How can tour operators contribute to sustainable tourism?

Sustainability. It’s a bit of a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot but what does it really mean for a tour operator? In even the last generation or two, it has become apparent that protecting our environment is much more urgent and important than we previously thought. Our society is becoming increasingly aware of the choices they are making and are demanding companies to make positive changes.

Sustainable tourism should be considered and included where possible throughout the tourism industry. People want to reduce the impact that they are having on the environment as they travel. Although this space may seem a bit overwhelming (where to even start?) we have the down low for you on why it’s important, how you can get involved and why getting involved is a great idea for you and your tour operator business.

Female traveller walks through Paris

Sustainability and the Tourism Industry

The most recent UN Environmental Outlook Report focused on the effect that climate change is going to have in the next century as the earth’s temperature rises between a predicted 1.8 and 4 degrees Celsius. This will result in increased storm systems and heat waves, rising sea levels and a loss of biodiversity in soil, plants and animals. As grim as it sounds, it’s becoming more and more important for those in the tourism industry to be aware of these changes. It sadly is becoming a reality that tourism is being detrimentally affected by climate change causing operators to have to adapt, prepare for and mitigate new issues that are arising.

But sustainability isn’t just about climate change. Sustainable tourism is defined by the UN World Tourism Organisation as “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”. A functioning tourism industry relies on the natural environment, but also the wellbeing of the community, businesses and people.  In many places, the local people rely entirely on the revenue that tourism brings to their community. If their restaurants, hotels and businesses are taken over by larger corporations, they risk losing their livelihood. And of course, protecting the natural and economic environment in tourist areas is in the best interests of the tour operator as well. 

A local producer organising her stock at the floating market in Thailand.

What can tour operators do?

Often, the pressure to travel more sustainably is placed on travellers themselves, as they are the people directly interacting with the environment. However, it’s easy for individuals to rationalise the relatively small impact that they are having in the larger scheme of things – and therefore place less importance on minimising their environmental and social impact. Of course, if every tourist is going through this same thought process, the impact is significant.

The unique role that tour operators such as yourselves have in the travel sector gives you the opportunity to make sustainably conscious choices around where you send your customers, what businesses you choose to use in the local area and the information you provide your customers with before they go. An easy way to ensure that you are doing your part is to ask yourselves these questions:

1. How can we reduce the environmental impact that our customers make on their journeys?

This could involve providing them with conservation resources for the environment that they are visiting or promoting sustainable activities such as cycle tours or wildlife sanctuaries while they are there.

2. If you manage and conduct your own tours, consider the impact you may be having on the environment. Are there ways to reduce this impact?

Encourage your customers to reduce their waste and take their rubbish with them, consider investing in an electric vehicle for tours, and reduce your own waste by using electronic check-in and management systems rather than print resources.

3. How can we protect the economy of the local communities our customers are visiting?

This is as simple as using local guides and taxi services, eating at locally owned restaurants and staying in locally owned and staffed accommodation. Keeping the profit in the community will both ensure that the destination continues to exist and the local community can prosper.

4. How can we maximise the social impact that our customers are having in local communities?

This involves educating your customers about the culture of the place they are visiting and suggesting that they buy locally made products. If your business sells to a specific destination you could even look into supporting a local conservation project yourselves (like these projects in Scotland) and encourage your customers to think about doing the same.   

A family of travellers biking around pink tulips.

Inspiration from our customers.

Sustainable tourism is completely part of Alter-Nativ Brazil’s ethos. They make sure to use local suppliers and adhere to conservation guidelines, whilst actively trying to educate others in the tourism industry.

Downbelow Marine & Wildlife Adventures are actively involved in some amazing conservation projects protecting the marine life in their area with beach cleanups, fishing net removal and planting trees. All these efforts help to keep both the natural environment and their business sustainable for the future.

From the start OUT in Colombia have had a sustainability focus to their tours around Colombia. This was recognised by IGLTA when they won the inaugural Impact Award, which focused on businesses who had intiatives that encourage responsible tourism.

Sustainable tourism can help your business become more profitable! 

It may seem overwhelming, however, the positive impact made by these changes will make your efforts worthwhile. Quite aside from the buzz you will get from helping to protect our precious planet, sustainable tourism will help your business flourish!

Investing time in developing strong, sustainable business practices gives you some brilliant new marketing opportunities in an evolving and expanding space. Sustainable, green, eco… these words are appealing to more and more travellers who want to reduce their impact on the planet, but don’t necessarily know how. Your tour operator business can take the opportunity to allow them to do this.

Sustainable tourism also means a sustainable tour operator business. By taking time to protect the community, businesses and environment that you are sending your customers to, you are protecting the future of your business, it’s a win-win right?

Further reading.

Hopefully, the world of sustainable tourism is starting to seem much more feasible for your tour operator business. However, if you are still unsure of where to start, there are lots of resources and organisations that exist to help you out.

For a more in-depth look at responsible travel, download our Sustainable tourism E-book. If you are after some quick reads with a specific focus we also have blogs on economic, environmental and social sustainability initiatives.

The UN World Tourism Organisation is a great place to go to find official, reliable and up to date information about the tourism industry and sustainable tourism.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council provides some fantastic resources with actionable tips and advice for taking part in responsible travel. You can also become certified to show your customers that you comply with the highest environmental and social sustainability standards.

You can become part of the International Ecotourism Society so you can keep up to date with everything happening in the network, get resources and attended workshops.

Sustaining Tourism, Responsible Travel and The Eco Club all provide heaps of valuable information on what sustainable tourism is and why you should get involved.

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