How new interest in sustainability may affect destination marketing strategies

better tourism sustainable tourism Mar 16, 2022
How new interest in sustainability may affect destination marketing strategies

From the OECD and UNWTO to Euromonitor and Skift, all forecasts, industry analyses and think tank articles highlight ‘sustainability’ as a dominant megatrend for now and the foreseeable future. Annual consumer surveys from online giants such as, g-adventures and skyscanner show rising consumer sentiment around sustainability and local impact. Governments have started to legislate our daily lives to allow our countries reach their Agenda 2030 targets and reach net-zero globally by 2050. ‘Sustainability’ made it into every single one of the ‘Top Trends of 2022’-style articles that relate to travel and tourism (I love reading these each January!). This article starts on the assumption that the existence of a new and widespread interest in sustainability is not in dispute.


Traditional destination marketing strategies

Let’s first have a look at how tourism destination marketing has developed since the 1950s. Countries and destinations all around the world had identified tourism as a driver of employment and economic value. It seemed a simple equation: the more visitors that would come, the more money that would flow into the destination and the better off the citizens would be.

Following that logic, the destinations that attracted the most visitors were deemed to be the most successful. Destination marketing became more and more ambitious with bigger and bigger budgets allocated to attracting as many visitors as possible into the destination.

Almost universally, tourism success was measured in terms of absolute numbers of visitors entering a country or destination.



A shift in perspective

After 60 or 70 years of massive growth, we started to hear about something called ‘overtourism’. Some of the bucket-list winners started to look like over-touristed losers.  Host communities started to find their voice and it wasn’t always a welcoming one.  There were questions about the impact of all this discretionary travel on the planet. The idea of ‘flight-shame’ was born. Some even started to label the industry as ‘extractive’. There was a growing feeling that our places, heritage and culture were being mined for profit without due regard to how this profit was distributed and what impact the mining had on the place itself.

There was mounting evidence that the numbers-driven model had serious limitations – that it inevitably would lead to a tipping point where more visitor numbers would actually mean less benefit for host communities and the world overall.

The gloriously successful marketing strategies that had led to an explosion in travel started to fall from favour. In the pursuit of the benefits that more tourism numbers could bring, destination marketing strategies were found to perhaps not have had due regard to the burdens that came with those numbers. The pursuit of endless growth without a fair spread of benefit and due consideration to the environment, local cultures, and host communities has come under question.

There is growing acknowledgement that more ‘sustainable’ approaches to destination marketing are required and that ‘business-as-usual’ may no longer serve the industry and all its stakeholders well.


3 ways that sustainability may affect destination marketing strategies 


  1.  Sustainability changes the destination goals and measures of success

The new interest in sustainability may move destination marketing strategies away from destination promotion and towards destination protection. It may require a shift from promoting visitation to securing benefit for communities and places.

Changing from a growth paradigm to a sustainability paradigm re-frames the goals of tourism and re-defines how success should be measured. Success would be defined not by visitor numbers alone, but by the positive impact those numbers can provide to local places and communities. The purpose of tourism would be to provide livelihoods, quality employment, career progression. The purpose of tourism would also be to conserve and share our natural and cultural heritage in a way that ensures that heritage remains strong for all future generations. The onus would be on the destination managers to develop measurement tools for these variables, instead of continuing with measurement tools that mainly count the numbers crossing the border. The number of visitors that deliver a balance of positive benefit for community and place may become the optimal destination number.


  1.  Sustainability demands wider and more meaningful stakeholder engagement in marketing

Marketing just for growth affects infrastructure, the environment, local communities, other economic sectors, and wider society. “When unchecked, this growth can lead to significant impacts on sensitive cultural, heritage and environmental sites, as well as the day-to-day lives of residents, often resulting in negative perceptions or even resentment towards tourists and tourism more broadly. (OECD, 2020)

“The trendline is crystal clear: Destinations that are to remain competitive and attractive to visitors for years to come will have to start protecting their communities and cultural capital now. This shift in approach requires reimagining the way that destination marketing and management intersect — as well as incorporating the concerns of local stakeholders into the tourism boards’ strategic planning.” (Skift, 2020)

Successful destination marketing strategies will require more dialogue, more inclusivity and more collaboration. The idea that destination marketing strategies would have free rein to market and promote a destination without any consultation with communities and other destination stakeholders already seems a little dated. Meaningful and ongoing engagement with the people of the place is now essential. The benefit to the local community of hosting visitors must be clear and tangible to that community. The way in which the place and its people are depicted must have the buy-in of those people.


  1.  Sustainability affects destination messaging

Sustainability-minded customers want to know your values, as a destination and as a destination marketing organisation. It may no longer be about products and packaged experiences. It may be more about the impact of those experiences on the visitor, the environment, local community and society in general. What you stand for as a destination now really matters. Sharing your destination values and having a robust sustainability policy as the foundation of the destination marketing would seem very advisable.  Here are some messaging strategies that seek to resonate with a sustainably-minded visitor:

  • Promote longer lengths of stay and show visitors how they can spend longer in local places, see more and be of more value.
  • Promote green travel – travel with the lowest carbon emissions possible. Show visitors the most sustainable way to travel to and around the destination. This may stretch so far as a destination limiting its marketing efforts to near-to-home markets.
  • Communicate the transformative power of their visit and of the experiences they choose. Let visitors know that their spend has real value in the local economy or community e.g. through job creation, strengthening culture, protecting heritage and the natural environment.
  • Work with the idea of maximum capacity, allowing visitors to become aware that they are guests in somebody’s home and that there are times when the house is full.
  • Message first for the off-season and for lesser-visited places in the destination.
  • Share more information about how to access protected environments e.g. National Parks, World Heritage Sites, Geoparks, Biospheres, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Special Protected Areas.
  • Create more opportunities, incentives and even requirements to buy local produce and avail of local services.



Assuming sustainability remains a dominant concern of the tourism industry and society in general, future destination marketing strategies will take responsibility not just for the numbers of visitors, but also for the types of tourists who visit and for guaranteeing viable destinations that provide valuable contributions to economic stability, community sovereignty and environmental health.


Further reading

(Rethinking tourism success for sustainable growth | OECD Tourism Trends and Policies 2020 | OECD iLibrary (

Skift-Megatrends-2020.pdf’s 2021 Sustainable Travel Report Affirms Potential Watershed Moment for Industry and Consumers

The Return of Travel - Skyscanner publishes global trends report | Skyscanner's Travel Blog

Top 10 travel trends for 2022 - G Adventures



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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