Beyond Opulence: How Luxury Travel Spurs Sustainable Tourism
One Planet Journey covers sustainable tourism and luxury travel. Not as separate concepts, but as two sides of the same coin. Yin and yang, if you will. The deluxe segment has the potential to advance the uptake of sustainable practices across the travel market by showcasing new solutions for environmental issues, and ways of collaborating on the socio-cultural side of tourism. The local connection is instrumental, and with increasing frequency we see luxury brands going the extra mile to get it right in the communities they operate in. In a previous interview, we spoke to Authentic Luxury, a platform for luxury outdoor resorts like tented camps and eco-lodges. Travellers are willing to pay a premium for exclusive experiences aligned with their values, and responsible service providers will reap the rewards.
I sense lingering doubt. How can ostentatious travel be sustainable, you ask? Well, as usual, it comes down to definitions, and what you put into it. What is luxury? A private jet and expensive champagne? Or a quiet moment at a remote mountaintop? Disregard the extremes, the concept is evolving, reflecting increased traveller awareness and priorities. But don’t take our word for it. Let’s hear from an expert on the subject, both from an academic and industry point of view. We are pleased to introduce Anita Manfreda, Luxury Accommodation Researcher, Trainer, and Consultant. Anita sits on the Executive Committee at CAUTHE – Council for Australasian Tourism and Hospitality Education, and works as a Senior Lecturer at Torrens University in Australia. Her award-winning research is intended to help hospitality businesses adapt, evolve, and provide a positive impact. The passion for luxury accommodation stems from extensive professional working experience in luxury hotels, such as the Intercontinental and Four Seasons.
The terms sustainable tourism and luxury travel carry preconceptions of being mutually exclusive. Tell us why this isn’t necessarily the case?
If we go back to the root of the word luxury (in Latin Luxus or Luxuria), luxury tourism has traditionally been perceived as being “excessive”, “extravagant”, and “wasteful”. This is in polar opposition to what sustainable consumption stands for: reduction, re-utilisation, and frugality. What we have seen in the past few years is a significant shift in the idea of luxury, particularly in the mind of tourism consumers, toward new values, such as intimacy, simplicity, and authenticity. Luxury tourists are increasingly conscious of the impacts of their activities and seek transformational experiences which help them connect with unique destinations and local communities. The perception that sustainable tourism and luxury travel are mutually exclusive is no longer (always) accurate. A novel paradigm of luxury is emerging, one that embraces sustainability, responsible practices, and transformative experiences.
Luxury progressed from bling to more authentic and personalised experiences which harmonise with sustainable practices. What trends brought this about?
The evolution of luxury from opulence to authentic and sustainable experiences is driven by a multitude of trends. And these often start with new consumers’ sensibilities. First, the emergence in the luxury market of newer generations (think millennials and Gen Z), who are, in general, more conscious of their impacts on the environment and society but also experiential rather than materialistic in their travel patterns. In addition, on a global level there is an increased awareness of broader sustainability challenges, which, of course, carries with it the “urge” (or push) of tourism and hospitality companies to adopt more sustainable practices aligned with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The pandemic had a huge impact on our personal and professional lives, and these past few years have created a rediscovered need for simplicity. Reconnecting with nature, social life, your well-being, and heightening quality of life, have taken a much bigger role.
For doubters out there, can you paint a picture of the perfect example of the marriage between sustainable tourism and luxury travel in accommodation?
Imagine a stunning luxury lodge nestled amidst a pristine natural landscape, blending with the surroundings, utilising sustainable materials and eco-friendly technologies throughout its construction. Guests enjoy local cultural and heritage experiences, and indigenous artisans and communities take part in the resort’s operations, sharing their knowledge and crafts with the visitors. You engage in responsible activities like nature walks and wildlife conservation, and dining focuses on locally sourced, organic ingredients, benefiting nearby producers.
This is not a fantasy, it’s reality in the luxury lodges I have visited for my research, and while an example, it shows that sustainable tourism and luxury travel can coexist in harmony, offering an enriching and guilt-free experience.
Can luxury be a catalyst for growing the sustainable tourism market?
Luxury travel, with its emphasis on quality, exclusivity, and personal experiences, wields substantial influence within the broader tourism industry. Those who engage in luxury travel often possess the means to prioritise conscientious choices. This is where the transformative power of luxury lies – it shapes consumer behaviour and sets new benchmarks for responsible and sustainable travel.
The symbiotic relationship between luxury and sustainability is significant. Luxury travel provides a platform for showcasing innovative sustainability practices and technologies. By adopting environmentally friendly habits and supporting local communities, luxury tourism providers inspire and educate a discerning clientele about the importance of responsible travel.
Moreover, the aspirational nature of luxury can act as a positive force. As luxury brands integrate sustainability into their identity, they signal a shift in consumer values. Those who engage with luxury experiences may find themselves more attuned to ethical considerations and, in turn, apply these principles beyond their luxurious getaways.
The impact of luxury as a catalyst extends to more than individual preferences. By demonstrating how sustainable practices can coexist with opulence, luxury travel reshapes industry norms. As this shift gathers momentum, it permeates the entire tourism landscape, prompting other segments to re-evaluate their approaches and embrace sustainability.
What are the most important issues to address for this transition to happen?
The pivotal challenge lies in fostering a genuine belief among luxury tourism and hospitality investors and managers that sustainable luxury is an absolute necessity, not an optional “nice-to-have”. While I firmly believe sustainable luxury offers substantial organisational benefits, the pervasive focus on relentless growth must be re-examined. It’s time to harmonise the interests of organisations with those of the environment, local economies, and people, moving away from a purely capital-driven approach.
The prevailing capitalist mindset, while entrenched in the industry, presents a stumbling block to a seamless transition. The pursuit of unending expansion often overshadows the pressing need for sustainable practices. This is where the crux of the challenge lies, as it necessitates a shift from a model that prioritises sheer size to one that integrates ethical considerations.
Greenwashing further compounds the situation. While some efforts are genuine and commendable, there remain instances of partial commitment, as well as examples which appear promising but lack the scale to make a significant impact. The landscape calls for a discerning approach to distinguish authentic sustainability from mere marketing strategies.
So perhaps educating the broader industry (and future leaders) and promoting a more widespread spirit of sharing and collaboration can assist this transition.
You’re in the process of editing a book, Sustainable Luxury in Tourism and Hospitality. What will it cover and how does it relate to your research?
For the past four years, I have immersed myself in the study of what I would consider a fairly emblematic example of the sustainable luxury movement, luxury lodges. I spent this time trying to understand what makes these lodge experiences authentic. Through my research, it became clear what enormous opportunities luxury tourism holds as a catalyst for sustainable transitions. Together with my co-editors, we wanted to open up the opportunity for other people working and practising in this space to have a say in what shapes the notion of sustainable luxury in tourism and hospitality.
The book will likely feature three sections, each exploring an aspect of sustainable luxury: how has the concept evolved, how do we apply it, and how do we imagine its future? While this is an academic publication, we allow room for industry contributors’ voices. I am a firm believer that academic research (and publishing) for the sake of a small pool of academics is not worth pursuing. We need to do a better job at talking to the industry and the broader public about these topics, which sometimes are controversial and therefore avoided.
Do you see a risk of exclusion if travel becomes too costly under the guise of sustainable luxury? How do we move away from mass tourism without shutting people out?
This is a hard question, and by no means do I have the ultimate answer. Here are my two cents.
We must remember that for something to be considered “luxury”, it should be exclusive. If accessible to everyone at any time, it would lose its luxury halo. However, luxury exclusivity is not only financial, it’s also social (difficult to access) and hedonistic (requiring a certain degree of knowledge and expertise to be enjoyed in full).
So, in its definition, luxury travel does not need to cost more but could include reduced entry (see, for example, the caps and/or fees in place for the visitation of specific popular destinations like Venice or Amsterdam) and will require a certain type of knowledge (for instance, how to behave in particular spots, with tourist misbehaviour in Bali coming to mind). Hedonistic exclusivity could help travellers become more conscious of their impacts, guide their behaviour, and embrace cultural integration in the destination. Social exclusivity gives spotlight to destinations that are not as fashionable or world-renowned but authentic and only accessible through “locals” and their “know-how”.
Without sounding doom, there is an unpleasant reality scientific research is screaming for people to acknowledge. At the current state of progression, there will probably be little to no tourism in the future if environmental, economic, and societal patterns and trends remain the same. This alone would make travel and tourism highly exclusive, as things that are limited tend to be considered a luxury. We might be forced to review in what way, and how much we travel. Environmental sustainability advocates are already suggesting limiting it (particularly flying) and looking at alternatives (e.g. trains). It might also involve rejecting shorter vacations in favour of longer and more locally immersive stays in less-known destinations that minimise the impact on the environment and benefit local communities.
While the number of our individual journeys might go down in the future, I believe people will seek more quality, another important characteristic of luxury. People desire trips that feel special, and are worth the money they spend. Therefore, I think luxury tourism and hospitality are in a position to cater to this demand, helping to make travel better for everyone. Focus on quality and make every trip count.
What travel related sectors have come the furthest in joining sustainability and luxury?
There are for sure some good starting points within tourism. I believe the hospitality industry, particularly hotels and restaurants, leads the way. However, I must also say we are nowhere near where we should be. In certain sectors, there has to be a stronger urgency to address sustainability. We know how airlines and cruises face the spotlight for their carbon emissions and issues with destination management. More local experiences, which require less flying, accessible via more eco-friendly mediums, such as trains, look set to become the focus of luxury travellers. Sustainable travel shifts from being considered a burden to a normal reality for each and every traveller.
As a final note, any personal favourites when it comes to sustainable and luxurious accommodation?
It is hard to choose one as there are fantastic examples out there, but I have to send a shout-out to a luxury resort close to my home, Sequoia Lodge. I have renamed it the hyper-local lodge. They source everything locally, including materials, amenities, and people. They are so committed, and at present working with us to bring benefits to locals, and the local economy through academic-industry partnership. When travellers hear the word sustainability, right away they associate it with environmental aspects. I think Sequoia Lodge does a great job of also addressing important aspects of the social and economic kind for their workers and the broader destination and local community, which in the hotel industry are, in many cases, overlooked to an alarming degree.
Thank you, Anita, for painting a vivid picture of how luxury travel can be a force for good, not only for the environment, but also across the whole spectrum of sustainability. With younger generations of travellers, it will be of great interest to follow how the concept of luxury advances along with the burning necessity of sustainable development.
With plenty of self-proclaimed sustainable luxury service providers and curators, it’s a matter of credibility for the industry that claims match facts. Academia has an important role to play to provide a reality check once there is enough data to study.
What makes us believe in luxury as a path to a more sustainable tourism model comes down to some of the points Anita touched upon. Exclusivity, scarcity, and hedonism. Travel experiences should instil awe and elicit lifelong memories. You owe it to yourself, but also the planet and the people you encounter to make each journey matter. It’s not a commodity or a right. Rather, see it as a privilege, and to keep enjoying it, act as a regenerative steward towards the destination, the ecosystems, and local communities. With a mind shift, travellers have the capacity to turn luxury travel into a sustainable endeavour.
Follow Anita and her research on LinkedIn for news on events, workshops and papers to further your knowledge base. For additional resources, see; https://research.torrens.edu.au/en/persons/anita-manfreda
Do you think luxury travel can be sustainable? Have you experienced it yourself? If so, in what way? Tell us in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable travel and tourism.