By Maya Azzi, M.S. and Christine Vogt, Ph.D.
Where to Travel Next?
Deciding where to travel can be both exciting and stressful. There are many personal and destination features that travelers typically consider: weather, costs, length of trip, travel party of family or friends, level of adventure or fun or relaxation – and more consumers are now also factoring sustainability into their decision-making.
Every year, more than one billion people travel for leisure. Around the world, destinations work to create the ultimate experience that visitors will enjoy and remember for a lifetime.
While vacation trips are often a highlight in a person’s life, there are benefits for the locations visited, as well. Countless studies show that there are positive effects, including preservation of ecological and cultural sites, and job creation and job growth – particularly in local businesses and entrepreneurship. However, The Good, Bad and Ugly, a popular legacy book, says there are negative impacts too.
Be a Sustainably Minded Traveler
One billion people traveling creates stress on local residents from crowding and road traffic, limited economic impact (if local businesses are not being supported), and degradation of the natural environment and its resources if no or little management is in place to protect it.
Thankfully, as travel continues to expand, the tourism industry is working diligently to create options for the sustainably minded traveler.
Travelers ultimately have control over where they want to go, what they want to do, and how they behave in a visited destination, even if the trip is a group tour or excursion. Destination planning often is unconsciously and passively decided from past experiences, such as fond memories of the beach as a child, personal motivation and characteristics (e.g., active healthy lifestyle or foodie), along with information from external sources, like a recommendation from a friend or an Instagram picture. The overarching idea is that most decision-making is done in a “mindless” state of being. The ability to plan a vacation with more active decision-making, a process that considers multiple perspectives, is possible; however, it requires a more intentional (“mindful”) thought process.
Mindfulness Over Mindlessness
In the study of tourism, sometimes mindlessness is associated with tourists and mindfulness with travelers. A traveler is sustainably minded and uses a more mindful process to plan visits to a destination. He or she selects activities and travel services, such as accommodations and transportation, that support greater accountability by destinations, and service providers who commit to more holistic sustainable practices that will improve the health of the environment, enhance sociocultural aspects of community, and provide enduring and localized economic development. For sustainability to yield maximum benefits, commitment and action need to come from both the traveler and the destination.
Arizona State University’s Center for Sustainable Tourism recently partnered with Sedona Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau to better understand the presence of mindfulness among those who travel and determine whether mindfulness added to a traveler’s likelihood to behave sustainably in a visited destination. ASU researchers seized the opportunity to study a community like Sedona, where residents, city government, public lands, tribes, and nonprofits are working together to commit to community and tourism sustainability. Mindfulness and sustainability had not yet been studied in Sedona, even though similar concepts like spiritual and vortex tourism are a prominent sector in the area. Researchers were most interested in examining evidence of mindfulness by travelers through active information processing and acute sensitivity to an individual’s environment and openness to new information. Questions to measure mindfulness inherent of individuals were asked using a scale developed by mindfulness scholars.
Branding with Sustainability
Indeed, Sedona was a perfect place to conduct travelers’ awareness of sustainability. Sedona had recently undergone a rigorous review to be certified by the Global Sustainable Tourism Certification (GSTC) program, one of the world’s leading travel credentials. This certification requires many dimensions of sustainability to be fulfilled by a destination. ASU was interested in learning whether travelers paid attention to the certification and other signs of sustainability commitment. Results showed that individuals who are looking to select a destination that is known to already be more sustainable are inherently more mindful. Results also found that travelers are more likely to be sustainable when they understand their sustainability options better. A community or destination can leverage sustainability and attract mindful travelers by simply focusing their branding, entertainment, and educational strategies to create awareness of sustainability practices by businesses, public lands, and the broader community, including residents’ commitment.
Integrating Responsible Outdoor Recreation with Sustainability
ASU found that individuals who recreate outdoors are more mindfully oriented and receptive to mindful-oriented information than downtown shoppers. Outdoor enthusiasts should be a target market when highlighting sustainability offerings and marketing within a destination. With outdoor recreation being a pastime for Arizona residents and a dominant reason for tourists to visit Arizona, sustainability in outdoor recreation and tourism go hand in hand. Programs such as Leave No Trace were of great interest to the Sedona visitors we studied and provide a nationally recognized public lands ethic that everyone should follow.
Spending money in local businesses and selecting locally owned and operated tours that don’t stress the surrounding environment are very important to mindful travelers, according to the results of the ASU research study. Sedona has a localized tourism industry, with very few retail stores or tour companies owned or managed from out-of-state. That’s important to mindfully oriented individuals, but many destinations forget the importance of leveraging their localness.
Maya Azzi was a graduate associate in the Center for Sustainable Tourism while completing her master’s degree from Arizona State University’s School of Community Resources and Development. Upon graduating, for two years, she worked around the state, collaborating and implementing sustainable and resilient economic and community development programs, as the Rural Program Manager for Local First Arizona Foundation. She now works at the University of Arizona with students from underrepresented backgrounds. Christine Vogt is a professor in the School of Community Resources & Development at Arizona State University. She also directs the Center for Sustainable Tourism, where faculty and students study leading tourism topics and trends for the benefit of communities.