Sustainability is rapidly gaining global recognition and importance as an integral component of development, but Good Life X is committed to going beyond and exploring innovative regenerative models, which really open the door to a thriving future. But how well do tourism businesses understand the critical need to incorporate such approaches when growing their products and services?
Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is still in the very early stages of embracing sustainable and regenerative development practices, with some experts arguing that these concepts are still alien to much of the industry. But there is no running away from the fact that this approach is the only way forward, and it would serve us well to adapt and transform now, if we are to remain relevant in the future.
Good Life X recently spoke to Dinesh Gratian Perera, Dishan Jothilingam and Chandika Rajapakse, experts who are part of our Digital Evolver program, to gain some insight into how a sustainability approach can help Sri Lanka’s tourism operators evolve and create new experiences.
A research paper published in the Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research in February 2021, concludes that “sustainable tourism development is a desirable prerequisite for enhancing the prosperity of the region.” Based on this, we asked our experts how they thought sustainable experience dimensions could enhance the value of a destination, with special reference to Sri Lanka.
Dinesh believes that sustainable tourism development must have a positive impact on a destination’s environment. “The environmental aspect is so important, as it ensures that the visual appeal of a destination is at its peak. At the end of the day, travellers seek places that offer a pleasing experience from a nature and environment point of view.”
For example, Ella (a naturally picturesque destination located in the highlands of Sri Lanka) has suffered from over-tourism and unplanned development, and this has impacted its environment negatively. As Dinesh points out, “In the future, high-paying travellers may not find the destination appealing, leading to a drop in its perceived value.” So, a sustainable tourism approach can reverse the tide and enhance the tourism value of the destination instead.
A destination’s perceived value can also be elevated by developing sustainable and regenerative tourism experiences that support long-term economic benefits, while also having a positive impact on the community. Chandika says, “A tourism experience can add value to a destination through knowledge sharing, funding for local community development initiatives, or engaging travellers in activities that benefit the community.”
Dishan believes that all tourism activity providers have the capacity to develop alternative products that align with the current socio-economic condition, but they need to be educated on creating smart alternative products with a worthy cause that provokes human emotion. Airbnb’s Social Impact Experiences is a great platform to market such experiences to an audience that is actively looking out for offerings along this line (Social Impact Experiences allow hosts to partner with non-profit organizations to create transformational interactions that support a cause).
As much as they are all equally important, Dinesh reckons that the social and community impact will not be as overt as the environmental impact. But he does think that travellers will be able to decipher if service providers are functioning out of genuine passion or simply trying to make a quick buck in an exploitative manner.
Key Takeaway: Sustainable tourism experiences need to be developed and marketed with an awareness of economic, social and environmental impact, so that a destination’s value is elevated.
Chandika points out that authentic experiences are perceived as a necessity in most mature travel markets, with younger travellers developing brand affinity by considering the sustainable, purpose driven ethical practices of products or services. “In my opinion, today, sustainability is more a necessity than an ‘advantage’ in an industry. In the context of tourism, sustainable elements, whether it is in terms of infrastructure, service providers or in tourism experiences themselves, add an exciting new dimension to the visitor experience. Therefore, it can definitely help differentiate your product from the competition and make it far more appealing to a conscious traveller.”
“There's a growing demand and interest among travellers for experiences that are built on a community and planet positive model,” says Dishan. “The 'Travel Experiences and Activities' segment of tourism has been gradually gaining momentum during the last few years, with major OTAs (Online Travel Agents) launching 'Experiences' on their platforms, attracting millions of monthly users, enabling a wider audience to reserve/book an activity similar to making an accommodation booking. The OTA’s have also adopted steps to ensure that experience hosts, activity suppliers and travel agents adhere to sustainability guidelines and provide a high-quality experience to consumers.”
Against this backdrop, it is evident that having a well-thought-out regenerative approach to tourism development is key to future proofing Sri Lanka’s tourism offering.
Validating this statement, Dinesh says, “Let’s take a high-end property in a great location with expertly trained staff vs. a sustainably operated smaller property - the latter may well be able to offer the guest a more superior and satisfying experience because of its impact oriented approach.”
“An industry like travel and hospitality thrives on the heart and soul of passionate service providers - and these elements come through very overtly when an operator is focussed on developing a sustainable experience. For example, a hotel employee can be very robotic in his service delivery within the property, but an interesting man outside work. So, a sustainable operation will find a way to incorporate the personality of the employee into the offering, bringing out the best in everybody - and that is the real win-win situation,” he adds.
Key Takeaway: Sustainable tourism experiences are a competitive necessity, and they are actively being sought after by conscious travellers.
Primarily, digital offers a great opportunity to generate visibility and awareness - whether it is in terms of sharing knowledge and best practices with operators and the community or in terms of talking to potential travellers about the sustainable tourism experiences available at the destination.
Speaking about this, Chandika says, “Digital technology can play a critical role when it comes to the distribution of sustainable experiences and products in the online marketplace. Growth in mobile technology and the use of augmented reality will open new elements to an experience, enriching it with knowledge dissemination, and also creating opportunities for digital experiences.”
Digital innovations have helped the tourism industry create alternate experiences to cater to consumers during the Pandemic period. The innovative use of technology to deliver virtual experiences to consumers has formed a new wave of adaptation and became a sub-industry in the tourism experience space - Airbnb Experiences is a great example. Many tourism operators have been able to sustain their business throughout the Pandemic period by hosting virtual experiences utilizing these digital tools.
Dinesh contributes to the conversation, saying, “Digital technologies allow us tremendous freedom and opportunity. Data and modelling can help us to come up with a variety of solutions and test them, and Augmented Reality and AI can further enhance these processes. By asking the right questions, running tests and checking out various models, we can avoid making costly on-ground experiences that hurt people and the planet.”
However, Dinesh also points out that in most instances, access to such technology and skills are restricted to large companies that continue to think and act unsustainably. Smaller operators have not been utilizing opportunities available via OTAs, especially to promote experiences. “I believe it is critical that access to technology and the resulting chance at innovation is made available for those with genuine passion for hospitality and doing good at heart. The current Digital Evolver Program by Good Life X is a great example of that happening,” he says.
Key Takeaway: Digital can be used to generate awareness about tourism initiatives creating a net positive impact, and digital tools can help operators develop experiences that mitigate negative impact.