Travel companies making bold claims about sustainability isn’t new. But there’s a growing form of marketing filling consumer screens and inboxes: Let’s call it “conscious travel washing.” Travel brands have caught on to our post-pandemic collective resolve to visit destinations with more meaning and vote with our pockets.
“Choose conscious travel consciously,” “save wildlife for the next generation,” or transform the lives of host communities, ads plead just as international travel restarts fully. This all sounds great, if only it were true coming from every brand in the travel industry. So how can consumers discern which company is actually creating a positive impact via tourism, and which is doing business as usual while covering it up with conscious travel terminology?
“While it’s great that sustainability is suddenly on everyone’s agenda, it also means that marketing speak—especially around responsible, conscious travel—is often incredibly deceptive,” says Shivya Nath, founder of Climate Conscious Travel.
Jonathan Day, associate professor at Purdue University School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, agrees. “Whether it is folks calling themselves ‘ecotourism’ or companies touting that they are fighting climate change, it is hard to tell if their claims are genuine,” he says. “Unfortunately, if you want to ensure your travel providers are as sustainable as possible, it takes some time and effort.”
Here are five ways to avoid falling into brands’ current wave of conscious travel washing, as suggested by colleagues in sustainable tourism.
Be Engaged and Learn
Since the pandemic, consumers have come face to face with the travel industry’s inner workings, for better or worse, from the delayed or lost luggage debacle to the worker and pilot shortages. Travel is a complicated industry with numerous players along the chain.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t choose to travel meaningfully while avoiding its capitalistic trappings.
“As travelers, the best way to determine if a travel provider or accommodation is really walking the talk is to first educate ourselves,” says Climate Conscious Travel’s Nath. “We need to be able to understand how tourism impacts places and communities for better or for worse, and learn to ask the right questions.”
When booking with a travel company, a little bit of probing can go a long way, she adds. “Asking questions like what percentage of the trekking fee goes to the local guides and porters, and whether an accommodation has a climate action plan and is measuring its GHG emissions, can go a long way.”
I would add that hotels and resorts in the Global South, in particular, should be ready to answer your questions. Do they support surrounding host communities in a collaborative rather than a charitable way? Do they have a system to use rainwater and recycle? Do they have staff at the top managerial and executive levels who are from the destination or do they hire their general managers from overseas? Do they use local materials and art in their spaces, which supports local creatives? Do they advertise where to go to shop and eat local near their resort?
Never underestimate the power of a consumer expressing their wants and needs. Travel companies track this closely and respond to demand—after all, they’re throwing the word “conscious travel” around as a result of all the post-pandemic traveler surveys and consumer trends.
Just look at examples of their willingness to shift to make a profit from changes in demand: The increase in remote work spaces, extended stay hotels, or glamping. When consumers repeatedly ask for the same thing, there’s incentive to listen in this competitive travel landscape.
So why not be loud and clear on the kinds of travel businesses you are willing to support moving forward in a world that’s fraught with inequality? A fun trip and sustainable tourism choices are not mutually exclusive if not complimentary.
“Travelers should encourage their suppliers to be sustainable,” Purdue University’s Day says. “Leave suggestions for improvement. Let companies know that you care. Highlight good behaviors on social media.”
Look for Metrics and Reports
Data, data, data. That’s the easiest way to know a company is putting their money where their mouth is: They’re measuring, monitoring and publishing results that are regularly updated.
Ayako Ezaki, co-founder of Germany-based TrainingAid, an international tourism and training company—and one of my instructors when I was studying to obtain my professional certificate in sustainable tourism from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council in 2021—believes that “to manage socioeconomic benefits, companies first need to measure and understand the impacts they are creating.”
“Yes, it may not be as straightforward as measuring energy usage or carbon emissions, etc., but it is possible, and there’s no reason for not starting,” she says.
Ezaki points to case studies that TrainingAid has gathered on a handful of tour operators. “These examples focus specifically on measuring and reporting on social impacts, such as ASI Reisen, Fair Away.”
For Day, “the gold standard is whether the company is certified with a Global Sustainable Tourism Council-accredited certification.” He adds that the Global Sustainable Tourism Council has set the standard for sustainability.
The GSTC “establishes and manages global standards for sustainable travel and tourism.” These are known as the GSTC Criteria. One set applies to destinations (tourism boards) and another set applies to industry (hotels, tour operators). It also provides international accreditation for sustainable tourism certification bodies. “It helps travelers to know that the certification means something,” says Day. “Companies using this approach are still few—but growing. It doesn’t help that some very good companies are not using this approach.”
Ezaki says more travelers should be demanding companies to show their data on social impact. Professor Day agrees. “Check out the claims. See what information they provide to back up the claim. Look at reviews to see if they are walking the talk.”
Keep your eye on collaborative efforts to bring transparency into businesses in destinations.
“This is a challenge we’re trying to address through a new collaborative project between Climate Conscious Travel and iambassador, called “Sustainable Cities” explains Nath. “We invite local storytellers and past travelers who know a city really well and understand sustainability, to share the best ways to experience it. Our goal is to create a one-stop platform where travelers can find locally verified recommendations for cities around the world.”
Nath says it’s about developing parameters that indicate why a certain accommodation or experience has been recommended on the platform.
Other big-players in the industry provide insight into properties that are sustainable, such as Booking.com’s “Travel Sustainable” badge for properties. But there are other equity-related issues that you may not be aware of as a traveler.
One example is leakage—when your vacation package is paid to a multinational brand before you leave for the destination. Another is the reality that small and medium enterprises may not be able to afford the high fees of getting certified even though they are, say, an Indigenous-owned business that practices sustainability as a lifestyle. Be aware of the travel industry’s inequities and put the effort into researching and asking your contacts for referrals.
Reject Low-Hanging Fruit
Ezaki cautions consumers to be “weary of companies that talk only about hiring local people,” something she says she learned from a colleague at Planeterra, an NGO that works with host communities around the world to build community-based tourism, who spoke of avoiding “local washing”.
“Job creation is often highlighted as one of the most important socioeconomic benefits tourism brings to communities. But it’s not enough just to hire local people (which companies may be doing anyways to save costs), and especially if those jobs are low-paid ones, that’s not really creating lasting positive impact,” says Ezaki.
She adds that businesses that are truly committed to contributing to local economies and supporting local communities should also invest in creating and spreading business opportunities in destinations, helping other local enterprises to benefit from tourism.
Keep it Realistic
There’s a lot of content being published in mainstream media on how to behave responsibly in destinations. But that’s a small part of the equation, and the advice being doled out is also devoid of equity and inclusion considerations (what applies to US tourists does not necessarily apply to say, tourists from India or travelers with disabilities; this monolithic approach that the travel industry loves is problematic in and of itself).
Ultimately, tourism doesn’t hold the answer to all the issues in a destination, but it is responsible for what it causes. Know the brand’s agenda and what you’re a part of before booking and going.
“Have realistic expectations of the contributions of companies to our global challenges,” says Day. “Companies can make a difference within their own sphere. Recognize that sustainability is multifaceted and that perfection in every aspect is challenging (and rare).”
Discerning conscious travel washing isn’t always easy, but these five steps offer you a start in being better prepared to spot brands’ lofty claims of “saving a destination or village for future generations” through your one-time luxury trip. Take the time to pause, research, and question.
Ultimately, the old adage applies: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Cover Image: Women near Colca, Peru by Pedro Szekely via Flickr Commons.