The U.S. can emphasize its progress on sustainability all it wants, but travelers won’t take it seriously until they see it in their trips, and that requires more substantial actions over words and press releases.
The U.S. travel sector needs to revamp its messaging around the sustainable action its destinations and businesses are taking in order to maintain competitiveness with European markets.
The U.S. has a sustainable perception problem with European tourists, according to Peter van Berkel, chairman of the International Inbound Travel Association and president of Travalco, a tour operator. The problem was a major topic of discussion at the association’s summit last week.
European countries are considered much more advanced when it comes to sustainability, causing some potential tourists to wrongly assume the U.S. isn’t doing much by comparison, he said. Traveler desires to see more proof over talk supports a Skift megatrend that 2023 will be a year of action on climate change.
The perception problem could be a contributing factor as to why European travel to the U.S. has been slow to recover from the pandemic. The UK, France, Italy, Spain and Germany—top inbound markets without visitor visa requirements — won’t reach their 2019 volume until 2025 or 2026, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office’s recent forecast.
Consideration of how sustainable a destination is has moved up the importance ladder for European travelers, according to Michael Edwards, managing director of Explore Worldwide, a tour operator. “People are making more informed choices about where they go but also how they get there and how they travel around when they get there,” he said.
Nearly 70 percent of travelers are actively seeking sustainable travel options, according to a recent report by the World Tourism and Travel Council, Trip.com and Deloitte. About 75 percent stated a desire to choose sustainable travel options in future.
To win over European travelers, some destinations have pursued a sustainable marketing strategy. Cyprus, for example, replaced the loss of its Russian tourist segment with travelers from Germany, Poland, Hungary, France, Austria, Italy, Israel and Switzerland with such a strategy.
Some destinations have a national certification program that reinforce their green image with travelers. For over five years, Slovenia has had a green certification scheme for destinations, hotels and other tourism organizations.
At the moment, U.S. marketing still remains too traditional and not enough on sustainable options and variety, according to Edwards. “You don’t see too much advertising around the US whether it’s by operators or tourism bodies,” said “They focus on that to some degree but it’s still the big stuff that gets advertised. It’s still flying into New York, visiting LA, doing Disney things, the stereotypical stuff people love. They’re awesome, but they are still driving the agenda.”
In reality, the U.S. is still far behind Europe on some carbon cutting fronts. On electric vehicle adoption, for example, the U.S. lags behind by millions. By 2026, there will be 4.4 millions electric vehicle sold in European Union countries, compared to 1.9 million in the U.S., according to Statista.
But the U.S. travel industry needs to do more to raise awareness of the some of the progress it has done, according to van Berkel. He pointed to the U.S. National Parks System as an example of a U.S. travel organization making strides and should be amplified in messaging.
The national parks agency has been lowing carbon footprints within its operations, according to Donald Leadbetter, tourism program manager of the U.S. National Park Service. The agency, for example, has been working on transitioning its fleet to 100 percent electric vehicles and installing charging station infrastructure within parks to support visitors using electric vehicles.
“We’ve got stories that we would love to amplify and be a part of and put that front and center,” Leadbetter said.