Travel advisors have an opportunity to affect global change for the better
There are many ways that COVID-19 has changed our world. But there’s a consensus on the fact that the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the travel industry, from large destinations to small communities. According to the World Health Organization, “The decline in the first ten months of the year  represents 900 million fewer international tourist arrivals compared to the same period in 2019 and translates into a loss of US$935 billion in export revenues from international tourism.” The UN World Tourism Organization concurs: “The latest data indicate that the year 2020 will end with an overall decline of 70% to 75% in international tourist arrivals.”
While much emphasis has been put on the effect the pandemic has had on the larger players in the industry, i.e. the airlines and big cities, the impact on local communities has been especially severe, penetrating every type of industry, including farmers, artisans, restaurants, local transportation, etc.
In more developed countries, there may be safety nets such as government programs to protect these people and their industries. In less-developed countries — some of them popular and attractive travel destinations — these safety nets may be less effective or may not exist at all. In many cases, small governments and communities are unable to provide relief since their overall economic systems are distressed.
A prime example is the Galápagos Islands. According to Sven Lindblad, founder and CEO of Lindblad Expeditions, “Over 80% of people are dependent on tourism there, so it’s a total economic crash that includes people who are part of the support structure, like national park rangers. They’re totally dependent on the economic value that tourism brings in through national park fees, and that has basically dried up. Some of those people are being laid off so there’s less protection, and that opens the door to more illegal fishing and poaching. So then the whole system rapidly degrades from taking out this single most relevant economic engine. That’s happening in different ways and in different degrees, but you can find those stories all over the world.”
Helping Locals Help Themselves
The challenges are apparent and considerable, but what are some solutions? For that we can go back to the adage of “give me a fish and I eat for a day, teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime.” In certain parts of the world, selling handicrafts can mean the difference between living below the poverty line and being able to feed your family. Artisan activity creates jobs, increases income security and may preserve cultural traditions. Buying local goods helps those people to make a living and support their families.
“There are different ways to help people. If you can help people from the perspective of teaching them a new skill or helping to provide an element of what’s necessary that they may not be able to develop on their own — maybe marketing expertise or whatever — I think that’s very, very helpful,” Lindblad says.
A model for this type of approach is the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Artisan Fund. For the past ten years, the Artisan Fund has helped locals to create goods, set up local businesses, promote those goods and even sold local creations onboard its ships. This is all with the goal of helping them to sustain themselves. In some cases, the Artisan Fund has brought in instructors to coach local artisans on how to create specific crafts.
As another layer of appropriate technology, the Artisan Fund encourages using recycled goods (for example, glass and paper) in the creation of these handicrafts, so the landfill problem is also alleviated. As Lindblad says, “The confluence between creating something that has economic value and at the same time utilizes waste is really a compelling idea. So we’re always looking for places that we go where we can help the artisan community become more productive, broaden the number of people involved and hopefully utilize waste whenever possible.”
A Call to Action for Travel Advisors
Travel as an industry can serve as a tremendous force for good when individuals and companies support the economies of local communities. That’s not just a feel-good sentiment, it’s good business. “If the Galápagos Islands, for example, become degraded and wildlife starts to die off and the seas get overfished, that’s not good business. I don’t think it’s an altruistic idea. It’s more, ‘Why would you not invest in the assets you depend upon?’” says Lindblad.
Travel advisors and suppliers have an opportunity to be a part of positive change by educating their clients on the actual impact their dollars have on those communities and families. Lindblad’s message to travel advisors: “At the end of the day you want to have a long-term business and it would be great to find ways to encourage behaviors, in areas you do business in, that are likely to create a sustainable future. Second, guests really appreciate it and you’re likely to have a more satisfied guest if you send them to different parts of the world with operators who care about these things. You need a sustainable future in these geographies. It makes a lot of sense and it really, really adds value to the guest experience.”
A Sustainable Approach
Sustainability and conservation are hot topics, but they’re also complex. Having practiced responsible travel and sustainability efforts for decades as an ongoing core value of his company, Lindblad says, “There are so many factors involved when it comes to conservation. In order to have effective conservation you need a variety of things coming together. First, you need a local community that is interested and finds value in conservation. You need governmental systems that can be supportive of the ideas of conservation. You need businesses that are going to be creative in terms of how they can be of value to the aspirations and goals of the place. The missing link that really has enormous power to unleash is engaging travelers. They’re at these destinations for a moment in time, they’re having this extraordinary experience and it’s the perfect time to engage them and get them involved. If all of those things happen in concert, I believe you can make monumental strides.”