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Seeking sustainable options when travelers aren’t as green as they say

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Richie Karaburun noticed something odd during a trip last summer to Norway.

More precisely, the New York University hospitality and tourism professor was struck by what he didn’t notice walking around Oslo.

“You don’t even hear a noise on the street,” Karaburun recalled recently.

The reason, he soon learned, is the aggressive adoption of electric vehicles in Norway, where 4 in 5 new car sales were fully electric in 2022. And the reason for that? The Norwegian government exempted EVs from paying for tolls, parking and ferries — as well as the country’s steep taxes on car purchases.

The experience gave Karaburun a new perspective on the travel industry’s challenge in meeting a United Nations goal to be at net zero carbon by 2050. While that benchmark has encouraged companies to invest in new technologies to help reduce greenhouse gases, much of the industry’s focus has been on expanding options and enhancing methods to educate travelers about sustainable alternatives.

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People don’t act as green-ly as they say they will. The money is not where the mouth is.

Madeline List – Phocuswright

But there may be a problem with that. New research from Phocuswright shows that while consumers may talk about supporting sustainability, their behavior doesn’t match.

“In short, people don’t act as green-ly as they say they will. The money is not where the mouth is,” Phocuswright senior analyst Madeline List said while presenting key takeaways from her study at The Phocuswright Conference 2023. “There’s a gap between the way they see themselves, the good intentions they have and the choices they actually make.”

This doesn’t surprise Karaburun. In lectures to his students, he teaches that consumers’ behavior often comes down to a cost-versus-conscience dilemma.

“You feel your conscience, but your wallet does not allow you to follow it,” he explained. “Consumers need to be incentivized so that they don’t have that cost-versus-conscience dilemma, especially in this economic climate.”

Does this mean travel might benefit the way the auto industry has if more governments enact incentives or regulations to encourage more sustainable practices?

“Totally, totally,” Karaburun said. “That’s where the role of government is important. It has to come from the top.”

That’s not a view that’s going to sit well with everyone.

Efforts by the Netherlands to limit flights at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to reduce noise pollution were met with lawsuits from airlines that accused the Dutch government of violating the air transport agreement between the United States and European Union. The country later scrapped its plans. Airlines also pushed back after France banned some short-haul domestic flights when alternative train journeys are available.

Rather than regulations, industry reports like last year’s “Envisioning Tourism in 2030 and Beyond” from the Travel Foundation tend to emphasize voluntary actions, such as a coordinated effort with shared sacrifices to preserve growth in the sector while still meeting the UN goals.

Yet following another summer of wildfires, hurricanes, heatwaves, droughts and floods plaguing all corners of the globe, Travel Foundation CEO Jeremy Sampson sees a stronger role from government as travel’s best hope for balancing a profitable future for travel with the planet’s needs.

“I think that is the natural conclusion that anyone could take when thinking about this at the systems level,” Sampson said. “I think it is where we are headed.”

“Say-do gap” between traveler attitudes and behavior

The industry’s prevailing approach has been educating consumers about their eco-friendly travel options. To cite a couple of examples, Uber measures and reports on emissions from customers’ use of its products. And Google, which already displayed carbon emission data on flights, now highlights climate-friendly train alternatives beside flight search results.

Google software engineer Max Vogler celebrated the advance on a LinkedIn post last month.

“Putting green travel at people’s fingertips was a real engineering challenge – big shout out to the Flights, Trains & Search teams,” Vogler wrote. “I’m super thrilled about this launch – imagine avoiding 85-99% of emissions with a single click.”

Increasing use of artificial intelligence by travel companies could raise awareness even further, said Jackson Pek, the senior vice president and group general counsel at Amadeus.

“These types of technologies can guide travelers to the various [sustainable] options available,” Pek said. “By providing carbon emission reporting or interfaces that offer travelers the option to make more sustainable choices, travel companies are continuing to raise awareness while also providing solutions.”

While such advances could prove invaluable in the push for sustainable travel, their effectiveness is based on a premise that hadn’t been fully vetted. A joint study in 2022 from the World Economic Forum and Accenture highlighted the problem of leaning too heavily on the plentiful research showing increasing demand for sustainable travel products.

“These are typically consumer surveys and therefore show only what travelers say they would do,” the report stated. “… The picture is often different when it comes to their actual behavior.”

The report expressed regret at a clear “lack of research and empirical data” regarding consumer behavior while predicting a “say-do gap” between consumers’ intentions and actions.

The new Phocuswright report set out to test that by making the first half of its survey blinded: The more than 5,000 respondents from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Spain answered questions about the trips they had taken without knowing the study was about sustainability.

So while at least half of the travelers in each country said they were more likely to choose transportation based on the carbon footprint, no more than 11% actually did. The results were about the same when it came to choosing lodging.

Even people who think about sustainability at home don’t consider it much when making their travel decisions, the report found. Fewer than 1 in 5 of the green-friendly respondents based their travel decision about transportation or lodging on sustainability.

Nevertheless, the report concluded on an upbeat note, seeing opportunities for the industry to make greater inroads by improving education efforts.

“A lot of travelers find the standards for sustainable travel to be confusing to keep track of,” said List, the report’s author. “You can’t do the right thing, if you don’t know what the right thing is.” 

Another recent report also took an optimistic view. The research from the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance found that price remains, by far, the number one driver for travelers’ decisions on where to stay — the 27% of respondents who singled it out was nearly double the next-highest factor, cancellation policies, which came in at 14%.

But the report, done in cooperation with global insight agency BVA BDRC and Pace Dimensions, found hope in its findings that the strongest attitudes toward sustainability came from the younger cohorts of respondents.

In other words, sustainability will become an even more important consideration in the years to come. Yet, again, the survey was based on attitudes rather than behaviors.

The problem with expecting customers to help the industry achieve its climate goals? Customers don’t come to travel companies because they want a sustainable experience.

“They’re coming because they want a good holiday,” Hazel McGuire, the general manager for the United Kingdom and Ireland at Intrepid Travel said during a panel discussion in June at Phocuswright Europe.

The “places that are doing it right”

Just as it’s hard to ask travelers to foot the bill to sustain travel, telling businesses they must risk profits or market share by forging ahead on their own is no easier.

Sampson shared an example of the Travel Foundation’s work in helping an international tour operator develop a climate action goal and plan. The operator realized it could significantly reduce its emissions and achieve its in-house targets — but only if it abandoned a popular bus tour to a far-flung destination.

The owners considered it. But after completing their due diligence, they realized abandoning their slot on the coach tour would only open it up to a competitor — which would produce the same carbon emissions saved by the company working with Sampson.

“So at the end of the day, what they had done for the climate was absolutely nothing,” he said. “All they would be doing is losing money on a product that they sell.”

That scenario only works if an agreement or rules are in place to compel companies to meet limits on emissions, crowds or other perils to sustainability. Given how long that might take, some seek hope in alternatives already taking place.

“We’ve got to look at those places that are doing it right,” said Kurt Weinsheimer, chief solutions officer at the travel marketing platform Sojern, citing the U.S. National Park Service as an example of how destinations can address concerns about overtourism.

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You’ve got to think from a business standpoint, ‘Where is it helping me to be more environmentally conscious?’

Kurt Weinsheimer – Sojern

The park system recorded 312 million visits at its 423 sites in 2022, with more than a quarter of those occurring in the eight most-visited parks. To better handle the crowds without harming the beauty people are coming to see, the park system initiated a range of solutions, including timed entry and vehicle reservation systems and trail and camping permits at sites such as Acadia, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite and Zion national parks and Muir Woods National Monument.

“Those things have a better impact on the environment, and your experience is way better,” Weinsheimer said. “Who wants to feel like they’re in a cattle call in Yosemite Valley?”

By the same token, private businesses need to look harder for sustainable solutions that are also good for business, he said.

“I know it feels cliché, but you’ve got to find the win-wins,” he said. “You’ve got to think from a business standpoint, ‘Where is it helping me to be more environmentally conscious?’”

The practice among some hotels to post signs alerting guests to the energy and water savings of reusing towels or forgoing a daily room cleaning is one example. For now, the only benefit to guests is feeling good about themselves, while hotels pocket the savings on staffing hours and energy use.

“What if they took that other step – and I haven’t seen this yet – and they’re like, ‘Hey, save the planet and save $10,’” he said. “That’s one of those small but large win-win opportunities where you could be dropping your housekeeping by 20%. That’s a big impact, and I think we’ve got to find small daily activities like that and just make it easy for consumers.”

Sometimes it takes a crisis to prompt change. Sampson saw it during COVID-19. He recalled hearing objections from resorts and cruise lines when buffets had to be altered to accommodate social distancing. “But it has to have 47,000 options because that’s what customers want.”

“You know what? The changes did happen,” he said. “In many cases they happened without any fanfare at all, and no one even noticed. Or they were able to spin it into something positive like, ‘Hey, we serve our local food, and there’s a reason why and here’s why you should experience that.’ So many changes happened over time that people were hesitant to pull the trigger, and then when they did, they just sort of became a new default that people got used to.”

That’s how Sampson thinks travel will ultimately become sustainable — when sustainable options become the default that companies and travelers alike become accustomed to. Regardless of whether the pressure comes from government rules or customer demands, he believes travel companies will want to be on the right side of history on the question of saving the planet and all of its places people love to visit.

“The industry would be wise to focus on reputational issues and on the values that people do care about,” he said. “To make sure that the industry is playing a positive role in affecting change in places and using its economic power and impact to drive sustainable development and sustainability goals.”

Watch Phocuswright senior analyst Madeline List present key takeaways from her study at The Phocuswright Conference 2023.

Phocuswright Research: The Sustainability Gap – Belief vs. Behavior with Madeline List

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