Travel advisors' role in sustainable travel

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Travel advisors in Wadi Rum on a product development trip to Jordan hosted by the Jordan Tourism Board.
Travel advisors in Wadi Rum on a product development trip to Jordan hosted by the Jordan Tourism Board. Photo Credit: Omar Bani-Hani

Omar Bani-Hani is marketing manager for the Jordan Tourism Board North America.

Much of the focus on sustainability in travel has been on suppliers and travelers. We want to know what tour operators, hotels and cruise ships are doing to provide travelers with green experiences or which ones support local communities.

And we put high expectations on travelers to behave in a responsible way to support the people and places that they visit.
Left out of the conversation is the travel advisor.

The sad reality is that many inbound tour operators do present cookie-cutter itineraries that involve staying at a well-known hotel, eating at a well-known restaurant, visiting the main tourist sites and shopping at well-known stores.

In other words, checklist tourism.

Although these prepackaged products have been successful in the past, they don't support a sustainable business model in the new age of travel. Contemporary travelers are demanding more immersive, bespoke experiences. And advisors can play a major role in providing sustainable options.

Meaningful is the new luxury

Jessica Hall Upchurch, Virtuoso's vice chair and sustainability strategist, reported in a recent webinar that 25% of all new bookings through the Virtuoso network included at least one sustainable experience. Recent survey data from the consortium also showed that a vast majority of respondents, 82%, said that the pandemic has inspired them to be more responsible travelers.

As an Adventure Travel Trade Association advisory board member, I've conducted numerous think tanks with industry leaders and travel advisors, discussing the state of the industry before the pandemic, during the pandemic and now, as travel begins to resume. Throughout, the consensus has been that travelers are more likely to book a sustainable experience if they are presented with opportunities for sustainable options by their advisors.

Luxury travelers who once focused primarily on opulence and comfort are now seeking more meaningful experiences, taking a page from the adventure travel playbook that embraced sustainability long before other industry segments. Luxury tourism is no longer only about marble lobbies, thread counts and Michelin stars; it's also about meeting local residents and engaging in immersive, experiential and transformative travel.

Travel advisors' direct connection to North American travelers enables them to create custom itineraries for clients based on a traveler's individual needs and desires. But products that include sustainable travel practices are not always offered to clients. I don't believe that's due to a lack of interest from the advisors or clients but rather the lack of tools to share opportunities that exist within destinations.

One example of that could be viewed as a template for how destinations can assist agents to guide their clients in this regard is the Meaningful Travel Map of Jordan, created in a partnership between the Jordan Tourism Board and Tourism Cares in February 2018. It's an interactive tool for travel advisors that enables them to connect directly with social enterprises on the ground in Jordan, which can provide incredibly rewarding experiences for clients while supporting economic, cultural and environmental sustainability across the region.

This first-of-its-kind industry initiative can serve as a prototype for other regions or destinations. The map includes an interactive listing of community organizations and nonprofits that provide diverse experiences, from traditional cooking classes to overnight Bedouin camp parties. It supports travelers looking for more meaningful participation with Jordan's culture and, as a result, leverages the power of travel to help people and places thrive.

A pandemic pivot

In my 13 years with the Jordan Tourism Board and through partnerships with major consortia such as Virtuoso, Signature, Travel Leaders and Ensemble, I have spoken with thousands of travel advisors and hosted hundreds of them in Jordan. Through these encounters, I've been able to share insights about the unique nature of the country, engaging them more intimately with the culture and connecting them with resources on the ground.

In the second quarter of 2020, when the pandemic was raging, I needed to find a new way to support travel advisors when familiarization trips were no longer an option. To maintain advisor engagement, I hosted webinars that I hoped could play an invaluable role in sustaining Jordan tourism during the crisis.

A game-changing idea was conceived. The Meaningful Travel Map became the tool that enabled travel advisors to directly educate clients about the country, leverage its appeal to support local social enterprises and drive demand from the consumers. It turned out that meaningful travel options truly did inspire demand for sustainable products.

Here's where advisors come in
In our case, by enabling travel advisors to feel directly responsible for conserving Jordan's travel experience in the wake of the pandemic, we believe we have also started a grand trend. These experiential travel opportunities, when pitched to the clients by travel advisors, are well received. Ensuring that North American travelers visiting Jordan understand their options actually stimulates demand from the top of the funnel and works its way back through the supply chain.

Success has bred success, expanding and integrating sustainable options throughout Jordan's tourism industry.

Advisors are learning that only by searching out innovative options, and above all developing a personal understanding of sustainability, will they be able to succeed in bringing more travelers to a destination.

It's important that countries create a powerful and meaningful travel strategy, one that focuses on post-pandemic resilience to leverage tourism for positive environmental, social and economic impact.

And, we discovered, it turns out that the most critical link in the chain is the travel advisor.

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