Sustainable Tourism Marketing without the Lecture

Strip naked and toss your fast fashion on the burning fire. Walk on the scorching asphalt as the crowds pelt you with rotten organic fruit. Atone for your sins. Shame. Shame. Shame.

Serves you right for taking that holiday in the sun. How dare you? Sure, around 100 companies stand for two-thirds of man-made global emissions, but it’s your fault. Your unethical behaviour has robbed future generations of any meaningful existence.

I come from the country where the word fly shame saw the light of day, flygskam in Swedish. Yet I don’t feel it, nor do I like it. As I have worked with sustainability for 14 years, six of which dedicated to sustainable travel and tourism, I am, of course, aware of emission numbers (my third company won an award for the work we did on lobbying cities to increase the ambitions of their targets), the debate about climate compensation, and personal carbon budgets. Nor have I missed the endless bickering about the potential of electric planes. In fact, I wrote another editorial about sustainable aviation. But, I’m not going to talk about flying today, instead the focus is on marketing, and how we communicate sustainable tourism without a hectoring tone.

Two glasses of red coloured aperatives on a table near water

Vacation time

Burst the Bubble

First, let’s admit we operate in an echo chamber. Amid the network of people involved in sustainable travel and tourism, it’s easy to get swept up by the enthusiasm and the exciting projects one reads about. Then confirmation bias help us single out articles from mainstream media, which in some way touches upon our sector. Great, they understand! Soon everyone is a sustainable traveller. Once you stop dreaming, reality hits hard. Sustainable tourism? What is that? Where can I read about it? Does it mean I can’t fly? Some of the more common reactions I hear when engaging with “normal” travellers. To move the needle here, we are talking marketing baby steps. No shaming, or your message will fizzle, as it has for the last two or three decades.

But what about the surveys where a crushing majority claim they want their next trip, or accommodation, to be sustainable? Yeah, read those, too, even mention them on our website. Sounds encouraging, of course, and let’s savour the sliver of joyous news. Yet, the dreaded Say-Do gap rears its ugly head. What’s holding back good intentions from turning into concrete action? Too expensive, lack of information, unclear what it means, goes the standard explanations. How can’t everyone see the untenable nature of the traditional tourism model? Is overcrowding not a concern? And there’s plenty of marketing material to delve into, many hotels with eco-certifications. For people in the industry, it might seem clear, but clearly it’s not for the vast number of travellers who continue to travel as they always have. Time to unpack the 3 most common complaints and find a solution.

Narrow bending path between two walls.

Broaden your horizon

Lack of information

As One Planet Journey’s mission is to attract and convert more travellers to the cause, we often analyse how sustainability is marketed and communicated. And taking a long perspective, I can’t say it has changed much since I got in the game. It’s still the usual preaching, now even shaming. Add the sleep-inducing mantra on carbon emissions, and the relentless focus on why you need to change your behaviour. Don’t communicators consider human psychology? People have the facts, few deny the importance, but I’ve never known threats, negativity, and insults to work when trying to get individuals to act with genuine desire.

For businesses, arbitrary accusations of greenwashing cause many to green mute their marketing. We hear it all the time as we interview brands and people doing great things, afraid to mention it for being crucified by purists who demand 100% sustainability. The other week I even read there is a new term, local-washing, concerning unfounded claims of using local products and services. Again, I suspect it will have the same effect. The shameless continue to spread their lies, while real progress goes unnoticed.

Summary; consumers are right, there’s a lack of information, at least the kind which could evoke positive change. On a happy note, there are good actors who encourage and help service providers to become sustainable, and proud if it.

Buzzwords aplenty

It is sustainable tourism. No, responsible. Green, perhaps? Or why not eco, conscious, or the hot topic regenerative? Everyone wants to be an innovator, I get that, and every single term has a nuance and is important, but we sure are making it difficult for the average traveller to keep up. Seems to me we have a hard enough marketing task as it is. Why complicate matters with disjointed terminology when we are trying to convince the market of needed change and make sustainable tourism the norm?

When I started One Planet Journey, the most agonising part had to be choosing keywords, not name or logo. In the end, I settled for sustainable as I used it since 2009 when working with environmental and climate issues. The problem with sustainable is the gloom vibe it confers. Intellectually, most people know it’s good for future generations, but with regret, I have to say it has the appeal of a root canal, and there’s plenty of blame to pass around. Media for the negative, catastrophe-leaning reporting, governments and businesses for dragging their feet, and practitioners who demand instant lifestyle overhauls, projecting guilt and shame onto those who don’t comply.

Sculpture of black metallic tree.

Divergent paths

Too expensive

A sustainable travel related experience often carries a higher premium, which is understandable. Today, our entire society operates with subsidies for fossil fuels, cheap mass tourism offerings entice the consumer, and greener alternatives are hard to find, book, and get to. Meaning it costs more and for the larger travel market, sustainable options therefore remain out of sight, mind, and wallet.

Luxury travel is one sector leading the way to sustainable tourism. It sounds contradictory, as you might picture private jets and yachts with helicopter pads. Well, it encapsulates both extremes. The bawdy and unsustainable, and true luxury which is about blending serenity, nature, and sustainable experiences in an attractive package. I see the luxury travel market as a trendsetter, inspiring other segments to adopt sustainability in their own capacity. This coupled with positive communication towards travellers will accelerate both demand and supply. When the easy choice is the right one, the battle is won.

A shift in tone – inspirational sustainable tourism marketing

How do we go about improving the disconnect between travellers and sustainability? What makes you choose a certain destination, hotel, restaurant, or cultural experience? Word of mouth, advertising, memories from childhood, are among the more common reasons. Does the percentage of carbon emissions saved sway you? Water and energy use, recycling? It might, as a differentiator when choices are similar. But, let’s not kid ourselves, they won’t drive bookings on a massive scale. Not in that context.

A heart shaped donut with brown glazing.

Stories with heart

However, if you lead with stories from the heart, allowing the people behind the brand (founders, management, staff) to explain why they made the changes, how it’s important to them and the local community, we stand a chance. Travellers forming an emotional connection to the establishment and the locals, and picturing themselves in the space, will have an easier time to pay a little more, and align themselves with the ethos of our movement.

To reach the unconverted, let’s be honest, yet positive. Enlightening, but accessible. Surely, the priority must be to get people to listen, and to start them on their personal journey on the sustainability spectrum. Join us in raising awareness to advance the agenda and grow the sustainable tourism market outside of the early adopters. Once the interest is there, it becomes easier to engage in marketing, and be educational about what it means to be a responsible traveller. We need ambassadors, not politicians.

Do you think sustainability related marketing needs to improve? Do you feel compelled to act when reading negative news? 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.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *