The COVID-19 Pandemic and Earth Day Webinar: Rethinking Sustainable Tourism

Statistics on the Current State of Tourism and Why Sustainability is More Important than Ever

April 22, 2020 marked the 50-year anniversary of Earth Day. Though holidays may not be at the forefront of the minds of many Americans, it is important to recognize this special day and consider how sustainability will be affected by COVID-19. Solimar’s CEO Chris Seek participated in a webinar in conjunction with Miles Partnership, a tourism consulting and marketing firm and partner of Solimar International, on how destinations and tourism partners can renew their focus on sustainability and destination stewardship with the tourism industry being forced to hit the reset button. The webinar was led and organized by Chris Adams, Head of Research and Insights at Miles, which is continuing to host webinars and support research to help the tourism industry recover from COVID-19.

Current State of American Traveler Sentiment

The webinar began with Erin Francis Cummings, President of Destination Analysts, sharing a summary of their ongoing weekly surveys of Americans to gauge feelings and expectations about travel in light of COVID-19. The perceived safety of travel activities finally improved slightly during the week of April 20th after several weeks of decline. While 37% responded that they would not travel until a vaccine is developed, a similar number disagreed.

Americans also rank travel as one of the first things they want to do after stay-at-home restrictions are lifted. Although the tourism industry is currently hurting, these statistics show that there will be a recovery as demand becomes “pent-up”. 

Americans are also concerned about health risks. Three-quarters say they approve of mandatory health screenings at airports, and two-thirds do not want tourists coming to their communities during the crisis. This suggests that many Americans will change the type of destinations they will visit, and a trend of “active staycations” may emerge. A focus on day trips and local travel will likely recover before international travel does. To watch this section of the webinar, click here.

Current Challenges in Sustainability and Stewardship

Erin Francis Cummings went on to present research conducted in the fall of 2019, which reflected concerns about over-tourism and its environmental impact. According to the State of the American Traveler study, 63% of Americans have told others about over-tourism problems in a specific destination, and half are less likely to visit a destination with these issues. Additionally, data shows a generational divide in how Americans view travel as it relates to tourism, with Gen Z as the most concerned about its environmental effects. The good news is that 32% of all Americans consider leisure travel an important component of their happiness and well-being, and roughly 50% feel tourism is important for their local economies. In short, tourism may be down, but it will be back. Click here to learn more results from the study.

Cathy Ritter, the Director of the Colorado Tourism Office then discussed how DMOs can effectively market and manage their local destinations while addressing environmental and health issues. One such option is to create itineraries and websites for less-visited locales, thus creating a supply for travelers who may be more concerned about health risks and the environment in the future. Creating shared messaging and advertisements with organizations such as the Leave No Trace Center can help ensure that traveler etiquette and sustainability tips are recognized and followed. For the full video of Colorado Tourism’s strategies, click here.

Launching partnerships and coalitions is another great way to encourage sustainability and boost profits for small businesses. Kristin Dahl, VP of Destination Development at Travel Oregon discussed the success of its various Food Trails itineraries, bringing travelers into smaller, rural communities and helping entrepreneurs gain visibility in Oregon’s greater tourism ecosphere. Similarly, the recently developed Care for Colorado Coalition that includes hotel associations, tour operators, guides, and culinary groups around the state is designed around sharing a unified message directed towards tourists to promote a more environmentally mindful way of visiting Colorado.

These types of strategies help strengthen the travel industry and expand opportunities for travelers concerned about both public health and environmental issues. For more examples from Travel Oregon, click here.

Solimar’s Sustainability and Destination Management Strategies

Chris Seek, Solimar International’s CEO, ended the webinar by presenting international examples of sustainability. He stated that DMOs can play a special role in addressing the wants and needs of visitors and residents alike while inspiring the private sector and government to work together in creating integrated plans for destination management and sustainability. For example, Solimar has worked in Sedona, Arizona for several years after local residents and elected officials expressed concern over tourism’s effects on natural resources and habitats. Solimar stepped in to bring together shareholders, such as the city government, chamber of commerce, and Forest Service to create a shared, long-term strategy and action plan based on GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council) criteria.

Planning and site management can also be strengthened through key partnerships. Solimar has been delighted to work with the EU and National Geographic to develop the World Heritage Journeys platform. Solimar developed themed routes, branding guidelines, and a website to promote UNESCO World Heritage sites. The project also engages managers, marketers, and tour operators to execute plans and programs to enhance the quality and sustainability of their destinations.

Finally, one third way of conserving biodiversity in destinations is to establish visitor funding mechanisms. Solimar has worked in Timor-Leste establishing a DMO and creating a forthcoming website. Reefs in Timor-Leste are some of the most biodiverse in the world, and to preserve this ecology, Solimar encouraged the local DMO to enforce a $2 fee for snorkelers and divers to support conservation projects and local fishermen. This kind of funding source is especially important in developing economies that may have less support for tourism from local and national governments.  For the full video of Chris’s section, click here.

In sum, while some tourism strategies may need to be adjusted due to COVID-19, other long-term priorities can continue to address sustainability issues. There will likely be a heavy push towards domestic tourism once we are all allowed to move freely, and government entities are in place to enable conditions for growth. Creating and enhancing linkages via partnerships will help the tourism industry recover and ultimately make it more resilient. The current situation affords an opportunity to refocus on long-term destination stewardship, marketing, and management.

Solimar is grateful for the opportunity to participate in the webinar and help guide the conversation. Click here to view the full webinar recording.

Read on to find out where Solimar is dreaming of traveling this year for Earth Day.

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