This sponsored content was created in collaboration with a Skift partner.
Over the past few years, sustainability in travel and tourism has moved from a niche consideration to an industry-wide priority that calls for meaningful change, transparency, and accountability. Conversations around sustainability are also gaining traction with consumers, with 66 percent of travelers aware of the need for sustainability and 46 percent actively seeking sustainable options.
A new report from the Visa Economic Empowerment Institute in partnership with Oxford Economics, “Accelerating Sustainable Tourism: Areas for Public-Private Collaboration,” explores the definition and measurement of sustainable travel and tourism, discusses barriers to achieving it, and offers actionable advice for industry professionals to promote sustainability both within their own organizations and with their customers.
“Sustainability is more than a trend,” said Jeni Mundy, senior vice president and global head of merchant sales and acquiring at Visa. “It’s got to become a way of life that we all embrace.”
SkiftX recently sat down with Mundy to explore highlights from the report, including why information barriers are driving a gap between stated preferences and consumption patterns and how public and private sector professionals can collaborate to promote sustainable tourism.
The Gap Between What Travelers Say and Do
Sustainability is front of mind for everyone, from travel industry executives to leisure and business travelers. Natural disasters occurring in communities around the world and the hottest summer on record in 2023 make the climate crisis impossible to miss as governments and businesses alike race to minimize greenhouse gas emissions.
But while sustainability is popular among travelers — roughly 74 percent of respondents in The Vacationer’s 2023 sustainable travel survey said they intend to make greener travel decisions — a far smaller percentage of travelers are willing to spend more on sustainable options. According to the December 2022 U.S. Travel Tracker survey from Skift Research, only 23 percent of travelers paid more for greener forms of travel in the previous 12 months.
The Visa report attributes this “say-do gap” between travelers’ stated preferences and actual consumption patterns to three common barriers: the high cost of sustainable travel, lack of information about sustainable choices, and lack of credibility around sustainability claims. According to the report, 67 percent of travelers who searched for sustainable options had trouble finding information, and 51 percent stated an active desire for more information on sustainable travel options.
The fact that the industry is highly fragmented can amplify those barriers. From international hotel chains to small local bed and breakfasts, and from airline companies to transit organizations, some segments are more predisposed to sustainability than others — and it can be difficult for consumers to meet their sustainability goals with so many touchpoints in a single trip.
Those same information barriers also make it harder to measure the say-do gap with any precision on the industry side. With a lack of transparency into the choices consumers make after publicly declaring an interest in sustainability, it can be hard to identify what exactly is missing.
According to Mundy, agreeing on shared metrics and terminology will help increase transparency and bridge that gap: “We need to inform people early on that they can make a greener choice, and we need a common language and shared understanding of sustainability. We can make it easier for people who say they want to travel sustainably to make those choices if we can find common ground.”
Public-Private Collaborations Put Sustainable Travel Within Reach
One of the ways the travel industry can reach that consensus is through considered collaboration between policymakers and private businesses.
“Investing in mobility infrastructure, ensuring inclusive public transit, managing attractions, establishing sustainability measurement frameworks, and bridging informational gaps will help promote sustainable tourism across every segment, but doing so will require participation from both the public and the private sector,” Mundy said.
Modern open-loop transit systems are a case study of success with this kind of collaboration. Closed loops like London’s Oyster card or New York City’s MetroCard require travelers to go to a machine, buy a card, and load money onto it. The card can’t be used for anything outside that specific transit environment. However, in an open-loop system like Transport for London’s new contactless payments or New York’s OMNY program, travelers can tap their existing credit cards or smartphone wallets to board public transit.
“Public transportation is by and large a more sustainable option than personal vehicles, but convenience is often the missing piece that could make transit systems more popular,” Mundy said. ”Getting more people onto public transportation — both domestically and while they’re traveling — is definitely a green way of being mobile.”
Whether transit systems are run through public ownership or oversight, innovation from private companies like Visa helps power the open-loop approach.
“We know more people choose public transportation when they know they can just get on using the same card they use for everything else,” Mundy said. “We’ve got more than 750 projects around the world using open-loop systems now. You just get on with your Visa card — whether it’s on your smartphone or in your pocket — the same card you use to pay for your coffee.”
When it’s easier and more convenient to tap onto the tube or the subway, sustainability-minded travelers are likelier to make that choice.
“Working with the public sector in this way, Visa is helping to remove barriers to more sustainable choices,” Mundy said.
Boosting Sustainability Efforts With Detailed Data Insights
Public and private collaboration also drives access to combined, qualified data insights. For example, data allows transit systems to unlock certain pricing tiers based on trip frequency.
“It helps travelers get the optimum price for their trip and removes barriers of entry,” Mundy said. “At the same time, that data provides cities with detailed insights into who’s riding, from a breakdown of local and foreign credit cards to understanding where people are moving throughout the system.”
Beyond transportation, those same data insights can help destination management organizations (DMOs) and attractions optimize tourism patterns to flatten out spikes in demand and distribute visitors more evenly so they don’t overwhelm capacity. Deep traveler data empowers destinations and attractions to boost off-season travel, encourage off-peak transport, recommend activities, and offer dynamic pricing promotions to the right travelers at the right time.
According to Mundy, purchase data available through the Visa Destination Insights platform is much richer than data from isolated sources such as airlines: “They can see where people are flying and track travel corridors, but with our insights, we know where they go after they land and what their shopping preferences are. We know so much more about what travelers are doing, how they behave, and what’s important to them. Those sorts of insights can help the travel industry become more successful and sustainable.”
To learn more about the Visa Economic Empowerment Institute, click here.
This content was created collaboratively by Visa and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.