Forget “back to normal” tourism — it’s time for a new, sustainable approach

August 16, 2022 | By Lim Kok Kee

With border restrictions lifting and flights increasing, is travel going back to what it used to be?

If we’re talking in terms of sheer numbers, then the answer appears to be yes. According to Mastercard’s latest travel report, leisure and business travel bookings globally seem to be approaching pre-pandemic levels, while in Asia Pacific, it’s estimated that the region will see 430 million more passengers fly compared to 2021.

But perhaps asking whether travel will—or should—go back to the way it was is not the most relevant question.

With tourism operators (and the governments that support them) still working on getting back on their feet after a period of incredible disruption, now is the time to reconsider what the future of travel could look like: more sustainable, inclusive, and more beneficial to the broader economy.

A holistic approach to sustainable tourism

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council has defined four key criteria for developing sustainable tourism. In addition to environmental sustainability, the Council advises focusing on cultural conservation and socio-economic factors and harnessing a holistic sustainability framework—one in which a central body is responsible for developing an overarching strategy and engaging relevant stakeholders.

At the same time, consumers are becoming more conscious about reducing negative impact, and are increasingly willing to pay a premium and take personal action to back brands and businesses that support sustainability and inclusiveness. In fact, research shows that Gen Z consumers are willing to pay between 50 to 100 percent more for sustainable products.

With both the need for sustainability in tourism and a desire on the part of consumers for travel choices that are in line with their values, there are good incentives for the industry players to make necessary changes—but this requires an integrated approach enabled by informed decision making.

Powering sustainability through data-driven insights

Sustainable tourism strategies can be developed based on insights gleaned from different stages of the traveler’s journey—especially given how intrinsic online platforms are to the travel experience. Starting from the planning and booking phase, it’s possible to analyze global trends in tourism movement, and to segment, prioritize and target traveler personas. The tourism spend patterns across merchant categories in the destination markets further reflect the propositions that resonated with different segments while adjusting for external factors such as seasonality. Such insights can help tourism authorities understand the evolving traveler segments and their desired experiences, potentially helping to diversify the types of inbound tourists, develop more relevant propositions, and to bring more balanced activities across a wider number and type of attractions.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this use of data is the doors it opens for continuous improvement in both the traveler experience and the sustainability of tourism. The behaviors of tourists in-market provide information that allows tourism authorities to understand the impact that travelers have on the environment, how to best allocate resources, and which stakeholders—be they hotels, restaurants, attractions, or local communities—need additional support to realize greater benefits from inbound tourists.

Sustainable, inclusive tourism in practice

The Swedish city of Umeå is a leader within the nation in achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Despite this, the city saw its CO2 emissions increase between 2019 and 2022, and with a burgeoning tourism industry and a series of upcoming major events, it became clear that more proactive action was going to be needed. Mastercard partnered with the city to develop a case study that measured the impacts of a sporting event in the city, and identified the type of consumption spend most responsible for emissions. Based on the findings, the city has been able to further target tourists to promote particular modes of transport that will reduce emissions, offer more sustainable food and beverage choices for events, and improve their recycling facilities. For activities where carbon reduction isn’t possible, taxes and pricing levers have been implemented to act as a disincentive, and the city has committed to contribute to reforestation programs to offset emissions. Umeå is also sharing knowledge with other municipalities, companies, and stakeholders while conducting communications campaigns to champion sustainable approaches to tourism.

Looking at another side of sustainability, Mastercard has worked with tourism authorities in Sri Lanka and the Pacific Islands to analyze shifting travel trends and spend patterns across their key inbound corridors. Such insights enable the development of programs that aim to broaden their tourism propositions and increase the participation of local communities—particularly among small and medium enterprises—that complement the tourism offerings from international operators. Similarly, during the pandemic, Mastercard partnered with the Singapore Tourism Board on a joint campaign, Rediscover Priceless® Singapore, that generated spend uplift from targeted domestic consumer segments and benefited local merchants when travel restrictions were still in place. The experiences from this diverse set of destinations demonstrate how data-driven approaches can help to bolster and revitalize national tourism development programs while supporting local businesses.

After years of restrictions, stress, and turbulence, people are looking to have exciting experiences again; they’re ready to go out and see the world. If all stakeholders in the tourism sector can pull together towards new, sustainable approaches, this desire for new experiences can be met in a way that benefits greater segments of the population.

So, let’s not let tourism go “back to normal”. It’s time to write a new future for the industry that exceeds normal, and instead aims for the extraordinary.

Photo of Lim Kok Kee
Lim Kok Kee, Senior Vice President, Government Engagement, Asia Pacific, Mastercard