Sustainable, green, eco… whatever you choose to call it, the travel world is growing a conscience, and doing good has never been so desirable. From beach cleans to carbon-neutral buildings, everyone seems to be doing their bit for the planet – which is just as well since by 2030 the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) predicts that 1.8 billion people will be travelling every year.
With so much talk about the issue, the world of responsible travel can feel overwhelming – so who is leading the way and what are the critical issues?
The World Travel and Tourism Council’s (WTTC) Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, spread over five categories (Community, Environment, People, Innovation and Destination), are an excellent place to start. The awards event showcases the problems that need to be tackled and celebrates the change-makers who are leading the charge.
The rigorous judging process, including on-site inspections and panel discussions led by Graham Miller, dean of Surrey University, determined 15 finalists and five winners. Announced in conjunction with WTTC’s global summit in Buenos Aires this year, this once-fringe event is more relevant than ever as debates rage between global brands and heads of state about overtourism, disaster relief and employment.
We look at how the winners and finalists are tackling these issues. Here are five key themes that emerged from the awards:
Move over volunteering – impact travel is the next trend to satisfy the increasing awareness and concerns of travellers. “We call ourselves impact tourism,” explains the winner of the Community category, Paras Loomba, founder of Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE). “Creating tangible and positive impacts while travelling has to be the way forward.” Since 2012, Paras has been making this vision a reality. GHE’s trekking groups install solar micro-grids in remote Himalayan villages that have never had electric light before. Paras says: “People in the village cry and laugh – one old man said to me he was so happy to see light before he died.” Besides being able to charge phones and laptops, establish homestays and gain training in basic electrical engineering, the villagers no longer rely on pollutants such as kerosene to light their lamps. Other examples from this year’s finalists include &Beyond’s rhino-notching (a form of identification) experiences in South Africa, and snorkelling with local schoolchildren in Chumbe Island Coral Park, Zanzibar.
We all know that tourism creates jobs, and jobs are a good thing, but who gets those jobs and how they are treated are matters under increasing scrutiny. This year’s People Award winner, Cayuga Collection, is pushing the boundaries when it comes to putting people first. Operating out of Central America, where high season is just four months of the year, Cayuga’s nine lodges stay open year-round so they can provide a more sustainable form of work. They also provide a staff doctor, fill 95% of positions locally (including management) and offer training opportunities that mean receptionists become general managers within just 10 years. And in south-east Asia, rather than waiting for those who need the opportunities most to come to them, Tree Alliance restaurants actively recruits children at risk (mostly street kids) and provides them with life-changing training and employment opportunities.
As the physical and mental benefits of time spent in the great outdoors are recognised worldwide, making wildlife accessible to everyone – not just wealthy tourists – is likely to climb the ranks of the responsible travel agenda. Destination finalists Parque Arvi and Innovation finalists Park Bus are shining examples. Parque Arvi is the largest accessible (by cable car from Medellin) natural space in Colombia and its 54 miles of trails have been visited by more than four million people since 2010, 80% of whom are from Medellin’s poorest socioeconomic sectors. With so many national parks within just a few hours of Toronto, Park Bus is a simple transportation solution. In just five years, the number of people travelling to national parks from Toronto using Park Bus has risen from 60 to 10,000, including marginalised groups such as refugees, single mothers and disabled people, who might otherwise struggle to get into the great outdoors.
With overtourism issues looming everywhere from Yellowstone national park in the US to Boracay island in the Philippines, destination management is more important than ever. The winner of this year’s Destination Award, Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association in Canada has created a more sustainable destination by diversifying. Chief executive Glen Mandzuik says: “Input from the region’s 90 communities and 1,800 businesses revealed that the summer, sun and fun tourist industry no longer works — beer cans were getting thrown in the lake and 80% of local workers’ income was generated in just 45 days; today, the same amount is spread over 110 days and our aim is to get to 200.” Big data has played a key part. “We can redirect visitors if one area is experiencing overcrowding and better target ‘authentic experiencers’ with off-season or lesser-known attractions,” says Mandzuik. As Hans Pfister, founder of Cayuga Collection, puts it: “Tourist boards are measured on how many tourists they attract, but what about the quality of those people?”
After 25 years of supporting local communities through the Africa Foundation, &Beyond (Community Award finalist) is starting to calculate its positive impact. “Only when you measure things differently do you find new targets to work towards – for example, how many local people have been educated?” says regional manager Jason King.
Innovation Award winner Virgin Atlantic changed the face of its in-flight catering by persuading suppliers to adhere to a new sustainability framework. Lead consultant Caitlin Hicks agrees that shifting key performance indicators from being purely financial to purpose-driven is the only way to progress, adding: “Imagine what would be achieved if everyone from farmers to catering staff was incentivised to supply sustainable food and reduce waste?”
Environment Award winner Airport Authority Hong Kong gave businesses a free carbon measurement tool to help make Hong Kong International airport one of the world’s greenest – carbon emissions were reduced by 25% over five years.
Commitment: “You don’t need a revolution but you do need evolution,” says Fiona Jeffery, chair of judges and founder of charity Just a Drop. Sustainable strategies require time – if you’re not in it for the long run, you won’t survive to reap the rewards.
Education: “Education on every level is key for sustainability to be a continuous process,” says Tim O’Donoghue, executive director of the Riverwind Foundation. If you want to get serious about implementing change, you need to invest in time and resources to educate employees and customers.
Collaboration: “A little bit of money can have a big impact if you’re smart about it,” says Mike Kilburn, assistant general manager, sustainability, at Airport Authority Hong Kong. Sustainability should never be competitive; it requires collaborative thinking and pooling resources. Passion: “No other sector relies on a healthy environment and rich biodiversity to exist as tourism does,” says Sibylle Riedmiller, owner of Chumbe Island Coral Park. “We might be the only ones that can save the world.”