Tourists’ demand for sustainability: Little appetite for compromise

7 Oct

What is the nature and extent of demand for sustainable tourism?

This is an important question and is a key motivator for tourism businesses who pursue sustainability practices.  As sustainability has become more common practice in the tourism industry a popular view is that they will be rewarded by a ‘green consumer’ who either chose to visit businesses because they were more sustainable, or would pay more for sustainable tourism products.

Explore Marlborough is of the great Marlborough businesses I am helping with their sustainability measures

Today I am sitting in a motel in Blenheim after a big day working with tourism operators in Marlborough on their sustainability practices.  These businesses ranged from large to small, and were from the transport and activity sectors.  In common with each other is their view that the demand for sustainable tourism is not a driving force within their market.

At least two important pieces of research suggest that they are right.

First, New Zealand’s Regional Visitor Monitor shows that visitors to some of New Zealand’s main tourist regions are unlikely to base their consumption of tourism products and services on sustainability-related issues.  Specifically, the majority (87%) will only purchase a sustainable tourism product if it is the same in terms of benefits, convenience or costs (or a combination of both).

The second piece of research is the Green Traveller Survey (download the pdf or view it online here) conducted by Community Inc. (CMI).  This reflects the findings of the Regional Visitor Monitor, stating that…

“Travellers are interested in sustainability.  When it comes to their purchasing behavior, however, for all but the most committed of green travelers, green travel choices can be a secondary consideration compared to price, convenience and location.”

Despite this, motivation for adopting sustainability practices remains strong among New Zealand tourism businesses?  So what is (or should be) driving these initiatives?

I think that an important dimension that is not often explored is that tourists are increasingly associating sustainable business practices with quality.  In New Zealand, many of the best tourism operators have overtly adopted sustainability measures, encouraged to a great extent by the Qualmark Enviro-Awards.  Even if I think about non-tourism products, I associate sustainability with good quality products.  My new washing machine, for example, is a thing of Italian beauty and has lots of green ‘Stars’ slapped on it.

This is just one of my thoughts on the nature of demand for sustainable tourism products and services, but I am tired after a long day ‘in the field’!!


8 Responses to “Tourists’ demand for sustainability: Little appetite for compromise”

  1. Kurt Ackermann October 8, 2010 at 10:14 am #

    Hi Tim – Thanks for sharing this “from the field” and for the references to research data (though I couldn’t access any of the RVM material). Your observations are consistent with other research out there too (no surprise).

    Most of the studies cited when people are talking up sustainability within tourism seem to be those that report on consumer attitudes or perceptions, not on behaviour. But if one looks, for example, at the Co-operative Bank report on a 10-year trend of “ethical purchasing” by consumers (1999-2008), “eco-travel and transport” as a category grew in terms of total spend by 50% over a decade from a very low (near zero) base yet still represented less than 8% of the £21.7bn in ethical consumer purchases in the UK in 2008, and was a tiny fraction of the total travel and transport spend.

    An interesting variant on behaviour studies by Prof Devinney at UTS Business found that consumers “buy ethically” when they feel some kind of public scrutiny or peer pressure to do so, at least at the point/time of purchase. Check out his “coffee shop experiment” at (“The Myth of the Ethical Consumer”)

    It’s also worth noting that, among those verified “ethical” consumers who do actually change their behaviour (i.e., spending money) on ethical grounds, the travel and transportation category of consumer spending ranked 14th out of 15 categories in terms of the percentage of consumers who “systematically” or “sometimes” buy green (research from Boston Consulting Group in 2009).

    For a tourism business, certification of being sustainable doesn’t seem to make a difference among consumers either. A 2005 paper by Goodwin finds that certification “has little or no impact on the attitudes or behaviour of end consumers.” Another in 2005 by CESD and TIES suggested as a reason why, that “consumer demand, industry improvements, and corporate benefits from certification schemes were constrained by inadequate marketing and ‘label’ confusion.”

    Even the positive data points in the reports I’ve cited above were gathered before the global economic downturn hit, so we have almost no data available about how resilient or durable the ethical purchasing actually is.

    My opinion is that sustainability, yes needs to be marketed better to consumers in order to drive demand, but widespread implementation of sustainable practices among tourism product owners will come either because they are compulsory (some form of regulation) or because of pressure applied by NGOs, activists and others on the tourism supply chain (e.g., big tour operators, travel agencies, etc.) to only do business with sustainable products/companies. Some larger corporate tourism businesses are already adopting sustainable practices, again because of pressure that can negatively affect their share price and/or because they have the kind of scale, resources and professional skills that make the move to sustainability less onerous — and they stand to benefit the most from the upside of sustainability because of their scale (e.g., a 10% reduction in electricity costs across an entire hotel chain represents real money to the bean counters at the head office).

    What do you think?

    • traveltastic October 12, 2010 at 8:23 am #

      Hi Kurt…Your comment is bloody brilliant. I am mulling it over. I have been so busy the past few days and will get a response together this week.

      Good stuff mate…Very interesting

    • traveltastic October 13, 2010 at 7:44 pm #

      Hi Kurt,

      Once again, I appreciate your very well thought out comment. I think these issues are very interesting and well worth discussing.

      I think that much research in this area is hamstrung by the fact that its origins are in traditional consumer research methods that inadequately incorporate all the dimensions of sustainable behaviour.

      I am interested in the nature of some of the research you describe…is the 2005 paper by Goodwin (“no benefit from certification”) describing sustainability certification, or just tourism certification?

      In terms of the growth of eco-travel and transport, I am immediately suspicious of the term ‘eco-travel’ which can mean many things – not all of them ‘sustainable’.

      I agree that looking at consumer behaviour is important, but that I think the data from research in this area can present more questions than answers! You can look at a finding like “5% of travellers offset their flights” and think “well that’s not many” or think “that’s quite a lot”. It really depends on the perspective and I don’t think our understanding of the issue is necessarily as sophisticated as the research methods…If this makes sense.

      So we have looked at demand – both attitudes and behaviour. But haven’t looked at the supply-side. This is important in tourism, and speaks to the broader issue of sustainability. In New Zealand, sustainable tourism businesses are often motivated by a personal motivation. Most tourism operators are, to some extent, lifestylers, who have some appreciation for the fact that the natural environment and the community support their ability to operate. These are often not corporates, but people whose business is an extension of their personal sphere.

      I could go on forever about this…But unfortunately I have to do some actual paid work now 😦

      Thanks again for your comment…Keep in touch!! Bookmark or RSS my blog or whatever it is you do. It is not supposed to be all about sustainability but it is a bit like that right now!

      Btw I checked out what you are doing over there in Africa. Cool blog and good work. I am following you and will add you to my blogroll when I get one.

      • Kurt Ackermann October 14, 2010 at 11:37 am #

        The Goodwin research was on tourism sustainability certification schemes (

        The nagging question I have is: once the self-motivated businesses have become sustainable, what motivates the others to do so as well, if not demand-side pressure?

        Supply-side is the stick, not the carrot, which implies a whole other set of challenges. I am not convinced that an appeal to eco-ethical principles will be sufficiently motivating, based on my experience of business behaviour in tourism to date!

  2. traveltastic October 14, 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    Hi Kurt…

    Interesting discussion. I don’t quite see that supply-side driven adoption of sustainable practices is the stick..? I would have thought that the opportunity to operate a business in line with your personal principles and ethics is more of a carrot. Carrots, sticks…They look similar anyway.

    I share your concern – what of the rest of the industry. In my experience (which is, of course, limited to New Zealand) it is more productive for me to focus on the motivation of the business operator for two reasons.

    First, I think that there is a risk of misrepresenting the nature and extent of demand for sustainable tourism. Sure it exists, but as we have discussed above, it has its limits at the moment. The risk is to my credibility as a sustainability advisor if operators identify a gap between what I am telling them and what they are experiencing. In short, I need to be straight with them.

    Second, I am simply unable to have a substantive influence on demand. I work with businesses, not tourists. So I guess my focus is on the group I am involved with.

    Again, in my experience, the issue has been more about helping businesses understand what they can do, not why they should do it. But obviously these businesses are somewhat self-selecting!

    In terms of demand, and the research and so on, I think that traditional consumer-research approaches may underplay some important dimensions of demand.

    One of my pet concepts, and reasons that I am putting forward to encourage the adoption of sustainable tourism practices, is that these practices are increasingly being associated with quality. If you think of many consumer goods and services, those with demonstrable sustainability built in are often of a higher quality generally. It is basically a sign that the company has its act together. From whiteware to cars, I think this is also being felt in the service sector.

    In New Zealand, many of the best quality tourism operators have been early adopters of sustainable practices. So by association…?

    Interested in your thoughts on this one!!

  3. Kurt Ackermann October 16, 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    What I think of as the ‘stick’ is when businesses are *forced* to adopt sustainable practices, given insufficient personal motivation to do so themselves and/or insufficient market demand to entice them into doing it. It seems you’re working with that self-selecting group of businesses that have already decided on the ‘why’ question for themselves. I suspect that’s a fairly small proportion of tourism businesses overall, but don’t have any data to back that up.

    The question you raise of ‘quality’ connects back to the apparent problem with certification: If businesses can make a couple of minor changes (install CFLs, reduce laundry, low-flow shower heads, etc.) and claim they are operating according to sustainable business practices, it isn’t easy to differentiate that claim on paper (or a website) from similar-sounding claims made by a full-on sustainable business (here I’m not referring to intentional greenwashing). Of course, one can investigate (in advance, on arrival, before packaging in a tour, etc.), but certification schemes exist (in part) to do this kind of validation to save tour operators, travel agents and tourists the trouble. Now, if data shows that tourism sustainability certification makes little or no difference to consumer purchase behaviour, what incentive does a tourism business have to certify their quality?

    I agree with you that sustainability is becoming linked to quality, but in my opinion it is the tourism trade (the channel) that cares more about this and will apply the most pressure. Just as most consumers don’t really know what ISO 9000 means or ISO 14000 but these standards make a massive difference in becoming a supplier to a big manufacturer or selling product to big corporates, I figure sustainability certification in tourism will be driven by the bigger buyers (e.g., TUI) and the elite brands (e.g., Abercrombie & Kent) and others who are vulnerable to pressure from activists, NGOs, etc.

    Perhaps, if the Fairtrade certification scheme (as the most widely recognised in the greatest number of countries around the world) continues to grow its consumer brand recognition and becomes linked to tourism (beyond just here in South Africa), that might start to change consumer views of tourism certification. Or, over time, some other certification scheme might get enough traction with consumers, but I doubt it at this point.

    New survey data (n>2000) from during the 2010 soccer World Cup that was gathered in Cape Town shows that 47% of visitors reported staying in ‘fair trade’ accommodation (and another 45% reporting that they couldn’t answer the question). This, of course, is impossible (as there are only a dozen FTTSA-certified businesses in Cape Town, and only another fifteen that have other sustainability-related certifications!), but it highlights the extent of the information challenge.

  4. ronmader October 16, 2010 at 1:04 pm #

    First off, thank you both Kurt and Tim for a sterling conversation.

    I recall a few years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico there was a conference on organic certification and as part of a post-conference event attendees traveled to the local villages. In San Bartolo they were bartering to the max with an old lady selling black pottery. I was bothered and bewildered that they could be so committed to one ideal (organic agriculture) and blind to fair trade (or trading in a fair manner. I’m still not sure when and how to use ‘fair trade’ with confidence).

    That said, I’d like to interject a different line of thinking. Having spoken at the 2007 Ecotourism NZ Conference I have tried to pay attention to how New Zealand is developing and promoting sustainable travel and ecotourism. I see a plethora of reports, commissions and charters about sustainable travel but rarely any sign that these noble aspirations are applied on the ground.

    Tim writes about attending the event in Marlborough. My question — what can the locality show prospective visitors that documents sustainable practices in action? What are the key but difficult issues? Back in 2007 I heard about the hotels that would separate garbage (because that’s what eco-minded vistors expected) but then throw everything into the same truck (because recycling is not widely available). Has this situation changed? What exactly should we expect when traveling in NZ?

    It would be great if some of the conversations you are having on the ground were transcribed and posted online. Or share photos on Flickr! I’m viewing with great interest pics from the recent Sustainable Practice Roadshow — — and Green Drinks

    I’d also like to learn more about NZ’s homegrown Maori tourism (and kudos to Kurt who is one of the judges for the Indigenous Tourism and Biodiversity Website Award — ). This year’s co-winner is Auckland-based TIME Unlimited and our finalists included Te Urewera Treks. But try finding about these and other Maori tourism options online Tourism NZ and other regional NZ-based sites. Coverage is far too conceptual. Qualmark is vague and confusing. It would be much easier to develop trust in NZ efforts toward sustainable travel and tourism if there were a more coherent and holistic communication and conversation strategy that connected the dots.

    Less paradigm and more praxis please!

    Ron Mader

    PS) Here’s my information dump about all things NZ

    Recommended listening: Ethical consumers: Do they exist?

    • Tim October 24, 2010 at 11:32 am #

      Hi Ron,

      Thanks for your comments. I saw you speak at the 2007 Ecotourism Conference in Greymouth in New Zealand and I enjoyed your talk immensely.

      This ‘Reply’ is a short one (unfortunately) just to acknowledge your comment and assure you that I am looking forward to responding, but that it will need to be in a week’s time. I am in my final week in my current job and have a LOT to finish up.

      I have spent a good part of today working on a project that I have been involved in, developing a sustainable tourism accreditation label for the Seychelles, funded by the World Bank. This job has focussed my thoughts on many of the issues you have raised Ron so I look forward to responding to your comments!

      Kurt, do you have anything to do with the Seychelles? Technically it is part of Africa and I know there are flights from South Africa.

      I might also make my next post a response to some of your comments and place it on a more widely-read blog, as I think there may be some other people in New Zealand who would like to contribute to the discussion.

      Stay tuned.

      Its Labour Weekend in New Zealand. I’m not sure if that means I should be working or not!


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