In the final part of our in-depth interview with Marianne Gybels, Director of Sustainability at Booking.com, we delve into our own carbon footprint, the impact of COVID-19 and what the future holds. If you missed them, check out part one and part two.
If we're now taking this partner-focused approach, why are we very focused on our own operational sustainability?
As soon as we began focusing on how to highlight the sustainable practices our partners have in place, we quickly realised that we also have to look at ourselves. We cannot ask our partners to improve the sustainability of their operations when we are not willing to do it in our own operations. So this accelerated our operational sustainability focus, because we cannot hold partners to a standard we do not hold for ourselves. While our carbon footprint is not as big as some other Fortune 500 companies, it is certainly still there. And it's definitely something we can improve upon. It's not only about meeting the standard of our partners but actually about holding ourselves to a higher standard. It's about being a leader. But I don't mean this in the way of just doing something to stand out and look good. We have a real opportunity to accelerate participation in our industry. If we only focus on the end goal and don't share our journey with our partners, our customers or our peers, then we are potentially limiting the impact we can have. While yes, we are trying to break new ground, it is not to get credit for that but use our voice and our power to speak to a wider audience, and ultimately accelerate that impact across the whole industry. We want to do good, not just look good.
Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the tourism and hospitality industries, how has it reshaped Booking.com's approach to sustainable travel?
I don't think COVID-19 changed our approach to travel. If anything, it strengthened our belief in our company's mission, the value of our industry and the approach we're taking. What we saw as a result of the pandemic was the massive impact travel has on the world, both positive and negative. Of course, we saw some of the very visible effects, such as cleaner waters or less pollution again. But what was harder to see was the amount of damage being done to small business owners who rely on travel or whole communities where most of their informal business is through tourism. Street food chefs, market vendors, local tour guides all losing their trade and their entire livelihood because tourism stopped. I think we've seen that we need to bring travel and tourism back. But we must do it in a way that is responsible. Where we protect ecosystems and the environment while also boosting local economies and distributing wealth more evenly across communities. We know over-tourism is a real problem. So is under-tourism. Fortunately, we're hearing positive things from consumers. In research conducted this year, roughly two-thirds (67%) of respondents told us they wanted their travel choices to support a destination's recovery. And that goes alongside more than half of global travellers (53%) telling us they will choose sustainable travel options in the future.
Do you think COVID-19 shifted people's focus away from sustainability?
There was an assumption that health and safety would be the top of people's minds, that no one was thinking long-term or about being sustainable anymore. And this is not true. From a consumer perspective, we have seen that our customers are very aware now on the human impact of travel. Sure, it made people question whether or not now they really need to take that business trip or if they can just catch-up with friends online. But it also made people realise how much they actually impact a local community. Now people see that it's not just about lying on the beach, but there are some many ways you come into contact with your surroundings when you travel, and this understanding is really important. It's a sentiment that matches closely with our philosophy. Also, there was an assumption that partners, who now face economic challenges, would quickly forget about sustainability. Again, this is not true. Hotel owners are entrepreneurs. They're always looking at how to improve their business for the future and save money. Well, if you don't have guests, what better time to make improvements. After all, energy efficiency is a great way to save money. Reducing water waste is a great way to save money. Locally sourced products are readily available when international transport is difficult. So while there was a fear that the topic of sustainability would disappear, it hasn't. And if you want a proofpoint for that, hundreds of thousands of partner properties have, without any proactive marketing efforts on our side, shared their sustainability data with us. They have recognised an opportunity to come out of this crisis even better prepared for a more resilient and regenerative future for their businesses and their wider communities.
So what comes next for travel?
Well, I think people are really beginning to understand the global impact of travel – both the negative and positive. What this means for us, and for travel in general, is that we have a great opportunity to highlight the real positive impact travel has on the world. The way it has the power to bring people together – something so many of us are missing right now. We need to bring that back, but we need to bring it back in the right way. Of course, at the same time, we have an opportunity to implement changes now that will reduce the negative impacts as well. I truly believe a travelled world is a better world. I also believe sustainable travel is the way to experience the world.
I think that's a sentiment we can all get behind. To wrap up, what for you is something that we can all do to travel more sustainably in the future?
Taking a more sustainable approach to the way we travel doesn't have to be hard or expensive. And we don't always have to go far to have great experiences – you might be surprised what adventures await you close to home. Of course, if you do want to discover another city, country or continent, that's also great. Bringing cultures closer together is what travel does best. All we have to do is make a collective effort to travel responsibly, wherever we choose to go. Let's just consider the local community and how we can be a benefit as a tourist. Let's think about our activities and if they may have an unintended impact on wildlife or the environment. We can all be a little more thoughtful about the footprint we leave behind. That’s really the first step – to be aware and to make a conscious effort to do better. And finally, let's be open to new ideas and new destinations. There is a big, wide, wonderful world out there to explore. And when done responsibly and sustainably, travel really can empower marginalised communities, expand opportunities, preserve cultural heritage, help regenerate delicate ecosystems and, ultimately, make sure there is always a world worth experiencing.