“It’s all about having the right tools and knowing how to use them,” says Dr Laura Lesar, Senior Lecturer at Flinders University, who has embraced that challenge for her entire career.
Tourism is the largest industry in the world. It touches every continent, but it can degrade the very natural, social and economic environments that feed it.
When the global tourism industry slammed to a halt at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it devastated many lives and businesses reliant on the income brought in by travellers. However, it also provided a breathing space to take stock of the impact the industry was having on some of the world’s most beautiful and culturally valuable places.
Now, as tourist numbers are returning to pre-pandemic levels, few would disagree that it is in everyone’s interests that the industry minimises its negative impacts while maximising positive contribution to the environment, communities and local economies – that is at the heart of sustainable tourism. Translating sustainable tourism into practice is the hard part, and the focus of Dr Lesar’s research.
Her expertise is in the quality control tools that assist businesses to implement sustainability in practice.
“Perhaps the best-known examples of these tools are certification programs,” she says. This involves businesses implementing a prescribed set of sustainable practices and successfully completing an independent audit.
Certification is just one of the many tools available. Other tools, such as the Global Reporting Initiative, can help businesses disclose their impacts on the environment, society and economies as part of their environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting.
There are also tools that help businesses to build capacity for sustainability, such as sustainability training programs for employees. Many tools are accessible for any business, such as best practices, which can be as simple as installing energy-efficient lightbulbs.
Through industry consultation and extensive review of sustainability practices internationally, Dr Lesar has identified more than 100 tools that businesses can use to translate sustainable tourism principles into practice.
“This is important because we can mix and match these tools to create a customised 'tool mix' for businesses, and industry is showing preference for these solutions as opposed to a one-size-fits-all model,” she says.
Dr Lesar has built her expertise through multi-disciplinary study and hands-on industry experience.
Her journey began in the United States where she was an environmental studies major at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her major emphasis was sustainable development, or 'sustainability' as we refer to it today. Specifically, she examined ecotourism as a vehicle for sustainable development.
“I was interested in development that is environmentally, socially and economically responsible. Sustainability for any business means minimising the negative impacts on people, planet and profit, while maximising its positive impacts.”
After building expertise in sustainability, she knew she needed to develop parallel expertise in the business of tourism. That led her to complete a Master of Science in Travel Industry Management at the University of Hawai’i.
“And that's where I started looking beyond eco-tourism to the broader concept of sustainable tourism,” she says.
“I became very interested in the practical tools that translate sustainability into business practice. And that really set my trajectory.”
She then worked in a sustainable tourism consultancy and served as an auditor for a sustainable tourism certification program, learning the nuts and bolts of tool design.
This passion brought her to Australia, where she completed her PhD in Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University, Gold Coast. After that, Dr Lesar served as Assistant Professor at the University of Hawai’i specialising in sustainable tourism, embracing localised challenges.
“Pre-COVID, Hawaii was experiencing many challenges associated with over-tourism, where visitors outnumber residents, and residents perceive that the impacts of tourism are negatively impacting their quality of life,” she says.
When global travel virtually stopped during the pandemic, it provided space to assess how the industry was impacting some of the world’s most environmentally and culturally valuable places. This underscored the dual imperatives of business sustainability and resilience.
With this perspective front and centre of her work, Dr Lesar joined Flinders University as Senior Lecturer.
She is now building on her previous work by developing innovative methods for producing a 'tool mix' for business sustainability and resilience, customised to the unique needs of each business.
She has partnered with Gemtree Wines, a local winery internationally recognised for its sustainable tourism practices.
The company is facing challenges common to the industry in South Australia and the rest of the country.
“Closing the national borders was a significant impact, of course. And the wine industry is facing many of the same challenges as other businesses, whether it’s rising costs of exports or fuel,” she says.
In this climate, tourism can be a vehicle for good.
“If we look at wine business, we can think of it as consisting of three core components. There’s grape-growing, the winemaking and tourism. That means three different ways to gain revenue to help them stay financially afloat.”
“Tourism may help, in some cases, offset some of the losses the difficult trading conditions are bringing,” says Dr Lesar.
With Gemtree, she is refining a methodology for creating customised, place-based sustainability solutions. This has produced a set of tools ideally suited to Gemtree’s unique needs, and a roadmap for its phased implementation.
“Once we've finalised the implementation of the tool set, then we will performance optimise it,” says Dr Lesar.
“I could not be more excited to be working with a third generation McLaren Vale winery. They have been an incredible company to work with.”
While Dr Lesar’s work has global implications, she also highly values the localised, positive impacts of her research.
“As researchers and scholars, we want to come up with place-based solutions for the community, to make our part of the world just a little bit better.”
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