I’ve been traveling this summer for business and had the good fortune to visit some pretty swank destinations. Now I’m wondering whether sustainable luxury tourism is an idea whose time has come or a contradiction in terms.
Tourism alters the development trajectory of communities by consuming resources and transforming economies and cultures. Tourism also transforms tourists by creating new awareness and appreciations that change their behaviors back home. Thus the link between tourism and sustainable development is intuitive and important. The link between luxury and sustainability is less intuitive, but might be just as important.
Luxury attracts tourists, particularly elite and discerning travelers that might also be thought-leaders back home (just the sort of people one would want infected with the sustainability meme, if one wanted sustainability to spread!). Luxury also generates profit margins and sets high standards, both of which enhance local economy and capacity and can be good for sustainable development.
Are luxury and sustainability synergistic or incompatible? If it is to be compatible with sustainability, luxury must be dis-associated from excessive, conspicuous consumption. Instead, sustainable luxury should focus on exceptional, exquisite and distinctive experiences that can be both sustainable and luxurious.
Sustainability already adds value to mass tourism, perhaps it can do so as a niche in the luxury tourism market. Several topics are explored below to further our thinking about the relationships among sustainability, tourism, and luxury:
- Facilities and Supplies: No surprise here. Sustainability practices save energy, water, and waste management costs, as well as increase durability of facilities. A daunting challenge for sustainable tourism, however, is overcoming the wastefulness caused by the temptation to meet guest expectations about freshness and cleanliness with excess food preparation and waste disposal.
- Marketing: Some tourists and tour operators seek facilities and locations certified as “sustainable.” Thus there already exists market access and a possible price increase associated with sustainable practices and various sustainable certification schemes. Large global tourism companies such as TUI and Cook recently implemented a policy requiring sustainability criteria be met by operators.
- Enhanced Experience: Sustainability adds a new layer to the meaning and story experienced by the tourist. Sustainability-related activities can engage visitors, help them build a story by participating in it, help visitors become part of the sustainable development trajectory of the region, and help visitors build a relationship and responsibility with the place. Sustainability, that is, provides another vehicle for co-creation of tourist value.
- Manage Regional Resource Risks: Regional amenities attracting tourists can become degraded or exploited. Regional sustainable development planning seeks to identify, enhance and sustain the story and amenities that draw tourists, offering some intentionality and control over the regional development trajectory in ways that favor community interests. Importantly, sustainable development also addresses ecosystem services, especially water and agriculture, climate change, energy. It also promotes infrastructure, public health, and public safety functions. All these qualities complement both tourism and regional sustainable development.
- Enhance Community Capacity. Tourism generates local employment and economic opportunities that multiply through the region. Tourism provides a way up for talented people without education. Tourism may employ and empower women as managers more than some other industry sectors, hence addressing equity issues. Training programs by service providers provide one means to educate local labor, addressing health, poverty, and injustice. Sustainable operations that subscribe to international standards to attract international tourists also spread international norms and business practices, which builds additional capacity in the community and industry. Additionally, sustainable tourism that promotes local amenities and culture requires building capacity in local/traditional trade and craft, construction, and cultural practices that lead to the genus loci making places distinctive and hence destinations.
- Social Learning: Tourism may promote sustainability by setting and reinforcing (in guests and operators) norms and expectations of sustainable development that are taken back home and infused into communities worldwide. Injections of sustainable development framing into tourist experiences may spill over major life dimensions that inform and help one navigate some of today’s most pressing challenges. As importantly, the sustainability frame evokes a sense of responsibility and empathy that motivates action.
- Trends: To the extent that elites seeking luxury experiences set the standards to which mass tourism aspires, sustainable luxury tourism may move all of the tourist industry towards sustainable development.
- Is “Sustainable Luxury Tourism” the right name for this emerging important topic? Alternative names can be assembled by combining one word from each column, below:
|DematerializingEfficientMinimize wasteInvest in future
Attention to Detail
- HARDY, A., BEETON, R. J. S. and PEARSON, L. (2002) Sustainable tourism: An overview of the concept and its position in relation to conceptualisations of tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 10, 475-496.
- LU, J. and NEPAL, S. K. (2009) Sustainable tourism research: an analysis of papers published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 17, 5-16.
- Professional associations focused on sustainable tourism
- Primer to certification systems for sustainable tourism