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Social responsibility in tourism the new bottom line

Published 1 September 2022

Social responsibility in the tourism and hospitality industry: gearing up for lasting impact

Social responsibility is one of the most enduring ‘hot topics’ in the hospitality industry. Decades ago, this meant taking a closer look at big-ticket environmental concerns such as pollution and exploitation of local resources. Now, it’s more sophisticated, far wider in scope and much, much more transparent. Today, local communities are more commonly the focus.

People, Planet and profit – the triple bottom line

Cultural appreciation, local procurement and hyper-local recruitment are increasingly part of how we talk about our tourism and hospitality businesses. It goes beyond talk, with concepts like the triple bottom line bringing people and planet right up alongside profit on the list of priorities.

So how can tourism businesses of every size take their first (or next) steps towards social responsibility? Well, the good news is that social responsibility is good for your bottom line, as well as the local communities you support. And we’ve got plenty of advice to help you start your journey!

Let’s explore the difference between the high-impact, lasting changes that your business could bring about through local economic development, and how that’s different to corporate social responsibility.

What is local economic development (LED)? Is it the same as corporate social responsibility (CSR)?

These two terms often share space, but they are not as similar as they may appear at first glance.

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is a catch-all term that spans industries and applications. It encompasses anything that your business does that is considered ‘socially responsible’, and refers to activities outside of your usual business operations, or that make those operations more ‘responsible’. Examples of these include organising fundraisers for – or volunteering with – local charities, or inviting people into corporate offices to talk about pertinent issues. These are often short-term, low impact initiatives.

Local economic development, on the other hand, refers to improving the area within which you operate with new skills, technology and materials in order to help local people make the most of the opportunities available to them. Generally, LED initiatives can fall into the following categories:

  • Education
  • Food security and agriculture
  • Disaster relief
  • Health
  • Entrepreneurship and job-creation
  • Environment
  • Housing
  • Sports development
  • Arts and culture
  • Safety and security
  • Information and media
  • Social justice
  • Gender equality and advocacy

Although it applies across different sectors, it is particularly important in the tourism and hospitality industry. LED requires you to invest money, time and resources, but it brings lasting benefits to both the local economy, your relationships with stakeholders and your bottom line.

How can tourism support local communities?

It’s important to ensure that your business isn’t disadvantaging local communities. There are various ways that tourism might create such economic disadvantages, including:

  • Taking away business from local organisations. For example, by developing guided safari or cultural tours instead of partnering with locals who already run such programmes.
  • Disturbing local businesses. For example, by polluting or disturbing waters that they rely on for fishing or irrigation.
  • Not doing business with, or hiring local people, or offering an unfair remuneration for their products or time.

But it’s not enough to simply do no harm. Our industry can benefit greatly from actively partnering and participating in the diverse local communities that surround them.

There are many ways your business can play a positive role in its neighbourhood; some approaches will be more relevant to your context than others. Talk to people in the communities around your business: local groups, leaders and assorted members of the community. Identify what their challenges are.

In some places, it might be that local young people are unable to find work or develop new skills without moving away from home, while in others it could be that schools are underfunded, or farmers cannot get a good price for their produce in the local area. In more urban environments, there might be a lack of sports facilities for young people, or issues with underemployment and/or homelessness.

Identifying those existing challenges offers you the opportunity to make a tangible difference to the local area and ideally benefit your business too, creating shared value. This is more powerful than creating an initiative based on what you want to do, or what you believe is required, and it builds lasting relationships that can benefit both parties.

How do local communities benefit the tourism industry?

Local communities are part of what draws tourists to visit an area. Whether it’s the way locals live, a product or craft they are famous for, historical sites and structures or the wildlife they co-exist with, people are fascinated by people. Employing local people in your business can also create a more authentic experience for your customers.

As well as drawing tourists to your business, local communities can support you in other ways. It’s likely that there is existing business infrastructure that you use, or could use, too, such as local suppliers of food or building materials, or services such as recycling, laundry or floristry.

The benefits of working closely with the communities around you

  • Your surrounding communities are a great place to find employees, particularly those with unique skills such as the preparation of authentic regional food or an understanding of local history.
  • Local produce and materials require less transportation to reach you, helping you cut down on carbon emissions and costs.
  • Providing insights into the culture and history of the local area, and local knowledge of the plants and wildlife that can be found.
  • Strong relationships with community groups and leaders can help ease negotiations when it comes to further development of your site where stakeholder approvals are required.
  • Local suppliers such as butchers, grocers and florists allow you to offer your guests something they won’t get anywhere else in the world: a little taste of life in your location.

Additionally, tourism customers are becoming increasingly interested in where they spend their money. Prioritising social responsibility is a selling point that will appeal to ethically minded customers.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, through the Grootbos Foundation, can show examples of true local economic development. They have supported 35 seed and expansion funded businesses, of which 75% have been operational since 2017. Furthermore, the Grootbos Foundation has sponsored 96 participants attending entrepreneurship workshops, 98 participants on employability workshops, and 20 participants have received workplace experience.

How can the tourism industry benefit local communities?

If tourism businesses are operated in a socially responsible way, they can provide enormous benefits to local communities – before they even begin their work on local economic development. They can offer employment and training opportunities, engage local businesses and bring tourist spend into the area.

Research is increasingly showing the value of on local economic development, and the fallout that occurs when it is not done:

  • Research on tourism development in Petra, Jordan showed that factors such as involvement in tourism development, participation in a local organisation, and resident contact with tourists and community attachment play a critical role in the residents’ perceptions of the economic, environmental and socio-cultural impact of tourism.
  • The socio-economic demographic of the local community (Sabah, Malaysia) shows that only 42.4% of respondents have work related to tourism activities. Lack of capital and knowledge in tourism activities are key barriers for local participation in ecotourism development. For Lower Kinabatangan to be a sustainable ecotourism destination, the participation and engagement of the local community and the practices of responsible tourism can no longer be ignored.
  • Tourism development benefits mostly the big, private (often non-native) players in the tourism industry (India); the residents feel alienated, and this doesn’t augur well for conservation efforts.

When the tourism industry actively engages in the local community, real benefits are seen. Partnering with locals to share and celebrate their culture with tourists in a respectful way that is remunerated fairly is just one of those ways. Investing time, resources and volunteer hours into local initiatives such as language development, caring for the natural environment and providing mentorship to young people, for example, can create impact that lasts for lifetimes.

How can I have a positive impact on my local community?

The key to creating positive impact is relationship building. Communicate openly with the people around your business and invite them to do the same. This is the start of the process, but it’s also vital for its continued success.

In the age of greenwashing, it’s important to show that you mean business, and to do that you need to provide something of value, too: funding, access to resources, networks, or people. There are so many ways your organisation can invest in growing the local economy, while also adding value to your guests and your business. It’s another form of sustainability in action.

How can Weeva help the hospitality industry improve its social impact?

Weeva’s Community Impact parameter is designed to guide you through the process of measuring and improving your impact. Once you have joined Weeva and activated that parameter, you’ll be able to access a basic guide to community impact, as well as a checklist that helps you identify and mitigate any harm you may be causing. After that, you can move onto tasks that help you identify and reach out to community stakeholders to develop strong local partnerships.

Sustainable and socially responsible business is not always easy, but Weeva sets out to make it as straightforward as possible, bringing all the expert advice you need into the same place as the tools to help you get it done. All you have to do is start!

Come on. Be more Weeva!

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