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I have been an unethical traveler, and I’m ashamed to admit it. When I began taking organized media trips as a travel journalist more than a decade ago, I didn’t question the itineraries set for us. If there was an animal encounter or a visit to a local village, I just assumed that the organizers — whether a tourism board, a tour operator or otherwise — had in mind the best interests of those involved. After all, they wouldn’t want us to promote activities or experiences that were detrimental to the local communities or the environment, right?
Well, I was flat-out naive.
The sentiment I’ve felt is known as “travel guilt,” and I’m not alone in experiencing it. A recent survey for Exodus Travels, conducted by OnePoll, suggests that U.S. travelers are now more conscious about the impact of vacationing than ever before: 91% of those surveyed say it’s important for their trips to be ethical, while 39% admit to experiencing travel guilt after taking a vacation they worry may have been unethical.
“Tourism has costs and benefits,” said Rachel McCaffery, senior advisor of responsible travel for G Adventures. “It brings employment, supports economic development and can help conserve natural habitats and biodiversity. Of course, it also has costs in terms of pollution, cultural change and habitat destruction. What we have always aimed to do is to maximize the positive benefits of tourism while doing our best to minimize the negative impacts.”
“Sustainable travel” is becoming less of a buzzword and more of a cultural shift that touches all aspects of a vacation. Although “sustainable tourism” might sound like it focuses solely on environmentally friendly practices, its reach is much deeper and more complex. In order to be considered sustainable, a vacation should also offer social and economic benefits to local communities, as well as safeguard natural and cultural heritage.
“For a business to be fully sustainable, it should ensure fair wages and humane working conditions for its people; make efforts to reduce its environmental footprint; and ensure that all those efforts are consistent with making a profit,” said Sarah Lang, a sustainable travel expert and founder and CEO of Foray Travel + Event Design, a Virtuoso affiliate. “We call this the triple bottom line, which takes into account three different aspects that, as a whole, make up a sustainable society: people, planet and profit. When it comes to sustainability in travel and tourism, the people aspect is just as important as the planet.”
Some travel companies, such as Intrepid Travel, Virgin Voyages and G Adventures, were built with responsible travel in their DNA. For example, Intrepid has been a carbon-neutral business since 2010 and is taking that commitment a step further this year by becoming climate positive. This means that they will be offsetting more carbon than they emit through daily operations and trips.
Among its many responsible travel initiatives, G Adventures provides approximately $380,000 to $530,000 each year to fund Planeterra, its nonprofit partner. The foundation was set up in 2003 to help local communities maximize the benefits of tourism. G Adventures also rates its itineraries with a Ripple Score tool to show how well it works with communities — the higher the Ripple Score, the more money that stays in the community.
Virgin Voyages has committed to preserving the ocean from the outset and is planning for a net zero carbon future. Its inaugural ship, Scarlet Lady, is the first cruise ship to be constructed as carbon-neutral, and is custom-built with diesel engines that can switch to alternative fuel sources when they become commercially available. The line is taking other responsible measures, as well, such as banning single-use plastics; serving direct-trade coffee and sustainable seafood; developing entrepreneurial partnerships that support the local economy; and eliminating buffets, which prevents an estimated 225 tons of food waste per ship each year.
Other companies are seeing an opportunity to do good by integrating responsible business practices and making sweeping operational changes. Lindblad Expeditions – National Geographic, for one, became carbon-neutral last year, while MSC Cruises has committed to doing the same by year’s end.
Looking to the skies, consider Norwegian Airlines — which the International Council on Clean Transportation named the world’s most fuel-efficient airline on transatlantic routes — and New York-based JetBlue. In addition to recycling initiatives and carbon offsets, JetBlue is promoting urban agriculture with a rooftop farm at John F. Kennedy International Airport that composts leftovers from select airport restaurants and donates its harvests to local food pantries.
“People inherently want to do the right thing, as do companies in the travel space,” said Jessica Hall Upchurch, vice chair and sustainability strategist for Virtuoso. “We believe in the power of travel as a force for good, and it can absolutely be sustainable. Look at what’s going on with efforts to curb carbon emissions and the traveler’s overall footprint — these conversations are happening with far more depth and frequency than ever before. It’s really a matter of making it easier for consumers to make informed choices.”
Tools of the Trade
According to Booking.com’s 2019 Sustainable Travel Report, about half (55%) of global travelers are more determined than they were a year ago to make sustainable travel choices.
However, when trying to put this into practice, barriers include a lack of knowledge, as well as a dearth of available or appealing options. These findings mark a huge opportunity for travel advisors, who can educate and guide their clientele to make better-informed decisions.
“My advice is to begin asking questions when you meet with suppliers — find out what the hotel or tour operator is doing to reduce its environmental impact and what initiatives are in place to positively impact the local community,” said Foray Travel’s Lang, who formerly worked in renewable energy. “Sometimes, you’ll be surprised at the innovative initiatives going on behind the scenes. And as a bonus, this will help you remember the company and give you something new to talk about with clients. Maybe you’ll even learn something new about your client, such as a passion for wildlife conservation.”
Many tools, from both established companies and startups, already exist to assist advisors during the research and booking processes. Skyscanner and Glooby.com allow travel planners to search for the most fuel-efficient flights, while online travel agency BookDifferent.com (an affiliate of Booking.com) offers certified sustainable accommodations all over the globe. Travel app Wayaj is designed for exploring and booking sustainable and socially responsible vacations using a comprehensive eco-rating system.
Need a crash course in sustainability before diving into these tools? G Adventures and nonprofit organization Sustainable Travel International created a 30-minute “Travel Better” online course that shows how to make more responsible choices in vacation planning. In the responsible travel section of G Adventures’ website, short, entertaining videos provide education on key responsible tourism issues, including child and animal welfare, as well as respecting local communities. The tour operator also offers a code of conduct for travelers, which advises how to be more responsible when traveling.
Look to Intrepid for in-house training on responsible tourism, as well as for live webinars for agents. According to chief customer officer Leigh Barnes, the tour operator will be releasing a specialist program focused on responsible and sustainable travel in the second quarter of this year.
In January, Intrepid debuted Offset Earth, a carbon-offset subscription service that starts at $6.50 per month. As part of the program, Intrepid matches subscribers tree for tree, meaning for every tree planted in Kenya’s Kijabe Forest through Offset Earth, Intrepid will plant one as well, effectively doubling the offset contribution.
“The program also educates users that the biggest impact they can have is to change their lifestyle, and it has new subscribers set ‘climate lifestyle goals’ — such as eating less meat and refusing single-use items — to hold themselves accountable,” Barnes said. “Advisors can use this as a tool to teach their clients about how to travel and live more sustainably, and to show that they are working with travel suppliers who make sustainability and responsible living a priority.”
For additional support and education, Lang suggests that agents reach out to their consortium to find out what it’s doing to promote sustainability among members and how to get involved.
Ensemble Travel Group, for one, recently integrated Cool Effect’s Travel Offset Tool into its platform, which allows members to quickly and easily offset the carbon footprint of air travel for their clients. During Ensemble’s 2019 International Conference in Seattle, the consortium offset all attendee travel and the footprint of the conference through Cool Effect’s Jacunda Forest Reserve carbon reduction project based in Brazil.
With an annual Sustainability Summit, a sustainability training series as part of Virtuoso Travel Academy and a newly launched Sustainable Travel Community, Virtuoso has made responsible travel a core principle of its organization for more than a decade.
“We offer varying degrees of support to keep from overwhelming those who may not be as knowledgeable, while still giving a path to those who want deeper involvement,” said Virtuoso’s Hall Upchurch. “Our philosophy, whether for advisors or their clients, is to start with where you are. We would rather see 95% of people take one step forward than have 5% doing it perfectly.”
Sometimes, the solutions can be quite simple. To eliminate the need for short-haul flights, talk to customers about incorporating train travel and other forms of public transportation into their vacations. Promote slow itineraries that allow travelers to go deeper in a destination; suggest off-the-beaten-track vacations instead of overtouristed areas; and incorporate locally owned businesses to ensure that a client’s tourist dollars directly benefit the local economy.
“We’re already seeing travel companies acting to minimize their negative impacts and amplify their positive contributions to the world,” Barnes said. “And as consumers continue to become more socially and environmentally conscious, we’ll see more companies following suit, as they realize responsible business is good business.”