I have spent many years working in the travel industry at GetYourGuide and FATMAP, and over the years sustainability became more and more important. Customers now want to own their travel experiences end-to-end, and they are getting more conscious of the impact of their actions. Whether tourism companies have sustainability at the core of their business model or as a possible choice for a subsegment of their customers, it is a concept everyone is talking about. However, it still has a buzzword effect — what does “sustainable travel” actually mean?
Sustainable travel encompasses three general things. The first is the ecological element: preserving natural resources, fighting for biodiversity and being gentle to the planet in general. The second one is the economical factor: to be sustainable means to support local economies and to help local populations on their journey toward financial autonomy. Finally, the third pillar is cultural or societal. In a sustainable world, local cultures are respected and preserved, and their awareness creates a survival of ancestral rituals, techniques and ways of life.
Content in general, and localization in particular, play different roles for each of these three pillars. In many cases, content — visual or editorial — helps reach a global audience and therefore raises awareness. However, generating it incorrectly can create the opposite reaction, creating too much tourism and attracting global brands that then take over the local market. Let’s do a deep dive into sustainability.
Environmental protection is becoming a societal topic and presents a very strong business argument for tourism companies. The travel industry embraces it, and seems more concerned than before about the ecological impact of their offerings, at least on a marketing level. The transportation sector is a typical case: airlines now promote their green energy choices. Air France, for example, announced that they’re getting rid of their Airbus A380 planes, focusing instead on more energy-efficient planes, green fuels and carbon offset optimization programs.
In hospitality, hotel chains explain how they work on the sustainability of their offerings by reducing their water consumption or waste generation, thus respecting their environment.
This aspect is probably the one where, to my knowledge, content and localization have the least impact. Of course, you need campaigns to promote initiatives, you need translation to convey messages and you need localization to adapt these messages for local populations. However, value comes mostly from the decision of the traveler and the information they use for that decision, rather than the content itself.
The second pillar is economic: supporting local economies and businesses is also a key element of sustainable travel (see Figure 1). Enabling tourists to spend money on local businesses like restaurants, craft stores or hotels is a good way to create a virtuous circle that is beneficial for the local economy. Content and localization create a bridge between business owners and tourists.
In order to be interested in a remote location, tourists will need to learn about it somewhere. In our digital nation, it probably will be online: a blog, an interview or a social media post. The information will trigger interest — it could be a beautiful landscape that needs to be seen, an emotional story about a small local shop fighting against a global chain or an interesting fabrication technique that only exists there. For all of these topics, the websites in question will work by creating an emotional bond, inspiring and touching the audience. The goal is to attract attention and create a willingness to visit. No matter how good these intentions are, publishing such content has two effects: on a positive level, it brings awareness and allows small communities to communicate with the rest of the world. Translation and localization may help a small rug factory interact with tourists who will buy more of their products and understand their techniques and cultures better.
However, this also has a flip side: a location or a tradition that becomes too popular tends to create a saturation problem, and have negative consequences on local populations and businesses.
The Everest example is a notorious one. Climbing the mountain looks like a fairytale in pictures, and the idea of climbing the highest peak in the world has inspired many an adventurer. The would-be adventurer expects to go beyond their limits, guided by a local sherpa, and to engage with nature in its most natural and rough aspects. However, the Himalayan mountain has now transformed into a tourist-saturated locale (see Figure 2). You can’t feel nature there the way it first existed, or even enjoy the landscape. You barely have time for a proud selfie at the top: a chain of athlete tourists follow each other. Knowledge of the local community has mostly disappeared and recent pictures of the summit show a massive amount of trash and abandoned climbing materials. Local companies do not get the majority of profits, and local communities suffer from this over-tourism, which is destroying the natural environment.
The third and final pillar of sustainable travel is the cultural one. This includes rituals and traditions as well as architecture and ways of life. The most crucial issue in the long term is probably regarding the heritage being left for future generations. How do we make sure that what local cultures have built will not be buried under globalization? How can we ensure we do not forget craftsmanship that only exists in one part of the world? Sustainability is about preservation and transmission.
Travel companies pride themselves on showcasing the best of what exists, and on discovering new hidden gem destinations. Sustainable travel is quite trendy at the moment, as customers want to avoid standardized offers. And travel companies are surfing on this new trend by offering off-the-beaten-track experiences that will create a wow effect and make the customer feel unique and special. On one hand, the travel industry attempts to give tourists access to the entire world by involving local economies and cultures. On the other hand, once a gem is discovered and loved, it is very hard to avoid over-tourism, which has the opposite effect. It all starts with wanting to discover a hidden place and to help local economies thrive from tourism, or by promoting a wonderful location to create awareness of an ecological crisis. And it usually works. But when the success is overwhelming, local businesses are saturated, beautiful, quiet areas become overcrowded and tourists consume most of the natural resources available. This leaves locals losing what they were fighting for. At the same time, once a location starts to attract tourism and businesses, global brands start to invest and standardize the experience. The experience then becomes less culturally relevant, and more like tourist bait. The tourism industry therefore has the responsibility to work on using tourism to allow travelers to know local cultures better, while avoiding over-tourism.
One successful example of finding the right balance and developing all aspects of sustainable travel is the city of Gijón in Spain (Figure 3). It has been awarded the “Biosphere World Urban Destination” certificate in 2013 by the Responsible Tourism Institute and is protected by UNESCO. History, local rituals, gastronomy, landscapes, architecture and much more are being protected by the locals and respected by the travelers, from all parts of the world. Tourism professionals have created sustainable jobs for the community.
Overall, sustainable tourism is crucial to tomorrow’s tourism and is key to the healthy survival of biodiversity and cultural heritage.
You probably have already heard about responsible travel and may interchangeably use this term when thinking about sustainability. Both words cover the same themes and share the same goals. However, they approach the problematics on a different level. Where sustainability focuses on the macrolevel — the policies and big picture — responsible travel is more applicable on an individual scale. To summarize, you promote sustainable tourism by being a responsible traveler.
Therefore, I would like to invite you to influence sustainable tourism by being a responsible traveler. For your next travel, ask yourself:
• How is my behavior affecting the local community and environment?
• Am I adapting to the local culture or are they trying to blend their identity to please me, the tourist?
• Am I following the latest trends to enhance my Instagram feed? Or am I looking for true long-lasting experiences?
There are also some official programs and certifications that can help you find real sustainable initiatives, such as the Responsible Tourism Institute or Sustainable Travel International.
Go explore and enjoy all that the world has to offer!