Home Guest Columns Why Have North America’s Hotel Companies Been Slow to Adopt Responsible Tourism?

Why Have North America’s Hotel Companies Been Slow to Adopt Responsible Tourism?


The travel and tourism industry contributes 10.3% of global GDP and accounts for 220 million jobs worldwide, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

But although responsible and sustainable tourism is increasingly on the agendas of social and environmental activists and even some governments, it is something that by and large corporations in the industry have been slow to sign up to, particularly in North America.

Perhaps one of the best demonstrations of the apparent lack of interest and action comes from Ethical Corp.’s subscriber database, which contains just over 100 people with close ties to responsible tourism among the more than 27,000 total entries. Many of those represent the same short list of companies.

Fragmented Response

In Europe, a recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers found that the travel industry’s response is fragmented at best on corporate responsibility. And the hotel sector, in particular it says, is behind others.

Ho Kwon Ping, chairman of the environmentally conscious hotel company Banyan Tree, in Thailand, believes that sustainability is not sufficiently understood and says shareholders need to better recognize that profits run hand in hand with social responsibility. He says the industry must pull together to ‘make a clear decision to avoid problems’ as the industry continues to grow worldwide.

The WTTC did recognize a handful of industry leaders with its 2006 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards at the Sixth Global Travel and Tourism Summit in April, but almost exclusively for excellence in environmental stewardship.

The Canadian-based Fairmont Hotel chain, for instance, was recognized by the group for its Green Partnership program, which aims to improve waste management, energy and water conservation, habitat protection, sustainable purchasing, employee and guest education and other community outreach efforts, and for its cultural heritage preservation efforts.

There are no categories of the WTTC-sponsored awards, however, that emphasize other aspects of responsible tourism, such as human rights and diversity issues, or corporate governance.

Brian Mullis, the founder of Sustainable Travel International, says many small hotels and resorts and a few large chains are beginning to recognize the benefits of sustainable tourism approaches. But most, he says, have begun with environmental initiatives and efforts to improve their interactions with and impact on the local communities in which they operate.

Focus on Human Rights

Perhaps that is why the U.N. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the International Business Leaders Forum chose the hotel sector as their initial focus when they recently announced a new tourism and human rights initiative to create a framework to assist the industry to address human rights within its own operations.

The program, which recognizes the UNWTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism as the overarching standard to be reinforced, aims to develop and promote a specific set of human rights principles for the industry with appendices for individual sectors.

Human rights concerns for the industry, according to the UNWTO, include child and bonded labor, workplace health and safety, commercial exploitation of children, exploitation of migrant workers, discrimination, and displacement of indigenous people.

According to Unicef, by late 2000, as many as 325,000 children were at risk of commercial sexual exploitation in the U.S. alone and the numbers are even higher in many other countries. To combat the problem, Unicef funds and promotes the adoption of a code of conduct that establishes criteria for businesses in the tourist industry to follow to prevent sex tourism.

Minnesota-based Carlson Companies, an international hotel chain, became the first signatory in North America to the code in 2004. At the time, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chief executive of Carlson, challenged her competitors to follow suit, but the Unicef website does not indicate any additional North American hotels have joined the effort.

Diversity Efforts at Marriott

A small number of hotels and chains, however, are making notable progress on the diversity front. In early 2005, Marriott was lauded for setting a goal to do more than $1 billion of business with women- and minority-owned suppliers by 2010 and to double the number of women- and minority-owned franchisees over the same period. Currently, about 15 percent of Marriott’s franchises are operated or under development by women and minorities.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights organization for ethnic minorities in the United States, recognized the chain with the highest grade given in its sixth annual report on diversity efforts in the lodging industry for its work in the areas of employment, vendors, advertising and charitable activities. In 2004, Marriott ranked 24th among the Top 50 Companies for Diversity compiled by Diversity Inc.

Another standout in the industry on human rights issues is the InterContinental Hotels Group. IHG’s chief, Andy Cosslett, openly pledges on the company’s website to increase its commitment to corporate responsibility and ensure the company leads the industry.

“Not just because it helps drive the culture, which it does, but because it increasingly helps attract talented people to the business,” Cosslett says.

Like Marriott, IHG has been recognized for its diversity programs and the company is one of the few in the industry officially to recognize and embrace the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the principles of the core conventions of the International Labor Organization.

“Travel and tourism has huge economic and social potential, and more and more there are examples from all over the world where this potential is being realized,” says WTTC president Jean-Claude Baumgarten.

Companies like Fairmont, Carlson, Marriott and IHG understand and are reaping the benefits of engaging in responsible tourism. It’s time the rest of the industry checked in.

Lisa Roner is North America editor for the London-based Ethical Corp., an independent publisher and conference organizer. She can be reached at lisa.roner@ethicalcorp.com.

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