4 Key Themes on the Yin Yang of Sustainable Tourism Operations
The yin yang shows a balance between two opposites with a portion of the opposite element in each section.
The yin yang symbol is what came to mind for me while listening to a panel of tourism operators discuss their practices, challenges and ambitions around sustainable and regenerative tourism last week. It became clear that on a day-to-day basis the sustainability journey is not black or white. Instead, it is about finding a way to operate where two things have to be true at once, where both sustainable and less sustainable elements are at play, where the negative exists but may be mitigated by the positive. There are opposing forces at work and it’s a challenge for the business to find that harmony.
The panel was part of a webinar on the topic of ‘Lead your Tourism Business to a Sustainable Future’, hosted by Munster Technological University. I was invited to deliver a keynote talk on the topic of ‘Powerful Questions for a Better Tourism Future’. The panel discussion which followed my talk was humbling, listening to people who on a day-to-day basis try to find the best operational, viable and feasible answer to those questions.
I took 4 key themes from the conversation – Conflict, Customers, Community and Continuity. I say thanks to the 4 panellists for being so honest in what they shared.
The webinar was hosted by Colum Gibson, Environmental Consultant at Clean Technology Centre, MTU, and featured contributions from panellists Sean Murphy, CEO of Murphy’s Ice Cream, Mary White, Director at Blackstairs Eco Trails and Hildur Guðbjörg Kristjánsdóttir, Co-owner of Midgard Adventure in Iceland.
All panellists were selected because of their exemplary and sometimes ground-breaking practices in the area of sustainability. This didn’t sit too comfortably with all of them. Sean Murphy confessed that he was feeling Imposter Syndrome, selected as a panellist for his exemplary sustainable practices yet feeling that this was crazy when his business (as he saw it) still has so much more to do! At the same time, he eloquently expressed the importance of sharing our learnings and mistakes and fostering more honesty and co-operation within the industry so as to accelerate our collective journey. The two ideas had to be balanced.
The other way that the conflict theme manifested itself was in their business choices. Sean, an ice-cream manufacturer and experience provider, expressed the complexity for the world of trying to find a sustainable form of farming that keeps people on the land and that sustains local food growing but that is also minimal impact. Hildur spoke of her heightened consciousness of using diesel-fuelled trucks to bring visitors to the mountain and having the knowledge that nearly all visitors have to fly to her island destination in order to experience her offering. Colum added a personal element to this, sharing his sensation of flight guilt as part of a recent trip to Scotland, highlighting the sense of personal irony he experienced in standing at a place from where the glaciers were retreating having flown in order to get there to see it.
These are all issues of inner conflict that cannot easily be resolved. Tourism and many businesses within it have an impact on the world and on the environment.
All that being true, it was also clear that tourism and many businesses within it have a balancing and positive impact on the world. In fact, this potential for positive impact was spoken about as an obligation and a responsibility for the business. Tourism businesses often deal with a captive audience, an audience open to new ideas and seeking new experiences. Through unique experiences, tourism has the ability for transformation, to shift perspectives and mindsets and to plant seeds of change in the hearts and minds of their customers and suppliers.
“You won’t remember what happens in your day-to-day but you will remember what happens in your once-off”
Colum Gibson, Clean Technology Centre, MTU
Customers may be much more passive in sustainable travel than we would like to think. The general experience of the panellists was that visitors do not ask about this and do not make purchase decisions based on this. It may be that people in general are overwhelmed by the enormity of our global problems and simply cannot process this. It may be that while on holiday, people need a break from it. It may be that visitors don’t speak the language of sustainability even though they get it.
Businesses tread a fine line in speaking about their good practices as they do not want to get their visitors offside by appearing to preach or engender feelings of guilt. Visitors want comfort and luxury and will not sacrifice on those for the sake of a more sustainable choice. It’s ok to ‘nudge’ visitors on one or two key points but that’s about it.
For businesses thinking that investment in sustainable practices will yield a marketing value, that just may not be the case. It was highlighted that it is the responsibility of the business to make it as easy as possible for the visitor to make sustainable choices, and almost to make it as invisible as possible for them to do that. A business must invest in becoming more sustainable and must also invest in ways to make it easy and seamless for the visitor to behave sustainably. For now, the responsibility is all with the business.
“Sustainability is just table stakes now”
Sean Murphy, Murphy's Ice Cream
For all 3 panellists, community was a central factor in business decision-making. Hildur’s business put a focus on year-round jobs in a town of just 800 people in rural Iceland. For them, a key business objective was to ensure that the business was part of the community and that their employees felt part of a community and part of a family. It was this, for example, that led them to creating an event space in the two that would be able to make a cultural contribution to their local community.
“For us, creating a feasible place to live is very important.”
Hildur Guðbjörg Kristjánsdóttir, Midgard Adventure
Blackstairs Eco Trails are conscious of cultivating links with other small businesses in their area, creating a mini circular economy around visitors who stay longer in the local area e.g. engaging with local taxi drivers, dining in local restaurants, visiting the farmers market.
For Murphy's Ice Cream, nurturing an almost exclusively local supply chain was also a key business priority. Furthermore, one of the primary motivators to expand the business beyond its initial presence in Dingle was to create meaningful career opportunities for their team.
Businesses do make business decisions with the objective of making a positive contribution to employees, suppliers and their local community. Local indigenous businesses are highly motivated to make those types of decisions.
Here too, however, balance is required. Each business needs to have a certain number of customers and make a certain amount of revenue to sustain the jobs and community impact each year and year after year. Ensuring the hard-nosed business end is working well, that marketing, pricing and distribution channels work well is just as much a responsibility as ensuring the community and employees benefit. It too is a contribution to sustainability.
“If you have the right people doing the right things and serving the customer well, then the money will follow. But the money must follow.”
Sean Murphy, Murphy’s Ice Cream
When asked about what their challenges were, being able to continue with the journey, both the business journey and the sustainability journey, were key themes. The ability to ensure continuity of employment year-after-year, season-after-season was important. The ability to care for themselves and protect their own energy and motivation into the future was also named as a key consideration. Once again, it’s about finding a balance and holding several truths at once – doing what’s right for the customer, the community, the environment while also ensuring that the work remains satisfying and rewarding for oneself.
“We want to make sure we are sustainable and create a business that is long-term employing local people and gives us great pleasure to run it as well.”
Mary White, Blackstairs Eco Trails
Tina is a facilitator, mentor and coach with particular interest in sustainable tourism, regenerative tourism, food tourism, tourism networks and collaborations. Tina advises on and delivers talks on regenerative approaches to tourism. Watch her TEDx Talk here. For speaking services visit here. The Circular Economy 4 Regenerative Tourism is an EU funded and MTU-led programme. Learn more about it here.
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