TW illustration by Jenn Martins
TW illustration by Jenn Martins
May 31, 2021
Third-generation filmmaker Celine Cousteau joined top editors of consumer travel media for a frank discussion about building back a better travel industry.
For many people, the pandemic will be remembered as a time when the travel industry, for the most part, took a gap year.
But for many companies, the pause provided time to focus on issues that had drawn negative attention to the industry’s operations, from its environmental practices to its treatment of indigenous people to the impact of overtourism.
This year, Travel Weekly invited Celine Cousteau to join top consumer travel editors to discuss some of these concerns. She is a third-generation filmmaker; both her grandfather, marine conservationist Jacques Cousteau, and her father, Jean-Michel Cousteau, produced films featuring underwater life. Celine Cousteau’s CauseCentric Productions focuses on environmental and sociocultural issues.
She also has a direct connection to the travel industry as ambassador of the Travel Corporation’s TreadRight Foundation.
Returning to join Cousteau for the 15th annual Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable were Conde Nast Traveler U.S. editor Jesse Ashlock; Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief of Afar; Jacqueline Gifford, editor in chief of Travel + Leisure; Town & Country executive travel editor Klara Glowczewska; WonderlustTravel .com editor in chief Bob Guccione Jr.; and New York Times travel section editor Amy Virshup. The discussion was moderated by Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann.
The original transcript has been edited for length, and the chronology has been altered to keep dialogue about specific topics together, though the topic might have recurred at intervals during the course of the conversation.
Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: Celine, you’ve made documentaries about indigenous people in Brazil. Let’s begin with your thoughts about what you’ve observed, both the good and the bad, when travelers interact with indigenous cultures.
Celine Cousteau: I’ll start with the bad because I like ending on the good. I was filming a documentary in the Brazilian Amazon, and we accompanied a group of tourists leaving Manaus on a boat to visit an indigenous village. We went into the maloca, the main hut; the adults were there, the women ready to dance, the men ready to do their thing. All the seats were arranged for watching.
There’s this exchange — exchange in culture, exchange in goods — which I think is lovely. But what happens is that the villagers dress up “authentically” to please the tourists. And then as soon as the tourists are gone, the men put their jean shorts back on and their new logo T-shirts and the women put on their skirts, and they go about their business. Where we need to be more sensitive is to understand that “authentic” is the idea we have, and it’s our expectation of who people are, but perhaps it’s no longer the actual, authentic truth. I think we would be best as an industry to encourage people to accept what currently is: You walk into a village and the women are wearing bras and a skirt and the men are wearing shorts and maybe a T-shirt. Let’s not fabricate something that is no longer. It was a bit comical. As soon as the tourists were gone, they put the grass skirts away.
On the positive side, I’ve seen tourism bring economic benefits to an area that has increasingly become dependent on government subsidies, that has become increasingly dependent on Western pharmaceuticals for diseases that we unfortunately brought in. So, there is this exchange, and that exchange is realistic and there are a lot of places, whether it’s in the Brazilian Amazon or elsewhere, where First Nations groups or local communities really benefit from thoughtful tourism because we bring in an economy that allows them to be independent. It just has to be done with great respect for how they want to welcome us into their homes.
The tourism industry has tremendous, tremendous potential to do good.
Celine Cousteau, CauseCentric Productions
Bob Guccione Jr., editor in chief, WonderlustTravel.com: I have a question, Celine. Why do they dress up? Why not be themselves?
Cousteau: I don’t know. I didn’t ask if they were told to dress up or if they dress up because that’s what they think the tourists want.
Klara Glowczewska, executive travel editor, Town & Country: In this case, do you know how the economic benefit is measured? Is it just the things that the tourists give them?
Cousteau: I would think and hope that the tour group is actually paying the village and, hopefully, it gets disbursed equally. But those are the questions this industry needs to ask itself. Are we encouraging travelers to expect these things when perhaps we’d be better suited to show them duality? What I’ve encountered in Brazil is that they live in duality. They still want to keep their traditional ways, but when I leave their village in the middle of the jungle — where there is no cell service — they ask me if I’m on Facebook. There is this link and this knowledge of the outside world.
Guccione: Is it a positive experience for them?
Cousteau: It’s a cultural exchange that I think is important to see. Perhaps the example I gave is not the perfect example, but understanding how people live, having a face-to-face interaction and, hopefully, by seeing somebody who seems different, we’ll also realize how similar we are. At least, that’s my hope, but it’s why I think tourism is important. It creates these interactions and these interrelationships that are crucial to our understanding of how we’re connected.
Jesse Ashlock, U.S. editor, Conde Nast Traveler: There’s just such a range of experience in terms of cultural exchanges. I’ve seen members of an indigenous community put on costumes and do choreographed dances and walk off, and I’ve also had an incredible home meal with a Nubian family in Upper Egypt that I’ll always treasure. All cultural exchanges are not created alike, and that’s critical to impress upon the travel-going public.
I want to go to places with humility ... and have that guide the decisions I make when I’m there.
Jesse Ashlock, Conde Nast Traveler
Jacqueline Gifford, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: I think that we expect, as travelers, that indigenous cultures do not evolve. They can’t wear different clothing. That has become more important than having a dialogue about how everybody’s actually living and existing today.
Ashlock: In scenarios where the benefit to the community includes critical investment in infrastructure, education and job training, those benefits are going to lead to that evolution. The community is going to become different than a sort of time capsule or the trapped-in-amber version that some tourists think they want. Which I think is an inherent tension in how encounters with indigenous communities operate.
Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief, Afar: It all comes back to capital and the purse. Where’s the money going? If it’s not going to the community directly, there’s probably going to be some sort of performative aspect to it. Tourism can be very extractive to Black and brown communities in the Southern Hemisphere, pretty much since the day travel was invented in its current form. I think we should all admit that. Looking around this roundtable, it’s pretty white, so we bring a pretty similar perspective to travel. And I do think it is so important to talk to indigenous travel leaders like Keith Henry, who’s the CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada. I mean, their revenues dropped, I think, by 93% year over year. What are we going to do to help them come back in a better way? I think that’s the biggest question that we should be asking ourselves right now.
Glowczewska: I think it’s a really interesting topic, especially now as we’re coming out of this pandemic. Can we do all this better? I’ve always had a bit of an allergy to visiting indigenous communities. I’ve never done it, partly because I don’t understand who regulates it. I am suspicious of the authenticity. I know it’s performative, and it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me feel like I am somehow sort of feeding off of it, like I’m an exploiter.
Tourism can be very extractive to Black and brown communities. … we should all admit that.
Julia Cosgrove, Afar
Guccione: Why do you feel it’s exploitive?
Glowczewska: I really want to know who regulates it, and I want to know where the money goes and I want to know what the real benefit is before I sign up.
Amy Virshup, travel editor, New York Times: In any of those cases, what you’re seeing is a performance of culture as opposed to the actual culture, right? You’re in an audience. You’re seeing a performance, you’re not seeing the way people actually live. They’re putting on a show for you. I don’t know to what extent the people in the audience think that they’re seeing the real thing, that this is the way these people live. When I have seen this kind of thing, I think, well, they’re putting on a show. And then they’re going to go back to their cellphones, because that’s what people in the 21st century have.
Ashlock: And yet I still feel like a white Westerner inspecting a specimen. There’s something fundamentally problematic about that even when it’s responsible and great. And I just feel like that is worth acknowledging.
Guccione: Why is it exploitive? I honestly want to know. I know everybody says this. I hear it. I read it. I don’t get it. I’m a journalist, and I’ve been all over the world. I’ve been in very remote places. I’ve been in the middle of Florence, which also is an indigenous community. I do not know why it’s exploitive and would like to know.
Virshup: I don’t think it has to be exploitive, but I think Julia’s point is a good one, which is, where’s the money going? If they’re getting a pittance and the promoter who’s put the show together ….
Cosgrove: And I think it can be exploitive if you’re getting a very canned version of history and culture that’s totally mediated and for your benefit only.
Guccione: With all due respect, nobody makes them do it. They’re not doing it at gunpoint. They’re not being invaded. They have opted to do this. They’ve opted to work with the tourists for their community. Presumably there’s some reciprocal curiosity about who we are, and presumably they’re getting some benefit out of it, and maybe they just enjoy the company. I don’t know. I don’t see it as inherently evil that white people turn up in other communities. I have no angst about being white, just to be on the record.
You’re seeing a performance, you’re not seeing the way people actually live.
Amy Virshup, New York Times
Ashlock: I’m not apologizing for being white, but I do want to go to places with humility about the power and privilege that brought me to that place and that guide the decisions I make when I’m there.
Cousteau: Bob, to play devil’s advocate on what you said, if the money isn’t going directly to the indigenous community, then we are implicit in taking advantage of a situation. Because we’re going in, we’re taking stories, we’re taking images, we’re taking in their song and their dance, and if there’s not reciprocity for what they put into it, that is a huge issue.
In the Javari territory in Brazil, the indigenous people have voices, they have very strong voices, and they’re just not being included in the conversation. They could be allies in creating beautiful experiences that may show a little bit of what tourists expect but also show daily life and just say, “You know, we still do these dances because we bring in the rain this way. But we also put our jeans on and we make fires and we turn the generator on for an hour at night because we like to hear Latin American soap operas.” All of that is still the truth. I think as an industry we would fare better to open up that conversation and be more thoughtful, as opposed to, “Let’s stop in for an hour, watch a dance and then get back on the boat.”
Guccione: I agree with that. Perfectly put. I also want to go everywhere respectfully. We’re all journalists, and I’m sure at some point we’ve done something other than a nice travel article about a nice place. I traveled through Kosovo at the very end of the war. And they’re indigenous, too, the Albanian Kosovars, and they welcomed me, brought me into their homes, put me up and fed me because they thought I was a messenger for them, a valuable messenger to come back to tell of the story of their plight.
Weissmann: Celine, you go in with a camera crew, and you’re recording what’s going on as honestly as you can. But many travelers today are messengers via Instagram and may be, primarily, looking for an image that looks good on their feed. There are conflicting messages going out and conflicting reasons for sending messages.
There are conflicting messages going out about travel.
Arnie Weissmann, Travel Weekly
Cousteau: Well, there are a lot of different types of travelers, and we can all be messengers. I come at it from a place of helping indigenous people get the world to listen to them, and I think it’s all of our jobs to do that. We choose how to tell stories, all while keeping the reader, or the scroller, interested. It’s all valuable. Stories are so necessary. Telling stories matters.
Weissmann: Celine, let’s talk about an issue that’s heavily intertwined with your family’s legacy: water, and the life that lives therein. There’s so much stress on the oceans, everything from plastics in water to the threat to coral reefs from rising temperatures, rising sea levels, overfishing — on and on. What do you see that the travel industry is doing that is either helpful or harmful, and what could be prescriptive going forward?
Cousteau: From Venice to Florida, people gravitate toward bodies of water for well-being. For many different reasons. But tourism impacts the oceans in ways other than that people want to vacation near it.
Harvesting fish directly feeds the tourism industry. When you go to the beach, you automatically think, “I want fresh fish,” but the fish probably doesn’t come from where you are; it was shipped there. Other supplies for the industry must be shipped over water. There are plastics on the beaches.
I don’t have a perfect solution, but I know that we need to do better as far as the oceans are concerned. And the tourism industry has a huge responsibility in guiding travelers to what is perhaps a more sustainable, more environmentally friendly future. It has tremendous, tremendous potential to do good.
I always feel that guilt does not work. You don’t want to guilt anybody into doing something, because it won’t last. You want to inspire them to love something and to want to protect it. So, give them the information and then let them manage it. I always tell people, “Think before you travel, and then when you’re traveling you don’t actually have to make all these decisions because you know that you can trust yourself having already made the right decisions in terms of the environment and sustainability and the oceans.”
Guccione: We all want to make things better. We’re just innately feel powerless trying to influence a government or a large corporation, so we beat up on the poor traveler. We start writing up rules that every poor little traveler has to follow. I’m taking a flight, therefore I’m a bad person so I go buy a tree. All right. You always have the option to buy a tree. You always have the option to donate to Red Cross or Unicef or anybody else. That’s fine. But don’t put that pressure on somebody. Don’t think we can keep burying the individual traveler under all the things they must do or else they’re a bad person. I read something the other day, “50 rules for sustainable travel.” It’s like, what a burden. What a pain in the ass.
That’s the wrong emphasis; we’ve got the telescope around the wrong way. We’ve got to look at institutions and governments. We’ve got to push toward the people who actually make a difference with legislation, taxation — that’s where the changes will come. We, the journalists, should educate governments and demand that governments do more. They should do more, for their own country, their own jurisdiction.
I don’t see it as inherently evil that white people turn up in other communities.
Bob Guccione Jr., WonderlustTravel.com
Cousteau: I feel educating the traveler is the best thing to do because I’m much more at that level in terms of working with civil society. But I want to go back to emphasizing that guilt does not work. It works temporarily and not in the long run.
When we talk about carbon offsetting, I do feel it’s the corporations that should be covering that cost. This is what the Travel Corporation is doing in going carbon neutral. It’s a long, complicated process, but it’s the only way forward. The individual has to make decisions as to their own lives.
And governments — Bob, I do agree with you. I just don’t know how that works. It’s not where I operate. But if little town X says, “OK, we welcome cruise ships, but only on these conditions,” then maybe there is a shift in power of who gets to make those decisions, not just the corporations but, yeah, the local governments.
Ashlock: I think in the long term, cruise lines are going to be judged more on the kinds of questions Celine is raising with regard to their impact on the water and the communities they visit than they are on whether they’ve canceled the buffet and all the Covid-related things. It’s going to shift to the bigger-picture things that the cruise industry is doing for the world. And I think it’s worth pointing out that some, especially the higher-end cruise lines, are doing these kinds of things. It’s just a matter of degree and how much they’re actually able to tell that story.
Gifford: We did a story on the Florida Keys in our January issue, and the writer went to the Marine Laboratory. There’s this big project going on there about coral reef regeneration. He did a dive so he could see what this project was about and visited a turtle sanctuary to understand, from a broader sense, what the wildlife situation there is. Yes, we talked about hotels and where you’re going to stay, but that wasn’t the focus of the story. As journalists, we’re trying to shift the narrative from the thread counts of sheets to stories that give people a broader understanding of their impact, whether it’s on local communities or the ocean. So, yeah, there’s this tension of putting the responsibility on the traveler to do the good work and study up. As journalists, it’s our responsibility to give them that information, but you don’t want to make people feel it’s a discouraging experience, that every form of travel is somehow negative and your impact is negative. You’re trying to make sure that people make the right decisions, but ultimately, we’re all here to promote travel. That’s where I sometimes struggle as an editor, trying to make sure that we’re telling the right stories, but also my job is to promote travel and the good it can do.
Being able to learn at the same time you’re having your cocktail on the beach — it’s a great combo.
Klara Glowczewska, Town & Country
Guccione: We’re here to illuminate travel, the beautiful places and beautiful experiences and beautiful cultures. And then into that mix comes the ethical.
And then we start feeling guilty that are we part of the problem. I’ve never felt part of the problem. And I’ve never felt I was here to promote travel. I do think we’re here to show people the joyful experiences that exist and the wonderful diversity of cultures across the planet. And encourage travel from a point of view of curiosity and, first and foremost, learning. And then everything else falls in.
Cosgrove: As our digital content director always says, “We can’t make them feel like, ‘Go eat your vegetables.’” Travel is about joy. So how do we tell those stories while also acknowledging that consumer sentiment is evolving? Maybe the pandemic has sped it up in certain ways, but individuals and travelers do want to support the right businesses. They do want to go to places that are doing right by their employees. And who gets to tell those stories? That’s something that we’ve all been thinking about a lot, especially in the last year.
Ashlock: People travel because it’s fun. They want to have fun. They’d like not to be an asshole while they’re having fun and so couch all the stuff about ethics and responsibility and impact in fun. Like, it can be fun to care about all those things. And that goes back to the responsibility of the travel industry and travel providers to give people fun, responsible options. And it can be done.
Virshup: Some people don’t want to be an asshole. And, I think, some people don’t care.
there’s this tension of putting the responsibility on the traveler to do the good work and study up.
Jacqueline Gifford, Travel + Leisure
Cousteau: We have to find a better way than just, “Eat your vegetables, it’s good for you.” I think back to how do you feed a pill to your dog, right? You wrap it up in a treat. So, if we’re going to consider the idea of responsibility as something that we don’t want to completely put on the traveler, let’s leverage the tourism industry to do better. How is it that we can do that and create this veil of the treat wrapped around this responsibility content? Whether it’s sustainability, respect for others — regardless of what it is — it should just be an innate part of everything we do. I hope one day we don’t even have to have this conversation.
Cosgrove: If travel companies hadn’t hired a chief sustainability officer before, they’ve done so in the last year. And they’re spending a lot of money on content marketing. So, you walk into your beautiful overwater bungalow, you maybe see a little card on the TV explaining what they’re doing and you feel good. As a traveler, you say, “I didn’t realize that they were doing this. Good for them.” And by association, good for me for spending my money in this place that actually cares.
Virshup: You want somebody to tell them, “Don’t worry, we’ve taken care of it.”
Glowczewska: The Brando in Tetiaroa near Tahiti is pleasurable because you’re on this fabulous atoll in a luxurious resort. But it’s also intellectually and emotionally exciting because of how they baked the ethos of sustainability into the whole thing, from the ground up. You’re swimming, you’re snorkeling and having incredible meals, but if you choose, you can also see the back of house to see what makes all this possible. And it was like being in Disneyland for me, looking at how they recycle, how they air-condition the rooms with cold ocean water. They have a research station where they invite and fund activities of marine scientists from around the world. And it was just, oh, my God, this is how it could be. And there was nothing Brussels sprouty about it. Being able to learn about that at the same time you’re having your tropical cocktail on the beach — it was a great combo.
The conversation continues!
Click here to read what Celine Cousteau and the editors have to say about managing overtourism and what they predict will happen once travel resumes in earnest.