An ITB Virtual Convention on December 10 discussed the future of sustainable tourism in a post-pandemic world.

Themes included: “Will sustainability goals be sacrificed to the economic recovery of the tourism sector? And will the Covid-19 crisis be a catalyst or a pitfall for sustainability in tourism?” The answer was unanimous among the four industry leaders invited to share their opinions. All agreed that sustainability will be a major component of a brand new tourism world.

The Virtual Convention was moderated by Rika Jean-François, CSR Commissioner, ITB Berlin. The session brought together representatives from four different fields of tourism- tour operating, cruises, hotels and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), a neutral and independent organisation which sets and manages global sustainable standards. Speakers were Lucienne Damm, Senior Environmental Manager, TUI Cruises; Randy Durband, CEO, Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC); Peter-Mario Kubsch, CEO, Studiosus and Julia Massey, Vice President Global Sustainability, Kempinski Hotels.

The tourism industry is still embattled in a fight against restrictions in travel and the lockdown of citizens in many countries. However, it is also time to think about its future, especially as the first wave of vaccination starts to be rolled out. For ITB Berlin CSR Commissioner Rika Jean-François, an important question is what a post-Covid tourism world will look like. Sustainability has been the mantra of many destinations and tourism companies in the past decade.

By the same token, will the pandemic reinforce this trend to a more environmentally-friendly tourism world, or will economic recovery take over for a while? While companies definitely hold the solution for better practices, consumer behaviour will be the major driver for changes. Prior to the pandemic, travel behaviours were already changing with a new consumption mindset. Covid-19 is probably accelerating the trend, according to Jean-François.

A live survey conducted with the participants of the virtual conference was a clear sign of confidence for a more sustainable tourism world. To the question “Can the pandemic lead to more sustainability and climate protection? “, 76% agreed that sustainability would come out stronger than before; 15% had no opinion while 9% did not agree.

Lucienne Damm, TUI Cruises
 Lucienne Damm, Senior Environmental Manager, TUI Cruises

Lucienne Damm, Senior Environmental Manager, TUI Cruises: “Economic survival will be the first priority in the immediate future.”

She said it is perhaps true that the sustainability goal might, for a while, give way to economic survival: ” I believe that companies will try first to recover but we can ask ourselves if it will be ‘whatever it takes’ or if we will repeat the same mistakes of the past. I think that a strong focus should be on policy makers. Will they go beyond the economic recovery,” she analysed.

The traveller might also accelerate the pace of change in his or her travel behaviour.  This would translate by a new self consciousness to look after a more sustainable experience. This could lead, for example, to replacing city trips by a nature-based experiences in remote areas; or to drop a large hotel in favour of small-size, local accommodation.

Damm recognised that the cruise industry has recently seen its image tarnished by some companies which behaved in an unethical way. “We are conscious that we need to show that the cruise industry also provides a responsible, sustainable answer for travellers. We definitely realised it later than some others in the tourism field. But there are lots of innovations, and new technologies will soon provide a state-of-the art experience,” said Ms Damm.

Asked if public authorities might soften their stance over cruise companies’ practices, as they also face financial difficulties, Damm is unequivocal: “I do not think that politicians will relax or postpone stricter regulations on cruise companies’ activities.”

Julia Massey Vice President Global Sustainability, Kempinski Hotels
 Julia Massey  – Vice President Global Sustainability, Kempinski Hotels

Julia Massey, Vice President Global Sustainability, Kempinski Hotels: “COVID changes practices in the hotel industry.”

According to Julia Massey, the COVID pandemic has accelerated a leap in CSR initiatives in the hospitality industry. “Being more environmentally-minded and socially conscious, companies have found a better performing model. Many studies prove it. And this is also true for the hospitality industry. Covid highlighted risks and opportunities for hotels. While poverty is rising with people losing jobs, it also offers an opportunity for bigger CSR actions and creating shared values, explained Massey.

Profit sharing models have also been set between hospitality companies and technology suppliers, especially in the field of energy efficiency. “We ask technology suppliers to provide us their material for free. With the savings realised, hotels will share profits with technology companies and buy end of stock material,” she highlighted.

Randy Durband, CEO, Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)
 Randy Durband, CEO, Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)

Randy Durband, CEO, Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC): “Public sector leads the change towards a more sustainable tourism world

A drive to a more sustainable tourism world will definitely be initiated by the public sector, explained Randy Durband, CEO, Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). ” As the private sector has to fight for survival, we can expect more activism initiated by the public sector,” he said.

Elaborating later during the convention over the role of destinations -generally in the hands of the public authorities, Durband agreed that they will be a key element to sustainability. “They should set minimal standards for sustainable criteria, including in the attribution of star rating for hotels. Governments could also encourage destinations to become even more sustainable by providing more subsidies,” he added.

Peter-Mario Kubsch CEO, Studiosus
 Peter-Mario Kubsch, CEO, Studiosus

Peter-Mario Kubsch, CEO, Studiosus: “Covid is a chance to rethink the tourism business model

For tour operator Peter-Mario Kubsch, CEO, Studiosus, Covid-19 has at least one positive outcome. ” We should remember that we were talking not so long ago about over-tourism. Our industry was growing to the point it was getting dangerous, long before the pandemic took off. We now have a chance to rethink our business model,” he stressed during the convention.

“We should take new paths to growth especially as a new consciousness is developing. Consumers expect more  products and services as sustainable as possible from us. While consumers will, at the end, decide what they want, we need political guidance to define best practices in our industry and establish the framework for it,” he further explained.

According to the panelists, consumers’ future behaviours still remain unpredictable. “Will consumers’ influence turn post-Covid tourism into a sustainable industry?” asked Rika Jean-François.

Randy Durband remained skeptical. “Europe leads the world in terms of sustainability, with Nordic countries starting the trend with the flight shame movement. However, we must take a more global perspective of it. Although some travellers agree with sustainability, the general travelling public is not yet tempted by it when on the move.” he said.

“Let temper our enthusiasm over a new sustainable travel era. What travellers say about sustainability in surveys is the way they would like to see the world. It is very different from the way they act when they purchase trips,” added Randy Durband.

As Lucienne Damm pointed out, educating travelling consumers will remain crucial. “Do travellers have also the willingness to pay more for sustainability?” asked Rika Jean-François.

Sustainability in tourism is certainly here to stay. To turn it into a way of life for all travellers around the globe is perhaps another story.

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