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New research suggests sustainability important to international tourists

New research shows that international visitors to New Zealand value sustainability and protecting the environment, but there are gaps and opportunities for local tourism service providers to do more to promote eco-friendly practices.

The research was carried out by the University of Canterbury and ChristchurchNZ, and funded by the Tourism Industry New Zealand Trust.

Canterbury researchers conducted a multi-pronged study to better understand how much importance international visitors placed on sustainability and their perceptions of sustainability practices in the region.

The research was led by Associate Professor Girish Prayag of the University of Canterbury’s Business School and Senior Economist Dr Peter Fieger of ChristchurchNZ, funded by a grant from the Tourism Industry New Zealand Trust.

It found that international visitors to Canterbury believe environmental sustainability is important but tourism operators could be doing more to promote eco-friendly practices to travellers.

TIA Industry strategy manager Bruce Bassett says the research confirms the importance of tourism businesses acting sustainably.

"It provides evidence that visitors want to protect the environment in New Zealand but we need to make it easier for them to do so. If the tourism operator is sustainable then they can talk to the visitor about how they can support the business’ efforts."

The Canterbury researchers analysed more than 750,000 visitor reviews on websites like Trip Advisor and Expedia to see if, unprompted, visitors acknowledged or commented on sustainability practices.

"We found that visitors rarely commented on sustainability practices unprompted and also identified there may be gaps in the market to promote more sustainability options," says Associate Professor Prayag, Associate Head of the Management, Marketing and Entrepreneurship department at UC’s Business School.

"For example there may be an opportunity for more carbon-offsetting options or to promote the use of electric vehicles or offer more eco-friendly options. There’s an opportunity for the local tourism industry and related service providers to raise awareness of any sustainable features of their product or service."

Four years’ of data from the International Visitor Survey was also analysed to see if international visitors’ perceptions of New Zealand’s environmental practices had changed over time. This analysis found very little change in perceptions over the four years, Associate Professor Prayag says.

The joint study also surveyed 600 international visitors to Canterbury to ask what they thought of the sustainability practices and products they encountered on their visit to the region.

"Visitors have a generally positive attitude and a willingness to adopt sustainable practices," ChristchurchNZ Senior Economist Peter Fieger says.

"However, Canterbury tourism businesses may need to provide or promote options for visitors to be more sustainable to enable them to align their attitude and beliefs with their behaviour."

Almost 1200 New Zealand tourism businesses have now signed up to TIA’s New Zealand Tourism Sustainability Commitment, which is also supported by the Tourism Industry New Zealand Trust.

The TSC sets 14 commitments for tourism businesses to achieve environmental, economic, host community and visitor sustainability. They include objectives to reduce carbon; contribute to ecological restoration; reduce waste; and actively engage with visitors on the importance of restoring, protecting and enhancing New Zealand’s natural environment.

"By showing our visitors that we are taking responsibility for looking after our environment and communities, we can encourage them to follow our lead," says Bruce.

The researchers found that:

  • International visitors perceive themselves as placing a high value on protecting and respecting the environment.
  • Visitors tended to adopt environmentally friendly practices that were accessible or easy to do, such as using energy-saving products, switching off electrical equipment, reducing consumption of non-essential items, recycling, purchasing local food, and engaging with tourist attractions that support endangered plants and animals.
  • Practices that were less likely to be adopted included taking part in a carbon-offset scheme, using electric vehicles or other eco-friendly transport such as bikes, or buying eco-friendly products.
  • Overall, international visitors had favourable perceptions of Canterbury’s sustainability practices, including the encouragement of clean rubbish-free spaces, availability of public toilets, and recycling and waste management.
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