HOW SUSTAINABLE TOURISM IS THRIVING IN NC: A CONVERSATION WITH PAT LONG & ALEX NAAR

According to Pat Long, projects like The Proximity Hotel in Greensboro have shown that luxury and sustainability can not only be combined, but they can be combined in a fiscally prudent manner. Photo credit: The Proximity Hotel

Recognized by media outlets like Fast Company and the BBC, East Carolina University's Center for Sustainable Tourism is on the cutting edge of greener, more responsible travel - including playing a key role in the development of the NC GreenTravel program. We talked with CST's Director Pat Long, as well as Alex Naar, the center's Director of Sustainable Tourism Initiatives, to discuss the center's work and the future of greener travel in North Carolina and beyond. 

 

Sustainability has gone from being a niche interest to a topic of mainstream concern within the tourism industry in the last decade. What's driving that focus?

The motivation and reasons why each individual tourism business may choose to implement sustainable practices are as diverse as the types of tourism businesses. However, there are four broad factors we see at the moment driving sustainability within the tourism industry: cost savings, personal values/altruism, consumer demand, and governmental regulations. To look at cost savings for example, we are seeing a number of tourism businesses and organizations that now recognize there are significant cost savings to be achieved by implementing strategic sustainable practices. Some of these practices, such as upgrading LED exit signs to the most energy efficient option, have clear, tangible ROI (Return on Investment), that can be seen quickly on monthly utility bills. And while other benefits, such as attracting and retaining talent, may be less tangible, they are no-less important to an organization’s financial solvency. It has also become increasingly known by tourism professionals that the very places they spend so much time and energy promoting can be negatively impacted through irresponsible practices. At some destinations, this is pushing tourism professionals to be more responsible as a means of self-preservation, but for many in the industry the reason they are in tourism is because they love the places they live in so much they want to share it with others. So with that in mind, it makes perfect sense that we as an industry would want to protect and maybe even enhance the destinations we spend our lives sharing with others.       

We also see consumer demand driving tourism businesses to adopt sustainable practices. In recent years, the number of meeting professionals that have included environmental measures on requests for hosting proposals from venues has grown. And interestingly, these associations, driven by individual values, are becoming much more sophisticated in their understanding of sustainability. So for example, a hotel might have gotten away with saying they had a recycling program a few years ago, but now, meeting planners are asking for details: what is recycled, where are recycling bins located, and how are staff trained in waste reduction, among others. On the leisure side of the travel equation, we have also seen a growing interest in sustainability, although in a slightly different way. Leisure travelers seem to be less interested in facts and figures, but they are however interested in how their travel contributes to furthering the protection of the environment as well as the heritage and culture of the destination. A good example of this is the desire to consume local foods, a practice which has seen growing attention from leisure travelers in the last decade. We are also seeing a growing segment of the leisure travel market who seeks to use travel as more than just an escape from the daily grind. While rest and relaxation will likely always be an important part of any vacation, we are seeing more and more travelers seeking to engage in an authentic and unique way with the destination they are visiting. This includes not only food, but the arts, and/or the natural environment. This emerging demand by travelers naturally leads to more sustainable practices in the destination and by tourism and tourism-related businesses.  

And while the climate of regulation has cooled significantly in the last couple of years, the tourism and hospitality industry (hotels, restaurants, cruise ships, etc.) has been the target of governmental policies aimed at reducing excess and wasteful practices. To counteract this line of regulation, the tourism industry has started to get ahead of regulators. 

 

The Center for Sustainable Tourism was listed by Fast Company as one of the hottest environmental degrees in the country. What does that kind of recognition mean to you? 

In addition to this shout out from the Fast Company, the BBC recently identified our Center and East Carolina University as “one of the 5 best places in the world to pursue a degree in sustainable tourism. These types of acknowledgements help us reach a broader audience than our traditional forms of media presentations to potential students do and help keep the tourism industry generally informed of our existence and our work. They also serve to inform the general traveling public that our academic and research program exists suggesting that greater attention is now being given to protecting the tourism product and experience they value.

 

What makes Greenville and East Carolina University such a good location for the Center? 

Eastern North Carolina is an interesting place to study sustainable tourism. While on the one hand, it is one of the least densely populated areas not only in the state, but on the East Coast (one of the few places east of the Mississippi River where you can clearly see the Milky Way in the night sky), it has abundant and unique wildlife, including the red wolf, one of the rarest large predators in North America, and natural resources that aesthetically can rival any travel destination in the world. But on the other hand, much of the leisure travel development and marketing has been focused on the beach. So the gap between potential and existing product is quite large. At the same time, the region has faced and continues to face a number of economic struggles. With the region’s close proximity to a number of potential drive markets, the dynamic and rich cultural heritage of the area, and a growing number of local residents, business owners, and government officials who recognize the opportunity tourism may provide, this region is an ideal location to better understand and test strategies of sustainable tourism development. It is also a region that is heavily dependent on the cultural and natural heritage of the area to thrive as a tourism destination, which again makes it an almost ideal place to understand and teach future tourism leaders about balancing economic, social, and economic issues as they relate to tourism development.

East Carolina University has proven ideal for expanding the work of the Center (originally established in the mid 90’s at the University of Colorado) as its embraces interdisciplinary education, values applied research and understands the importance of engaging with business and government to address societal issues. It also has supported the establishment of the graduate degree program, the first of its kind in the country, which draws upon the intellectual capital of the faculty from six colleges and draws an eclectic group of degree candidates from many disciplinary backgrounds.  It has also provided us with the opportunity recently to expand our mission to sustainability more generally and to include natural resources and the built environment.

 

What does the tourism industry mean for NC as a whole? And why does it need to concern itself with sustainability? 

In 2012, according to the NC Department of Commerce, the tourism industry directly supported more than 40,000 businesses and nearly 200,000 jobs from $19.4 billion in visitor spending. So from a purely direct economic impact, tourism is an important industry to our state. However, it is becoming increasingly clear to many economic development professionals that tourism serves as a welcome mat to investment in our state. Whether it is a business owner who selects to relocate to our state because of the outdoor recreational opportunities, or a retiree who moves to North Carolina to be closer to world class sailing, communities across the state are seeing how investments in tourism is paying dividends across their economy.

And it is well understood by the North Carolina tourism industry that our greatest strength as a travel destination is our natural and scenic beauty. There are very few places where you have spectacular mountain views, calming rolling farmlands, mysterious coastal swamps and rivers, breath-taking large sounds, and natural beaches, all within the same state. North Carolina is a state where you can wake up and see the sun rise over the water, and watch it set over water. It is also a state with a rich and diverse cultural landscape. We have wonderful mountain music traditions in the west, and jazz traditions in the east. We are home to well over 100 wineries and almost 80 breweries, and countless cultural traditions, from BBQ to boat building, are still alive and well in North Carolina.

So there is a clear understanding that if we do not take active measures to protect, and in some cases, restore, the natural and cultural heritage of our state, we risk losing one of our key economic development competitive advantages. This might explain why, while there is still a great deal of debate outside of the tourism industry about the importance of sustainability, within the industry there is general consensus that protecting our natural, historic and cultural resources is critical.

 

What initiatives and businesses do you see innovating in terms of sustainable tourism in NC?

One of the most innovative approaches that we are seeing in sustainable tourism is systems integration. Up until recently, sustainable practices were adopted as individual elements, whereas now we are starting to see strategic investments that are part of a bigger concept. While this approach has been used successfully in other industries, such as manufacturing with tools such as ISO 14000, it has not been used as much in the tourism industry. An example of this approach could include investing in an energy monitoring system that is tied to all electricity consumption. This type of investment can only be justified if energy efficient lighting, heating and cooling, and appliances, are each upgraded in such a way that they will be compatible with the energy monitoring system. A great example of this systems approach to energy is the effort of Deanna and Colin Crossman who own the King’s Daughters Inn in Durham, NC.

It is also important to recognize that developing systems of sustainable practices includes developing a network or likeminded partners across the supply chain. For example, for a successful farm-to-table approach to be used, a chef must develop partnerships that can provide all the necessary elements. And we are also seeing increased attention paid to the end of the supply chain, from breweries giving spent grain to farmers for livestock feed, recycling of soap in hotels, and mattress recycling.    

But maybe the most important innovation in sustainable tourism has been the new ways attractions and accommodations are communicating and engaging customers and visitors with issues related to sustainability. Between social media, advertising efforts that provide public service announcements and using ‘fun’ activities as opportunities to educate visitors about environmental and social issues, many tourism businesses are now an active participant in the conversation on sustainability, rather than simply responding.

 

Early discussions of sustainable tourism focused primarily on local impacts - protecting biodiversity, encouraging local food economies etc. As the threat of climate change grows, do you see this becoming a bigger part of the conversation? How can the tourism industry tackle the huge emissions involved in travel itself? 

Global challenges, such as climate change, can be very difficult for tourism businesses to respond to and will most likely continue to be for the foreseeable future. Despite the tourism industry’s large economic size, the industry in primarily made up of small to medium sized businesses and organizations that have few tools or structures to connect to each other. This makes it particularly difficult for the tourism industry to respond to global problems. Furthermore, travel destinations tend to be inward looking, asking how they can improve their own environment, which makes the global perspective even more difficult to have.

There is however a number of bright spots that make climate change an issue that could be addressed by the tourism industry. The first is there have been great strides within the travel/transportation industry to develop strategies that limit their negative effects on climate change. There are airline companies taking emissions reductions seriously, car rental agencies that are continuing to explore alternative fuel vehicles, and more governmental programs and policies that serve to encourage more carbon friendly travel. Secondly, current research and development is now providing turnkey solutions to more energy efficient alternatives. Less than a decade ago, the idea of a Platinum LEED certified hotel seemed fiscally impossible. But leaders, such as Dennis Quaintance with the Proximity Hotel, with support from community leaders, energy professionals and academics, have now shown that building a green property and a luxury property can not only be done, but can be done in a fiscally prudent manner. Furthermore, at a global level, if not domestically, there is a greater understanding about climate change, which may encourage businesses, if only for self-serving reasons, to adopt practices that address climate change.

That being said, there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done to identify new opportunities to reduce the carbon footprint of the industry. We need to find better ways of communicating with travelers how they can make choices that are both responsive to climate change and cost effective. And we need to find new and better ways of translating academic research on issues related to climate change to tourism decision makers. 

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