Tourism has to stop worrying about how to spin sustainability

Tourism has to stop worrying about how to spin sustainability

I am sitting inside a campervan, sheltering from the rain on day 12 of a road trip around England and Wales. I have stayed in 4 different camp sites, and attended two four day festivals. It has rained most of the time and I am out of truly clean clothes. And I couldn’t be happier.

Too often holidays fail to deliver on the brochure promise. People are oversold the golden sun, flawless beaches and beatifically smiling children playing happily together. And then served up a reheated buffet of queues and compromises, delays and disappointments.

Overselling and underdelivering does not increase the chances that people will come back a second time. And it means more time and money has to be invested in overselling the following year, trying once again to attract new guests (probably those disappointed by somewhere else the previous summer).

These campsites did not oversell. As they sold me on their location. The chance to be next to a lake, or beneath a mountain, or lost in a forest. And to be in such beautiful, natural, peaceful places without too many distractions. Their websites were all rudimentary affairs, a map, some amateur photographs of the site, and a checklist of facilities – washing machine, electricity, logs for camp fires etc – available on site.

They also differ from most of the industry in how they communicate their efforts around sustainability and how we as their guests are expected to be part of them.

I don’t think the concierge at a hotel has ever talked to me about waste. But at every campsite the owners have welcomed us with a recycling bag and guidance for its correct use. Where the standard hotelier shows the guest all the services at their disposal, these campsites say welcome to the place we love and call home. Here is how to fit in and share in keeping it beautiful.

There are two standard assumptions when it comes to the challenge of talking to guests about sustainability. The first is to conceal it, avoiding all technical jargon wherever possible. The second is to dress up whatever eco-measures are being taken – or the guests are hoped to take – by emphasising the benefits to the guest experience.

These both ‘work’, to a point. But in the end what they also do is reinforce the subterfuge. They imply that there is something not really in keeping with being on holiday about being sustainable. They mask the efforts they purport to describe.

I believe it is time to be much bolder. At Shambala Festival, which I visited 2 weekends ago, they are out and proud about trying to be as responsible as possible. We paid our recycling deposit when we bought our tickets. Were issued with the correct recycling sacks. And paid a £1 deposit at the bar for a reusable bioplastic glass that we returned when we came back for another pint.

The toilets were compost loos, with a huge floral display in the centre of one field stating that it was growing in the previous year ‘humanure’. All the food was vegetarian, most of it local, much of it fair trade and organic. Throughout the day there were talks and workshops on every aspect of building sustainable communities you could imagine.

And it was the best fun I have had at a festival. On a spotlessly clean site people danced till dawn dressed up as everything from day glo elves to giant squids and baby unicorns. Knowing the whole thing was run sustainably, and being asked to get involved didn’t detract from the sense of joy. It enriched it, made us feel more of a community and more concerned to care for the place and people there.

The result? We are much more likely to come back. Regardless of the rain.

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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.

One comment

  1. Avatar Amanda says:

    Thanks Jeremy.
    Love the floral loo.
    But seriously this is an issue so many tourism destinations struggle with, so your take on being bold was refreshing. I agree that there always seems to be a sense of shame or subterfuge about the actions being taken.

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