Aloha, LOHAS: Say Hello to the Tourism Sector’s New Premium Stakeholder

ecotourism_svalbard-wbIf you lead a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, then you're probably part of a growing demographic known as LOHAS, an acronym for "Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability." A sociocultural phenomenon developed over the past two decades, LOHAS is driven by the spending habits of eco-conscious and well-educated consumers.

The 2010-2011 ITB World Travel Trends Report states that LOHAS "could be the tourism industry's new premium customers in the years to come, according to experts at the World Travel Monitor Forum meeting in Pisa."

41 MILLION AMERICANS, VIRTUALLY UNTAPPED

LOHAS "describes an estimated $290 billion U.S. marketplace for goods and services focused on health, the environment, social justice, personal development and sustainable living," according to LOHAS Journal, which also states that "approximately 19% percent of the adults in the U.S., or 41 million people, are currently considered LOHAS consumers. These consumers are...the future of progressive social, environmental and economic change in this country. But their power as a consumer market remains virtually untapped."

According to the February 2011 UNWTO World Tourism Barometer report, 2010 international tourist arrivals were up 6.7% over 2009 to an all-time high of 935 million. But the number of actual ecotourists remains small, less than 16 percent, according to "Identifying the Ecotourist Market Using the Core Criteria of Ecotourism," a paper by Dr. Narelle Beaumont of the University of Southern Queensland. The ITB report estimates the U.S. ecotourism market to be around $42 billion.

If the World Travel Monitor Forum experts are correct, that segment will grow. And the early birds in this scenario will be those firms in the tourist industry that have successfully deployed corporate social responsibility policies that reflect the ethical principles that LOHAS consumers care about when they travel, such as sustainability, environmental awareness and respect for local cultures.

THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN': LOOKING BEYOND THE INDIVIDUAL CONSUMER

The study of the individuals that make up LOHAS is "of great relevance for policy makers in understanding the process people go through in moving toward sustainable consumption," write Kate Power of the Copenhagen Resource Institute in Denmark and Oksana Mont of the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University in Sweden, in their 2010 paper "The Role of Formal and Informal Forces in Shaping Consumption and Implications for Sustainable Society."

But they also note that concentrating solely on consumers as the main actors in the shift towards sustainable consumption would be a mistake.

"A focus at the individual level is misguided. Consumption and the factors that shape it cannot be understood without considering the cultural context within which consumption processes take place. It is the social norms, traditions, and values underlying mainstream society that have the most significant impact on consumption behavior."

ARE WE THERE YET: CALLING ALL "PERIPHERAL ECOTOURISTS"

Those norms, traditions and values can be developed with help not only from policy-makers, but also from socially-responsible firms in the tourism sector. And there is already a segment of consumers who are ready, willing and able to become full-bore ecotourists -- they're just not there yet.

Dr. Beaumont’s study also found that 43.2 percent of respondents were classified as "peripheral ecotourists" and 33.3 percent were not ecotourists at all. As those in the former category are on the edge of becoming "complete ecotourists" in the LOHAS mold, companies that turn their attention and resources towards the tenets of sustainable travel are well-placed to tap into this segment. The latter grouping is going to be harder to get, but as social norms change, that segment will also change.

Power and Mont note that two main hurdles are price and convenience. Most of the time, it costs more to be eco-friendly and it’s just harder to do, as there are more considerations to make, more numbers to crunch, more options to research. The vast majority of consumers consider price to be the driving factor in making travel plans. And once that great deal is found, other factors often fall by the wayside.

But as the LOHAS consumer becomes more of a focus throughout the commercial sector in general, competition will drive prices down as well as spur innovation and integration that will make it easier for consumers to make socially and environmentally responsible travel choices.

"People may adopt simpler and less materially-intensive lifestyles for many reasons, including dissatisfaction with high-stress lifestyles, and wanting to spend time on activities outside of work, as well as environmental concern; however, many simplifiers share the common desire to have greater control over their own time and money," write Power and Mont.

RAISING THE BAR: FROM ECO-TOURISM TO JUST PLAIN TOURISM

The non-profit International Ecotourism Society defined ecotourism in 1990 as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”

Martha Honey expanded the definition in her 2008 book Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? She said that ecotourism involves travel to natural destinations, minimizes impact, builds environmental awareness, provides direct financial benefits for conservation, provides financial benefits and empowerment for local people, respects local culture and supports human rights and democratic movements.

That sounds like a pretty big to-do list, especially for a vacation, but for LOHAS consumers, that's just business-as-usual. And if LOHAS truly are the tourism sector's new premium stakeholder, then in the future, all tourists might be ecotourists. And "ecotourism" will have a new name -- "tourism."

image: ecotourism in Svalbard, Norway (credit: Woodwalker, Wikimedia Commons)

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