Technology and Sustainable Tourism: Accelerating Positive Change and Scaling Solutions
From efficient resource use to better visitor management, the intersection of technology and sustainability presents important opportunities for scaling positive solutions for tourism. Technology can be a very powerful tool to positively - or negatively - influence our lives. However powerful it may be, it is a tool, and that means it needs to be wisely used and intentionally applied if we want to harness its potential.
So rather than obsessing over the latest gadgets and chasing the newest trends, let’s think about how we can work with technology to positively contribute to sustainable tourism. In this panel, we explore ideas, examples and insights related to the role of technology in sustainable tourism, and provide inspirations for how technology can help accelerate positive change.
We asked our expert contributors from around the world to share their examples of using technology to create sustainable solutions, plus share their views on our bonus question, "If you could change one thing about how technology is currently used in the sustainable tourism space, what would it be?"
What problems are you working to address, and how have you incorporated technology to create sustainable solutions?
Community-Sourced Data Solutions for Climate Resilience
EQUINOCT Community Sourced Modelling Solutions is a tech start-up in Kerala, India, working with local communities and organisations to co-create science-based solutions to climate change impacts at the face of increasing disasters such as extreme rainfall events, intense cyclones, violent sea surges and recurrent high tide flooding.
Data is a powerful tool for climate change adaptation and resilience building. However, at the hyper-local level, data collection systems are sparse and often lack last-mile connectivity. Because of this disconnect, the impacted communities at the frontline of climate change are often last to be heard in devising adaptation and mitigation strategies. EQUINOCT disrupts this narrative by making data production a community exercise, giving agency and validity to the local knowledge systems.
We work with communities to co-create early warning systems and open-source monitoring based on hyper-local climate data measurements (e.g. rainfall, river, tidal and ground water levels). Data collected by individual households using manual gauges and a few automatic instruments are collated by our partner organisations, and then visualised in a web portal.
This simple solution, powered by the community-owned database, has turned the concept of last mile warning on its head; the downstream communities now warn the administration on possible local flooding and preparedness measures. In the coastal and estuarine regions, we work with impacted communities to build a database of tidal flooding days, extent, time and duration, to build a tidal flood early warning system and with local engineering students in conducting flood mapping and flood vulnerability assessments.
Even though climate change is a global phenomenon, its manifestations show extreme local variability. To understand and connect the local issues with global problems, we need reliable local data at the finest possible resolution. Developing and underdeveloped countries do not have the resources to generate this massive amount of data on a fine scale. But it may be possible through a crowd-sourced (we call it community-sourced) initiative, rigorously quality checked and integrated into a common platform by technically skilled facilitators.
We feel that our model fits well with the needs of any data-scarce region facing the increasing onslaughts of climate change.
Community-First Approaches to Resilience at the Destination Level
Through our work on developing location and impact-based adaptation and mitigation strategies, we are also partnering with Resilient Destinations Foundation (RDF), which has allowed us to re-imagine these spaces as resilient destinations. RDF is a non-profit organization co-founded by EQUINOCT and The Blue Yonder team, with the aim of promoting community inclusive resilience.
Tourism’s potential for supporting local livelihoods can be a key component of community resilience. However, discussions around resilience in the tourism industry are often confined to building industry resilience. While supporting tourism businesses is an important part of making tourism more resilient, rather than looking at the “tourism assets” within destinations, we need to approach destinations’ resilience as resilience of the community that characterises a destination.
To partner effectively with the tourism sector, we employ the same science-based approaches to hyper-local collaboration powered by data. Our solutions focus on climate change impact mitigation (e.g. resilient and low-carbon construction materials and methods, ecosystem health monitoring), management (e.g. real time monitoring and decision support systems, flood inundation and biodiversity mapping), and adaptation (e.g. advanced first-responder trainings, emergency responses, disaster preparedness and risk reduction).
As we are living in times of increased climate related disasters, robust data to enable informed decisions are critical for community resilience. We focus on the lived knowledge of the local communities, and our motto is “community first, and not an afterthought” when it comes to co-creating climate resilient and responsible destinations.
Providing a Software Solution for Holistic Sustainability Measurement
Many people in the travel and tourism industry are eager to ‘be greener’ but often don’t know where to start. As we sifted through all the complicated jargon and competing labels, the idea for Weeva was born: a digital platform that enables those in the travel industry with little to no previous knowledge of sustainability to understand the impact of their business. The platform guides users along the way, storing relevant data and offering concrete actions for improvement, just like a sustainability practitioner would.
Weeva aims to measure impact objectively and encompasses all aspects of sustainability, not just waste, water, and energy. Weeva is a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform using a 360° framework with 18 interconnected and diverse parameters that are needed to manage sustainability holistically. The platform works to encourage continuous improvement in four steps: learn about the topic, measure and upload data, manage to see changes and set targets, and then meet and exceed targets to constantly improve. Weeva works as a guiding tool rather than a rule book, providing inspiration, knowledge, and data to empower users on the continuous journey towards sustainability.
There are few hotel groups that can afford to employ a sustainability manager, but by launching this affordable digital tool, we hope that Weeva will widen vital access to the knowledge and expertise of sustainability professionals, allowing both big and small businesses at any stage in their sustainability journey to benefit.
We Need a Mindset Shift on the Roles of Technology in Sustainability
Some people in the tourism industry are still fairly hesitant to use technology, likely because they don’t entirely understand the ins and outs. It feels like many of these people worry that they have to use technology perfectly rather than for testing and trying and failing — but this is far from what we advocate for at Weeva. Sustainability expertise shouldn’t be the preserve of experts. Digital tools are a vital piece of the puzzle as we seek to increase access to knowledge and methodology that will ultimately shape and improve business practices, benefitting both people and the planet.
Weeva’s message is that, by using technology, any size of organisation can improve their sustainability credentials - we want to see the many SMEs and small properties using digital tools to help them, as well as the big groups.
Therefore, if I could change one thing about how technology is currently used, I would change the mindsets of the people that use it. Technology should be seen as an enabler, not a blocker. Change is inevitable, and digital transformation is here. To me, the behavioural piece is more challenging than any other piece in this puzzle.
Data-Driven Sustainable Solutions for Businesses and Destinations
For twenty years, we have been developing the Outdooractive platform with a mission to enable great outdoor experiences through technology that guides, connects, and protects. The Outdooractive platform maps tourism products and services in a structured way, while enabling providers to take responsibility for their own online data.
And we apply such data for strengthening sustainable tourism through our partnership with leading organizations. For example, we integrate the Green Destinations criteria directly into the Outdooractive platform. Our customers can receive an indication about their scores, and prepare for the Good Travel Program by Green Destinations.
We are an active member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), and are fully committed to helping our customers fulfill the GSTC criteria. We are currently working on sustainability data solutions through our platform, so that providers and destinations can access up-to-date information on their current performance, and guidance on becoming more sustainable according to the certification processes as defined by the GSTC.
Further, we provide technical solutions to support responsible destination planning and visitor management. Platform analytics and the heat map lets you visualize visitor flows in and around the region and protected areas. Visitors are alerted to congested locations and you can also actively direct them with personalized alternative recommendations, QR codes and digital Challenges that are based on need.
We also aim to integrate all conservation laws and rules for the use of nature directly into existing data structures. Content that does not comply with such requirements should simply be removed from our route planning and navigation features, in a similar way to closed trails or zones.
Digitalization to Power Sustainability Processes
Technological solutions are an important aspect of sustainability in travel and tourism. Digitalization provides a huge lever for all processes. It allows information to reach everyone long before they leave their homes, embark on their travel, or venture out into nature.
The virtual travel of today's landscape of websites, apps, AR, and VR - as well as the metaverse of tomorrow - will never replace the actual experience, but it does allow travelers to be better informed and more conscientious of their actions as a result.
While digitalization allows for widespread access to information and data, it is also important to facilitate access to quality information (not just quantity). We seek therefore to make data easy to digest, as well as clearly highlighting rules and restrictions, so that we can promote a greater understanding and appreciation of outdoor experiences, and help travelers use data correctly and wisely.
Applying Data to Make Sustainability Progress Measurable
At Considerate Group, we take a data-driven approach to sustainability. While we offer tailored advisory services for broader sustainability strategies and reporting, my team and I focus specifically on diving deep into the data end. Our data intelligence platform, Con-Serve™, is specifically designed for hotels and hospitality businesses, helping them track resource consumption, waste generation, travel miles, carbon emissions, and more.
By aggregating and analysing this data for our clients, we provide valuable insights, benchmarking, and targeted recommendations for performance improvement, with the ultimate aim of making sustainability inspiring and progress measurable for our clients.
These insights often uncover opportunities for increasing operational efficiencies. For example, last year we saw one client’s energy cost peak at more than 75 EUR per room night despite them having reduced their overall energy consumption by about 10% compared to the year before. And while this is a drastic example, we tend to see similar trends across the sector.
To help understand such high-impact opportunities in a timely manner, businesses need robust data pipelines ─ ranging from for integrating automated data streams to creating a data-driven decision-making culture at all levels of the business.
By combining technology, data intelligence, and industry expertise, we empower our clients to make meaningful and measurable progress towards achieving sustainability across their operations. This way we contribute to creating a future-proof and resilient industry that achieves environmental responsibility while delivering exceptional guest experiences.
Contextual Approaches to Working with Technology as an Enabler
One aspect that I believe is crucial to address is the perception that technology alone can solve all our sustainability challenges. In recent years, we've seen many commercial solutions emerge, each often focusing on a specific aspect of sustainability. While these solutions may excel in their individual areas, they often lack integration with each other.
This can result in a fragmented landscape of service contracts and data platforms, making it difficult to see the bigger picture and effectively use the information for decision-making. It adds complexity to data ownership, internal communication, and requires extensive training.
Addressing sustainability issues requires a holistic approach that goes beyond technological advancements or upgrades alone. To create tangible impacts, we need to view technology as an enabler rather than the ultimate solution in its own right. This means prioritising solutions that not only leverage technology but also consider the social and environmental contexts, taking into account the diverse needs and aspirations of all stakeholders involved.
Our team consists of technical experts who understand environmental data and building operations, as well as individuals with extensive experience in various roles within the hotel and tourism industry. We believe that this combination of technical expertise and industry knowledge is what allows us to effectively align with the future of sustainable tourism, while at the same time staying on top of relevant technological advancements.
Only by adopting this comprehensive approach, we can truly make a positive impact in the sustainable tourism space and contribute to an industry where technology serves as a catalyst for positive change within the broader social and environmental context.
Crowd-Sourced Data to Scale Sustainable Travel Choices
The community of conscious travelers is fast growing, and their demand for more sustainability information equally so. Still, many say they don’t know how to find credible information on sustainable options.
At the same time, tourism establishments want to bring more sustainable solutions to market but have a hard time communicating their efforts in a relatable and trustworthy way. The fear of greenwashing is very real.
TripDoodler addresses this dilemma by making it easier for travelers to find and share more sustainable options through user ratings. We create a place for recognizing and celebrating sustainability efforts, while empowering travelers to make sustainable choices.
In addition to self-assessed sustainability data and third-party certifications, our transparency score uses traveler acknowledgements, which are unique user ratings on sustainability. Travelers identify and rate sustainability practices (e.g. towel reuse programs, organic food on the menu, waste reduction initiatives) through objective parameters with simple “yes / no / I don’t know” answers.
By crowd-sourcing sustainability data, we encourage each other to drive broader data points for establishments to build more sustainable solutions on their sustainability journey. And these transparency scores can also be integrated into other existing travel platforms. Trustworthy sustainability data should be available right next to the price, wherever travelers are researching and booking their trips.
Streamlined Solutions for Positive Behavior Change
One of the key challenges we have in our industry is the overflow of complex and fragmented sustainability information, which needs to be translated into a language everyone can relate to and act on. Having detailed and trustworthy sustainability information is essential, but just having very technical data leads us to an information overflow only a few can relate to.
We can’t afford that.
According to the IPCC 2022 sustainability report, 40-70% of the direct and indirect CO2 emissions from food, buildings, and land transport can be reduced by changing demand-side strategies, such as educating people to make better choices. In other words - making it easier for travelers to find sustainable choices is good for the planet, as well as good for business.
But we don’t need more information on what to do or how to calculate. It’s time to get personal. Sustainability can only be relevant when we see the bigger picture, understand why, and what's in it for us, because to change our behavior we need to be able to make sense of our choices and their impacts.
That’s why it’s critical to make sustainability relatable. Not through technical reports, but through stories and personal experiences. Just think about it, do you ever choose a restaurant based on their ESG reporting?
Our research in Copenhagen shows that the conscious traveler is three times more likely to raise their voice and share what they experience. So we should empower them to tell positive stories celebrating our collective efforts, and to spread the word about sustainability in a relatable and engaging way.
Helping Small Businesses Manage Climate Impact
Ecologi's primary focus is around supporting smaller businesses to get to grips with where their emissions are coming from - so that they can start on a pathway to reducing or eliminating them.
For many tourism organisations, notable emissions hotspots are likely to appear in Scope 1 (for vehicles and onsite generation) or especially in Scope 3 (in the supply chain). Scope 3 emissions in particular can be very hard to measure because of the lack of access to data. For this reason, Ecologi Zero®, our free carbon footprinting tool, helps businesses to build a comprehensive carbon footprint, covering the whole value chain. Using state-of-the art emissions factors and an easy-to-use interface, it empowers small businesses to take their first steps on a sustainability journey.
A second problem which Ecologi addresses, is a lack of access to high-quality climate impact. As businesses, especially in a sector like travel and tourism, we have a duty to not only reduce our negative effect on the world, but to give back to nature and communities as much as we can - having a positive effect as well.
But with so much conflicting information out there, and so many projects to look through, it can be hard to understand where the really impactful projects are. The team at Ecologi works incredibly hard, with expert due diligence, and making use of cutting-edge monitoring capabilities, to ensure that businesses can fund high-impact projects like ecosystem restoration, with confidence.
Streamlining Emissions Tracking to Empower All Stakeholders
If I were to change how technology is being used in the sustainable tourism space, I'd try to address the large data gap that exists, both geographically and temporally. This can prove especially challenging in the relationships between tour operators and in-country DMCs. One tour operator's Scope 3 emissions could include their partner DMC's Scope 1 or 2 emissions, which may be difficult to track if regionalised data isn't there, or if the emissions factors being used are several years out of date. But if both parties are trying to measure the same thing, then it's intuitive to collaborate, and to work from the same data.
So as a collective, it's super important to ensure that accurate, up-to-date emissions data is being generated and utilised globally - and then that this data, and the best practice that goes with it, is being exchanged up and down the value chains of tourism organisations. This would help to empower both operators and DMCs (and others) to get a firmer grip on the emissions they are responsible for, and also would help to boost partnerships and collaboration along the way.
Technology like Ecologi Zero® can help to achieve this, by improving access to comprehensive, up-to-date emissions factors which help all stakeholders - especially smaller businesses who may lack in-house resources - get on top of their emissions.
Technology’s Roles in Promoting Sustainable Tourism
Technology can play a significant role in promoting and operationalising sustainable tourism. It allows us to capture relevant data to track our progress towards a more sustainable future, educate visitors and businesses on sustainable tourism practices, and create new modes of travel.
Below are some of the important ways technology can be applied to support sustainable tourism, and examples of companies and products demonstrating such potential.
- Data tracking: We now have tools at our disposal that can help us measure the real impact of a business on our planet, the community, and the environment. Previously, even basic impact measurement calculations required time and knowledge that would have been unattainable for many. Now several ‘off-the-shelf’ tools allow businesses to track their basic carbon footprint. For example, Cogo connects to a business' accounting software to automatically calculate a carbon footprint based on spending. This is a very quick and easy way for a business to get a number that they can then work to reduce.
- Visitor information and flows: We can use technology, including artificial intelligence bots, to provide visitors with information and interactions 24-7. Geofencing technology in travel apps allows us to push information for sustainable experiences to the users when they are already visiting an area. This gives us the opportunity to nudge them towards certain areas or experiences and to guide them towards more sustainable choices.
- New modes of travel: With the release of Apple’s new VR headset, the potential for a virtual reality tourism experience has taken another leap. According to McKinsey & Co travel inspiration, virtual events, and edutainment will be the first touchpoints to benefit from the broader uptake of VR technology. One company that has started in this field is Virtual Journeys, which offers virtual reality guided tours in New Zealand, either as preparation for a real trip, or as a standalone experience. As technology improves, virtual reality experiences could become a bigger part of the tourism value chain and we will see more development in this space.
Technology is Not a Silver Bullet
While technology can be a powerful tool for promoting sustainable tourism, it's important to remember that it is not a silver bullet. There are a number of challenges that need to be addressed in order to ensure that technology is used in a sustainable way.
For example, carbon calculation and easy offsetting can lead to higher consumption of tourism products that damage our planet and don’t lead to actual emission reductions. Visitor information on peak times may drive more visitors into remote areas that do not have the carrying capacity, which could negatively impact the local environment or social license. VR tourism experiences require headsets and access to the Internet, which may not be available to all.
So even with all the benefits outlined above, it is important to ensure that technology is used wisely, considering all spheres of sustainability, and to incorporate steps to anticipate and mitigate any unintended negative side effects.
Applying Virtual Tools for Personal Experiences
In today’s world, we cannot take it for granted that physical (in-person) travel experiences are always going to be available. In fact, for many, factors such as high travel costs and health, security and time concerns - not to mention the environmental impact on climate change - are already discouraging or preventing them from travelling.
Virtual Journeys New Zealand seeks to address this challenge through immersive storytelling in combination with technology. This can either be through high-tech solutions using tools such as Mixed Reality 360, or through simpler means such as livestreaming virtual tours.
These virtual journey options allow travellers to get to know destinations and local stories without being physically present. These are, however, not meant to be virtual “games”, because travel storytelling is about connections among people, and connections with places.
There are already numerous samples where businesses such as vacation homes or rental services provide their members and prospective customers with “virtual tour” experiences. So sharing travel experiences virtually is not really new, technologically speaking. When done well, with effective storytelling, virtual tours can serve as great alternatives, providing edutainment or even to helping travellers prepare for an upcoming special (in person) trip.
Changing the Way We Define Travel Experiences
Technology will go its way and I am not in a position to change this as such. But, much more important is working to change “hearts and minds” in the tourism industry.
While some of us may envision travel as an immersive, engaging and educational opportunity, a large portion of our industry (the mass tourism market) still consists of vacations where one spends hours at airports, planes and other transfers before meeting up with thousands of others doing exactly the same. This kind of tourism is bad for the local society, for the environment and the travellers as well, due to lower experience “returns” for the money and time invested.
The industry needs to embrace a new way of “hybrid” tourism including virtual experiences, which can help balance tourism numbers spread across different times of the year, and provide regular business and income for the local economies.
There are already good examples of virtual storytelling. We are only at the beginning of how we reimagine travel and tourism.