Despite the changes in consumer sentiment towards the environment, the term ‘Greenwashing’ has become a major issue in the travel industry. It has originated from many tourism businesses using the term ‘eco-travel’ somewhat liberally, meaning travellers’ desires to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change are not always met.

Historically, tourism has had a negative impact on the environment. This is often the result of tourist overcrowding and increased usage of fossil fuels, which negatively impacts local communities, raises carbon emissions and pollutes the destination. However, in recent years, tourists have become more aware of the effects of tourism. According to GlobalData’s Q3 2021 Survey, 74% of respondents considered environmental issues to be either ‘very’ or ‘quite’ important to them. In order to tackle this, many tourism authorities and companies have taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint, engage with local communities and support regional conservation projects. Some tourism businesses are incorporating eco-travel initiatives as a marketing strategy, however, with a lack of unified standards surrounding what constitutes an eco-initiative, environmentally responsible tourists are becoming less trusting.

A sliding scale of green

In reality, there is a sliding scale of green across the travel sector. From hotels that do little more than ask guests to reuse towels, to those that provide renewable energy for heating and electricity, recycle, grow their own food and offer discounts if travellers arrive by public transport. The problem is, there is no defined or set global standard, making it increasingly difficult for consumers to make the ‘right’ choice when it comes to booking a sustainable holiday.

Without a credible labelling system, there’s a very real danger that there will be a backlash and that tourists will become sceptical when it comes to believing claims made by real eco-travel companies and initiatives. Ultimately, greenwashing doesn’t just impact the customers of the organisation undertaking it. At the simplest level, greenwashing may be as blatant as a ‘green’ name, slogan, or packaging aesthetic: token efforts to create a green perception, without any green credentials or evidence offered. For example, ‘nature-based tourism’ does not mean it is sustainable or responsible, yet it can potentially influence green consumer decisions.

Unfortunately, eco-tourism also gets incorrectly used to promote this too. For example, the efficacy of carbon offsets, particularly reforesting schemes, have long been questioned by environmental campaigners, who portray them as more token action than a real climate solution.

Confidence in eco-travel is suffering

Greenwashing by organisations will undoubtedly undermine the credibility and social responsibility of the travel industry as a whole, impacting businesses and authorities which actually intend to make a difference. Consumers often rely on advertising and other corporate messaging to inform their purchasing choices. Greenwashing will reduce this confidence in the integrity of the product and service claims. Without confidence in organisations’ claims, consumers are unable to make informed decisions regarding green purchasing, since they do not know who or what to trust. As a result, greenwashing could endanger the ongoing recovery of the travel and tourism industry. Greenwashing in sustainable tourism is serious, it affects people’s lives, communities, indigenous cultures and global biodiversity conservation. Therefore, more strenuous and united action must be taken by leading travel and tourism stakeholders to increase regulation and tackle this growing phenomenon.

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