Sustainable Travel Is the Future

AFAR’s editor in chief shares a vision of travel reimagined.

Sustainable Travel Is the Future

Venice, which became an international symbol of overtourism, has a chance to change the way it manages visitors.

Photo by Peter Dench

AFAR editor in chief Julia Cosgrove made the following remarks to introduce a discussion of the idea of sustainable travel and destination stewardship on AFAR Live, an online gathering of travel leaders. This edition of AFAR Live took place on May 21, 2020.

Today’s discussion around destination stewardship is so critical at this juncture. When travelers are ready to go, destinations must be prepared to welcome them in a new way.

The writer Arundhati Roy published a beautiful and poignant piece in the Financial Times last month, making the case that a pandemic can be a portal. She wrote that “historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

Getting through the portal is the uncomfortable stage we’re in the midst of now. To get to the other side will require even more patience, creative thinking, and the courage to take risks. But I’m optimistic that if we do the work now, a better world awaits.

In the days before COVID-19, of course, overtourism was the biggest concern across the travel industry. In heavily-visited areas all around the world, local residents were overwhelmed by the influx in travelers and were seeking relief from clogged infrastructure. While that feels like a lifetime ago now, it would be such a missed opportunity to not use this time to address overtourism and the other challenges facing travel then—and now.

Assuming the U.S. Travel Association projections are correct, travel spending in the U.S. will tally just a third of last year’s levels: $4.2 billion this year versus $12.3 billion in 2019. With those figures in mind, there’s never been a better opportunity to consider some radical new approaches and out-of-the-box thinking. We have to rebuild smarter. And wiser. And more sustainably. Both over-visited and under-visited destinations need to make adjustments now, not later.

As Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said yesterday to an audience that included Vice President Pence, “Travel will help bring America back. The travel industry is the front door of economic development.” Let’s take advantage of this moment and imagine a brighter future for travel, akin to a Travel New Deal or a more utopian vision of the industry we all love so dearly, to help us emerge from this dark time with a bright and clear road map in hand.

So what then does this all mean, and, more importantly, how does it translate to you and your businesses?

From destination marketing to destination stewardship

In the last few years, we’ve seen destination marketing evolve into destination management and destination stewardship, and with that shift comes such enormous responsibility, to do better by the place, its local residents, its economy, and the travelers who want to visit. This philosophical shift in approach will be more necessary than ever as destinations reopen.

I don’t think it will surprise anyone on this call that based on a recent survey of AFAR readers, there’s a huge pent-up demand for travel right now.

According to our survey, more people expect to travel internationally in 2021 than did in 2019; 66 percent are planning a trip now. They are prioritizing driving destinations in the short term, but are still thinking about big trips. The top domestic destinations they want to visit once restrictions are lifted include California, Florida, New York, Colorado, and Washington State. And the top international destinations they want to visit once restrictions are lifted include France, Canada, Italy, England, and Mexico.

These are states and countries that have all faced and tackled overtourism in different ways.

Could COVID-19 be the death knell for tour bus travel and mass tourism? Possibly, at least for a while. And I would argue that’s not such a bad thing for our planet. And it’s not a bad thing for the long-term health of the travel industry.

The most obvious ways DMOs and tour operators can combat overtourism are to promote places that aren’t overrun with large groups of travelers; to promote visitation in shoulder seasons or off-peak times of year; and to spread the flow of travelers to untrammeled destinations and lesser-known sights.

I read yesterday that Prague recently created a new concept for tourism in the city. It lays out the commitment to travelers, yes, but also to locals. An official behind the initiative said: “The Prague urban conservation area has been overburdened for too long. Tourists concentrate in the historical center of the city where foreign visitors strongly outnumber local residents.”

Amsterdam, Venice, and Norway, which we’ll hear about later on in this call, as well as so many other destinations, are all committing to innovative sustainability measures, to ensure their destinations will survive and thrive for future generations of travelers and locals.

On a recent Travel Weekly Twitter chat that I participated in, one commenter wrote: “Focus on ensuring travel truly benefits local economies. Partner with small operators, local restaurants, and independent guides; make a more long-lasting, positive economic impact in the communities travelers visit.”

This approach can apply to so many types of destinations, be they small or large, rural or urban.

So we’ve got to spread the visitation flow in every way we can. For some states, regions, or countries, this might be promoting the idea and dream that a traveler can have a distinctive experience all to herself if she goes to the right place at the right time.

Travelers need to be good guests

Now in fairness, travelers will not be going to as many places as they were before COVID-19, at least in the short term. The frothiness bubble is over for a while. But the trips they will take will be more meaningful. They will not be about visiting many destinations in one week, ticking the sights off the list, and seeing things quickly and without much in the way of depth. The pace of travel (and to be honest, life) has to slow down and the experiences must become deeper, more distinctive, and more meaningful.

What role does the traveler play in all this? It becomes more incumbent on the traveler to be a good guest, just as much as it is important for a destination to be a good host. Going forward should we treat travel as a privilege? What if instead of a traveler asking “What can I get out of this place?” the traveler—the type you all want coming to your destination because she spends the most and approaches travel with the right mindset—asks “What can I do to support this place?”

Destinations should protect what is distinctive

About seven years ago I spoke about travel trends and millennials at a Caribbean tourism conference in the British Virgin Islands. I said it then and I’ll say it now: Your positioning and brand campaigns need to be about more than your destination’s equivalent of white-sand beaches. Show, don’t tell, a would-be visitor about the people, the place, and what makes your destination distinctive.

What is special about your destination? That’s your selling point. Not an Instagram influencer standing in front of an iconic point of interest or a model posing on a beach. Be real, be genuine, tell an authentic story about what makes your destination or your brand special. And share the stories of people. Be the heart. Human-centric campaigns that reveal the soul of a place are so much more memorable and effective. (And if you don’t have confidence to do this, get in touch with me and let AFAR Creates do it for you.)

There’s still a huge appetite for travel storytelling that inspires travelers, whether that’s coming from media companies like AFAR or in-house content marketing teams trying to figure out best practices and strike the right tone as their destinations reopen to travelers.

Mission, heart, and purpose will become even more vital as travelers start tiptoeing back out into the world. Focus on values and people of interest through the lens of inclusivity.

Trust. Expertise. Experience. These simple words matter now more than ever.

If the metric of success before the pandemic was heads in beds and quantity over quality, it’s time to shake out the cushions.

Our executive editor Jeremy Saum shared with me this idea: “sustainable tourism,” which to me in 2020 is shorthand simply for tourism, must meet the needs of today without sacrificing our ability to meet the needs of the future.

So let’s get to work.

>>Next: What Travel in the Age of Coronavirus Will Look Like

Julia Cosgrove is vice president and editor in chief of AFAR, the critically acclaimed travel media brand that makes a positive impact on the world through high-quality storytelling that inspires, enriches, and empowers travelers who care. Julia lives in Berkeley, California.
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