, however, the World Travel and Tourism Council’s latest economic forecast predicts that as many as 111 million global travel and tourism jobs could be regained in 2021. That will depend, of course on restoring traveler confidence through vaccine distribution, mandatory mask-wearing and comprehensive COVID testing. And key to all economic recovery is investment. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged, “Let’s invest in an inclusive and sustainable future driven by smart policies, impactful investments, and a strong and effective multilateral system that places people at the heart of all socio-economic efforts.”
4. Travelers want to help
Not only has the pandemic increased traveler commitment to sustainability and the environment, two-thirds of travelers want their choices to support the destination’s recovery efforts, and more than half want to see how their money is going back into the local community.
Travel companies are facilitating that desire to help. New businesses – such as the booking agency Regenerative Travel – features sustainable destinations and resorts and committed to a sustainable future. The interest in giving back to destination communities is even evident among armchair travelers. Global Child “Travel with Purpose”, a popular series available on Amazon Prime, is now in its third season. According to the series’ creator, “We wanted to inspire travelers to remember that everyone is part of one global family, it’s time to leave the divisive behind and embrace the future together. Doing good in each place we visit, not only is a great blessing for each place we visit, but it actually does wonders for our own soul.”
5. Climate change
Along with a global focus on the pandemic, concern over climate change has reached new levels this past year, with an increasing determination by businesses and individuals everywhere to do their part to mitigate carbon emissions. In fact, one of the silver linings of the pandemic has been the decrease in travel-related carbon emissions.
Hotels can do their part to help further reduce emissions through sustainable building design, the efficient use of energy, by addressing issues in their supply chains and reducing single-use plastics. They can also reduce purchase carbon offsets with companies such as Cool Effect to offset their emissions. One important way that hotels and restaurants can contribute to reducing emissions – and address consumer concerns – is by serving sustainable foods. A recent survey from EU consumer organization BEUC, which focused on consumers’ attitudes toward sustainable food, found that more than half of consumers say that sustainability has some or a lot of influence on their eating habits. That means, for example, reducing red meat, which has a huge carbon footprint, and serving more plant-based and foods from local farms.
6. Sustainable design and stewardship sells
Even during the pandemic, concerns about the future of our planet are top of mind and driving decisions. As revealed by the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020 – which explores the views of more than 27.5K millennials and Gen Zs, both before and after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – “despite the individual challenges and personal sources of anxiety that millennials and Gen Zs are facing, they have remained focused on larger societal issues, both before and after the onset of the pandemic. If anything, the pandemic has reinforced their desire to help drive positive change in their communities and around the world.”
The world’s top hoteliers and industry professionals are heeding the call. Just as 9/11 increased their focus on security, the pandemic has raised hoteliers’ awareness of health and wellness – concerns that are closely linked to sustainability. Along with contactless and touchless check-in and room controls, new hotels are being designed with a focus on nature and wellness.
One of the leading sustainability trends in hotel design is modular construction, which is efficient, reduces waste, energy-use and carbon emissions. CitizenM, opened its first modular hotel in Amsterdam in 2008, and currently eight of the company’s hotels are made with modular units, with more underway in Los Angeles and Seattle. Marriott International currently has 50 projects in the works. Sustainability is a focus of the high-end market as well, not only because it leads to greater efficiency but because it appeals to consumer concerns.
The Asian brand Six Senses, for example, whose ethos is built on sustainable design and customer experience, is opening their first hotel in Brazil. Another new hotel in the Negev Desert in Israel will include an Earth Lab, where guests can learn first-hand about the brand’s efforts around marine conservation, forestry and farming, as well learning practical applications for sustainability, including composting and organic gardening.