New report says responsible tourism good for business. So why am I not celebrating?

New report says responsible tourism good for business. So why am I not celebrating?

big green tick

For anyone working in responsible tourism nothing is more important than that it succeeds. So the Center for Responsible Tourism published a new report that states ‘green travel is here to stay’ we should all be delighted. Especially when in its introduction it claims: “there is strong evidence that responsible travel is also good for the bottom line.”

At first glance the report – a meta-analysis of trends and statistics for the last few years appears to be filled with positive signs. It opens with some figures on the actual growth of the overall tourism industry, reporting that international tourism receipts reached an estimated US$ 1.075 billion in 2012, up 4% in real terms. However when it then moves on to report specifics related to responsible tourism, most of them really aren’t hard facts about what a difference tourism is making – they are expressions of aspiration and intent.

So under the Consumer Demand section, 15 statistics are given from a range of studies, all of which state that tourists are favourable towards responsible tourism. But none of them are hard statistics about spending patterns or impact. They are responses to the sort of questions about intention and wish that most people would answer positively. The fact that 79% of travellers “think that it’s important that accommodation providers have eco-friendly practices,” may sound impressive, but most people asked this sort of ‘do you think people should be good?’ question will answer yes. What matters is whether they have chosen their accommodation as a result of this in the last 12 months. This figure is not given.

The following section is titled ‘The Business Case for Responsible Tourism’. The first statistic says “85% of U.S. hoteliers indicate that they currently have green practices in place, according to a 2013 study by TripAdvisor“. But without knowing whether this means a solar array providing 100 per cent of their power or just a small card in the bathroom asking people to reuse their towels it is just too vague. It risks being not so much a business case as a case of greenwash.

Only at the end of this section do we actually get some positive specifics. Marriott International has developed a ‘green’ hotel prototype pre-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council which “saves Marriott’s hotel owners an average of $100,000 in development costs, six months in design time, and up to 25% in terms of energy and water consumption”. The Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington, DC has documented “over $1,000,000 of new business in 2011 as a direct result of its sustainability initiatives.”

These are the statistics that matter, yet there is little else of this nature in the report’s seven pages. This is especially frustrating not only because there really is growing evidence that responsible tourism works, but also because one of the most recent pieces of evidence is from CREST’s own research – and can be found on the organisation’s homepage, but not in its report.

Meanwhile according to another report out last week – this time by Ethical Consumer magazine – spending on ethical shopping as a whole in the UK grew by 12 per cent in 2012 and is now worth £54 billion, despite the UK economy growing by only 0.2% in 2012. This is a significant, quantified growth. Yet the report also reveals that spending on responsible tour operators grew from £169m in 2011 to £177m in 2012 – a rise of only four per cent. Notably, this is the same percentage rise as CREST report said overall global tourism receipts grew over the same period.

So while we can welcome a growth of 4 per cent, I would rather we were asking ourselves why other sectors did so much better, and what we need to do to match their success. Or whether the growth in Responsible Tourism is merely a reflection of the growth of the overall industry? Or what can we learn about consumer behaviour, or the way other industries present themselves that will help responsible tourism grow?

To do this we need real facts about what is happening and what impacts it is achieving – whether it is positive or negative – so responsible businesses can design what they offer with the best chance of reaching a receptive audience.


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.

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