The $1.2 trillion travel industry, which moves more than a billion international travelers around the globe each year, has both the opportunity and the responsibility to contribute to cleaner, greener and more respectful travel practices, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

And with that in mind, for 2017 the organization has launched a yearlong "Travel. Enjoy. Respect." campaign aimed at educating travelers about how to reduce their environmental impact.

"Global tourism is really big business ... but sustainable tourism still only represents a small fraction of the global industry," said Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the UNWTO, which declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

According to the UNWTO, tourism generates an estimated 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 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.

Thus the UNWTO is working to inspire a sea change in the travel industry, a message that appears to be resonating with some travel companies that have responded by committing to changing the way they do business.

"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," said James Thornton, the newly tapped CEO of global tour operator Intrepid Group. "But to really make a material difference we require scale, which means we will need to grow. So I honestly believe that the growth and purpose are really indelibly linked. 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."

Canadian tour operator G Adventures was motivated by the UNWTO's year of sustainable tourism to develop an initiative aimed at inspiring agents and their clients to use travel as a force for global good.

At the end of 2016, the company launched a search for six "Ambassadors of Change" to be selected from travel sellers who submitted applications about their ideas for sustainable travel solutions. For example, the agents were asked, "When it comes to travel and tourism and its potential to make our world better, what big change would you most want to see and why?"

G Adventures received more than 350 applications, from which they ultimately selected the seven ambassadors. They ranged from Sally Black, founder of VacationKids in Pennsylvania, who is passionate about family travel and education for children around the world, to Myrna Arroyo, a certified sommelier and adviser with Largay Travel in Baton Rouge, La., who said she believes in providing opportunities to experience the culture of a place through its culinary traditions.

In their role as ambassadors, the travel advisers are being asked to support G Adventures in its participation in the U.N.'s sustainable tourism campaign, to be involved in the launch of a forthcoming "Travel Better" online learning platform that G Adventures is developing, and to promote greater awareness of the benefits of sustainable travel, including through social enterprise projects that the tour company supports and incorporates in its tours.

Collette, which has a long history of company philanthropy, is now working to take those efforts a step further with a foray into what it calls "impact travel," according to Nicole Diebold, senior manager of corporate giving at Collette.

Last year, the company hosted a trip to Ecuador that offered travelers the opportunity not only to engage with local communities but also to contribute and offer assistance through gardening projects and other volunteer efforts.

This year, Collette will lead a volunteer-oriented tour in South Africa, during which travelers will help restore preschools and donate "hippo rollers," water transporting tools that can carry up to 20 gallons of water. The plan is to have three such trips next year, including to Ecuador and South Africa, plus a third to a yet-to-be-determined destination.

The UNWTO's goals for the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development fall into five key areas: inclusive and sustainable economic growth; employment and poverty reduction; resource management, environmental protection and climate change; cultural values, diversity and heritage; and mutual understanding, peace and security.


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