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Sustainable travel and the impact of climate change on tourist perceptions

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.

Choosing an environmentally friendly holiday option is important to me

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.

I wouldn’t want to visit a country that wasn’t making efforts to fight climate change

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.

How do you feel about the following industries’ sustainability efforts?

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.

Some hotels have stopped offering breakfast buffets in an effort to reduce food waste, do you support this move?

There were also mixed views as to whether travelers should pay more to stay in an environmentally friendly hotel. While some are willing to pay more, most believe this should either be the standard or seem likely to prioritize other aspects of their stay (e.g. value for money) over the hotel’s green credentials. This might be somewhat problematic for hoteliers now, but evolving perceptions should see greater traveler engagement with sustainability. However, encouragingly, travelers believe that efforts by the accommodation sector, albeit perhaps not considered effective so far, are being taking seriously and are not a crude marketing ploy.

To what extent do you agree or disagree

Of note for airlines, travelers believe that frequent flyers shouldn’t be ‘flight shamed’ for their contribution to the climate crisis and 70% were against the movement that has gained traction in Sweden. This could imply a traveler perception that sustainability efforts should be the responsibility of the airlines.

The concept of carbon offsetting has generated much debate in the airline industry, but what do travelers think of this initiative? 55% were aware of carbon-offsetting with 50% supporting the initiative, 15% not in favor and 35% unsure.

Do you think carbon off-setting is a useful initiative?

These findings highlight a degree of confusion among travelers regarding the benefits of carbon offsetting and hint that airlines may need to do more to promote and explain these initiatives.

As travelers become more aware of their effect on the environment and how our choices today will impact tomorrow, there is some way to go before both individuals and companies are in sync with their sustainability efforts. Travelers are expecting more from the tourism sector and will continue to push for change, so the onus falls on the industry to respond and pave the way for sustainable tourism. These are the steps that will preserve tourism for the next generation.

Gauging consumer views and behaviours on environmental issues and sustainability is a useful way of evaluating the tourism industry’s journey to become more sustainable. How do you think traveler perceptions will shift during this ‘decade of sustainability’? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please share them with us via

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