Responsible Travel: Why Agents Should Care

by Marilee Crocker
Martha Honey
honey

Should travel agents care about responsible travel and sustainable tourism? A new report from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) issues a resounding “yes” as its answer.

In a nine-page study titled, The Case for Responsible Travel: Trends & Statistics 2015, CREST grounds its argument in principle, citing what it calls a mounting “social and environmental imperative.”

Consumer trends support that imperative, the report suggests, noting “sustained interest among consumers in tourism products and services that protect the environment and respect local cultures.”

Within the travel industry, sustainability has become “much more mainstream,” the report states, pointing to the growing numbers of companies that are adopting environmental and social practices, seeking green certifications, and looking for ways to green up their supply chains.

Travel agents see the trend
The CREST report draws its conclusions from dozens of consumer and industry surveys and studies. Among them is a 2013 Travel Guard survey of travel agents, 24% of whom said consumer interest in green travel was at its highest point in 10 years.

Another 51% of agents said interest in green travel had remained steady over the past decade.

Other studies confirm that consumer interest in sustainable travel and tourism is strong and appears to be growing, CREST executive director Martha Honey told Travel Market Report.

The trend provides an opportunity for travel agents, she suggested.

Higher-spending travelers
“Responsible travelers tend to be higher-value travelers, ones that put more money into the local economy, stay longer, spend more, and want to move around the country,” Honey said.

“That offers opportunities for agents or tour operators to put together interesting packages that would capture this market.”

The CREST report, however, indicated that many consumers aren’t willing to pay more for responsible travel––one survey found that only 13% of U.S. travelers were willing to pay just $10 to $25 more.

Honey noted the wide discrepancy in such findings.

“Those willingness-to-pay surveys are a little iffy; it’s kind of all over the map,” she said. “There are real examples of places that are doing it right and charging a bit more and are full.”

In fact, travelers will pay more when they feel they’re getting real value, according to Honey.

“Part of that value is to see that places are really making a difference––in the way they treat their staff, the salaries they pay, and what they do with their waste, recycling, and all of that.”

Biz travel too
Concern with the environmental and social impacts of travel is growing in corporate travel as well.

CREST cites a Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) study released in January showing that 19% of U.S. business now incorporate sustainability into their travel contracts, up from 11% in 2011.

In another recent study, 95% of business travelers said the hotel industry should be undertaking green initiatives. It predicted that sustainability will become a defining issue for the hospitality industry in 2015 and beyond.

Global imperative
The CREST report sees a growing “social and economic imperative” for responsible travel and tourism as the gap between rich and poor deepens and climate change accelerates.

“Tourism, as the largest global service industry and one of the top industries for poor countries, has an important role to play in reversing these catastrophic trends,” the report states.

Responsible travel is “no longer a lifestyle decision,” Honey asserted. “There is a business imperative, in part because consumers are demanding it and in part because we’re facing climate change, so we have to do things differently.

“The essence of responsible tourism—or ecotourism or sustainable tourism—is that it should provide tangible benefits to local livelihoods in terms of jobs, and in conservation of the environment,” she explained.

“Those two core principles are under threat on a global scale from climate change and from the widening gap between rich and poor.”

Positive trends
Among encouraging developments is growing recognition that the social and environmental impacts of travel and tourism need to be addressed at the destination level, not merely company by company, Honey said.

“We need to be doing more planning on a broader scale. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of isolated individual lovely projects.”

An important step forward came in late 2013 when the Global Sustainable Tourism Council issued criteria spelling out minimum requirements for sustainable practices in travel destinations, Honey said.

Another hopeful sign is growing consumer interest in green certification programs that measure travel destinations and companies based on sustainability standards, much as star-rating systems rate hotels.

Consumers need such tools to “separate the phony from the real,” Honey said.

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