5 Top European Trends in Sustainable Tourism

better tourism sustainable tourism Apr 27, 2022
5 Top European Trends in Sustainable Tourism

“Sustainable Tourism – what does good look like and who’s doing good?”

This was the topic I was asked to speak on at a recent ‘Team Sustainability Day’ for a leading destination management organization. A tall order and just 20 minutes to fulfill it in! I shared 7 common features of destinations generally regarded to be leading on sustainability. One person emailed me after the talk, thanking me for the inspiration (his words!) and asking ‘is any of that stuff trending on this side of the world yet?’  While this appeared to be a frivolous, social-media funneled question at first, it’s actually quite profound.


Thinking about trends 

Trends point towards the direction things are moving in in general. Trend-setters adopt early and others follow over time. Their activities can be widely understood which is what allows them to be widely adopted. The question prompted me to really look into who the trend-setters in Europe are and what they are doing that could be easily understood and adopted by others.


How to identify trending destinations?

How to identify the trendsetters - go purist or populist?

The more purist approach would be to look at that oft-suggested metric of ‘the percentage of businesses in the destination that are certified’ and whether the destination itself is certified. There are two international standards that map what sustainability should look like for destinations (the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and the EU Commission’s European Tourism Indicator System). However only a very small number of countries (as distinct from regional or city destinations) are working within these frameworks. In 2015, there were more than 80 standards and certification schemes in Europe. Yet only 1% of operators in Europe were certified by them.

The truth is that certification schemes have remained remote in the minds of mainstream tourism operators and most national tourism organizations, and have yet to be proven to carry significant meaning for visitors.  

It seems that sustainable tourism has been more impactfully defined by bloggers, travel writers and those who organize awards ceremonies. Google the term and you will not be short of articles and award-winners pointing you to a shortlist of sustainable places to go.

While these may not have the rigour of certification schemes, they are connecting more readily with people and business and certainly seem to offer the relevance that a growing number of sustainably-minded travellers are looking for.


Which European countries are topping the polls?

I took a deep dive into awards and reputable media coverage of sustainable tourism destinations to see what trends were emerging. I limited myself to coverage from 2019-2021. Five European countries tended to feature in most, if not all of them, and certain practices and policies seemed to be common or similar. Iceland, Finland, Scotland, Slovenia and Norway were the five that emerged, with Germany also featuring consistently.


The analysis revealed 5 national-level trends in sustainable destination stewardship:

1. Contributing to a wider national purpose

These countries do not just lead in sustainable tourism, they tend to lead on sustainability in general. In fact, ‘sustainability’ seems to be taking hold as a national mindset that shapes policies across all sectors of society. A common theme is the foregrounding of wellbeing and happiness over economic growth and wealth generation.

In 2019, Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir urged governments to adopt green and family friendly policies ahead of focusing on economic growth figures. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first Minister made the same call at the same time, stating that growing wellbeing was as important as growing the economy.

Here are some other indicators. All long-distance trains in Germany run on 100% green energy. Iceland’s primary energy needs are 100% met by renewable hydro and geothermal energy. In Copenhagen, bicycles are the main mode of transport with 85% of cars are electrical or hydro-powered. Forests is another indicator - Finland is 80% forested.

Sustainable tourism happens when a broader sustainable framework exists.


2. Taking a stand

There is a noticeable move towards national tourism destinations actually saying what they stand for and what they are going to do in measurable, meaningful terms. Yes, it sounds like an obvious thing to do. However, only the early trend setters have moved beyond generic policies, state-of-the-nation reports and working group recommendations and really nailed their colours to the mast.

Visit Scotland became the first national tourism authority to declare a climate emergency, a move along with a wider ‘21st century tourism strategy’ that leap-frogged Scotland into Top 10 Sustainable Destination lists around the world. The German National Tourist Board has been certified by Green Globe for over 8 years in the row. ‘I FEEL SLOVENIA’ formally subscribed to the 13 principles of The Future of Tourism, and Norway’s 2021 National Tourism Strategy, entitled ‘big impact, small footprint’, also declares that its basis is in the same 13 principles.


3. Having a strategy, not just a policy

Having a strategy is much more than having a policy. A strategy is when the destination defines the sustainability goals they are seeking to achieve, how they will measure them and the actions they will take. A strategy obliges action. The National Tourism Strategy of Norway names ‘the green shift’ as a key driver of the industry to 2030 and specifically names 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals that the industry will contribute to directly.  You will find similarities in Scotland Outlook 2030 Responsible Tourism for a Sustainable Future and Finland’s strategy 'Achieving More Together - Sustainable Growth and Renewal in Finnish Tourism' is just as action and measurement driven. Strategies take a long time to develop and we know that once developed and signed off at government level, they are the roadmap for action.


4. Guiding the Trade

These countries guide their trade to one label, certification or standard. While Scotland has opted for a UK-wide (Scottish-based) certification scheme Green Tourism as the required standard for their industry, the trend amongst the other leading European destinations is to develop and manage their own sustainable tourism labels and development paths for their industries.

In so doing, they map the route for their tourism operators and alleviate the confusion and overwhelm that the plethora of different standards and schemes create. They also set a standard that has more relevance and meaning for their particular destination than a globalized standard could. This move provides a framework for aligning and unifying the efforts of the industry and the government bodies. This is something that a sea of certification schemes, with varying levels of achievement within each, actually works against.

The Sustainable Travel Finland programme is a sustainable tourism development path and a label, providing travel trade and travellers an easy way to identify a tourism actor that takes sustainability seriously. Slovenia's Green Scheme of Sustainable Tourism has the same objective, with over 100 Slovenian destinations and tourism service providers successfully obtaining the Slovenia Green Label. Vakinn is an official quality and environmental certification for Icelandic tourism, run by the Icelandic Tourist Board. The Vakinn logo helps to find businesses that operate in an ethical, professional and sustainable way.


5. Empowering the visitor

“Visiting one of the greenest destinations in the world is a great responsibility”.

This is the declaration from Slovenia’s leading tourism website. The trend-setting European destinations do not shy away from letting their visitors know their responsibilities as guests in their home.

Finland, Slovenia and Iceland invest heavily in promoting those businesses and regional destinations that achieve their green label (see Trend 4 above). There are numerous pointers to visitors to choose these certified businesses over others, giving simple encouragements such as “if you have two equally good options, go with the one with the label. It’ll be a better, more mindful choice.”

Check out the links below to see more of this trend in action:

  1. Finland tries to help their visitors make the right choices. Have a look at their handy blog-style articles.
  2. Scotland has a widely promoted Visitor Pledge that invites guests to respect the land and support local businesses. There are more than 20 different commitments! On the Visit Scotland website, visitors are invited to make their Promise to Scotland.
  3. I feel Slovenia lets visitors know how to travel around the country sustainably – by train, bike or electric car.
  4. Iceland gives visitors a carbon calculator to calculate their carbon footprint and then links to local carbon-capturing projects they can support to offset your travel emissions.
  5. Like Scotland, Iceland invites guests to take a pledge and commit to being a responsible tourist. Check out their novel online invite and commitment route with some great Icelandic sound effects.

Could the policies, strategies and activities of these sustainable destination stewards  indicate the future direction of travel for other European nations? In other words, are these trends? We'd love to hear what you think -  please leave a comment!


Tina O'Dwyer

Tina is a facilitator, mentor and coach specialising in tourism. She has extensive experience in sustainable tourism, regenerative tourism, food tourism, networks, clusters and collaborations. To avail of any of our training or coaching services you can contact us at [email protected] or sign up to our newsletter below for weekly industry insights. For those interested in connecting with other like-minded tourism and hospitality professionals, you may consider joining us in the Huddle where we have group training sessions and guest speakers every month.

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