This is a response to the article: Corporate Social Responsibility for Inbound Tour Operators in Vietnam: Perception and Reality and introducting Travelife Certification for the Travel sector
I very much appreciate and welcome the paper by Chi Nguyen. Her research covers a number of important issues related to sustainability in tourism, supporting some of the results we obtained during 15 years of research in the sustainable development of tourism at the NHTV Centre for Sustainability, Tourism and Transport (www.cstt.nl). The first lines of her paper, for example, show that politicians often simplify matters beyond what can be demonstrated by science. Indeed, the idea that tourism always brings benefits and seldom problems is as widespread among policymakers as it is incorrect.
To what extent can corporate social responsibility (CSR) help businesses to “actively and voluntarily contribute to reducing negative social and environmental impacts?” CSR has become mainstream even with some large corporations such as TUI International and Air France-KLM. But at the same time, sustainability problems like climate change and poverty are still growing. Is CSR failing to do its job or do we need more? One should never forget that the main objective of every viable enterprise is to make a profit, simply because businesses consistently making losses will soon disappear, leaving only those making a profit. This is a form of natural selection in a competitive world. Of course there is some room for combining sustainability and profit: For instance, a hotel can switch from incandescent lamps to energy-saving LED lights and at the same time save much on the electricity bill, enhancing profits.
I very much welcome Chi’s study on international tour operators (ITO’s) in Vietnam, because I believe that tour operators are key to making a difference in tourism. But they will do so only when they are fully aware of the main sustainability issues of inbound tourism and the strategies on how to reduce these and when unequivocally supported by government policies. What I miss in the paper is a clear view on the main sustainability issues at hand and how CSR could help mitigate these. The closest comes the observation that one objective of CSR and Travelife should be to attract the “environmentally conscious tourist.” However, I am afraid that may not work very well, because of a couple of reasons. First, from research, we know that tourists have difficulty to maintain their environmentally friendly attitude from home during their travel (Hardeman, Font & Nawijn, 2017). In general, an ‘attitude-behaviour gap’ exists (Juvan & Dolnicar, 2014), which means that even people with a pro-environment attitude fail to translate that into real environmentally friendly behaviour. Interestingly, Chi Nguyen’s study shows a same kind of phenomenon based on the management survey among managers in ITO’s when she discusses the big difference between aswers given by anonymous respondents as compared to identifiable respondents (see also Font et al., 2012). Second, it is to be seen whether the environmental impact of the small group of environmentally conscious tourists is indeed better than that of ‘ordinary’ tourist. For instance, from unpublished research at CSTT we know that voters for the Dutch Green Party during national elections are the most frequent flyers of all different voter groups. Tourism based on air transport is not a sustainable form of tourism (Peeters, 2016) and Green Party voters are certainly aware of this, but apparently unable to act accordingly. Therefore, I would like to suggest that the main challenge is not to attract ‘self-declared sustainable tourists,’ but to organise tourism in a way that tourists––all tourists––increasingly behave sustainably. In other words, by ‘greening’ the tourism product rather than the tourist.
Interesting is the idea to involve Travelife in the CSR process in Vietnam. The Travelife label requires a detailed assessment of the impacts of a tourism business and the ways it tries to reduce these impacts. One objective is to get a certificate, which may attract environmentally conscious tourists. However, we know from research that eco-labels have a rather limited impact on travel choices and behaviour (Villarino & Font, 2015). As discussed by Chi, acquiring a label can have more objectives and effects.
At CSTT we will start in November 2017 a four-year project, SASTDes (Smart Assessment of Sustainable Tourist Destinations) in which Travelife is also involved. The project has two main objectives. First, we will try to substantially reduce the efforts to gather all information required to get a green label. Second, we will try to share the collected information with the management to enable the destination or enterprise to become more competitive. For instance, by making available information about air or water quality, which, if it is found to be outstanding, could be used to more successfully advertise the destination or to shift marketing to markets that specifically appreciate such characteristics at destinations. We will provide the sector with economic arguments to join Travelife and be involved in CSR rather than a social argument. Finally, a word about the role of governments. I feel it is insufficient for governments to only stimulate CSR. For instance, because air transport is a major contributor to unsustainable tourism development, the government should also try to change the current prices for air tickets as compared to the cost of rail or coach tickets or using your car to reach the destination. You cannot expect the tourist to take a train if it not only takes far more travel time but also is way more expensive. The same applies to ITO’s. They will never offer non-air trips when air travel is several times cheaper.
Chi Nguyen’s paper is a welcome contribution to the CSR and sustainable tourism literature. Our knowledge needs to develop further to achieve sustainable tourism development. So new research and papers on this topic are very welcome!