Sustainable tourism in a post-COVID-19 world

To say that the tourism industry has been turned on its head would – if anything – be an understatement. Destination marketing organisations in every continent are pulling campaigns, re-evaluating their role in their community and creating strategies to support the tourism sector when travel bans are lifted. But how can we ensure that sustainability is still a core consideration in our thinking? We caught up with Nanna Thusgaard, Senior Manager for Sustainable Tourism Development at Wonderful Copenhagen, to understand how one of the world leaders in this area is embedding sustainable goals at the core of their strategy.

 

Thank you for joining us, Nanna. To begin, could you share why sustainability is such an important part of Copenhagen’s brand strategy?


As a country, Denmark has been at the forefront of the sustainable agenda. Because we’re a small country and we’re dependent on so many others, we need to focus on building resilience - sustainability is more of a survival strategy than a brand strategy.

During the ‘90s our wind turbine adventure gained a lot of traction and being first mover on that wave further accelerated our self-understanding as being a ‘green state’. Today Denmark is an international hot spot for sustainable energy planning. I can’t say for sure which way around things happened, but this innovative way of thinking may have rubbed off to other sectors seeing the potentials to improve business models within green economy – while doing good of course, and now.

This trend is further stimulated top down, since both the Government of Denmark and the City of Copenhagen have very ambitious environmental goals. So it is also expected of us to work with sustainability at the heart of our actions; it’s just a natural part of our DNA.


What about you? Where did your sustainability journey start?


I started at Wonderful Copenhagen eight or nine months ago, but I’ve been working professionally on sustainability challenges for the past eight years and I’ve worked across very different industries. Eight years ago no one talked about sustainability as a way to make business – it has been great to experience first-hand, when the big corporations started to see that they could actually use this as a differentiated value proposition or that they could make money by transforming into a sustainable business.

The spotlight has changed over the years, shifting from plastic waste, and then on to food waste. The textile and construction industry has also reacted to circular economy and now the agenda has hit the tourism industry. Even though I am a novice within tourism, it’s the same kind of innovative methodology for any industry transforming to a more sustainable path.


How do you work with your stakeholders to ensure this is realised?


Our stakeholders are so varied. The complexity of the tourism value chain is one thing I find extremely interesting working in this industry, because that means you have to work with very different approaches and strategies to make sustainability relevant.

We are working with our stakeholders on two levels - one directly through our stakeholder networks and one through innovation projects where we test and try new concepts and product development. We have networks for the MICE sector, cruise and flight industry partners, cultural partners, as well as a program for start-ups, where we work to introduce sustainability and support towards a green transition. The locals and the City of Copenhagen are also core stakeholders. We are working bottom-up together to leverage tourism for local urban development and the benefit of the locals.

In our sustainability strategy, we use the idea of ‘tourism for good’ to define our targets and design actions that will promote better dispersion of tourists both within the city and in Greater Copenhagen. It also helps to encourage more green behaviour amongst the visitors – which in turn encourages back to our stakeholders to develop more sustainable products and services.

But first and foremost, we have a research department where we are working to identify both hot spots and low hanging fruits in the industry. This is important knowledge to feed back to the industry partners and a foundation to base our decisions on.

There’s a lot of cool activities going, but right now a lot is paused during the crisis. We’re here to help create business for them, and right now we can’t do that, so we’re trying the best we can to figure out what we can do to help them right now. A large part of that is first and foremost staying closely connected with them and showing that we are here for them.


So that’s a lot on what you’re doing at the moment, but are you also planning for recovery? It’s quite a challenging situation as no one knows quite where the pieces will fall, but what plans are you currently making?

 

As a lot of our planned activities are paused indefinitely. We have reorganized and we’re currently preparing a range of new activities to kickstart tourism as soon as we are ready to reopen our country and city.

For our private partners, we are developing a toolbox to help them strengthen their own sales and marketing after the crisis - many of them are without or with reduced marketing teams. It’s about video and visual material for use in sales and marketing efforts, digital tools, knowledge from our previous innovation projects like TourismX or CultureLab. We are gathering what we have - and expanding with more.

Recovery is definitely relevant to have in mind, although we’re still adapting to the current situation and there’s a lot to be done on the short-term basis. Before we open up for international markets, we need to ensure that it’s not just that we are safe and secure as a country, but also that our near-markets and core-markets are under control. Bearing in mind again, we need to ensure that our core stakeholders, the locals of Copenhagen, feel safe in their own city. There aren’t many people who visit Copenhagen just to visit Copenhagen, at least not long-haul travellers, so we’re very much dependent on how the whole situation for Europe develops. Like all other DMO’s right now we are also preparing to target both locals in Copenhagen and the domestic market. After that comes international visitors from near-markets with short travel time and good accessibility and MICE tourism from near-markets.

Sustainability wise… it’s perhaps more important than ever to keep it on the agenda. Previously, every time there was a financial crisis, sustainability activities were the first things out the window, but that’s not acceptable anymore. But we may have to redefine our common understanding of what sustainability is.


How would you define sustainability?


A lot of people tend to focus just on the environmental part, but I think this crisis really underlines the importance of taking a holistic approach, of including a triple bottom line – environmental, economic and social. Especially now when we’re seeing more than ever the importance of social and economic sustainability.

The importance of economic sustainability is evident. Tourism is perhaps the single biggest industry globally, so when tourism is affected, so many ripples impact on other businesses, either directly or indirectly. Business as usual is not working sustainable redundancy into their value creation, so that makes them extremely vulnerable to changes. We need a new set of metrics to value economic sustainability besides pure profit.

Then social sustainability – that’s a positive outcome of this crisis. There are a lot of new actors taking responsibility for the weak in society – homeless people, hosting people in the health system like doctors and nurses and so forth. It’s very positive, and you have to hope that this is something that will root itself in the DNA of these companies after the crisis - so that some of the social responsibility stays with them.

I believe that the future traveller will want to look to companies that are doing good – not only companies that make you feel safe and secure, but also companies that are taking on that social responsibility, focus on relations, empathy and giving back to community. I love the increased attention to social sustainability, but environmental sustainability is still the issue of our time and remains more important than ever. Regardless the enormous impacts from corona-crisis, the environmental crisis continues, and we will still be facing the same challenges post-corona. In order to limit the global temperature-rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels we need an unprecedented systemic green transformation. Considering COP26 is postponed to 2021 due to corona-crisis only further calls for immediate action amongst us all. 


Do you have any thoughts on how we can take these short-term changes we’re seeing and transform them into something that has the potential to last much longer?

 

I am pretty amazed to see how businesses can rethink their business model or how they have been able to switch gear to adapt to the new situation. I hope that this stands as a testament for everyone that a global comprehensive and even radical transformation is possible.

We’re already seeing new alliances and partnerships now, which hopefully can play a part to make companies more robust for the future. I also hope that we as a DMO will have even stronger relationship with our stakeholders after this, and really take cross-sector collaborations to the next level. That will be essential in helping us tackle the global challenges we’re facing today.


Did you see Estonia’s recent hackathon?  Estonia had a hackathon for solutions to challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the winning start-ups was a workforce sharing company. Industries with a huge body of workforce who suddenly found they had no work for their employees could connect with sectors who are suddenly struggling right now, like healthcare professionals.


That sounds really positive. I also spoke with a DMO from Singapore and they’d done something similar.  I really admire the DMOs out there who have been fast and proactive in setting up different activities and projects.

The other long-term change that we need to make… We need to have a crisis playbook in hand so that we’re prepared if happens again. Again, this should be rooted in sustainable thinking. Looking at the economic impacts globally, it is actually irresponsible not to have one.

Some DMOs I have been in contact with now who have previously experienced crises – maybe related to the SARS outbreak, Swine flu or environmental crises – some of them already had a crisis playbook. Nothing compared to this, but they’d tried something before, so they could very quickly reorganise and everyone knowing their role and starting to map out scenario planning, communication strategies and stakeholder management.


Is there one tip you would give other countries or cities to be more sustainable in their own recovery?


Creating a crisis playbook is definitely going to be essential!  And if you didn’t already have sustainability on your agenda and built into your strategy, this is a real opportunity to rethink yourself.

Sustainability isn’t just about environmental sustainability – it’s about creating something that’s durable and long-lasting. To do that, then you need to have high quality solutions, so it’s about keeping in mind what your core values are, and developing quality products, experiences and services from that, and then working closely with your partners and stakeholders to achieve it. And to remember that the one stakeholder that is most important is the locals. More than ever it’s important to develop the destination in a close dialogue with the locals.

The tourism sentiments from locals in some European destinations showed they were worried tourism was heading down a dark road with negative sentiment around over-tourism. Right now, the dolphins are swimming in the canals of Venice and people in India can see the Himalayas due to clearing air pollution. It would be nice if we try and protect these changes and don’t turn to business as usual as soon as the borders reopen. 


If you had a perfect outcome for how the tourism industry might restart itself, what would that gold standard look like?


From a very high-level perspective, we’ve seen that on a political level, it’s incredible how much can be done when it’s needed. And looking at the environmental crisis we’re still facing right now, it could be interesting to see if policy makers could ride on this wave of good decisions and when we’re gradually opening again, we could hopefully keep some of the restrictions in hand. To succeed as a sustainable practice, it needs to come from the bottom up, but it also needs to come top-down and be regulated.

That could be positive. That politicians take this opportunity to slide in a few – or a lot! – of incentives that help to stimulate the green transition. It could be both investment and innovation, but also hardcore regulations. And then in people’s minds, we could shift to quality over quantity – that would be a very positive outcome.


As an industry, we were moving away from measuring success through bed nights – do you think people will revert on this in a rush to restart their economies? What do you think would be a more sustainable metric for success?


I really hope not. I mentioned earlier our research department, we are working on a gross list of indicators to measure the impact of tourism. We are looking at the triple bottom line of course, so environmental, social and economic indicators, and including both positive and negative impacts as well as both direct and indirect impacts. It’s a development project, so I can’t say for sure what we will end up with yet, but it’s our take on a new set of KPIs for sustainable tourism.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Nanna.


 

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