Earth Hour Special: Sustainability reflections in quiet moments

The travel and tourism industry is in survival mode now, struggling to bear the burden of continued financial commitments amid an environment of almost non-existent revenues.

At this juncture, would maintaining a sustainable tourism commitment be too frivolous? Experts do not think so.

Eric Ricaurte, founder of Greenview, which provides tools and expertise to help tourism organisations achieve sustainability goals while meeting business objectives, explained: “Investors pay close attention to a company’s ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance factors that determine the company’s commercial performance), and they have not stopped doing that during the Covid-19 crisis. There is no reason for companies to abandon their sustainability goals now.”

Ricaurte (left) and Phun believe that the pandemic is providing learning points for the travel and tourism industry’s sustainability efforts

While acknowledging that the ongoing pandemic has created one of the worst crisis for the travel and tourism industry worldwide, Kevin Nehemiah Phun, director at The Centre for Responsible Tourism Singapore, remarked that it may well be a pivotal moment in the industry’s quest for sustainable tourism.

Phun told TTG Asia: “Of course, this is a crisis and not something we should be happy about. However, this pandemic will change the way we see and do things. For the next half a year to a year, I expect the benefits of sustainable living to become clearer for people. They will realise the positive impact on the environment reduced travel will have, for instance.

“As it is, the pandemic has taught us the importance of personal hygiene and sanitation, and to a greater extent an awareness of how we manage our waste and respect wildlife.”

Ricaurte agrees that the pandemic will be an awakening – in his case, for companies to realise that work can still be done remotely and the impact that has on carbon emissions.

“One very interesting development as a result of Covid-19 is the massive grounding of flights and halt in travel in general. Business travel has never been put on pause at such a global scale. People are realising that a lot of work can still be done without business travel, plus they get more quality time at home with the family and better sleep from being able to work from home. At the same time, companies are achieving huge reductions in their carbon emissions.”

Ricaurte would not venture to say if this would result in a long-term change in corporate travel habits.

“But I believe for many companies that have been making a conscious effort to reduce business travel as part of their sustainability policy, the travel ban during the pandemic will demonstrate such massive improvements in their sustainability standing that it may be tempting for them to do more about cutting business travel.”

While this thought may be worrying for travel suppliers, as business travel is a trillion-dollar industry, Ricaurte said there would still be many companies for which business travel is compulsory.

As travel and tourism business continues to crawl, Phun opined that destinations and tourism companies could use this downtime to look into matters they hardly had a chance to during busy periods, such as their sustainability programmes.

“Janitors would only come into the classroom to clean up after the students have left, as that’s when they can see clearly what needs fixing. With far reduced crowds at tourist sites, this is the best time to send teams in for maintenance and restoration,” he added.

Ricaurte said: “Ideally, destinations should take this time to improve on their infrastructure – upgrade their drainage, better their roads, and restore their heritage sites.”

That said, Phun admitted that with money and resources now lacking for many travel and tourism organisations, getting such work done would be challenging.

“It is a tough balance, but sustainability efforts should not stop when times are bad because when business picks up again, organisations will once more be too busy to bother,” he said.

Furthermore, according to Phun, it is a misconception that sustainable tourism can only be achieved with a million-dollar war chest.

“Preserving local heritage and culture does not require a million dollars,” he remarked.

Tour operators can enable sustainable tourism by building community exposure into their itinerary and facilitating interaction that will lead to support for home businesses

“A small tour operator can play a big role in enabling sustainable tourism, and the key lies in identifying ways to leverage relationships with the community. For example, a small tour operator can support local communities by building community exposure into his itinerary and facilitating interaction that will lead to support for home businesses,” he elaborated.

Ricaurte added that this is also an opportune time for companies to join forces on sustainability projects.

“The various tourism segments are working in silos, but a traveller’s carbon footprint starts from home to the destination (and cuts across all supplier segments),” he said.

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