Sustainable travel and the impact of climate change on tourist perceptions

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The 2020s could easily become ‘the decade of sustainability’. While more companies pledge to help combat climate change, travelers are becoming increasingly savvy on who and what is negatively affecting the planet. With this in mind, STR’s Tourism Consumer Insights department surveyed more than 1,000 active travelers in January 2020 and evaluated their thoughts and behavior towards sustainability in the tourism industry. With 67.4% of respondents living outside the U.K. and the rest within, the below analysis provides worldwide perceptions on sustainable travel.

Environmentally friendly holidays are important to travelers: fact or fiction?

Highlighting that travelers, by and large, take the issue of sustainable tourism seriously, almost 50% of those surveyed stated that choosing an environmentally friendly holiday option was important to them, while 40% chose a neutral position. As shown below, Generation Z (those born in the mid- to late-1990s) travelers placed higher importance on environmentally friendly holidays.

Despite the strong intent to undertake sustainable holidays, 37% of our traveler panel highlighted that they struggle to find the best way to be environmentally friendly. This points to the need for additional and clearer information, from the travel industry and other organizations, about the steps travelers can take to reduce their carbon footprint.

A staggering 92% of respondents stated that they were concerned about climate change, reinforcing the idea that sustainability is at the forefront of their destination selection and how they get there. However, despite broad concerns about climate change, there were split views on whether travelers would avoid destinations with poor environmental credentials. Just over a third of panelists wouldn’t visit a country they perceived to show insufficient efforts to fight climate change, while the remainder (65%) indicated that they would not be deterred or were undecided.

Sustainability starts at home

Transitioning into a sustainable lifestyle begins at home, and unsurprisingly, many travelers have already made efforts to minimize their environmental impact. 50% disagreed that “actions by individuals will never be enough to combat climate change”. This finding further highlights the eagerness to make a positive difference in combatting climate change.

Similarly, travelers demonstrated a high incidence of recycling, and nearly 90% stated that they currently recycle their waste—far higher than the U.K. average of 45%. Further highlighting the strong environmental conscience of active travelers, 85% stated that they were minimizing their use of single-use plastics, and 67% stated that they regularly buy locally grown food.

The travel industry still has plenty to do

As travelers change their lifestyle habits to minimize contributions to climate change, this affects how they view numerous industries, including tourism.

We asked panelists how ‘green’ they perceived key sectors of the tourism industry to be, such as accommodation providers and airlines. 60% believed there is little or no effort to be sustainable among hotels and other accommodation providers. As shown below, while this finding highlighted generally negative perceptions of the efforts made by accommodation operators, the industry was less poorly perceived in comparison to cruises, airlines, bus tours and train operators.

What steps can tourism operators take to be more sustainable? One important move for the accommodation industry would be to minimize food waste. Again supporting the view that travelers, although eco-conscious, might not always rule out potentially environmentally harmful activities, there were mixed views that breakfast buffets should be stopped to reduce food waste. That said, a slight majority favoured the idea.

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