Analysis - April 4, 2008



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April 2008


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Assessing the Demand for Sustainable Tourism

Rachel Dodds, Director, Sustaining Tourism, & Assistant Professor, Ryerson University and Marion Joppe, President, Tourism Environment, & University Research Chair in Tourism, University of Guelph are assessing the demand for sustainable tourism in this article.

Although there is no question that tourism needs to be sustainable, the actual demand for sustainable tourism is difficult to assess as most figures reflect anecdotal evidence of market share. In recent years, a number of surveys have assessed the demand for more sustainable forms of travel and, in some instances, a willingness to pay and/or financially offset the impact of respondents’ travel.

A number of studies have shown that consumers are becoming more interested in sustainable forms of tourism. In Europe, 95% of Swiss tourists consider respect for local culture to be highly important when choosing a holiday(1) and approximately 87% of respondents in a 2004 survey indicated they were also interested in locally produced food, local culture and using local guides when on holiday. A 2002 survey commissioned by the Association of British Travel Agents(2) found that, for 87% of respondents, it was very important that their holiday not damage the environment and, for 76%, that it benefit the people of the destination they were travelling to (for example, through jobs and business opportunities). According to National Geographic Traveller(3), there are 55 million Geotourists in the United States who are environmentally and socially responsible. Geotourists are defined as having “ceaseless expectations for unique and culturally authentic travel experiences that protect and preserve the ecological and cultural environment.” Of these travellers, 38% would be willing to pay a premium to patronize travel companies that use sustainable environmental practices (although it should be noted that only 6% of US travellers take holidays overseas).

It would seem that 2007 was the year when everyone jumped on the “environment bandwagon,” with contradictory results. Most optimistic, a Lonely Planet poll of 24,500 consumers from 144 countries stated that 93% of people said they would or might purposefully partake in environmentally-friendly travel in the future(4). Travellers who consult Lonely Planet are already likely to be much more sensitive to sustainability issues, which accounts for this high percentage that is not supported by other research. For instance, in April 2007, the online travel community, TripAdvisor(5), surveyed 1000 travellers worldwide. Of these, 38% said that environmentally-friendly tourism is a consideration when travelling, 38% had stayed at an environmentally-friendly hotel, 9% specifically seek out such hotels, 34% are willing to pay more to stay in environmentally-friendly hotels and 37% are willing to pay a premium of at least 5-10%. Perhaps of greater long-term concern to the travel industry was the finding that 24% believe air travel should be avoided.

An October 2007 study by TNS Travel & Tourism of over 6,000 people in Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and North America(6) concluded that the willingness to pay to offset the environmental costs of their holiday ranged from a low of 2% for Germans, to a high of 12% for Spaniards. With regard to taking steps to reduce their environmental impact, the Italians lead all countries with 32% willing to switch to greener plans, while the United States lag well behind other countries with only 16% expressing such a willingness.

In an American STI survey(7), 75.4% of respondents who are self-declared environmentally-oriented consumers indicated that they were willing to pay $1-20 extra per ticket to mitigate the greenhouse gas effects of their travel and 76.7% said they would switch online travel sites to one that made contributions on their behalf to offset the portion of their emissions. The TNS Travel and Tourism survey was thus less optimistic about the attitude of Americans than the earlier STI study and the survey undertaken by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) in 2003(8). The TIA study suggested that more than half of all US adults would be more likely to select an airline, rental car or hotel that uses more environmentally-friendly products and processes. Yet only 14% said their actual selection of a supplier would be influenced by the supplier’s efforts to preserve the environment. In terms of products, 13% would be willing to pay more to use green products – although fully 56% said they might. The amount or rate of the fare premium seems to be the source of their hesitation: 76% would pay less than 10% more per usage, with the majority indicating they would pay less than 5% more.

Compared to their American neighbours, Canadian “travellers express a willingness to take personal action. One-third say that they would switch from a preferred holiday destination to another that supported sustainable tourism, while four in 10 would try to find and use a travel agency that adheres to environmentally sensitive guidelines. And over one-quarter (28%) say they would pay a premium for an ethical and sustainable holiday.”(9) Research conducted by Dodds & Leung(10) suggests that 25% expect travel agents to provide information on climate change and carbon-offsetting options.

While it has been suggested that 44% of British travellers would likely choose an airline with a reputation for fuel-efficient planes(11), Tiscali(12) found that 67% would not even be thinking about the impact their summer holidays could have on the environment. Although consumers may indicate that they expect environmental and social issues to be taken into consideration on their holidays, they do not take it upon themselves to ensure these criteria are being met. Responsibility for ensuring that tourism is more sustainable falls into the hands of the operator. In the UK, over 80% say tour operators should be responsible for preserving the local environment and culture and ensuring that local people benefit from tourism, and the same percentage is more likely to book a holiday with a company with a ‘responsible’ travel policy – a 28% increase since 2001(13). A report by Tearfund(14) declared that 55% of consumers believe that travel agents have a responsibility to provide the information, while 48% think tour operators should provide it.

So what now? Are industry and government moving in this direction?

Although consumers may expect to see social or environmental considerations addressed in the brochures and Websites of operators and travel providers, they do not currently demand these when booking travel packages because many operators simply do not offer responsible/sustainable travel options.

To further the sustainability agenda within the tourism industry, there are a number of recommendations. First, governments should focus their capacity-building efforts on suppliers, using methods like legislated compliance (e.g., environmental, reputation and business probity) and ensuring that resources are available for supplier training and learning and, where needed, filling resource gaps. Second, there is a need to increase public-private partnerships to train the tourism sector in environmental and social awareness and mitigation strategies and industry associations should offer incentives and reporting guidelines. Governments and industry alike need to support training and the sharing of best practices while encouraging industry associations to make adherence to sustainable or responsible tourism policies a condition of membership and to report on progress.

Third, with greater consumer awareness of issues such as climate change, the demand for more information is growing. Demand for sustainable tourism products and services may also grow, if the industry starts to offer more sustainable choices to clients. Businesses can diversify and gain a competitive advantage.

Finally, there is a need to encourage corporate social responsibility reporting from tour operators, airlines, cruise lines, hotels and destinations so that they can understand the impact they themselves are having. Reporting will also provide measurable criteria to allow for comparison of companies and destinations.


1. Switzerland Travel Writers and Journalism Club, cited on the Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa Website. Retrieved July 5, 2005, from
2. MORI (2002). “Package Holidays 2002.” London: Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA).
3. Travel Industry Association of America (2003). “Geotourism: New Trend in Travel Study.” Prepared for National Geographic Traveller, October 2003.
4. Travelmole (2007). “Travellers Back Radical Moves to Protect Environment.” Retrieved August 8, 2007, from
5. TripAdvisor (2007). “TripAdvisor Travelers Keen on Going Green.” Retrieved January 16, 2008, from
6. TNS Travel and Tourism (2007). “Quarter of holidaymakers say they’ll switch to greener plans.” Press release. Retrieved January 16, 2008, from
7. Anavo & STI (2004). Retrieved July 5, 2005, from
8. TIA (2003).
9. TNS Canadian Facts (2007, December 4). “Canadian travellers express willingness to change their travel behaviours owing to environmental concerns: survey”. Press release. Retrieved January 16, 2008, from
10. Dodds, R., & Leung, M. (2007). “Climate change awareness in the tourism industry.” Conference Proceedings TTRA Canada, October 18-20, 2007.
11. TNS Travel and Tourism (2007).
12. Tiscali (2007). “Summer Lifestyle Report 2007.” Retrieved January 16, 2008, from
13. Taylor Nelson Sofres (2004). Responsible Travel ‘Had Enough’ Survey. Retrieved July 5, 2005 from
14. Tearfund (2001). “Worlds Apart – A call to responsible global tourism.” Middlesex, UK

  • Herman van Bon

    Why the Swiss government is only advertising 57 tourism businesses in South Africa:

    “Best Garden in the Western Cape” (The Independent, UK; January 2010)
    Certified by Fair Trade in Tourism in South Africa since 2006.
    Flower Magazine (USA), Spring 2010: “They have fun; they inspire; and, most of all, they communicate the transcedent message of beauty”

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