While research has shown that travelers are increasingly embracing the idea of sustainable travel, a growing number of industry suppliers and tourism marketing entities acknowledge that it isn't enough to simply hope that travelers will take it upon themselves to reduce their footprint. Instead, sustainable travel advocates and entrepreneurs are working to create products and policies that will ultimately make the sustainable travel marketplace attractive and profitable enough to generate significant change and impact.
"The way I see it, it's our job to make these [experiences] as enjoyable and exciting" as any travel experience, said Michal Alter, co-founder and CEO of Visit.org. "We don't get any discounts on the quality."
Visit.org launched three years ago and is an online aggregating service that enables travelers to find and book socially conscious experiences that weren't bookable at all until the group intervened. Visit.org partners with hundreds of small, nonprofit groups and organizations that have not traditionally catered to travelers because they have focused on their respective missions and generate funding and resources through more traditional donor and volunteer channels.
But now, according to Alter, travelers have a way to easily search for and purchase these unique and authentic local encounters, with the money creating a new revenue stream for the organizations that have signed on.
"With our product, it's about the locals sharing from their own skills," Alter said. "Your impact is the $50 or $100 ticket price for the experience. Our thinking was that this has to be as easily bookable as an Airbnb room or a hotel room or a flight today."
The organizations Visit.org has partnered with fall into eight categories of causes: agriculture, animals, culture, economic empowerment, education, environment, health and human rights. An example of the kind of organizations that have benefited from Visit.org's business model is women's empowerment projects.
"This is the first time that local women can participate in the tourism economy," Alter said. "For many of them, this is the first time they can actually lead a workshop, leveraging their existing skills."
Visit.org sends “ambassadors” to vet its partner nonprofit programs. Here one of its ambassadors meets with a member of Sapa O’Chau, a group that organizes responsible treks and homestays in Vietnam.
To date, Visit.org has developed some 600 socially conscious activities in 67 countries and will work with travel agents, tour operators and travel companies that want to sell the experiences.
Alter said it's going to take a sea change -- a "revolution," as she called it -- to undo some of the damage that has already been done to the environment and local communities around the world by the overdevelopment of the travel industry. But Alter believes that if more companies take a more sustainable approach to tourism development, there is a chance that tourism will increasingly become a force for good.
"I think it might be the case that in certain destinations we've gone too far already, and it'll be hard to turn around," Alter said. "But I do believe this industry has a huge potential as a whole to distribute its benefit in a more equal way to communities around the world."
A travel revolution
Visit.org's vision is the latest example in what has become a groundswell of travel and tourism companies that have come to see sustainable travel as an opportunity to develop a successful business model rooted in decisions that are about more than just doing the right thing. These companies are hoping to be part of a full-scale shake-up that could ultimately save the travel industry from completely sabotaging itself.
"If government bodies and business and leisure travel companies do not prioritize sustainable growth of our sector, they won't have a tourism product to sell in the future," said David Scowsill, outgoing president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). The group launched its Tourism for Tomorrow initiative in 2012 to highlight ways the travel industry can do better for the environment and for local communities.
"Luckily, we see an increase in awareness and action among the travel and tourism sector to grow their operations sustainably and implement policies that actually push for a more sustainable sector," Scowsill said.
"Sustainable travel" has become a buzz term in the industry, and numerous travel companies have completely overhauled their mission in order to accommodate the concept, recognizing in numerous instances that the need to do so is imminent.
Intrepid Group’s Urban Adventures brand’s In Focus tours, like this one in Kenya, are run in partnership with local nonprofits to tackle community issues.
James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Group, said, "We've definitely, over the last 20 months, shifted our business mindset from short-term financial results to a much longer-term perspective focused on people and the planet. But to really make a material difference we require scale, which means we will need to grow. Those two goals of growth and purpose beyond profit over the last 20 months have definitely shown us that having a purpose beyond profit can actually be pretty profitable."
Intrepid addresses sustainable travel through what it calls "the 5 Ps": people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnerships. In terms of people, this year Intrepid removed visits to schools and orphanages from all of its tours and became one of the largest employers of female tour leaders in India. The company is working toward a 50-50 gender split among all its tour leaders by 2020.
Intrepid also reported that it offset 46,000 tons of carbon dioxide last year, and it invested more than $1.1 million into renewable energy projects as part of its planet-focused initiatives.
Leigh Barnes, director of Intrepid Group North America, said that in Myanmar, "together with ActionAid, we developed a community tourism initiative in the Myaing Township, which is approximately 30 minutes outside Bagan. Here travelers spend time with four villages participating in cultural exchanges and learning about village life. The goal of the project is to bring meaningful tourism opportunities to people in the Myaing Township."
He added that the relevance of this example stems from the rapid tourism boom in Myanmar in recent years.
"The benefits of that growth have largely been concentrated in the major tourist hubs like Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake," Barnes said. "Projects like these allow rural communities not only to benefit but to thrive from tourism."
Trading leakage for local
A primary problem sustainable travel efforts are working to reverse is leakage, or the large percentage of tourism dollars that often leave the destination where they were spent by way of larger corporations.
Consequently, there is a movement underway to make sure that more of those tourism dollars make their way into the hands of local communities, which can then invest in their own livelihoods as well as in the preservation of their surroundings.
Jamaica's tourism minister, Edmund Bartlett, said that a recent study indicated the Caribbean has about 80% leakage on average and that Jamaica experiences 70% leakage of tourism spend.
"There's a whole host of little people at the bottom of the spectrum who provide the experiences but who are not the main beneficiaries," Bartlett said. "There is hope for the communities to achieve a higher level of retention of expenditure if we can change the production and consumption patterns in the industry."
Bartlett said Jamaica's tourism industry has identified five passions that drive travel: food; shopping; health and wellness; entertainment, sports and culture; and knowledge.
"We think if we develop the capacity to provide these experiences, the people of the country will begin to benefit more," Bartlett said, "and the trickle-down effect that has often been spoken of will no longer be evident in the sense of a trickle but will be evident in the sense of a bigger rush."
What Bartlett described are the very real effects of what many travel brochures refer to as local experiences. Travelers and travel companies that invest more in locally owned and sourced experiences and goods can, in turn, have a significant impact on smaller communities.
Intrepid has partnered with ActionAid in Myanmar on a community tourism initiative in Myaing Township outside Bagan, where travelers participate in cultural exchanges and learn about village life.
Jamie Sweeting, vice president for social enterprise and sustainability at G Adventures and president of the company's philanthropy arm, the Planeterra Foundation, said, "For us there's a huge focus on local, and, really, local spending more than anything is what is at the tip of the spear of our sustainable travel strategy."
Sweeting added, "At the end of the day, we're packaging and selling travel experiences. It all has to start with the traveler and what this means to them. The traveler is buying an experience and fun and enjoyment, so we really try to make sure that that's a key focus: How can you develop local experiences that are going to provide something that's a little bit different? It really is about providing opportunities for travelers to engage in the local economy with local people and see the benefit of their travel dollars and the way that benefits the people they get to meet and interact with."
Regardless of whether or not travel companies have embraced the need to develop and execute sustainable travel strategies, the reality is that the industry is under increasing scrutiny.
At the WTTC's Global Summit in April, the Global Sustainable Tourism Dashboard was unveiled, an initiative designed to measure the economic success of the travel industry against economic, environmental and socially sustainable development goals.
The Dashboard compiles data and monitors development in seven categories of sustainability: poverty alleviation, equality of travel, carbon emissions, sustainable production, protected areas, gender equity and security. The result is that the industry can better see where it is making progress and where it needs to improve.
The $1.2 trillion travel industry, which moves more than a billion people around the globe each year, is under more pressure than ever to make sure it is doing more than just providing lip service to the notion of sustainable travel. Increasingly, watchdog groups want to see more and better proof that there is a legitimate trickle-down effect of the tourism economy to local communities and to environmental protection efforts.
Charlie Marchant of Charlieontravel.com visits with Small Change 4 Big Change in Guatemala, an experience offered by Visit.org.
The United Nations World Travel Organization (UNWTO) declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development in an effort to increase awareness about the impact travelers have on the destinations they visit. "Global tourism is really big business ... but sustainable tourism still only represents a small fraction of the global industry," said the UNWTO's secretary-general, Taleb Rifai.
As part of that campaign, the UNWTO has highlighted that tourism generates an estimated 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and that tourists consume much more water while on vacation than they do at home. With the number of global tourists expected to reach 1.6 billion by 2020, issues such as waste generation at resorts and on cruise ships, overfishing on coral reefs to feed visitors and the impact of the ballooning global travel industry on local cultures is cause for concern, the organization said.
Scowsill said, "We hope that through measuring, monitoring and managing negative and positive impacts at destination and company levels and by implementing policies that protect people and places through committing to a growth model which is inclusive of all stakeholders, we can grow our sector sustainably and continue to make it economically viable."