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Why travelling light (on impacts) is increasingly on the itinerary

ESG By Martin Baeuerle, Operations Manager – 04 April 2023

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Martin posing for a photo in our Qatar office

Martin Baeuerle

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While there is significant focus on ESG (environmental, social and governance) in the finance and property sectors, one sector that has been flying somewhat under the radar is the global travel and tourism sector. Today’s smart tourism and hotel operators are increasingly putting ESG at the heart of operations – and travellers are eager to be part of this transformational journey.

Tourism has multiple challenges on the ESG front including the vexing issue of aviation emissions, impacts on local habitats and communities from development, one-use consumer products such as plastic straws and our innate love of long, hot showers when someone else is paying the water bill!

But there is a shift occurring for both corporate travel and individual adventurers towards treading more lightly when abroad.

As a result, the number of certification schemes to verify ESG credentials is also expanding. For example, in Qatar, the Green Key certification scheme has been adopted by many major operators and is well-regarded by the corporate travel market.

By choosing certified operators for accommodation, conferences and travel experiences, businesses can themselves boost their company ESG credentials. In the world of environmental footprint accounting, the quality of suppliers and partner organisations is a material consideration. Leisure business also find incorporating eco-certified venues into their itineraries is a positive consumer drawcard and lends itself to differentiating their offering in the market.

At a conference I attended in Athens in 2022, a popular topic was ‘destination management’ examined through the lens of managing human impacts on fragile places and landscapes. Many of the major tourism operators and business travel agents at the event were also making it clear that environmental certifications are the new boarding pass for tourism operators.

But this is where it can start to get slightly more complex, as there are currently more than 300 different schemes available, and not all of them have the same level of rigour or comprehensiveness. This can make it confusing for an operator to decide which scheme to engage with.

Certification of certifications

In response to general concerns around the quality of credentials, the Global Sustainable Tourism Councils (GCTC) was formed under the auspices of the United Nations. It has developed a scheme of criteria that a tourism certification body should meet that ensures an GSTC-recognised scheme meets appropriate benchmarks for environmental, social and governance performance.

What does best practice look like?

For environmental aspects, best practice certification both examines the degree to which negative impacts are minimised and also the methods for maximising positive impacts, such as engagement with the local community on environmental issues such as species protection or ecological restoration.

There is encouragement to account for and reduce greenhouse gas emissions where possible, and also to address on-site issues such as implementing proper recycling schemes.

On the social front, staff engagement and training, and building their understanding of environmental issues is important. Equally, ensuring local communities are benefiting from job creation, and that those jobs have fair pay and conditions and opportunity for skill development and progression is vital, particularly in Small Developing Island States (SIDS), Majority World nations and in areas belonging to Indigenous Peoples.

Tourism done poorly can displace local communities, disrupt access to significant sites and restrict or prevent access to traditional foods and medicines. Tourism done well can create opportunities for cultural continuity, economic self-reliance and the survival of traditional practices including land management, food production and artisan skills.

Operators can address positive social value creation through purchasing locally-grown and produced food and beverages and offering guests experiences in the local community that include engaging with local enterprises so there is an economic gain. Also, showcasing authentic local culture within the design and fit out helps create a mutually beneficial relationship rather than an exploitative one.

By prioritising and engaging with local cultures and communities, guests can be provided with experiences that are uniquely valuable – which aligns with a general consumer shift away from product-based consumption to experience-based spending.

We are seeing this start to become part of the package for conferences. At a recent conference in Dubai the organisers offered delegates three different field trips, one to a local fish farm, one to the nations’ biggest aquaponics facility and one to the Museum of the Future.

Another emerging trend is ‘bleisure’ tourism, where business and leisure are combined in a sequenced package of a conference with an optional extended stay. This reduces the carbon emissions associated with the leisure element considerably as there are no additional flights, simply a longer duration in the one location.

Overall, the goal of any ESG strategy in the tourism and hospitality sector must be to ensure any good that can be done, is, and any harm is avoided, minimised or mitigated.

This is where governance really comes to the fore and having appropriate management systems and feedback loops in place to ensure ideals are measurably translated into tangible outcomes. Governance also takes in aspects such as fair and equitable arrangements with local communities, ensuring any human slavery risks are eliminated from supply chains, and transparency and visibility of environmental and social impacts.