Sustainable tourism through the prism of industry, academia, and consumers

Sustainable travel and tourism is not a recent phenomenon, although sometimes it might seem that way. To bring you the long view and to discuss the future, we interacted with Professor Rachel Dodds from Toronto Metropolitan University and the Director of Sustaining Tourism, a boutique consulting firm. Rachel has worked with hotels, tour operators, governments, and NGOs, to name a few sectors. In addition, she hosts workshops, gives keynote speeches, and authors articles and books on the subject. Who better to give us the lay of the land?

Profile picture of Dr Rachel Dodds

Dr Rachel Dodds

You have a wealth of experience from working 25 years in the travel sector. When and why did you transition to sustainable tourism?

I always had an interest in the environment and communities and was very privileged to travel when growing up. Travel can be addictive with many places to visit and explore and as well as cultures to learn from – I love it!

From this affection comes my desire to protect and preserve these destinations, which is where sustainability enters into it. My earliest memory is from when I was 13, with my family in Mexico, witnessing raw sewage draining at the beach. I was horrified but I recall my dad saying to me “you can choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution and if you aren’t part of the solution, you are probably part of the problem” – that struck a chord with me.

Later, when I was living in Australia in 1997, the beach in shade, the amount of sand trucked in to regenerate it and the negative feelings from tour buses frequenting where I lived, all of it hit home. Ever since, I have worked in this area.

From then until now, how much adoption and awareness has the industry gone through, if any? What areas have seen the biggest shift?

A lot, which is very encouraging…. not enough though and sometimes it is frustrating to realise I could use a presentation I did in 2001 today and likely not even change a slide!

Overall, however, there is much more interest and many businesses are starting to employ sustainability specialists and are including the sustainable development goals (SDGs) into plans and policies.

In my view, the areas with the furthest advancement are in the adventure tourism sector and tour operators in general. Pushing ahead, these actors deserve a lot of credit for sharing their vulnerabilities with honesty.

Consumers are also becoming more aware and no longer do we need to convince people this is more than a trend – the hard part is creating demand rather than an expectation for it to be incorporated by someone else.

Awareness and action, however, come with limitations and we still fight for even modest changes to take place. To me, there is always something to do, an area which needs focus. I worked with governments and destinations as well as with corporates and small businesses. I do research and planning, but it can be overwhelming and sometimes I become cynical and negative.

Book lying on airport seats

Raising awareness for more sustainable travel, light reading in the airport. All images in article courtesy of Professor Rachel Dodds.

To counter this, I try to provide more knowledge to consumers through podcasts, my website and even recently a book to influence families, which won a top 10 “best family gift ideas” at USA Today in December. Despite 100% of profits from the book going to World Animal Protection, thought still trumps action and even businesses mentioned haven’t really offered it to their customers to help them make better choices.

I find people more aware than ever, but this doesn’t create instant change. With the recent Covid19 pandemic, I sadly felt like environmental progress was reversed! An enormous challenge is keeping people’s interest and moving to concrete activities. We are bombarded with everyday life, business and family decisions, and world events. The majority of people talk about travel as escapism and thus, sustainability can be a tough sell! I guess that’s why magazines like yours help to remind travellers what to do and how to be better!

How do you define sustainable travel and tourism?

One thing we do poorly in our industry is the constant invention of new terminology. Our egos get the best of us, which unfortunately confuses businesses, governments and the consumer.

All the definitions whether eco, sustainable, regenerative, conscious, etc, share common elements but the sector keeps having to invent more names! To me, when done properly, sustainability is the easiest. It is not about keeping the status quo which a number of people claim. I agree it’s overused as a term but we’re not, however, aiming to keep things as they are, sustainability is about achieving a balance between community well-being, environmental protection, and economic viability. We (businesses and tourists) should always leave a place better than we found it, ensure we contribute to the local economy and be aware and responsible for our overall impact.

A few definitions are not as useful (e.g. ecotourism means travel to natural areas, in smaller groups with an educational component) as not every place can be eco but all businesses (big or small) possess the potential to become sustainable. The same goes for the term regenerative. Many things aren’t regenerative and to assume the whole industry will develop this way is naïve. We can, however, all do better, and must do so.

Social enterprise, co-creation and resident wellbeing, although not new terms, need to be integrated into a wider, more holistic approach to tourism development, operations and management.

Dried fruit and nuts at market in Barcelona

Local market, Barcelona, Spain

Of the myriads of problems we face, which do you believe is top priority? For example, environmental or socio-cultural?

While discussing the above, let’s not forget financial. We live in a capitalistic society and many of our systems are broken and require fixing. For example, we need to strive to thrive rather than survive and this constant focus on growth is not helping and it is not sustainable.

The earth will be around even if humans disappear, but for humans to remain, we must care for the planet but also for our communities and the social fabric that holds us together. This means respecting other cultures and not appropriating them. This means protecting the places we wish to visit, including natural and cultural assets .

This is a tough question to answer as I work as an academic researcher, industry consultant and also generally to help build consumer awareness. In academia, we assume everyone should be up to speed on the issues we have studied for years, but then when you focus on businesses, it is a whole different angle and approach. Information directed at the general public is again another level – all these different aspects do keep me engaged though!

Overtourism gets many headlines and we’ve all experienced it. Destinations must weigh revenue vs. the long-term viability of their region. How do you anticipate this playing out?

Overtourism will continue, especially with a growing middle class, increased access to technology, cheaper travel etc. My colleague and I have written much on overtourism and a few articles can be found here. I do recognise this term is not popular with destinations and has become somewhat sensationalised, but I am pleased that the attention from the media has brought resident voices to the forefront. Those who were often ignored are now heard.

One of the problems is that governments and businesses still use the metric of growth or the number of arrivals as a measure of success. More and more tourists isn’t always positive, yet there seems to be little political will to shift focus.

It is good news that the issue of overtourism is on more and more destination agendas. Not all destinations maintain management or stewardship frameworks and many destination marketing organisations still prioritise attracting tourists instead of managing the impacts or the wider stakeholder base. Some places, however, have made laudable progress and I sincerely believe we need to encourage and not criticise for action to occur so we need to start focusing on solutions rather than pointing out problems.

Busy river with boats and people

Busy day on the river – overtourism or just busy? Nimh Binh, Vietnam

Any cities or regions you would mention as pioneers?

I would highlight Amsterdam as well as Iceland. Both destinations originally appealed to as many visitors as possible (Iceland, with their free stopovers on flights and Amsterdam marketing themselves as a bachelor/bachelorette scene). Both destinations now understand the folly of their ways and conduct interesting campaigns to counter the problem – using education, enforcement and humour. More and more destinations are following these leads although regions need to start to set sustainability as the default option rather than hope behaviour will shift on its own.

From a traveller’s perspective, name the top 3 things to consider for a healthier travel sector?

This is hard to answer as there are plenty of actions but there are a few key ones:

1. You are a guest in someone else’s home, therefore, act responsibly and respectfully.

2. Make sure your money stays in the community you visit, hence buy local, stay local and eat local.

3. Consider your transportation choice and take public transit if possible (e.g., train instead of flight, etc.). One long haul flight is the same as driving a car for an entire year.

For additional suggestions, check out these lists for travellers.

https://sustainabletourism.net/sustainable-tourism/travel-tips/

and

https://sustainabletourism.net/sustainable-tourism/travel-tips-responsible-travel-tips/

Based on the current landscape, what trends do you see in the next 5 years?

  1. Aviation is increasingly a hot topic. Carbon offsetting is too because it is fraught with greenwashing claims, and is not addressing needed reduction.

  2. Overtourism will continue to be an issue.

  3. More focus will be placed on animal well-being. This might be a positive entranceway to consumer behaviour – we all seem to care about animals and once we realise how much harm can be done and how to avoid it – perhaps this will shift to human well-being also.

  4. Data and measurement must become more of an action at the destination and governance levels. Currently we talk a lot, but measuring and reporting don’t follow suit. We are working with a few destinations to help them make better data-based decisions and are trying to integrate sustainability metrics as well. See https://klevrplaces.com/ for more.

Paddling in Vancouver, Canada

Rachel’s favourite hobby – paddling in Vancouver, Canada

You’ve travelled to over 80 countries. If possible, can you name a favourite country or city and also your most cherished travel memory?

Ooh, that is a tough one as there are so many amazing places. One place I adore is Japan because it is not trying to be like anyone else – unlike many countries who try to copy-cat another. It is the uniqueness that draws many travellers to a place. When people say they ‘have done’ a destination, I find it interesting because despite visiting France about 100 times, I still feel as if I don’t know it at all!

Here are a few cherished memories:

  • I always spent my money on travel, as opposed to “stuff”. Now with a daughter, I love travelling with her as it is a little different from my old way of backpacking.

  • the “ah” and “wow” factors resulting from a wonderful conversation with someone you meet on your travels are so memorable.

  • being able to navigate through a transaction in another language with varying success (although maybe it is the funny memory of it rather than the frustration at the time!).

  • when I see a destination, attraction or business doing something great for the community and the tourists – I often try to seek out social enterprises.

  • the site of a pristine undeveloped beach will never seize to excite and awe me!

We concur! A big thank you to Rachel for giving us the extended perspective on sustainable travel and tourism. The future has the potential to be bright, but we have a lot of work ahead of us. Interested in learning more about Rachel’s work? Visit Sustaining Tourism.

Do you think of sustainability when you travel? Which factors matter most to you? Let us know in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from travel tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable travel and tourism.

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