As travelers rush to experience the last of the Great Barrier Reef before it is spoiled, or dwell in the romance of Old Havana before it is completely renewed, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the ways in which the travel industry can impact, for better or for worse, our greatest cultural and environmental treasures.

In our ebook The New Luxury: What it Means for Hotels, we look at how consumer thirst for experiences is gradually replacing the demand of luxury products. We also look at how experiences are attached to notions of status and wealth, so that being the ‘first’ to experience something rare becomes a bragging right for those privileged enough to obtain access.

The cost of being ‘first in’

With luxury tourists increasingly seeking unique and authentic experiences, there is pressure on traditionally off-market destinations to open up. Cuba, for example, is now one of the top up-and-coming travel destinations, preparing for a 60% increase in hotel rooms in just 13 years, but some question whether the country is truly prepared for this.

It will likely take years of work to upgrade the country’s infrastructure to be able to properly handle the surge, but it’s not clear that Cuba has matured enough to actually make the required investments. Possibly the greatest environmental threat posed by tourism stems from a lack of understanding around the social and economic life of new regions.

     “Sustainability creates more loyalty, it creates more news, people feel better about it, it generally is adding value.”                                                                                                

A forward direction

Now, with a greater spotlight on sustainability, many companies are developing innovative solutions and programs to not only reduce their carbon footprint, but to positively impact their environment. Companies such as Visit.org enables travelers to search for and book socially conscious experiences through their partnerships with small, nonprofit groups and organizations that have not traditionally catered to travelers.

Hotels and tourism-driven businesses in turn, are setting their own sustainability targets and seeking certification from organizations like the U.S. Green Building Council or other affiliations which can be helpful in communicating standards to potential customers.

Sustainability pays: the businesses that get it

From whatever angle you look at it, adherence to sustainable practices makes financial sense for the travel industry, and indeed the luxury segment. For Bernhard Bohnenberger, President of Six Senses Hotels & Resorts, the math is clear. In an interview with Local Measure he explains, “It’s been demonstrated in various studies that, if given two similar products, the sustainable one will be considered more premium.” He also sees the benefit from a more holistic sense. “Sustainability creates more loyalty, it creates more news, people feel better about it, it generally is adding value.”

Six Senses created a dedicated Sustainability team responsible for putting in place actionable initiatives at a property level and a brand level. Bohnenberger says this has been a key investment. “We actually prove that [our Sustainability team] pays for themselves many times over by either creating savings or increasing uptake on a certain experience or product.”

In future, there’s likely to be even more pressure on hotels and travel businesses to create real, measurable improvements due to the growing knowledge of environmental issues and a consumer wariness around ‘green washing’, a term used to describe the marketing tactics that only pay lip service to sustainability. Millennials in particular pay strong attention to sustainability claims. They are twice as likely as other generations to support brands where sustainability is a focus.

Sustainability from the ground up

Improving sustainability is undoubtedly a two-way street for businesses. It takes a level of conscientiousness from customers as well as an ability to connect sustainability with other areas of their lives.  Bohnenberger explains, “More and more, we feel that sustainability and wellness are interlinked because the wellness of the planet and the wellness of the person is [what leads to] sustainability for both – so it all plays into each other.”

The idea of looking after the earth to better oneself is an idea that even plays out from a corporate perspective. Guests who leave a property feeling better about themselves and their choices are primed to become brand advocates – an unbeatable asset in today’s competitive landscape.