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Tourism between ecological awareness and green marketing

Finish the flight low-cost to spend five days at the other end of Europe? Finished the summer weeks lounging on a Thai beach? In any case, the time has come for sustainable tourism and its myriad variants more or less focused on taking into account social, economic or environmental issues.

In its latest annual tourism barometer, the specialized firm Raffour interactive notes an undeniable evolution. In 2021, 73% of French people who left for a long commercial stay declared that they took into account “respect for the environment” as a criterion of choice. According to Guy Raffour, founder of the eponymous firm, ten years ago, ecology was not “cited only at the margin”.

New popular practices

By drastically limiting international travel, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced a whole section of the population to relocate their vacations. National tourists have largely referred to heritage and nearby natural areas.

This episode has accelerated an old dynamic in favor of alternative forms of travel such as the ” slow tourism”, which is intended to be a slower way of visiting a territory by favoring low-carbon modes of transport, or “eco-tourism”, namely tourism centered on the discovery of nature and the populations that inhabit it .

We must relocate the holidays!
Carbon footprint of the stay of four typical profiles of tourists compared to the target footprint of a French person in 2050, in tonnes of CO2 equivalent per stay

Thus, the French Hiking Federation notes that the practice, which knew a “regular increase for ten years already”, increased, with 40% more topoguides sold in 2021 compared to 2020.

The Directorate General for Enterprise (DGE) makes the same observation for cycle tourism, estimating that at the end of the crisis, 52% of French people said they were more attracted to cycle tourism than before it. Between 2016 and 2020, according to the DGE, the number of cycle tourists had already increased by 15%.

A jungle of start-ups

“Whatever the form of tourism, ecology is not yet a priority for holidaymakers, but it has become an underlying concern with very diverse entries into the subject. They range from the awareness of the finiteness of resources to the simple need to go green, through the excessively expensive price of fuels,” explains Guy Raffour.

Faced with this enthusiasm, dozens of sites specializing in “local micro-adventures with very low carbon impact”, agencies for tourism “positive and supportive” or even of “eco-responsible accommodation booking platforms” began to flourish on the Internet.

Economically, the bet seems to work. Thus, the founders of GreenGo, “the alternative to Airbnb, French and responsible”which offers a selection of French accommodation evaluated as taking better account of respect for the environment than the average, can boast of having double-digit growth. Active for only a year, the platform already offers 1,600 accommodations and has attracted more than a thousand visitors in one year.

“Sustainable tourism is experiencing a new wave with a profusion of players specializing in small, very dynamic niches. Between all the platforms and start-ups that are sometimes very quickly bought out, it’s a real jungle where it’s difficult to see clearly.”, analyzes Julien Buot, Secretary General of Sustainable Tourism Actors (ATD). This network, which brings together 250 members – professionals in the sector, but also local authorities and service providers – only had around ten in 2014, proof of the boom in sustainable tourism.

As for the traditional actors of tourism, they are not left out either. Rare are those who do not display their “eco-responsible” commitments in large letters, even if this is most often done with great support from labels whose methodology is often vague and which compete with each other.

Commodify the existing

Far from inventing a new conception of vacations, the tourism sector is today in the process of commoditizing old activities. The phenomenon is particularly blatant in rural tourism, which has been booming since the Covid. This concept of farm holidays with an important educational component and a search for exchange is historically supported by non-profit associations such as the Accueil paysan network, born in 1987.

“From the beginning, we were on a concept of sustainable tourism. Our goal is to have consistency between ecological agricultural practice and hospitality practice based on the exchange of knowledge,” explains Pierre-Jean Barthèye, administrator of the network, which lists 900 structures in France. “We are delighted that the values ​​we hold are finally being honored. It proves that we were right… But we still have the impression that some start-ups are surfing the wave above all without defending the alternative model behind it”nevertheless regrets the retired peasant.

“We are a model that makes a lot of start-ups drool. They try to dispossess us of it by imitating the concept or even trying to steal the hosts of our network” – Cécile Paturel, WWOOF France

Same story from the side of the associative network WwooFing which, without claiming to be a tourist activity, offers volunteers to come and work in organic farms in exchange for lodging and food. If the French branch, like Accueil paysan, experienced a boom in attendance at the end of the confinements, the competition from companies that are well-honed in terms of communication poses a real risk to their future.

“We are a model that makes a lot of start-ups drool. They try to dispossess us of it by imitating the concept or even trying to sting the hosts of our network or by flirting on our Facebook groups. Honestly, we don’t really know how to react and we don’t know if the wwoofing will still exist in ten years’ confides Cécile Paturel, member of the association. For its part, Accueil paysan is currently working to make up for its lack of notoriety by “adapting its communication model and its reservation system”.

Smooth transition

Despite the growing demand for more ecological tourism and the emergence of an offer that tries to meet it, the sector has not radically changed in three years and the pitfalls are still numerous. “We talk about relocation, but the phenomenon is marginal. We forget that nearly 80% of French people were already traveling in France or in neighboring countries before the Covid. Long-haul flights, which are the most polluting, are the prerogative of a very small minority, often elderly, who have the means, explains the geographer Rémy Knafou, professor emeritus at the Sorbonne. This segment of the population will not give up their habits easily, especially since the tourist system works by constantly producing desire through advertising. »

In Europe, the Eurocontrol network has announced that it expects to return to 92% of 2019 air traffic by the end of the year

Indeed, with the economic recovery, the airline sector seems to be taking off again at full speed. Last January, the International Civil Aviation Organization predicted a recovery in global air traffic between 69% and 74% of the pre-crisis level, i.e. one billion more passengers than in 2021. In Europe, the Eurocontrol network had even announced that it expected to return to 92% of 2019 traffic by the end of the year. “The evolution of practices will be slow because there is a generational effect. Young people have understood the world in which they are going to live and they are adapting their practices,” continues Remy Knafou.

marketing and greenwashing

Moreover, the market being in full effervescence, it is complicated to distinguish between what really concerns sustainable tourism and what is akin to green varnish. “Today, the tourism industry mainly sells us greenwashing. The practices do not change in depth. Companies are often content to donate 2% or 3% of their income to an association to offset carbon by planting a few trees, when we know that the ecological account is not there.accuses Jean-Pierre Lamic, essayist and co-founder of the Travelers network and eco-responsible tour operators (VVE) in 2007.

“All is not to be thrown away in ecological compensation which, well executed and associated with a process of sobriety, can come to compensate for incompressible emissions such as transport”, argues Julien Buot. However, the co-founder of ATD acknowledges being ” very worried ” of this “great return of greenwashing with opportunists who only see sustainable tourism as a marketing argument” and calls on the state to “invest in controls to regulate advertising and avoid misleading speech”.

But, for Jean-Pierre Lamic, that may not be enough. According to him, the greenwashing is just one symptom of a much larger contradiction inherent in the workings of the modern tourist industry. “Sustainable tourism requires having a territorialized approach, relying on local associations, respecting the reception capacity of each environment or even setting up mediation systems with tourists in order to have the least possible impact on the environment and populations, explains the head of the VVE network. All of this cannot be reconciled with macrostructures that work on an industrial scale and whose objective is to attract as many travelers as possible to increase their profits. »

Transform travel, not tourism?

For the sociologist Rodolphe Christin, all the concepts around sustainable tourism are one and the same. “hoax” aiming to “to make people believe that it will be possible to continue to move as before” while the ecological imperative must push us to “drastically reduce our travel consumption”.

Author of several books in which he develops a radical criticism of tourism, he invites us to question the reasons for this visceral need for vacation. “The more a person’s professional malaise increases, the stronger their desire to leave, he observes. Holidays are a phenomenon of compensation. It is a temporary deliverance that makes capitalism acceptable. » Therefore, criticizing tourism is also “militate to improve the existing”.

Can we be seduced by its “anti-tourism” approach and still want to travel to the other side of the world? ” Yes of coursehe replies. There are times in his life when the trip isn’t just an escape, when it makes sense. It is these trips that we make over a long period but much more rarely that we must bring back to the fore. »

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