“When you discard your employees, who are the real stakeholders of tourism industry, you break the basic law of sustainability”

george scaria TPC

By George Scaria (Travelife Certified Sustainability Manager)

Sustainability in tourism has been a major talking point at several industry platforms for the last few years. When it comes to the post Covid-19 new normal, sustainability will have a major role to play. The concept is based on the three Ps – People, Planet & Profit. But unfortunately, many misunderstand or misinterpret the above to suit their own convenience. In this article, I am trying to bring a few points which may be closer to the real definitions.

In my personal experience, I have found that many of our industry stakeholders have an unwanted fear about sustainability because they think it’s tough and impractical. That’s a misunderstanding. Sustainability is the most sustainable business model in tourism. Importantly, the world is evolving towards a sustainable model as many are bothered about the negative impacts of tourism. In most of the universities in developed countries, sustainability is part of the tourism curriculum.

People Factor – The most abandoned

People form the centre of Sustainable Tourism. The most discussed and appreciated definition of Sustainable Tourism is to make a destination worth visiting and worth living, and that pertains to the people factor. Unfortunately, the human opportunism manipulates the definitions to support their personal agenda.

What do we mean by People in Sustainable Tourism?

Most of us think that it pertains to the people in the society, the travellers and even the global population. In my opinion, the people factor should begin at home – I mean in our own organisations, in our own business communities, in our own networks.

Few years ago, when the online revolution hit the tourism sector in India, many jumped into this easier realm by ignoring the local tour operators who spent their lives developing destinations and promoting them. Even the so-called sustainable hotel groups found their own excuses in discarding the local tour operators by opting an easy way out through online travel agents (OTAs) and booking portals. Was it sustainable? What was the role of these so-called OTAs during the crisis and pandemic?

Frankly speaking, we were opting an easy way to bypass the key element of sustainability. But now a sensible traveller will only book his travel itinerary through a tour operator because he knows the pain of getting stuck in the middle during a crisis. Hence, I still believe in the human element in hospitality.

Secondly, who comes first in this People Factor in your business?

I would say, first and foremost, your own employee. Then comes your vendors, network partners, service providers etc. It’s a big list. But when you discard your employees, who are the real stakeholders in the tourism industry, you break the basic law of sustainabilityAt this juncture, there is a simple question to be asked. Are you in tourism because of your passion? If you are a passionate entrepreneur, what stops you from fighting a crisis because you should be confident that your industry will bounce back after every crisis. Unfortunately, most of the tourism entrepreneurs closed their shops and left their employees to their fate, ignoring   natural justice. The employees are the real backbone of all your asset creations from business. So, we failed in maintaining sustainability at home. Then how can we offer sustainability to the world? Sustainability begins at home.

And finally, which government has the right to talk about Sustainability in Tourism?

It’s easy to present papers on international platforms by making a model destination etc. This can bring some awards and photo opportunities followed by media celebrations. In India, the tourism and hospitality industry were totally discarded by the State and Central governments leaving a huge chunk of professionals and entrepreneurs in total disaster. As a partner country to International Labour Organisation treaties, India never tried to understand what is happening to the working professionals in tourism. Starting from a cleaning boy at a hotel to the tourist taxi-driver, guide, marketing person to a senior professional, everyone is suffering. How can we then expect the People Factor in Tourism to show passion, for which India was known for?

The simple, basic meaning of People Factor is to make your business beneficial to each and every stakeholder who contributes or sacrifices towards your business. People’s efforts have to be compensated.

Planet Factor

This is something which we comfortably compromised to match our commercial interests. When Sustainable Tourism discussions matured towards impact on the planet, there came research papers to assess the impact on destinations, when tourism wasn’t planned well. And now we have reached a point where even our lives are at stake.

Who created this situation?

None of us can avoid responsibility here. When tourism was identified as a potential economic booster, the governments thought it was okay to dilute sustainability by ignoring the key elements especially nature-oriented destinations. A destination that developed without  sustainability planning is the biggest threat in tourism. Infrastructure built without considering the impact on the planet is an eternal disaster. India failed thoroughly in having a uniform tourism policy across the country despite tourism being a significant contributor towards GDP, employment and foreign exchange.

Majority of our entrepreneurs hail from real estate and other big commercial chains and for them tourism is just another money-making business. It was so heartbreaking to see how many of the investors lightly discarded the Planet Factor while creating infrastructure for business. The biggest danger they put themselves in, is establishing a business unit without analysing the carrying capacity of a destination. This means zero sustainability for their business as the mushrooming of business establishments at a destination which can’t carry that many travellers at a given point of time is a recipe for disaster. And in India, a nation known for over-politicisation and bribery, many could manipulate licenses in their favour. But they forgot that these licences cannot ensure a sustainable business. My point is that the investors, whether they are passionate or not, should identify the sustainability of a business model before they invest. Unfortunately, the Indian tourism industry is over-dependent on consultants who will just disappear after helping the business to start. I have not seen a single consultant in hospitality who is good enough to run a unit profitably.

Basically, if you ignore your planet, it will ignore you soon.

Profit Factor

In India, I have found that the tourism industry has a total misconception of the Profit Factor in Sustainable Tourism. Many think that Sustainable Tourism has nothing to do with profit and it’s more or less a charity. Completely wrong.

Profit factor has a premium role in sustainability. Our basic misconception is that the economic benefits of Sustainable Tourism are distributed in society or community. But we forget the fact that even the business owner is also a stakeholder and belongs to the community. If we understand this basic point, we would love to be a sustainable entrepreneur.

It’s important to run our tourism business with reasonable profits and the success of a business turnover is not in doing huge volumes with meagre margins, but it’s in doing sustainable volumes with sustainable profit. Only this model can support the economy as a whole and the stakeholders individually. A product designed to sustain gets a higher price tag and that supports the profit factor. If we look around at least 40% of the global travellers are willing to pay extra for a sustainable product or service. And it’s growing.

If we evaluate the present cash crunch in the Indian tourism industry, we can easily find out that it’s because of the unhealthy price war among entrepreneurs, whether it’s hoteliers or tour operators. This ended up in no Profit Factor and subsequently no sustainability. The entry of OTAs and other online portals were so disastrous in India and they manipulated all sustainable pricing equations and now all these agencies have left the scene in this crisis. If we look into any successful global destination, these OTAs could not dictate terms as the industry was a responsible one focused on sustainability. We could not see any such price wars in the developed countries, especially in tourism. But in India, we tried to compete on price whereas sustainability lies in competing on service quality.

I strongly believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is a big opportunity for tourism enterprises to enlighten ourselves about the mistakes we made during the previous years and beat the crisis  by taking strong decisions towards better, sustainable profitability.

We should also believe in the human element and respect our employees for their hard toil during the previous years. They deserve applause and moral support to deliver better next time.

While I was preparing myself for the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) accredited Travelife certification, I could find that India is far behind on such sustainable certifications. In my opinion, every service provider should opt for such sustainable training modules which can really help us to deliver better. I personally feel that the lockdown is an opportunity for professionals like us to upgrade ourselves with sustainability training followed by certifications. You may please log on to or to know more about sustainability training and certifications for the tourism industry.