Friday, June 14, 2024

Sustainability and experiences come to the fore at WTM : Louis Theroux

Sustainability and specialist travel topped the agenda for the final day of WTM London 23, with a well-known TV documentary maker wowing the audience with a keynote to round off one of the most successful events in recent years.

Louis Theroux is internationally recognized for producing highly acclaimed documentaries on wide-ranging subjects. He has spent a lot of time traveling and recognized it in his keynote as force for good.

He also has his finger on the pulse of today’s trends. Recognizing the trends for both experiential and sustainable travel, he pointed out excitement often comes from “meeting extraordinary people, as opposed to traveling extraordinary distances.”

He advised a packed room: “Have experiences that mean you get deep quickly, rather than places that are giving you a buffet and an Elvis show… not that I’m not partial to an Elvis show.”

Buffets cropped up in passing elsewhere on the final day, as part of the Sustainability Summit, moderated by WTM London’s Responsible Tourism Advisor Harold Goodwin.

The summit covered the biggest issues in sustainable travel, including overtourism which is back in the spotlight as travel volumes return to pre-pandemic levels.

Goodwin noted that destinations were reluctant to give examples of what has worked and what hasn’t when it comes to addressing too many visitors. He highlighted Barcelona as one of the few exceptions, adding: “We need to have more of that sharing going on.”

Martin Brackenbury, former President of the International Federation of Tour Operators and Advisor to UNWTO, believes responsible tourism is now front of mind for many travel organizations.

He said: “Forty years ago I first became more concerned with effects of tourism on the environment, but the board members weren’t interested. That was 1982. I don’t think there would be a single boardroom these days where that could be the case”. 

Meanwhile in a session on green transport, Bjorn Bender, CEO of Rail Europe, said he commutes every week to Paris from Switzerland by train and doesn’t even own a car. He believes more top executives can travel greenly.

Regulations around sustainability in travel were also discussed, with the consensus that travel and tourism has to work within parameters not drafted specifically for it, such as in health and safety. However, sector-specific regulation on sustainability could help.

Isabel Hill, an envoy from the Sustainable Tourism Global Center, said: “The risk of not regulating at this point is existential.” She added that working together on green issues should be permitted. “I’m afraid the industry is competing on sustainability and this is crazy and we need to redefine how companies can collaborate without violating anti-trust regulations.”

Aviation experts took the opportunity to talk up their efforts to minimize the environmental impact of flying. John Strickland, Director at JLS Consulting, heard from Dom Kennedy, SVP Revenue Management, Distribution and Holidays, at Virgin Atlantic highlighted how the carrier is on track to get the regulatory approvals needed to operate a transatlantic flight at the end of this month, fully powered by sustainable aviation fuel.

The same session featured Simon McNamara, Director of Government and Industry Affairs at Heart Aerospace, a Swedish start-up developing 30-seater electric powered aircraft for regional routes of up to 200km. Its aircraft are expected to enter service in 2028.

However, sustainability is about more than just the climate. Sasha Dench, CEO and Ambassador for the UN’s Convention on Migratory Species, urged travel and tourism companies to think how they can make a positive difference. “Nature really does need a helping hand. There are opportunities where tourism could be the most powerful force for good.”

Elsewhere, “behavioural science” was raised as a lever to drive sustainability, such as banning wasteful buffets. Stephanie Boyle, Head of Campaigns at the Safer Tourism Foundation said: “It’s amazing how if you don’t supply plastic straws, people don’t use plastic straws.” 

Sustainability is more important than to described as a trend, whereas the role of influencers in the industry is still being assessed. Key influencers were present in their numbers at WTM London 23, explaining how the travel industry could use social media to its advantage.  

 An expert panel stressed how video, and particularly longer form posts of more than one minute, could be used to promote destinations, despite the popularity of the short Tik Tok format. Dan Gordon, Google’s strategic agency manager, said: “There is no industry better placed that has a more attractive product. [Video] is not exclusive to short format.”

Paula D’Urbano, Head of TikTok LIVE Creators UK, added: “Short form has boomed for a few years, travel brands need to be there, I still see so many that aren’t.” She hailed Ryanair’s as “a brand that has grabbed the playful, quirky audience that exists on Tik Tok.”

She advised: “Having a hook in the first three seconds is super important,” but added: “Fifty per cent of the time on Tik Tok is spent on videos of one minute-plus. Travel leans very well to these videos that are longer.”

Options other than influencers were highlighted as a way for emerging destinations in particular to raise their tourism profile. B2B channels are the way ahead, said Ibrahim Osta, from USAID Developing Sustainable Tourism in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He also highlighted the need to train students, adults and educators in the hospitality sector.

In the same session, Visit Malta’s UK and Ireland director Tolene van der Merwe, who hailed the important role of travel agents in attracting tourists, saying they had a “tremendous impact” in 2023.

On a different stage, speakers from three African destinations showcased their adventure travel credentials and outlined how they are making leisure tourism easier for overseas visitors.

Rwanda has a ‘one-shop’ tourism policy, which means operators and developers can get licences and information from one place instead of a range of agencies, while Sierra Leone is looking to establish a leisure airline to bring more tourists from the UK. Meanwhile, Zambia is trying to balance the needs of developers with the need to be sustainable, which means allowing safari lodges rather than five-star hotels, delegates heard.

Emerging destinations have a similar growth profile to niche travel, with both tapping into the zeitgeist around experiential travel. In a conference track dedicated to experiences, execs from the Halal Travel Network, the World Food Travel Association and the Global Healthcare Travel Council advised delegates of the needs of travelers interested in these segments.

Established destinations have different issues, with delegates doing business in Europe warned about a proliferation of fake ETIAS [European Travel Information and Authorisation System] websites ahead of the system’s introduction in mid-2025.

Izabella Cooper, Senior Stakeholder Management Officer at the European Border and Coastguard Agency, said there are already 58 bogus websites, which raises fears about potential misuse and misinformation.

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