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Why sustainability makes business sense

For tourism and travel

by Weeva
Published 6 May 2024
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Running a sustainable tourism operation isn’t just about pleasing the guests or keeping the critics at bay. It makes sound business, social and environmental sense too.

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The financial benefits of sustainability


Running a sustainable tourism operation isn’t just about pleasing the guests or keeping the critics at bay. It makes sound business, social and environmental sense too.

“Over the last seven years, since opening my first property,” says Portia Hart, founding partner at Blue Apple Beach in Columbia, “I’ve gradually moved towards operating in a more sustainable and regenerative way. Because it feels like the right thing to do, and also because it has consistently proven to be better for our financial bottom line as well.”

Blue Apple Beach has in fact saved around $10,000 (about fifty million Colombian pesos) annually by being waste free.

“We’ve done this by eliminating the waste to landfill and the money that we’ve saved from not paying for the transport service and the municipal waste collection service.” – Portia.


Measuring sustainability beyond environmental impact


When it comes to sustainability, we need to measure not only the environmental impact but also the social impact of hotels in the context of regenerative travel, suggests Saúl Blanco Sosa, director of Preferred by Nature’s sustainable travel programme.

“It also involves engaging with local communities and stakeholders to ensure that tourism development is sensitive to their needs and values, it involves creating job opportunities that are legal and fair, equitable and accessible to all and capable of generating growth and new knowledge and opportunities for locals and minorities,” Saul emphasises.

“By adopting sustainable tourism practices, travel companies can create more meaningful and authentic travel experiences for their customers while also contributing to the long-term development of their host or visited communities and the conservation of natural and cultural sites.” – Saul

According to Maudie Tomlinson, from The Conscious Travel Foundation, one of their members, Myanmar-based tour operator Sampan Travel, has implemented a sustainable policy for their city tours, where they operate on two feet or three wheels rather than by car.

“For example,” Maudie says, “on a walking tour, or cycling around the temples, employing this creative strategy when it comes to their itinerary plans allows them to bypass the hottest times of day and visit sites of interest whilst seeing more of the place and the people. It also allows a more equitable spread of wealth, using different providers and guides.

This sustainable option provides a more enjoyable, authentic, and immersive experience for the traveller, and provides business to the rickshaw drivers and guides. In a world where sustainable options can be seen as more expensive, this is an example of where the experience is both less expensive for the visitor, and more positive for the visited.”

Maudie goes on to add that:

“…much like fast food and fast fashion, travel has become so disposable and frivolous, to the detriment of our planet. But tourism is inherently reliant on the natural world and cultural heritage being there to explore and enjoy, so our role, as an industry, has to strike a balance between supporting the economies and livelihoods that rely on travel, and acting as environmental and cultural stewards.”

As an example, Kenya-based operator, The Safari Series, found that opening up their conservation projects for guests to experience and interact with had a positive impact on their bottom line and since doing so, have seen an increase in bookings from guests and travel agents who are seeing requests from people who want to immerse themselves and learn about the landscape, rather than just visit it on holiday.

Economic benefits of sustainable tourism


Tourism businesses that embrace sustainable practices can reap direct and indirect benefits, including enhanced reputation and customer loyalty, as responsible travellers are attracted to destinations that prioritise sustainability. These practices can also improve a business’s marketing and branding by setting it apart from competitors and additionally, can open doors to funding and partnerships, which can lead to improved infrastructure, technical assistance, and networking opportunities that ultimately increase profits.

“Having access to a global ecosystem of likeminded individuals who are happy to share their knowledge and resources, is another way of leveraging benefit from operating sustainably” says Portia. “As a member of Regenerative Travel we were able to have access to impact investors that we wouldn’t normally have had access to, which has enabled us to secure a low interest loan to install our solar panels. And we’ve been able to implement things like zero-waste programs, and waste-water management programs based on what we’ve learned from other properties.”


Sustainability for all tourism businesses


“Operating sustainably is something that all tourism businesses can achieve,” she says, “whether you’re a hostel or a budget property, or whether you’re a high-end property, you can operate responsibly.” Spending more money on good quality ingredients, can be offset by sourcing more items locally and importing less, serving filtered water instead of bottled water and by the reduced costs of generating less waste. Paying staff better wages can be considered a wise investment, as high turnover has shown to be more costly.

It is thought that the low staff turnover rate at Blue Apple Beach may be due to their social policies as an employer, including a guaranteed 15% higher than minimal wage and aligned to a living wage.

“The social, environmental, and financial aspects of a business are interconnected and cannot be separated” says Portia.

She reiterates that the social relationship between a business and the community next door is equally as important, especially in the context of security, something that’s very relevant in many parts of the developing world. Simply, when the community feels included and cared for it leads to greater opportunities for guest experiences, which leads to happier guests and better reviews, which ultimately leads to higher occupancy and a better bottom line for the business.


The importance of data in sustainability


But as Julie Cheetham, founding member and Managing Director of Weeva, a digital system for managing sustainability says, “We can’t improve anything that we don’t understand, and to understand something we need to have data. And unless we have the data to really understand our impacts, we won’t be able to amplify the good and put plans in place to mitigate the negative.”

The monitoring and internal benchmarking between baseline performance and over-time performance will allow companies to identify areas where they can improve their environmental, social, and economical performance. “For example,” says Saúl “data on consumption of water or energy, data on waste generated, or on local purchasing is highly useful to identify opportunities for reduction, better sourcing, etc. Reliable records and data will allow sustainable tourism businesses to demonstrate progress towards their sustainability goals. This proves particularly useful when communicating these efforts to customers, investors, the local community, other stakeholders, and, in some cases, with authorities.”

“However,” he says, “there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, and context should be considered to recommend actions that will drive better results and improve financial benefits. It is about finding ways to balance economic growth and development with environmental protection and social responsibility, in a way that benefits current and future generations.

Thank you to all the contributors

The safari series
Regenerative travel
Preferred by nature
Blue apple beach
Portia Hart

Portia Hart

Founding-partner | Blue Apple Beach, Columbia

Saúl Blanco Sosa

Saúl Blanco Sosa

Director, Sustainable Travel Programme and Preferred by Nature

As the Director for the Sustainable Travel Programme, Saul holds a multifaceted role, leading the overall strategy, development, and execution of Preferred by Nature’s initiatives in the travel sector. This key position involves formulating and implementing regional services, aligning with global sustainability tools to promote and uphold the highest standards in sustainable travel practices among the organizations that we work with.

Maudie Tomlinson

Maudie Tomlinson

Director The Conscious Travel Foundation

Maudie is a Director of The Conscious Travel Foundation, a not for profit membership organisation that collaborates, educates and advocates for a positive relationship between tourism, people and planet.

Julie Cheetham

Julie Cheetham

Co-Founder and Managing Director of Weeva

Julie is a skilled sustainability consultant with experience spanning over 20 years. Her focus lies in sustainable development and business transformation. Having worked for a range of clients across the hospitality and corporate sectors, in 2021 Julie drew from her diverse insights and was part of the initial group of thought leaders to found Weeva.

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