Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

How can the travel industry better support global communities?

On World Tourism Day on Sept. 27, that question was taken up by leaders in tourism and community developments who came together at for the World Tourism Day Forum in Washington to share their practices for travel-related philanthropy, voluntourism and corporate social impact before an audience of several hundred people.

Hundreds more watched and listened on a livestream broadcast. I was one of them, and I learned a lot.

The all-day event was sponsored by the Center for Responsible Travel, a policy-oriented research organization dedicated to increasing the positive impact of responsible tourism, and the Organization of American States.

Speakers and panelists were represented by tour operators, hotel groups, destination companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations that are making strategic contributions of time and talent to social and environmental projects in destinations.

Examples abounded throughout the day of innovative programs that impact tourism in positive, responsible ways. 

Dana Krauskopf, who runs Hamanasi Adventure & Dive Resort in Belize, had an interesting story.

"We've got 30 guest rooms and a staff of 170 employees," she said. "We've invested in our people so they can contribute to their own communities. Our guest activities are immersive and supportive of these communities.

"Our guests take Mayan cooking classes, they visit the homes of the Mayans, learn about their customs and make connections with the locals."

The resort also started programs in wellness and nutrition for their employees and offers exercise classes and mental-health counseling.

To prompt visitors to think about sustainability, Hamanasi offers a Green Hour each day during guests' cocktail time.

"We try to showcase our efforts in sustainability to educate our guests. It can be as simple as showing them our bamboo straws, which have replaced plastic straws," she said.

Upon arrival, each guest is given a stainless steel water bottle to take home. "Now they send us photos of the water bottles photographed all over the world in their travels," she said.

Each of the Island Outpost hotels in Jamaica is active in the local community, according to founder Chris Blackwell.

"Our guests can volunteer to work with community members on coral restoration or help run local sports programs for kids," Blackwell said. "Our staff takes part in hospitality training. We're working to bring the world to Jamaica."

Island Outpost encourages its guests to dine at local restaurants, shop locally and to interact with the locals. "Our people know we care about them. We can always work things out together," he said.

More than 450 communities in 60 countries participate in Pack for a Purpose, a company founded by Rebecca Rothney to assist travelers who want to bring meaningful donations and supplies to destinations when they travel.

The company has a list of requirements and guidelines that travelers must follow; it accepts only supplies that have been requested by community participants, and they must be useful, she said.

Since its founding in 2010, it has coordinated the donation of more than 337,000 pounds of supplies around the world, including books to the small reading club on the island of Bequia in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The Local Guest organization in Puerto Rico, founded by Carmen Portela in 2017 after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, began by serving meals and overseeing voluntourism projects in rural towns and villages.

"This was a method of survival for many of our communities," Portela said. "We have more than 20 ongoing projects now. Any traveler can join up and support us to help restore our ecosystems and share techniques with the locals.

"At Local Guest we look for ways to be better neighbors and have a better, more sustainable planet," Portela said. "Travelers and the work they do when they are here with us are helping bring this about."

A humanitarian organization called Airline Ambassadors International, composed of 16,000 members from 24 airlines, is focused on two key issues: eliminating of human trafficking and assisting in disaster relief, according to David Rivard.

"We went into Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there to assist with recovery efforts but we were also involved with the issue of the 30,000 kids who were trafficked after the hurricane," he said.

Beyond the Caribbean

During a discussion about the social impact of corporate sustainability, Caroline Meledo, director of corporate responsibility and human rights for Hilton, said that "our mission is to cut our environmental footprint in half and to get our guests to come on this journey with us. We have a duty to let travelers play a part in this, and we have a fiduciary responsibility to our guests to help them travel more sustainably."

Examples of Hilton's Travel With Purpose strategy include using produce from local farms that are in partnership with Hilton properties in Sri Lanka; instituting hospitality training programs for women in Saudi Arabia to become front office managers; and investing in water replenishment in the area of Cape Town that provides fresh water for 80% of the city.

Two years ago Marriott International reset its strategy and focus to be "the most responsibly sustainable hotel company in the world," according to Denise Naguib, vice president of sustainability and supplier diversity. "We believe that travel is one of the most powerful tools for promoting peace and cultural understanding," she said.

Examples of projects to support and promote local sustainable measures include the planting of hundreds of trees in mangrove locales in Thailand, harvesting Brazil nuts for use in its hotels. The company also plants a tree for each night a guest in a Marriott property in the U.S. and Canada foregoes housekeeping  services.

"So far we've planted more than 100,000 trees," Naguib said.

Despite the progress that the industry has made, there have been pitfalls, according to James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Travel, who pointed out in his keynote address that mistakes had been made.

"We used to offer elephant rides to our clients on some of our tours to Asia, but five or six years ago we grew very uncomfortable with the impact of this practice on elephants. It was torturing them," he said.

The company removed elephant rides as a guest activity in 2014, a move that was soon copied by 200 other tour companies.

Two years later, Intrepid discontinued visits to orphanages. "It was encouraging a boom in fake orphanages where the people who ran them kept donations received from visitors for themselves," he said. "Children did not benefit. Our helping -- or encouraging our clients to help in that instance -- wasn't helpful at all."

Intrepid stands behind empowerment and equal pay for women and started training programs for their female guides, who now number about 314.

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