Where’s the Tesla-like innovation in tourism?

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What does real sustainability-oriented innovation in tourism look like?

Where’s the Tesla-like innovation in tourism? How much further do we have to go to get a tipping point that starts game-changing sustainability in tourism, and what will stimulate that change? Attending the World Travel Market this year I noted that the expert panel discussion celebrating 10 years of World Responsible Tourism Day confirmed tourism still had a long way to go in the next ten years if it wants to be sustainable. Innovation that achieves sustainable tourism means a radical shake up of what we know and see as of the tourism today effecting in particular the process of consuming tourism which directly involving tourists themselves.

“We have seen a sea-change in responsible reporting (by travel companies)” said Jane Ashton, TUI’s head of sustainability, “but we have a long way to go to find the language to engage visitors; overall we need to innovate and collaborate.” Auliana Poon, managing director of Tourism Intelligence International, emphasised that “tourism had to become more radical and focus on the mechanisms to create a tipping point”. To which Aaron Heslehurst (BBC World business anchor) who interviewed the panel, cited how Tesla had created a tipping point for electric cars.

Tesla has been successful through experience design, making their cars look appealing with high performance, but a comparable example in tourism is not so clear. Dr Harold Goodwin, responsible tourism advisor to WTM,said that “we have to work more on our destinations; this is where the big push needs to go. Then focus on a short list, on the things that matter and that you can control”. Currently this might include concern to reduce emissions as tourism has an escalating energy and water consumption trajectory that will see them double by 2035 and 2047 respectively.

These remarks can be set against tourism’s global 4% growth (acknowledged by Taleb Rifai , head of the UNWTO), IATA’s forecast of 7 billion air passengers by 2030 (as quoted by Heselehurst), and today’s challenges of managing ‘over-tourism’ in destinations (as demonstrated by Barcelona and Amsterdam). They show just how complicated managing tourism growth is and the challenges of meeting the UNWTO’s sustainable tourism goals which “are the most important” (stressed by Rifai).

To create ‘cut though’ between the supply of unsustainable tourism and the expanding demand we need to revolutionise tourism through innovation. My research strongly indicates that tourists have reached that tipping point, however it is simply that tourism has not progressed and reflected a Tesla-like experience design which minimises environmental costs and maximises social benefits. We now need to share collaborative ventures which strike this positive balance. Experience design needs to involve guests in the co-creation of services and activities where people apply free-will compliance with better ways to consume tourism and better ways to stay in places.

Sustainability-Oriented Innovation is the holistic integration of social and environmental factors within new concepts and results that change services and products. So what could SOI for tourism look like that deliver Tesla-like ‘cut through’? It has to involve products that meet people’s holiday experience motivations, i.e. it would have to be fun with comparable or outperformance existing unsustainable products/services. Tim Williamson director of marketing and content at Responsible Travel.com said that visitor traffic grew by 1/3 to their site because communication focused on aspirational holiday values - a change from the focus on responsible tourism factors. Organisational innovation should lead to clear, honest and direct product information as described by Williamson. Professor Xavier Font, explained that it was essential to provide helpful solutions which are communicated in a fun and positive manner rather than preachy and punitive.

SOI contains three concepts of process, organisation and product and were demonstrated by the Responsible Tourism Awards 2016 overall winner Tren Ecuador*. This is a tourist journey which collaborates with tourism operators along a railway journey in Equator. The product integrates scenic discovery with authentic cultural, arts, crafts and food. The organisation integrates extensive collaborations with SMEs and finally the process directly involves the visitors in making responsible choices which adds authentic and pleasurable opportunities of meeting locals.

To be truly innovative we also need all three SOI concepts (process, organisation and product) to have incorporated measurement and monitoring of impacts. SOI must achieve systematic improvement if we are to cope with the global growth of tourism and positive contribute to the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals. My WTM presentation strongly advocated behaviour change in hospitality organisations and guest engagement, to directly empower them to make responsible choices. Unlike many other markets and industries tourists consume the product at the point of production. They are directly involved in process and are fundamental to achieving sustainability rooted (comprehensive) progress (I will deliver a practical example of this at the UNEP Sustainable Tourism in a Changing Climate Conference in Marrakech, side event to COP22, 12 November 2016). At a destination level a step towards SOI would be to label tourism services/products so that visitors can make informed choices and actively participate which in turn engages their strength of character and drives sustained behaviour change.

The Tesla-like innovation in tourism must be one that fully empowers visitors and hosts alike in the process and organisation of making an enriched authentic product. If they don’t know what we are consuming, at what rate and at what emissions level, achieving our "most important goal" will be that much harder. *

*Tren Ecuador has reversed the traditional approach of heritage and luxury train travel. They instead have created shared value with 23 station-cafes, 14 artisanal squares, 13 local museums, 2 lodges, 9 folklore and historical recreation groups and several community-based tourism operations - all included as part of a tourist's journey. The result is a family of associated enterprises which creates 5000 livelihoods for people in local communities along the tracks