How to engage tourists in sustainable tourism (Part 2): redesign the loyalty scheme

How to engage tourists in sustainable tourism (Part 2): redesign the loyalty scheme

Last week, I spent a night in a hotel in Brussels that has taken a circular economy approach to redesigning the way its loyalty scheme works. Following on from my previous blog about how we in the industry can engage tourists by making them proud to be part of our efforts to promote sustainability, I want to look today at how rethinking the way such loyalty programmes operate could further help deliver on our aims.

The place I was staying in was operated by Martin’s Hotels, which owns 14 properties in nine cities in Belgium. At Martin’s, their version of the loyalty scheme is called Ecobon. If guests request a limited cleaning service for their room, they get 20 Ecobons. If they reuse their bath towels they get a further 10. The restaurant menu was filled with dishes – along with drinks and even cocktails – that were labelled EcoetBon as they contained locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, and so the short delivery distances this entails reduce CO2 emissions. When guests have accumulated enough ecobon points, they can be cashed in for discounts on meals, accommodation and other experiences at various Martin’s properties.

Martin’s circular approach isn’t just about engaging guests – they also interact with a network of suppliers and collaborators to change their relationship to waste. The company won a European Eco-Management and Audit Scheme award in 2017 for the way it takes a circular economy approach to its entire supply chain. The company works with cradle-to-cradle carpet manufacturer Desso to supply it with carpets tiles for its floors, where only the damaged pieces are replaced instead of the entire carpet, and all products are designed to be recyclable to allow the reuse of materials in new, superior quality products. Its electronic waste is managed by Recupel, which ensures that products are either reused or, if this is impossible, dismantled and the raw materials recycled. Its laundry services are taken care of by a company that leases the linens to the hotel chain, repurposing them once they are beyond use in the hospitality sector, and also uses environmentally friendly cleaning. There’s much more that can be discovered at Martins website, under their Tomorrow Needs Today programme.

It’s not the only hotel that has attempted to use its loyalty scheme to support responsible initiatives. In India, Taj InnerCircle members’ programme enables guests to donate points to community initiatives and NGOs, including Born Free and the Women’s India Trust. While on the surface this seems like fairly standard philanthropy, its partnership with Women`s India Trust, which provides a platform for advancement and empowerment to unskilled and disadvantaged women, is designed to bring these women into the hotel’s own supply chains. As part of Taj`s Enterprise Development programme, its hotels across India buy laundry bags, newspaper bags and slipper bags from the trust, while guest donations from the loyalty card enable the women to attend courses in nursing, teacher training, tailoring and block printing.

To be truly transformative, however, I reckon these two schemes should be seen as just the first steps. Step One, as shown by Martin’s, is to reward guests for helping make your own hotel’s sustainable efforts succeed. And Step Two, courtesy of Taj, shows how we might offer guests the chance to spend their points on supporting further initiatives. But why stop there?

Most people staying in a hotel – especially a city-based one – don’t just stay in the hotel. They wander out and explore. So why don’t hotels create partnerships with ethical shops, experiences, restaurants, low carbon transport alternatives and more in the neighbourhoods where they work. Such a ‘Hotel Eco Loyalty Programme’ (HELP) could provide me with discounts and incentives at these establishments and operators, helping me discover the city through them while supporting their efforts to assist the communities and environments where they work.

Nor does the HELP loyalty scheme need to be restricted to my guests – why not roll it out to staff, so that if I work at your hotel, I also benefit from a range of connections and discounted opportunities across my home community? It might reduce staff turnover, create a greater sense of understanding of why a company is bothering with sustainability initiatives, and make for more engaged, motivated staff as a result.

It doesn’t even need to be limited to one hotel, or one town. Obviously if the chain is international, these benefits could be enjoyed wherever the company has a property. But for small, independent hotels, this could be part of the benefits of being a member of a certification scheme. Schemes like the Shop Local Club Card and Tagitpassiton reward shoppers for supporting local, independent shops. The same could be organised for hotels – just as local hotels could in principle be part of these shopping schemes. They could also be connected into other related impact initiatives, such as offset programmes, pack for a purpose, traffikcam and much more besides.

So how far could it go? In 2011, the government of South Korea introduced a nationwide Green Credit Card programme. When customers spend money on sustainable options, for example by using public transport or buying eco-friendly products – they are awarded credits that are converted into discounts on their utility bills or into cash. There are now nearly 2,000 eco-friendly products that customers can gain credits through.

By December 2016, there were over 15 million Green Credit Cards in circulation, equivalent to 55% of the economically active population of Korea. The United Nations estimates about 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions were reduced between the start of the program in July 2011 and December 2016. As the Head of the Korean Green Purchasing Network Hong Sung-pyo explains, the Credit Card offers “a chance to change the current mantra that living green is tough to achieve“.

If you are working to engage tourists in sustainable tourism, then a chance like that should be music to your ears. So who wants to help?


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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.


  1. Dr Nikos Antzoulatos says:

    Hallo there!
    Nice article, I really enjoyed reading it.
    I completed a PhD in using design as a medium to influence sustainable touristic behaviour. If you are interested, I would be happy to talk!
    Dr Nikos Antzoulatos

  2. Doly Garcia says:

    This is rather close to what’s been called “green consumerism”, that can be defined as: encouraging people to consume more, as long as it’s more green products. The issue with it is, of course, that consuming more, in general, isn’t the most sustainable option. The most sustainable option is consuming less. Instead of going to some eco-hotel, it’s more sustainable not to do that business trip and do a teleconference instead, or not to go to that faraway location for holiday and instead do some holiday activities locally.

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