Social sustainability is the new X factor for tourist destinations
Increased awareness by the public, climate change diplomacy and an alarming increase in abnormalities and disasters across the globe has meant the corporate commitment and progress toward the fight against climate change has leapfrogged many levels in recent years.
Governments have also pushed environmental policies and prioritized green incentives. Unfortunately, the social component of the sustainability equation needed to plan and manage future tourism and its associated impacts has not received the same attention or kept pace with the environmental indicators. Although once disrupted, it can be a key strategy that brings unexplored value and profit to all stakeholders.
The tourism sector is uniquely positioned and caters to three important stakeholders - guests, employees and communities where it operates, making the need to prioritize societal impact triple fold and a daunting task. It is especially challenging in a greenwashed reality where societal impact is hard to measure, manage and monitor. Data is often subjective and opaque, if available at all. So how can destinations learn from the best practices in the field and exploit them to improve tourism sustainability and competitiveness?
No need to reinvent the wheel
The most important criterion for choosing a reporting framework is considering environmental, social and governance reporting challenges. The biggest stumbling stones are transparency, credibility, comparability, impartiality and ease of understanding. This area is where well-established and familiar frameworks and standards play their role. Therefore, prioritize using scientifically proven tools on the market and avoid reinventing the wheel.
Some examples of well-established frameworks applicable to the tourism sector are the global reporting initiative of the Global Sustainability Standards Board, the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals, which include 231 unique indicators and the stakeholder capitalism metrics framework by the World Economic Forum. They are all designed as easy-to-use modular sets, delivering an inclusive picture of an organization’s impacts.
Choose the relevant metrics
A company does not have to report on all possible goals and indicators but choose the applicable ones. Selecting the right metrics can be tricky. Best practice in choosing relevant metrics needs to be aligned with the core of your business strategy. Disclosures in a sustainability report need to be a true reflection of the internal impact strategy, managerial practices and allocation of resources. The walk toward achieving positive social impact is long. Explore whether you can scale good practices to accelerate the process and create value for all stakeholders.
Get granular with the yardstick
Measuring environmental aspects such as carbon emissions, the circularity of products or the number of trees planted is significantly easier than quantifying qualitative data like preserving local culture, heritage and language.
Get granular with the data as it determines what analysis can be performed and whether its results will lead to appropriate actions and results. Indicators should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Impact on one indicator can be achieved through various sources, requiring tourism practitioners to build a holistic approach to data collection to get the complete picture.
Finally, use the data for everyday decision-making and companies who manage to use their reporting, implement lessons learned in their daily activities and get better buy-in from investors and employees.
Transparent companies that show vulnerability and admit flaws tend to earn consumers’ trust. Therefore, create comparable and easy-to-understand campaigns to show the world that things are not perfect but that you are making progress.
When it comes to powerful communication, do not forget the voice of the local communities and your employees. Rarely has it been more effective to attract talent and showcase that you actually walk the talk.
The time is now for companies to start measuring their impact if we want to accelerate positive change in our societies. Investors are already looking at the societal impact risks and opportunities as a key indicator apart from the financial statements and environmental pledges. Further, the sector needs to draw a comparison and learn from recent social crises experienced in the broader society and across industries.
Social movements, such as Black Lives Matter and MeToo, have risen in solidarity and gained momentum for a simple reason, a shared purpose to address injustice and inequality for social problems that have been long ignored. The tourism sector is no different. It has allowed for too long, injustices and inequalities to take over the “happy sector.” And any place has to belong to everyone to be successful.
• Aradhana Khowala is a global authority on the luxury travel and tourism industries having worked across 75 countries. She is currently the chair of the global advisory board of The Red Sea Development Company.