Sustainable Tourism – what does this mean for Tour Operators and DMCs?


The tourism industry has faced some unique challenges over the past few years, as Covid-19 disrupted travel on a global basis. Now that we’re all getting used to ‘the new normal’, borders are opening up again, and people are venturing out into the world once more.

There’s another challenge that the tourism industry, alongside all others, must meet – sustainability. Climate change is real, it’s happening, and if we are to succeed in arresting it, businesses of all shapes and sizes need to integrate sustainability goals into their long-term business strategy.

So what does this mean for tour operators and DMCs in particular?

What is sustainable tourism?

It’s pretty much what it sounds like; the idea is to get to grips with the impacts of tourism on the global environment. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) defines sustainable tourism as:

“Sustainable tourism is tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”

We tend to think of environmental impacts in negative terms, but the truth is that there are positive impacts too, including job creation, wildlife preservation landscape restoration, and cultural heritage preservation. Tourism businesses in all countries need to focus on delivering high-quality experiences for travellers, while creating a positive impact on local communities and protecting their natural environment. And they need to be serious about it, defining and achieving meaningful goals… and not just talking about it.

Greenwashing – it’s what not to do

In a nutshell, greenwashing is when a company makes misleading, boasting claims about their green credentials. When applied to the tourism industry, Earth Changers defines it as:

“Greenwashing deceptively uses marketing to portray and promote an organisation’s products, activities or policies as eco-friendly when they are not, in order to mislead consumers into believing they are, in order to capitalise and profit.”

Greenwashing by any tour operator or DMC undermines confidence in the industry as a whole. As the effects of climate change become increasingly clear, more people are basing their buying decisions on a company’s green credentials. If one business becomes known for greenwashing, it can have a negative impact on others. For example, if a company claims to promote ecotourism without taking steps to ensure it’s both sustainable and environmentally responsible, this will inevitably create suspicion for any other business using ecotourism as part of their marketing strategy.

Typically, a company will greenwash when they want to create a positive PR or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) spin on their products and services, without actually following through on any of their claims. Sometimes it’s intentional, and sometimes companies let their sustainability goals slide without consciously doing so. It’s not always easy to spot in the tourism sector due to the complexities of sustainability around travel. That’s why it’s easy to fall into the trap of greenwashing without actually being aware of it.

There are 7 ‘sins’ that typify greenwashing. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

  1. The Hidden Trade-off – claiming a product or service is ‘green’ when it ticks only a couple of sustainability boxes
  2. No Proof – making green claims without any supporting evidence
  3. Vagueness – broad claims that are likely to be misunderstood
  4. Worshipping False Labels – claiming third-party endorsement that doesn’t exist
  5. Irrelevance – a truthful claim that has no bearing on the environment or sustainability
  6. Lesser of Two Evils – a truthful claim about one particular aspect of a product or service, but which distracts from its environmental impact as a whole
  7. Fibbing – exactly what it sounds like; making environmental claims that are false

If you’ve ticked any of the above boxes, don’t panic. It’s one thing to be at risk of greenwashing unintentionally, but quite another to be aware of it and take no steps to rectify it.

3 tips for successful sustainable tourism

To avoid greenwashing and be committed to environmental responsibility, tour operators and DMCs need to embed sustainability as a core foundational value, and are consistent in their information, demonstration and evidence. According to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), a company that wants to achieve sustainable tourism must meet these criteria:

  1. Sustainable management
  2. Socioeconomic impacts
  3. Cultural impacts
  4. Environmental impacts (including consumption of resources, reducing pollution, and conserving biodiversity and landscapes)

Here are 3 key ways to achieve sustainable tourism while avoiding greenwashing:

1: Implement a carbon offsetting scheme
Reducing carbon emissions is crucial to arresting climate change. Carbon offsets are a way to compensate for unavoidable carbon emissions, and many tour operators make contributions to carbon offsetting schemes. It’s important to look closely at who you’re buying your carbon offsets from; you want them to align with your brand and company values. For instance, Air New Zealand buys native forest offsets because they’re Kiwi-oriented. However, it’s not enough to simply state on your website that you participate in a carbon offsetting scheme; you need to provide proof. Look for a scheme that requires a formal certification process, so that you can gain an actual badge to include in your branding. Think Fairtrade, SPCA-approved, etc. This tells your customers that you have an active decarbonisation strategy in place and can back up that claim.

2: Boost your online presence and leverage technology

The more of your business you can conduct online, the more you’ll reduce your carbon emissions and reduce paper usage. Most of your customers have smartphones, and want to make use of digital itineraries as an environmental-friendly alternative to having it arrive in their mailbox. When your files and brochures become digital instead of paper, you’re future-proofing your business as well as making it more sustainable.

To really boost your online presence and digital transformation, you need the right technology on board.  The cloud has revolutionised the technology industry in many ways. Not only do you remove the headache of hardware and technical infrastructure, but you also do your bit to reduce carbon emissions.  According to Mission Cloud, customers consume 77% fewer servers, 84% less power, and reduce carbon emissions by 88% by using the cloud, and there is no denying that its positive impact on the environment is just another one of its many positive attributes.

To make sure you invest in the right tech, use our checklist and assessment tool to help you evaluate your options. You can also find more info about the benefits of cloud computing for tour operators here.

 3: Gain a sustainable tourism certification
When you become certified as a sustainable tour operator, you’re sending a strong message to your customers that you understand your environmental responsibilities and you’re actively working to minimise the negative impacts of your business while maximising the positive. The GSTC manages the global standards for sustainable tourism, and they’re your go-to if you want to achieve a sustainable tourism certification.


Now is the time to get serious about integrating sustainability into your business plan. Not only are you doing your bit for the planet, but you’ll drive business growth since sustainable travel is a major focus globally. More and more people will want to travel in an environmentally-friendly way. More agents and wholesalers will want to promote travel that occurs in an environmentally-friendly way and your customers will want to work with a business that is similarly and demonstrably committed to their green goals.