The face of sustainable travelers is evolving: here’s how

The face of sustainable tourism has changed dramatically in recent decades. What was once a fringe subcategory typically associated with young backpackers is now very mainstream, and has been for some time. Today, hotels and other accommodation providers around the world know that most visitors expect some degree of sustainability.

Clinton Thom, general manager of the Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront

Clinton Thom, general manager of the Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront’s Sustainable Travel Report 2023 even shows that 76% of travelers want to make their trips more sustainable. While many point to cost and opportunity barriers that prevent them from doing so, the fact that demand for sustainable travel is so high illustrates how many people recognize its importance.

But it’s also important to remember that the needs, wants and expectations of sustainable travelers are constantly evolving. It is therefore crucial that organizations in the sector stay abreast of the latest trends and ensure they provide guests and customers with the kind of experiences that keep them coming back time and time again.

Taking self-responsibility seriously

A key example of the evolutionary shifts taking place in sustainable travel, and one that players in the hospitality industry can easily capitalize on, is the growing extent to which travelers are taking responsibility for their own sustainability. For example, the report mentioned above shows that guests are increasingly turning off air conditioning and other appliances in their rooms and reusing towels. The survey also found that 55% now carry reusable water bottles with them when they travel.

Accommodation providers can meet this desire for self-sufficiency in various ways. For example, they can provide guests with information about which appliances, when turned off, provide the most energy savings. They can also ensure that guests have convenient ways to refill and cool their reusable water bottles.

Another area where travelers are taking their sustainability more seriously is the way they travel around a destination. Accommodation providers can respond to this by informing guests about access to local public transport options and by pointing out attractions that are within walking or cycling distance or near public transport hubs.

Sustainable luxury

Another major ongoing evolution in sustainable travel is the convergence of sustainability and luxury. That may seem strange if you still confuse luxury with conspicuous consumption, but sustainability is now something that many will pay extra for (even if only a little).

Herbs, fruits and vegetables grown on site, or nearby through small-scale empowerment projects, and cooked based on seasonal availability, are now an asset to always have a wide range of products from all over the world at hand. Likewise, electric vehicle (EV) airport shuttles, on-site solar panels (instead of diesel generators), and eco-friendly bedding can all be status symbols for a certain type of traveler.

And far from the outdated perception of sustainable travelers who struggle in terms of basic accommodation, these shifts do not represent any sacrifice in comfort. Everything still feels and is luxurious – it’s just better for the planet and for local communities.

Bleisure and durability

That desire to make existing travel experiences more sustainable has also extended to some of the newer ones. After the pandemic, one of the big trends that emerged was the combination of business and leisure (Bleisure). The trend, which has been embraced by a wave of digital nomads; families looking to maximize their travel options; and organizations that want to bring employees and other stakeholders together are also increasingly going hand in hand with sustainability.

On the one hand, this means that bleisure travelers will ensure that the business part of their stay has the same level of sustainability as the leisure part. But it also means they want business and leisure options that allow them to actively give back while enjoying their stay.

Facing the future

As we look to the future, sustainable travel will continue to evolve. For example, as artificial intelligence becomes more capable, many providers may be tempted to use it for a variety of functions. If they do this at the expense of human employment, especially in a country where unemployment is as high as South Africa, it will affect their ability to demonstrate sustainability.

Ultimately, as sustainable travel continues to evolve, it will be important for travel industry players not to get caught up in every emerging trend. This applies to accommodation providers as much as to everyone else. What they should do instead is look for sustainability models that work for them, their guests and the markets in which they operate.

Done well, they can evolve naturally with shifts in sustainable travel, rather than trying to catch up.