Today, the tourism industry faces the challenge of offering customers memorable experiences while reducing their overall impact on the environment. In this regard, engaging in circularity could be considered as a priority for European tourism providers.
However, it remains to know how deep circularity is implemented by SMEs in the tourism sector? What they know or understand of the concept of circular economy? What are the current skills gaps that may prevent them from turning this concept into real practices?
These questions have laid the foundations of the CEnTOUR project framework in order to provide tourism SMEs willing to engage in circular practices the appropriate knowledge and resources.
To better understand the current state of sustainable tourism and the circular economy in the participating countries of the CEnTOUR project (Italy, Spain, North Macedonia, Moldova, and Greece), each partner gathered national data and conducted a literature review. This information was used to gain insight into the local challenges and opportunities associated with these concepts in the tourism industry. To further explore these themes, a survey was designed and conducted. Its results provided valuable information to promote sustainable tourism and the circular economy. By working together and sharing best practices, these countries can create a more sustainable and responsible tourism industry that benefits both visitors and local communities.
What do we learn from literature review?
The concept of circular economy has gained popularity as a promising solution to reduce the environmental impact of the tourism industry. The three main principles of circular economy – designing out waste and pollution, keeping materials and products in use, and regenerating natural systems – can be applied to various sub-sectors of tourism, such as sustainable mobility, sustainable food, community-based accommodation, and the re-use of equipment. Despite the potential benefits, the concept of circular tourism has only recently started to be addressed in publications, with the first mentions appearing in 2017. The literature review shows that water and energy savings, as well as the development of renewable energy sources, are also important factors in promoting sustainability in the accommodation and tourism sector.
What do we learn from the reports in the different countries?
Tourism industry in all countries still heavily relies on fossil fuels, but there are public and private initiatives towards improving energy efficiency and investing in renewable energy, particularly supported by public financial aid for SMEs. Water management is a crucial issue for sustainable tourism, and all countries recognize the need to reduce water consumption. However, the scarcity of water resources in some regions, particularly Spanish and Greek islands, presents a more pressing challenge. Waste management, particularly marine litter, is also a significant concern, with improvements being made through private initiatives and regulations. Although recycling rates are encouraging in some regions, others still need support to develop their waste management practices.
Efforts to reduce food waste and implement plastic-free actions are increasing across the countries, but much remains to be done in terms of awareness and capacity development. The concept of collaborative consumption is more prevalent in Moldova, Spain and Italy, while Greece and North Macedonia appear to lag behind in this regard.
Although countries have pledged to advance sustainability and circular economy in various industries, tourism included, there is still a long way to go to attain these objectives. The tourism sector, in particular, requires stakeholders to collaborate towards lessening their environmental impact and adopting sustainable approaches..
What do we learn from the survey?
According to the survey conducted among tourism small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which comprised 44% of hotels, 25% of tour operators, and 72% of micro-enterprises with less than ten employees, the move towards circularity is still in its infancy. When it comes to circular economy measures, most people typically associate them with waste, water, and energy reduction initiatives, while collaborative consumption and sustainable management strategies are seldom mentioned.
Apart from financial obstacles, the main challenges identified were the lack of knowledge and the need for systemic change to maximize efficiency.
Food waste reduction is obviously an important topic as 74% of answering organizations have already taken related initiatives and 70% consider it an important topic for their future. Main existing initiatives concern food stock management, menu planning and portion control.
Plastic-free actions are also an important topic, as 73% of respondents have already taken initiatives regarding the plastic packaging issue and 67% consider it an important topic for their future. Key solutions currently implemented are the shift from plastic to washable items, but respondents also mention other solutions such as to reduce single doses, to use returnable items or recyclable materials, etc.
Organizations seem to be less familiar with the concept of collaborative consumption, which has an impact on their level of interest in the topic. As a result, opinions on its importance for their future are more varied compared to the more widely-known concepts. Although the idea of a sustainability label is widespread, only 21% of respondents have obtained a certification related to sustainability. Furthermore, SMEs appeared to show little interest in acquiring such labels. This could be attributed to a lack of understanding, limited resources, or uncertainties regarding the benefits of certification.
What were the needs expressed by SMEs according to the survey?
Certain skills, such as developing energy-saving strategies, conducting transition assessments, and fostering collaborations, are deemed essential for sustainable tourism practices. These abilities are already well-established within organizations, and thus should be included in training programs. However, it is important for training to also emphasize other essential skills, such as those required for systemic change in the circular approach.
The primary demand expressed by SMEs is the need for inspiration from successful business models that demonstrate circular economy principles.
What would be then the frame for a capacity building program?
Circularity is a challenge that many tourism SMEs will have to face, and given their size, they do not always have the resources and skills to deal with it, as well as the appropriate tools and references.
The survey found that tourism SMEs tend to focus on sustainability practices in specific areas, such as energy conservation, food management, or water usage. Even if SMEs are not implementing sustainable practices in these areas, they are aware of their importance and the need for effective management. However, there appears to be a perceived knowledge gap and a growing demand for a comprehensive understanding of circular economy principles…
If some sectors are better mastered as of great interest at first sight (energy, water), others are less known (collaborative consumption).
Given these findings, it is crucial to provide SMEs with a clear understanding of the foundations of circular economy, its implications for the tourism industry, and how to implement it holistically. This includes educating SMEs on transition management, circular business models, networking and collaboration, and associated tools. This can then be followed by practical applications of circularity in different fields (energy, water, food, plastic-free, collaborative consumption).
A focus on labeling and communication strategies related to circular economy appears to be useful in providing a holistic view of the methods and tools necessary for SMEs to develop circularity. The following scheme outlines the necessary knowledge components that SMEs require to successfully implement circularity.