Traveling Green

School of Management Associate Professor Michelle Millar discusses sustainability in the hospitality industry and what it means to be a responsible traveler.

Image credit: sloth by henryalien, via flickr. This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 2.0.

In 2005, my life changed when I took a trip to Costa Rica, a country well known for its natural beauty, wildlife, and commitment to sustainability and ecotourism. During my adventure, I found my way into the jungle and ended up in a small ecolodge (but that’s a story for another time!).

It was at this lodge, that my eyes were opened to the minimal impact that one business can have on the environment. For example, lunch and dinner orders were taken in the morning so that the only food ingredients purchased that day were for our meals that day, which eliminated waste from unused ingredients.

Prior to that trip, my concept of ecotourism was traveling to Oklahoma every year in a ‘67 Country Squire Station wagon– with no air conditioning, staying on a farm with my family, and taking a bath in a washtub with my sister because there was no running water.

I have learned quite a bit since then.

In 2015, just over one billion people traveled the world. That number is expected to increase to 1.7 billion by 2025. That is a lot of people moving around the world, which will no doubt have a major impact on our planet. While some of those travelers might consider themselves environmentally conscious travelers, their behavior while traveling often says otherwise.

How about you?

Are you a responsible traveler? Do you practice the same behavior when traveling as you do at home? Do you turn that water off when brushing your teeth in a hotel? Re-use your bath towels in your hotel? Or, do you “conveniently” forget all of that behavior because it’s easier when on vacation? These are the kinds of questions I like to answer with my research in the hospitality and tourism industry.

When I started researching this topic about 10 years ago, existing work focused on sustainable tourism, but no one was studying it operationally for hotels. This was at a time when the term “greening” was creating quite a buzz for hoteliers who scrambled to make their hotels environmentally friendly, but no one was talking to the guests.

Did guests even care about a green hotel? Did they even know what that meant? The hospitality industry revolves around providing quality service and exceptional experiences for its guests, but no one was even talking with them to see if staying at a green hotel was something they wanted.

Well, it turns out that guests are interested in staying in a green hotel, but they have their limits.

  • They do not mind recycling, linen-reuse programs, or efficient lighting.
  • Low-flow fixtures are okay, as long as the shower pressure is good.
  • Soap and shampoo dispensers save hugely on waste, yet guests do not want them because they are reminded too much of going to a gym.
  • They also do not want to be inconvenienced in any way to participate in a hotel’s environmentally friendly programs.
  • Recycling bins in the room are good, but bins only in the hallways or hotel lobby are an inconvenience.

It turns out travelers are picky– and despite the fact that they may say they are environmentally conscious travelers, their behaviors often do not support their attitudes. It seems that many travelers become different people when they travel.

Fortunately, hoteliers are moving forward and forging change in the industry, and as a result, traveler behavior. It saves hoteliers money and saves the environment, and at the same time, it gives them the opportunity to educate guests about environmental impact. As my research has shown, this education and change is carrying over into other sectors of hospitality. They are “training” us to be better travelers, even if it may not be top-of-mind initially. Education, education, education is what it’s all about; but then, of course I would say that!

So—the next time you travel, I challenge you to think about the type of traveler you are. Is the environment “top-of-mind” just as it might be at home? Do you elect to stay in green hotels? If so, what would you expect when staying in one?

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