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Searching for sustainability in the tourism industry


Most in the Minnesota tourism industry agree there are advantages to applying sustainability practices to the business, but the implementation is slowed by the perception of high costs.

That's a key finding from ongoing research by the University of Minnesota Tourism Center* on the state of sustainable tourism in Minnesota. In collaboration with Explore Minnesota Tourism (EMT), the Tourism Center surveyed the industry in 2007, 2010, and again in 2013—examining industry attitudes and behaviors over time. Their work is encompassed in two recently released reports: State of Sustainable Tourism in Minnesota 2013 and State of Sustainable Tourism in Minnesota: Changes from 2007-2013.

"People have been interested in sustainable tourism development at least since the early 1980s," says Xinyi Qian, Extension educator, tourism specialist, and co-author of both reports. "Overall, our research confirms some progress toward implementing sustainable business practices, but a number of them remain under-used."

Report card

So what practices are being adopted? Each of the three Tourism Center surveys (conducted over seven years) asked people in the tourism industry the degree to which they had implemented specific sustainability practices. The research indicates industry members most frequently carry out practices in two categories: 1) environmental purchasing, and 2) landscaping and wildlife.

"Environmental purchasing" includes 11 protective and educational practices, including use of recycled paper products, buying cleaning products with no or low toxicity, and employing local residents. In that category, by 2013 at least 70 percent of respondents were implementing seven of the 11 possible practices.

"Landscaping and wildlife" includes 10 practices that protect native vegetation and wildlife. In that category, by 2013 at least 70 percent of respondents were implementing five of the 10 practices.

However, it looks as through the industry is less quick to implement practices in the categories of efficient energy use and water conservation. A significant majority of respondents had not implemented even a third of the practices asked about.

Asking the early adopters

While the sustainable tourism research is meant to inform the industry rather than make outright recommendations, report authors do suggest consulting those who have adopted practices on how they overcame barriers and realized benefits.

So, we asked two recognized state leaders in sustainable tourism practices to share their perspectives.

The Baptism River Inn in Silver Bay, MN was built by, and is owned and operated by Lura Wilson and her husband, Andy Fisher. Practices in this four-room inn have earned them the highest level of certification possible from the Minnesota Bed and Breakfast Association, which has instituted a self-certification program to recognize member inns making a commitment to environmental stewardship.

At the other end of the spectrum size-wise is the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center (DECC), a complex on the Duluth, MN waterfront that hosts scores of public and private events. The center is lauded for its commitment to environmental sustainability, and won the 2008 Governor's Minnesota Great Award for environmental stewardship through sustainable practices.

In both cases, acting for sustainability was inspired by personal values. Wilson feels fortunate that her business could "start from scratch." The couple built the log structure with sustainability in mind, installing features such as tight construction, extra insulation and off-peak electric heating—including in-floor water heating. Wilson says she and her husband "employed many measure to make our inn a place that reflects our values of balance with all life on this earth."

Staff members at the DECC changed their course of action over time. Their commitment began in 2003 when Chelly Townsend (then Ferguson) was director of food services and got tired of watching a steady stream of food, plastic and Styrofoam go to local landfills. "I thought to myself, 'There has to be a more efficient and responsible way to get rid of this stuff,'" she told a local reporter.

After doing some research with the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) and Howard Waste Company, Townsend and her staff took a few steps to improve waste management. DECC management supported these steps, but had two criteria for the sustainability program: The process had to be cost-neutral and "within reason."

As sustainability practices became a goal, other staffers followed the lead of Townsend, who is now the DECC's assistant executive director. The DECC's sustainability practices now include:

  • Recycling aluminum, glass, plastic and paper. Receptacles are located in every meeting room, lobby, hallway and restroom.
  • Participating in a local composting program.
  • Reducing packaging and purchasing biodegradable or recyclable products whenever reasonable.
  • Bailing and selling all cardboard and vinyl material used in its Exhibit Services Department.
  • Donating surplus food to the local Second Harvest Food Bank.

Is it all worth it?

Businesses must pay attention to the bottom line, and the Baptism River Inn and the DECC are no different. So, are sustainability practices worth it?

Wilson notes that cost-savings have helped reduce operating expenses at the Baptism River Inn. The heating bill for the three-floor, 6,000-square-foot building is only $200 a month.

Wilson and her husband have not tracked whether people choose the inn because it is a green destination. However, Wilson says, "When guests stay here, they become familiar with the way we do things, and they share that with friends and family." Because most of their promotion is word of mouth, they feel confident that their choices have made a difference. "We believe our green qualifications do help attract customers."

Sue Ellen Moore, director of sales for the DECC, feels even more certain about the benefits to business. "Many of our procedures have resulted in profit," she says. "We know we get on short lists when people are looking for event and convention sites because of our environmental stewardship practices, and occasionally groups choose us specifically because of what we do." In addition, the DECC saves thousands of dollars annually in things like utility bills and disposal and hauling fees.

Acknowledging the study findings that the industry continues to perceive upfront costs as a barrier to adopting new practices, Moore is anxious to tell businesses not to be afraid to start small. Townsend said the same thing back in 2008. "Take baby steps and don't be afraid to try new things," she told a reporter. "Don't go into it saying, 'This is how we're going to do it.' Go into it saying, 'This feels like a good start.'"

* The University of Minnesota Tourism Center is a collaboration of the Extension Center for Community Vitality and the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

What is sustainable tourism?

Sustainable tourism is defined as "the type of development that meets the needs of present tourist and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future."

Key principles are:

  • Make optimal use of environmental resources,
  • Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, and
  • Provide socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders.

— Information adapted from the United Nations Environment Programme and the U.N. World Tourism Organization

Author: Mary Vitcenda

Reviewed in 2014

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