Agents are in a unique position to promote sustainable travel. // © 2017 Getty Images
Feature image (above): Take extra care to visit the Arctic, Antarctica, Botswana, the Alps, Rwanda, the Great Barrier Reef, Machu Picchu and Cuba in a sustainable way. // © 2017 ClimateForce
Classic cars, Ernest Hemingway, cigars and the phrase “go before it changes” — which of these things is unlike the others?
That idea — of racing to see something before it changes or disappears — might not describe one of Cuba’s unique features, but it has come to be equally synonymous with the island nation. Indeed, the desire to see Cuba as soon as possible motivated my 2016 trip to the country. It also inspired my summer visit to Montana’s Glacier National Park and my recent trek through Argentinian Patagonia. Glaciers are rapidly receding, and I wanted to bear witness to their glory while I still had the chance.
According to MMGY Global’s April 2017 Travelhorizons survey, 36 percent of U.S. travelers feel that it’s important to visit vanishing destinations before they’re gone for good.
And for the first time ever, Virtuoso’s 2017 Luxe Report suggests that travelers “head now for destinations with a sense of urgency: ones that are changing rapidly or even disappearing.”
It’s clear that there’s a marked change underway — due to climate change, globalization, overtourism, uneasy diplomatic ties, threatened biodiversity, endangered animals and more — that’s affecting where some travelers want to go.
“Destinations constantly evolve, but if awareness is driving interest to visit, then that’s new,” said Misty Ewing Belles, managing director of global public relations for Virtuoso.
Indeed, it’s plausible that awareness is a major driver of consumer behavior today. In the last few years, FOMO — or fear of missing out — was added to both Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster. And what could be worse than missing out on seeing the biodiversity that Charles Darwin studied in the Galapagos Islands, or not having the chance to float in the Dead Sea?
FOMO, especially when it comes to traveling to the world’s most iconic places, is becoming something of an epidemic.
MMGY says millennials are the most likely to want to visit these “vanishing” destinations, followed by the college-educated (44 percent) and the affluent (42 percent). It’s fair to assume these folks seek out endangered places because they know them and/or because they have the means to visit.
“With the increase in social media outlets, there is a greater awareness of the issues,” said Beth Hill, a travel consultant and owner of Mangata Travel. “My millennial clients are very keen on both visiting protected sites and doing so with respect and caution. It’s a different dynamic than other generations.”
Betsy Donley, a travel advisor with Camelback Odyssey Travel, says that her family clients are particularly aware of these changes.
“Grandparents want their grandkids to see the world as they know it rather than what may happen to it,” she said.
In addition to social media, there are more movies and television shows than in past years that chronicle global threats such as climate change, from Netflix documentaries “Chasing Coral” and “Chasing Ice” to CNN’s “The Wonder List With Bill Weir,” a travel show with the motto “Go There. Before It’s Gone.”
And then there’s the news.
“We’ve seen an unprecedented hurricane season, which has pushed the subject of climate change to the forefront of the media,” Belles said. “Also, warming seas have resulted in coral bleaching on an unprecedented level in some places, such as the Great Barrier Reef, so people are hearing more about the consequences of being environmentally irresponsible.”
And chances are you — and your clients — have also seen alarmist media stories featuring headlines such as “Places to See Before They Disappear Forever.”
“People read these stories and think, ‘We need to go soon,’ when really, the better response is that we need to take steps now as responsible travelers to help prevent these places from being further damaged,” Belles said.
Donley says that her clients don’t explicitly say they want to visit particular destinations because they’re threatened, but she gets the sense that they’re generally more aware about how the world is changing. The result is that people want to visit certain places sooner rather than later.
“Folks want to go to Alaska and Antarctica because glaciers are disappearing and ice is melting, but a lot of these places are bucket-list destinations — people would be asking to go anyway,” she said.
On the other hand, Hill says her clients are asking to see threatened destinations — and sharing their concerns — more than ever before.
“I have a client who went to Borneo this summer because she is worried that its orangutans are being threatened by loggers and farmers,” she said.
Doing It Right
For advisors, the changing nature of these world icons is undoubtedly an opportunity — not only to sell trips now, but also to spread the gospel of low-impact travel.
“It’s not a uniformly wonderful trend that these places are on the rise,” said Shannon Stowell, CEO of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. “For some, it will contribute to their safety, and for others, it will cause degradation.”
The reality is, it’s in everyone’s best interest — particularly travel agents and suppliers — to ensure that these international treasures are protected.
“Suppliers I talk to are concerned about the sustainability of their business, and they don’t want this all to disappear,” advisor Donley said.
Mangata Travel’s Hill suggests such companies.
“There are firms that respect the crowding of animals on safaris, regulate how close you can get to a blue-footed booby and even lead local efforts on sustainable tourism,” she said. “Just like organic food, these firms can sometimes cost more, but they’re ultimately worth it for many of my clients and for myself.”
Indeed, tourism industry participants all around the world have a part to play. The United Nations’ 70th General Assembly designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Key goals include promoting tourism’s role in resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate change.
Stowell says that real change and protection of travel destinations happen when governments, nongovernmental organizations, tourism sellers and travelers are all contributing.
“Given that many travelers fully depend on — and trust — the recommendations of their travel advisors, agencies are in a uniquely powerful position to promote sustainable travel,” said Soraya Shattuck, executive director of the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund (ATCF).
Virtuoso understands this: The group offers members professional development training on sustainable tourism and highlights noteworthy partners via its Virtuoso Sustainable Tourism Leadership Awards.
In addition to recommending eco-friendly tour and accommodation options on itineraries, agents should incorporate elements of historical, cultural and environmental education. All of this can provide context, understanding and an appreciation of place, Shattuck says.
Agents can be ambassadors for change before and after the trip, too. Use the pre-trip briefing as an opportunity to inform clients about the fragile ecosystems, cultures and communities that they will be visiting and share online platforms such as Carbonfund.org where clients can offset the carbon footprint of their trip. Shattuck also encourages agents to connect travelers with nonprofits doing impactful conservation projects in destinations around the world (such as ATCF).
“Lead by example,” Shattuck said. “Demonstrate and share your travel agency’s commitment to sustainable travel.”
And don’t shy away from these discussions — learn about the changes afflicting beloved travel destinations, and show clients how they can create a positive, rather than destructive, impact through travel. Following are sustainable travel options in eight popular destinations that do just that.
Towering over much of Europe, the Alps are one of the world’s largest and highest mountain ranges — but climate change is causing Alpine glaciers to disappear as well as landslides that disfigure mountains. And it doesn’t help that the Alps — the most biodiverse pocket of Europe — also happens to be one of the most exploited ecosystems in the world. According to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), about 120 million tourists visit the Alps each year, bringing with them motor traffic in sensitive regions and behaviors that are harmful to local wildlife. And sadly, winter ski tourism is the most harmful, as ski runs cause irreversible damage to the landscape.
But worry not, travelers to the peaks of Europe: Experts say one hopeful sign for the region is the emerging trend of sustainable tourism. Ditching cars is one of the best things visitors can do — and easy if they’re taking part in Backroads’ new-for-2018 French & Italian Alps Walking & Hiking Tour, which includes a glacier walk on Mer de Glace glacier, hiking on the Mont Blanc ridge trail and plenty of European fuel (think cappuccinos, Swiss cheese and aperitifs). Wilderness Travel also offers a less traversed hiking trip through the Alps, where clients cross four country borders on foot.
As Antarctica continues to break records — for recent melt events, unusually strong El Nino weather patterns and record-high temperatures — clients might come to you with their concerns. (Mangata Travel founder Beth Hill says that her clients have told her they want to go “before it’s no longer an option.”)
Fortunately, there is a way clients can explore Antarctica that could result in long-term positive effects: The Explorer’s Passage has partnered with adventurer and climate change activist Robert Swan — the first man to walk both the North and South poles — for its IAE/ClimateForce: Antarctica 2018 cruise this February. Swan will have just finished his latest expedition: skiing to the South Pole fueled only by renewable energy.
Carbon emissions from the trip will be offset, and participants will be trained to become climate leaders via a blend of up-to-date climate change training, leadership development and sustainability education. Other highlights include a visit to the Vernadsky Research Base and a polar plunge in Antarctic waters.
Like Antarctica, climate change and the Arctic are almost synonymous. The world’s northernmost region is perhaps most acutely affected by the implications of higher temperatures and acidic waters — and the consequences of rising sea levels and disappearing sea ice (expected to disappear completely by 2080, according to WWF) — can’t be overstated.
The situation is especially bleak for the nomadic Nenets reindeer herders in Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula, where reindeer pastures are thinning out, the government is building pipelines and the next generation of herders is flocking to boarding schools in search of a different life.
It’s a story not often told for a group that has so far survived some of the harshest conditions known to man. But now, travelers can experience this threatened lifestyle and wild landscape for themselves. Intrepid Travel’s new Expedition – Footsteps of Russia’s Reindeer Herders trip creates new jobs for the local community and takes visitors into the heart of the Nenets’ life. Only the most adventurous need apply: Clients will sleep in multishare yurts (called chum in the local language) and eat simple Russian food, such as reindeer meat and salted fish.
By the early 1990s, there were no rhinos left in Botswana. The country, which is dedicated to developing high-value tourism with a low-impact footprint, is translocating rhinos from other parts of Africa to its Moremi Game Reserve, where the animals receive around-the-clock protection from the Botswana Defense Forces thanks to efforts by Rhino Conservation Botswana (RCB).
A partner of RCB, Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy (AKP) hired two full-time AKP Conservation Officers to help monitor the rhino population and share their research across Africa. AKP also built bomas (large enclosures) to temporarily house rhinos introduced to the region. The fruits of RCB’s labor have been sweet: Baby rhinos were spotted in the Okavango Delta in August.
Clients traveling on Abercrombie & Kent’s Luxury Small Group Journey through Botswana can meet the AKP officers for first-hand reports, while clients on a Tailor Made Botswana safari can opt for extra time at a Sanctuary Retreats Camp in the Okavango Delta to patrol the field with the monitors and find out how they track the rhinos — and perhaps even help release rhinos from the bomas into the reserve.
Virtuoso asked its advisors to rank the destination most likely to vanish or substantially change: Cuba ranked No. 1 out of 22 choices. According to Misty Ewing Belles, managing director of global public relations for Virtuoso, for some, that change would be welcome, since Cuba is still developing the infrastructure to support luxury travel. However, other travelers want to see the destination before it becomes “too discovered” or bends to the whims of visitor demands. There’s also uncertainty about President Donald Trump’s policy on Cuba and whether he will try to change the categories of travel permitted by former President Barack Obama’s administration.
Due to current restrictions, many of the options for Cuba travel are sustainable by nature, featuring small groups, local guides and a focus on Cuban culture and interacting with locals. For those who want the added bonus of outdoor fun, Lost World Adventures’ private Bike, Kayak and Hike Cuba trip features kayaking in the Bay of Pigs, biking in Zapata National Park, birdwatching in Laguna Guanaroca and hiking in Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes.
Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is famously so large that astronauts can spot it from space. But two unprecedented occurrences of mass coral bleaching in 2016, the effects of ocean acidification and the green light on a new mine have put folks on high alert, with Outside magazine declaring the reef “dead” and UNESCO considering the reef for its List of World Heritage in Danger. But despite the widespread loss of coral (22 percent in one year) and the fact that coral will continue to be threatened so long as climate change is an issue, some of the most spectacular sights in cooler, deeper waters are still available to visit.
At least this is the rallying cry of the area’s tourism industry, which employs some 60,000 people and rakes in $6 billion annually. To learn how to be a better steward of the environment, skip the mega-resorts and stay at Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, a Climate Action Leader working its way to a goal of using 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. The island even has its own Reef Education Centre learning facility and Climate Change Trail and Tour, a self-guided walk that highlights how climate change can affect the island’s coral cay ecosystem along with advice for travelers hoping to do their part to protect the environment.
Machu Picchu (Peru)
If it feels like just about everyone you know has been to Machu Picchu since it was rediscovered in 1911, well, you might be onto something. The “Lost City of the Incas” has been found and embraced — by a record 1.4 million visitors in 2016 alone (compared to the some 1,000 people who occupied the citadel during the reign of the Incas). In an attempt to manage the flow of visitors — especially necessary because there is only one way in and out of Machu Picchu — the Peruvian government introduced timed morning and afternoon entry tickets in July (though it upped the daily maximum visitors to 5,940 people). Also part of the new rules, guides must have licenses, groups must be limited to 16 people, and travelers are required to follow defined routes.
Skip the buses and hike the Inca Trail with G Adventures, named Best Inca Trail Tour Operator by the Regional Direction of Foreign Trade and Tourism of Cusco in Peru last December. G’s tours employ more than 560 locals and include visits to a G-supported Parwa community restaurant and a women’s weaving co-op in the Sacred Valley.
How long does it take humans to devastate a species? If the mountain gorilla is any indication, barely more than 100 years. Discovered in 1902, the mountain gorilla has suffered tragic population losses due to war, hunting, habitat destruction and illegal capture. Conservation efforts, including meticulous monitoring, have helped numbers climb from about 620 gorillas in 1989 to about 880 gorillas today.
One of the best ways to help the species is to pay the animals a visit, which helps fund conservation projects and local jobs. Though mountain gorillas can be found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda recently doubled the rate of its gorilla permits (from $750 to $1,500), meaning that visitors can perhaps make the biggest contribution here. The Rwanda Development Board says the decision is in line with its high-end tourism strategy and that “the price increase aims to strengthen conservation efforts and contribute more to the development of communities living around Volcanoes National Park.” Because of the increased rate, Rwanda is upping its tourism revenue sharing rate for local communities from 5 to 10 percent.
All operators traveling to Rwanda will have to pay the permit rate, but consider G Adventures’ Culture & Wildlife of Uganda & Rwanda trip, which is backed by primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall.
Also suggest Gondwana Ecotours’ Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda trip, which includes donations to Aspire Rwanda, a local nonprofit for women, and Carbonfund.org; as well as a cooking lesson taught by students of Aspire Rwanda.