Pursuing Sustainability in the Travel & Tourism Sector

17 August 2021

Travel & Tourism (T&T) can build forward from the COVID-19 crisis by embracing sustainability as fuel for global transformation of the sector. Balancing people, planet and prosperity, is a roadmap for business leaders and destination professionals. Helping them reimagine their activities after pandemic containment measures, sustainability can be a force for good in the sector.

Securing six decades of consistent growth before COVID-19 struck, the sector went into the crisis with spectacular growth figures and strong forecasts. T&T is an economic success story, contributing 10.3% of global GDP in 2019 and 330 million jobs, with T&T receipts core to the economy of many nations. However, this growth comes with growing public unease about some of its impacts on communities and destinations, an over-reliance of some countries on T&T income and concerns about environmental degradation. A focus on sustainable T&T could help the sector ‘build back better’, attenuating its negative impacts and advancing its contribution to global citizenship and a more balanced economy and equitable society. 

T&T business leaders are widening their view of sustainability beyond immediate operational impacts to consider the broader systems in which they operate. And, Harvard University is helping their efforts. Its Responsible Tourism research program, supported by the World Travel and Tourism Council and sector leaders, recently released a series of research case studies and learning insights to highlight sustainability in T&T . The Travel Corporation’s case shows how the Sustainable Development Goals are used to support traveler choice and leans in to the trend of more conscious consumerism. The case on Intrepid Travel outlines its journey to certified B Corp status, detailing the impact this external independent assessment has on its holistic approach to responsible tourism. The learning insights cover a variety of topics from how to promote Sustainability Leadership, enact Science-based Targets, make use of Behavioral Economics, and embrace a Culture of Health in the sector. These academic materials form the basis of a new Harvard course called ‘Pursuing Sustainability in the Travel & Tourism Sector’ launching on September 1, 2020. Designed to help the T&T sector accelerate sustainability and deliver against the Sustainable Development Goals, the course combines world-class academic content with leading authorities from the T&T sector as guest speakers; registration is open until August 26, 2021

Pursuit of sustainability in T&T needs us to pay attention to the trade-offs and dilemmas presented by the sector’s activities. With the infrastructure supporting T&T linked to other economic sectors, from food and farming to energy and public health, the sector can strain natural and societal resources. The risk of infectious diseases, water scarcity, environmental degradation, carbon emissions, waste, worker health, deforestation, deregulation, decentralization, privatization, and the fragmentation of power are just some of the global sustainability issues facing the T&T sector. The sector is making concerted efforts to integrate more sustainable practices into their operations. However, performance and reporting typically remain confined to the corporate social responsibility agenda and are not mainstreamed into business strategy or the traveler’s experience. These are important opportunities going forward.

The T&T sector recognizes both its important contribution to the global economy and the need to accelerate its sustainability plans in response to concerns among consumers, locals subject to unplanned destination growth, and macro-interests related to climate change and equity. With the OECD warning us against policies and programs that return the world to ‘business as usual’ after COVID-19, recovery in T&T can be leveraged to build forward with sustainability fueling global change. This demands joined-up (systems) thinking to drive joined-up (strategic) doing. T&T enterprises can integrate triple-bottom line accounting and sustainability management systems to track and report results transparently.

Sustainability can define the foundation for the next normal in T&T as travelers return to explore domestic and international destinations more aware of the impact their choices and behaviors have on our world. As one of the largest sectors in the world, making sustainability a strategic business priority could help accelerate the global transition to a more sustainable economy. T&T is not a monolithic sector, nor are the nations involved uniformly eager to add more regulations to international bodies or public health organizations. However, sustainable T&T demands more coordination, oversight, surveillance, and planning than ever before. By protecting people and the planet over the long-term, the T&T sector can create and sustain shared value and forge a new social contract, with sustainability a driver of radical transformation.