Ethical spending in the UK has soared by more than 80% in the last decade, but are you doing enough to attract the sustainable tourist? Emily Manson investigates how to engage with the wider environment and appeal to the eco-conscious consumer
The assumption that natural resources would last forever was taken for granted for decades. Now, as water purity reduces, wildlife and fish stocks deplete and air quality is compromised, operators are being forced to look at the impact their businesses are having on their local and wider environment and consider the legacy their operations will leave.
In simple terms, this trend is known as sustainable tourism. It means tourism that lives within social, environmental and economic limits - the limits of the business, the community and the wider environment, says Manda Brookman, co-founder and director of Cornish social enterprise foundation Coast.
"Tourism is one of Cornwall's biggest industries," she explains, "It's a huge chunk of activity to be operating unsustainably and it all has an impact."
As a county, Cornwall sees up to five million tourist visitors every year. "It's up to us to decide whether that impact is a good or bad one; if we want to manage our assets for the benefit of our communities - or kill the golden goose," Brookman adds. "As they say, tourism can warm your home; or burn down your house."
Can growth and Sustainability mix?
Businesses need to understand what sustainability encompasses, and the belief that businesses can't grow without causing damage needs to be addressed sooner rather than later, warns Jason Freezer, destinations manager at VisitEngland.
He explains: "You can still grow if you adopt sustainable principles and take a wise approach to growth. Operators need to consider their growth within various limits - what is sensible for you as a business and for your location - and balance those with the principles of sustainable tourism."
But what makes up these principles? Freezer says there's an assumption that sustainability still means green or environmental issues. "Sustainable tourism is actually about a triple bottom line - economic, ie, money; social benefits and impact of tourism; and the environmental impact," he explains. "We're not just selling these practices as being green; that has been tried and it hasn't worked and won't work."
Do customers really care?
Ethical spending in the UK has soared by a staggering 81% in the last decade and the market - fledgling as it still is - is now estimated at around £29.7b (Co-operative Bank report).
Figures do differ; research conducted by Futerra Sustainability Communications found that 83% of consumers take environmental concerns into account, while a hardcore 38% said it was "very important" to them.
However, VisitEngland figures estimate that only around 20% of customers actively look for green destinations.
Whatever the true figures, the trend is clear. "That's a hell of a chunk of the visitor market to be missing out on," says Brookman. "It's an issue operators ignore at their peril."
Freezer adds: "Currently there's only a small percentage that will seek out experiences based on environmental credentials, but actually it's those authentic experiences that can make the difference. They bring an economic benefit to the destination, to its community, and provide generally better holidays."
What about corporates?
"It's now often a must-have credential for the corporate market," she says. "Consumer guests also seem to really care once they find out what the business is doing and go away happy."
Angela Mannerson, spokeswoman for Firmdale hotels, which has just seen its New York property, the Crosby hotel, awarded the city's first Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), says it makes a big difference to a guest's choice of hotel.
"Guests care considerably. In fact, individuals and most certainly companies will now only stay at a hotel that has a positive position on green issues and sustainability," she says. "When completing our annual corporate rate proposals our responsibility is often a factor for them."
But what about greenwash? Is the over-use of green language and companies jumping on the eco-wagon threatening to damage the real efforts some operators are making?
Futerra's co-founder Ed Gillespie believes the fact some businesses claim eco credentials for anything undermines those that really "walk the walk". "Greenwash is having an insidious, measurable and potentially catastrophic impact," he says. "It's quite simple - greenwash threatens the whole business rationale for becoming more environmentally friendly."
Nicholas explains this is why GTBS constantly refines its criteria so the certifications are always up to date with environmental legislation, and pushes operators on performance.
She says: "It can't be just going in and ticking a few boxes. There are around 150 different measures, which require verification and only 10% of applicants get gold certification on the first attempt."
benefits of sustainable tourism
â- Conserves resources
â- Reduces waste
â- Enhances local production and traditions
â- Reduces traffic congestion and, therefore, emissions
â- Protects natural landscapes and the environment
â- Supports the local economy and employment
â- Attracts a new, growing market of visitors who care about the environment
â- Enhances visitor experience
â- Provides new marketing USPs for your business
â- Saves your business money and maximises profits
Source: Nurture Lakeland
accreditation schemes what's out there?
There are many different types of accreditation scheme out there, and it can be confusing for businesses to know which are worth their salt.
VisitEngland has accredited three schemes:
â- Green tourism business scheme The largest accreditation scheme in the UK, with more than 2,000 members. It assesses a business's impact on the local economy.
â- The Peak District Environmental Quality Mark This scheme encompasses economic and social factors as well as environmental considerations.
â- BS8901 British Standards Institute standard for sustainable event management, conference and meeting venues, event suppliers and contract caterers.
Other key membership organisations include:
â- Considerate Hoteliers Association Helps hoteliers adopt sound, sustainable, environmentally friendly and socially responsible policies and practices.
â- Sustainable Restaurant Association A national not-for-profit membership association, providing restaurants with advice and support to help them through all sustainability issues.
â- Coast A social enterprise delivering support, training, guidance and consultancy to businesses and destinations across the UK. It runs the free online One Planet Tourism network covering 25 countries.
â- Nurture Lakeland A registered charity with over 275 members representing 1,200 tourism businesses across Cumbria, which aims to help develop the Cumbrian tourism industry sustainably by creating ways for businesses and individuals to donate to conservation.
where to start
1 Ask everyone who works in the business to work with you. Host competitions, provide rewards and offer to support a charity or social enterprise in your area
2 Identify museums, walks, wildlife areas, cycle routes, and other similar attractions and provide information about these to your guests
3 Find out about what other businesses in your area are doing and identify opportunities for collaboration
4 Find at least one product that is iconic of your area and integrate it into your product offer
5 Let your guests know and enable them to enjoy, help and engage
at home: supporting local environmental initiatives
The Scarlet hotel, Mawgan Porth, Cornwall
One of the most highly rated green hotels in the UK is the Scarlet hotel in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall. Guests can offset the carbon cost of their travel to the hotel with the CO2 Balance scheme.
The hotel also supports Surfers Against Sewage, a charitable community fund to help local social projects, and it raises money for national charity drives such as Comic Relief.
Staff organise and run quarterly beach cleans, and the hotel uses mainly local suppliers and has a responsible purchasing policy.
The hotel also involves locals as much as possible, inviting them to visit the hotel during construction and since its opening, providing them with access to the spa, restaurant and bar.
Steve Lowy, founder and managing director of budget hotel group Umi Hotels, went to a hotel in Cambodia for a skills exchange scheme as part of his involvement with Stay Wyse, the international Association of Youth Travel Accommodation.
While there, he worked with a hotel school that helped underprivileged Cambodian students (to attend, total household income must not exceed $200 per year) to train in hospitality.
Lowy says: "It turns 100 kids a year from ones who basically have no hope and no language skills into people who can work in hotels."
Since returning, he has kept in touch and held charity events and fundraisers for the school. He also provides the school with practical help, like creating a new website, budgeting, branding and training.
Back in the West, Umi hotels are mainly located in old buildings. Lowy says: "Depending on your building, there are green things you may or may not be able to do for your own business, but everyone can hold an event for a small charity and know you are really helping people on the front line somewhere where there's real poverty."
He adds it's proved inspirational for his staff, who initially thought he was "nuts" but now feel they have real engagement with the charity.
â- VisitEngland's Green Start tool at http://www.better-tourism.org" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">www.better-tourism.org for free self-assessment facilities and action plans
â- VisitEngland's Keep It Real is a free guide (www.defra.gov.uk/environment/economy/products-consumers/green-claims-labels">www.visitengland.com/keepitreal) to help businesses understand making sustainability work as a USP for them
â- Defra's Green Claims Guide<A href=)
â- Futerra Sustainability Communications www.futerra.co.uk
â- World Travel Market's World Responsible Tourism Day is on 9 November at London's ExCel. For more details visit www.responsibletravel.com/awards