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Marketing and Comms
Awareness of Tourism’s Impacts Requires a Rethink of Marketing’s Function

Tourism marketing has largely centered around traveler desires such as pleasant weather and low prices. Now, it must also consider how travelers’ presence impacts locals, the local economy, wildlife and the natural environment.

Historically, marketing leisure travel has had a fairly straightforward purpose: Use enticing imagery and feel-good language to encourage would-be travelers to visit a certain destination, attraction or accommodation. The quantitative measurement of “heads in beds” was both the goal and sign of success.

But times are changing: Across the tourism industry today, it’s openly acknowledged that travel is responsible for a significant amount of carbon emissions. And, in destinations around the world, local residents are speaking out against the impacts of overtourism, poorly behaved travelers and a housing crisis fueled by short-term rentals. In other words, “more” does not necessarily equal “better.”

Yet, tourism provides meaningful financial support and social agency for marginalized communities. And it can also engage people in conservation issues and serve as a gateway for young people to become involved in pressing global challenges such as the climate crisis.

This complex web of impacts has left travel-related marketers grappling with lots of questions: What is the point of tourism marketing if not to attract tourists? How can marketing best be used to support the positive attributes of tourism while mitigating harm? Is it even appropriate to promote tourism at all?

Experts working in travel-related marketing weigh in with insight.

The holistic nature of sustainable marketing

Whereas the historic intention of marketing has been on financial success and profit, “sustainable marketing refers to marketing principles and practices that are aligned with a sustainable future and the long-term wellbeing of all living things,” Charlie Thompson — director of commercial strategy and co-convenor for the Sustainable Marketing, Media, and Creative online course offered through the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership — told Sustainable Brands® (SB).

This requires rethinking and realigning tourism marketing functions, so they consider the economic, physical, psychological and ethical impacts of promotional messaging. In other words, tourism marketers previously centered campaigns around traveler desires such as pleasant weather and low prices. However, they should now be considering not just what pleases travelers but also how travelers’ presence impacts locals and the wider community, the local economy, wildlife and the natural environment.

Additionally, sustainable marketing in the tourism context requires full accountability for those impacts. “Tourism is one of the five areas of high-impact consumption identified by UNEP — which means there is huge opportunity and huge accountability for this industry to think critically about what it’s selling, how it’s selling it and the impact this is having,” Thompson said.

Redefining the role of travel-related marketing

Sustainable marketing in tourism means that it’s no longer simply a sister function to sales. Instead, it supports the wider ethos of travel companies and destinations that operate with ethics and responsibility at the forefront. There is a circular nature to the operational and marketing efforts.

For example, tour operators building itineraries should be considering things such as how many domestic flights are incorporated and how local businesses can be better utilized and integrated: Marketers, for their part, need to think about the implications of promoting tours that incorporate domestic flights versus train travel, and the economic impact of encouraging travelers to stay at a locally owned accommodation versus an international hotel chain. Together, the two support each other in creating and promoting a more sustainable form of tourism.

As Mirjam Peternek McCartney — founder and CEO of travel PR agency Lemongrass Marketing — told SB, redefining tourism marketing in this way also requires redefining success beyond financial profit: “A company needs to be profitable; but we need to place value on the services nature and people provide us with, and they need to be measured too,” she asserted.

At Lemongrass, for example, the team measures profit — but it also measures client happiness, staff happiness, the percentage of sustainable travel clients it works with, and carbon-reduction targets. “All these KPIs carry equal weight, and bonuses are only paid if we hit our climate and people targets — not only our profit targets,” Peternek McCartney said.

Similarly, in 2022, 4VI made waves within the tourism industry when it shifted from a traditional destination-marketing organization to a social enterprise. In this new capacity, 4VI directly invests in the initiatives and organizations that make Vancouver Island, Canada a vibrant place to live, work and play. This, in turn, benefits the local community while also making it an appealing place for travelers to visit.

Why sustainable marketing in tourism matters

To be clear, sustainable marketing in tourism is different from marketing sustainable tourism models, products or services. It requires critically evaluating marketing’s purpose, but it still serves an essential function within tourism.

“Marketers and creatives are storytellers, and this is where we can have real influence,” Peternek McCartney said.

Keeley Warren, founder and director of travel and tourism marketing firm Mankind Digital, offered the following example: “Marketing a low- to middle-income country grappling with complex environmental, political and social issues as a luxury destination to visit purely for leisure purposes is arguably unethical and irresponsible.

“Places and people have real stories to tell, and these shouldn’t be hidden behind the façade of all-inclusive resorts and deceptive marketing campaigns designed to attract tourists seeking a ‘leisure escape’ from daily life,” she said. “Tourism and travel have the power to uplift, enrich and transform as much as they can damage and destroy places and communities.”

In other words, don’t shy away from travel-related marketing because it is important in influencing everything from travelers’ decisions to government policy. As the full spectrum of tourism’s impacts is laid bare, so too is the role of tourism marketing. And with the rewriting of tourism marketing comes an opportunity to reshape travel for the better:

  • Use the reach and influence of marketing to amplify the stories of people and communities that have historically been sidelined by tourism.

  • Help visitors understand how their travels both negatively and positively impact the environment, economy, and social and cultural fabric of destinations.

  • Share messaging that demonstrates what it looks like to engage in richer and more rewarding travel experiences.

“With our business-as-usual way of doing things being the cause of so much harm,” Thompson said, “sustainable marketing principles and practices are needed now more than ever.”