Sustainability and Marketing in Tourism: Paradoxes, Challenges and Opportunities

Sustainability and marketing in tourism are not yet as well aligned as they could and indeed should be, argue Professors Xavier Font and Scott McCabe in a recent article published in the academic Journal of Sustainable Tourism. Both tourism sustainability and the repurposing of DMOs from destination marketing to management are hot topics this year – and likely to become even more important in the near future. The article by Font and McCabe could therefore not be more timely for destination managers and marketers.

Read on for a summary of key research findings and to learn about sustainable marketing and the normalization of sustainability in tourism.

Learn about:

  • Why destination branding is critical for the success of tourism;
  • Why current approaches to encouraging sustainability in tourism are not very successful, and how we can do better;
  • The repurposing of DMOs;
  • Main trends linked to destinations and sustainability;
  • The main challenges destinations face regarding marketing and sustainability.

Xavier and Scott, why the interest in destination branding and tourism? What brought you to the topic?

Destination branding is critical for the success of tourism. Brands help differentiate destinations and an important way in which they can do this is through being more sustainable.

Because of the increasing interest amongst consumers for greater sustainability and high quality natural and build environment, branding impacts on the sustainability of the destinations and help influence customer expectations and behaviour.

You just had your article on sustainability and marketing in tourism published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism. Which are your key findings?

We find that surveys which ask about whether tourists care about sustainability should be treated with a great deal of caution. Instead we need much more critical and experimental research to really measure how tourism marketing can be used to best effect to encourage even greater responsibility by consumers and better pro-environmental behaviour.

We also found that by ‘nudging’ consumers gently we are more likely to achieve long-term behaviour change, whereas asking tourists to make grand gestures or go out of their comfort zone only causes them anxiety and to react negatively (making less sustainable holiday choices).

So in our article we suggest a series of opportunities for tourism businesses and destinations alike to realign their marketing strategies in order to achieve greater benefits for the residents of the destinations visited, and also to provide more meaningful experiences for visitors.

We argue that there are two approaches that we can take:

  • First, a product led strategy, encouraging the industry to embed sustainability in their service offerings, as this is what consumers expect from them. This would mainstream greater sustainability in the tourism industry.
  • Second, a consumer led approach seeks to make sustainable tourism destinations and services more widely available and greater targeting of consumers who are more inclined to chose sustainable destination brands.

In a nutshell, what is ‘sustainable marketing’ and what does it look like in the tourism context?

Sustainable marketing is the application of marketing techniques for the purpose of making a sustainable use of the resources at hand. It means acknowledging that marketing has a role to play in the wellbeing of the places we visit, and that it is partly responsible for the behaviour that we encourage from the target groups we aim to sell to.

For tourism, sustainable marketing refers to the changes in objectives of DMOs and businesses alike, and the realignment of their strategy and operations as a result of considering their benefits to the destination, and not to the tourism industry. This requires a more inclusive view of who the DMO is accountable to, and a longer term vision of the trade-offs resulting from their choices.

In your view, which are the main trends right now regarding marketing and sustainability – especially linked to destinations?

Unfortunately, the conventional approach in tourism has been to identify products/destinations that are sustainable and market them with ecolabels. But these have little market traction because they were not thought through with a market-led perspective.

The challenge of trying to convert more people to purposefully buy sustainable products specifically for sustainability characteristics and attributes is that attempts to grow a niche market are unlikely to be sufficient to solve society’s problems.

Consumers often think that being sustainable on holiday will entail sacrifice of comfort and quality. Instead, we need to learn more about mainstreaming sustainable products. By this we mean learning how to redesign mainstream products with more sustainability features and benefits, but sell them through quality arguments. In other words, we should normalise the consumption of sustainable products. This way consumers will want to behave more sustainably, because they will associate sustainable choices with quality and not sacrifice.

There is a fantastic opportunity for destinations and businesses to capture market share with high quality, environmentally and socially responsible products and services.

Has your view on tourism sustainability and marketing changed since you wrote the article?

Not really, since it was written only in January. What has surprised us is that in applying some of these ideas to the city of Barcelona, where we developed some of the mainstreaming sustainability thinking, we have had excellent feedback from the public sector, but also some ambivalent or dismissive responses from the businesses that are making their living out of the current unsustainable business model. Clearly there’s a lot of work to do.

Which aspect do you think is the most difficult to ‘get right’, regarding marketing and sustainability in tourism?

The understanding of the need to work for the benefit of the destination, and that this is not the same as maximising the number of tourists and prioritising those with the greatest expenditure per head.

Politicians love to say that tourism has grown, and that they attract more overseas customers, from further away, than ever before. Those cannot be the measures of success. Remember, turnover is vanity, profit margins are sanity. Emphasis seems to be on focusing on working harder, but not smarter.

We need to convince businesses that being environmentally and socially responsible will lead to greater efficiencies, including long term cost savings, and a more sustainable market share and long term profitability.

The need to focus on efficient methods of benefiting the destination is not sufficiently ingrained in the mentality of our industry leaders and there is a lack of collaboration. The mechanics of marketing our destination need also a change of mentality. But old habits die hard.

Which would you consider the most important insight of your research/article for destination managers and marketers?

That destination managers are accountable to the residents of their destinations, not to the tourism industry. And that most impacts caused at the destination, and the carbon footprint of the transport to reach it, is a direct responsibility of the marketing actions of that destination management team.


Read the full article in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism here.

Cite as: Font, X. McCabe, S.(2017)., “Sustainability and marketing in tourism: its contexts, paradoxes, approaches, challenges and potential”, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Vol.25 (7), 869-883.


Xavier Font is Professor of Sustainability Marketing at the University of Surrey, UK, and Head of Impact at Travindy. Learn more about the work of Xavier Font in his interview with the Sustainability Leaders Project or connect with him on LinkedIn.

Scott McCabe is Professor in Marketing and Tourism at Nottingham University, UK. Connect with him on LinkedIn. or learn more about his research and writing here.


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