Photo Credit: Visit Pensacola

Sustainable sustainability

August 15, 2016

"Travel is like fire. Out of control, it can wreak devastation, but if you harness that energy, it will keep you warm, enrich your life. The power of travel is an incredible force for good in the world."

That's how Costas Christ, director of sustainability for Virtuoso, summarized the amazing race that marks today's travel. More people can reach more destinations in less time than ever before, yet saturating pristine places risks crushing cultures and environments. How can an industry that accounts for 5% of global carbon emissions increase responsible repeated visits? And how can sustainable travel's financial bottom line reach the green promised land without going into the red?

Sustainable travel, defined by the U.N. World Tourism Association as "development [that] meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunity for the future," has gained traction from the backpacking days.

In May, Mandala Research published a report titled "The Role of Sustainability in Travel and Tourism, 2016," which posited that 60% of 2,300 U.S. leisure travelers had taken a "sustainable" trip during the previous three years. They spent an average of $600 more per outing, and they stayed seven rather than four days on trips that "bring higher benefits to local communities including job creation, giving back and volunteering."

"Travelers are looking for authenticity," said one of the study's co-sponsors, Barbra Anderson, founding partner of the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based consulting firm Destination Better. "They want to go to a place where they think companies are taking care of their business and the environment." And, she added, "sustainable travelers spend 41% more."

One trip in three years might not seem all that frequent, and the study's identification of eight types of responsible travel, ranging from community to geo to agri, might seem too broad to some.

But Brian Mullis, founder and CEO of Sustainable Travel International and another study co-sponsor, called the report "a huge wake-up call." Mullis' Portland, Ore.-area group has helped more than 100 destinations protect natural and cultural assets, and he projected that 56 million to 60 million U.S. travelers are choosing destinations and travel companies based on sustainability practices.

"This is too big to ignore," he said.


The evangelist

Fasten your virtual seat belt when speaking with Virtuoso's Christ. His passion for sustainable travel is palpable; he even lives on an organic farm in Maine when he's not consulting or writing about it.

"What business in its right mind would not want to take care of its product, make sure that it's healthy?" Christ asked rhetorically. "Distill it down to business logic: If we don't protect the product we trade in we're going to be out of business soon."

Christ articulated three sustainable-travel pillars: "Environmentally friendly travel opportunities, support for the protection of cultural and natural heritage and direct, tangible benefits to local people."

This requires nuance, he said.

Costas Christ of Virtuoso (center), is working with local community leaders in Bhutan on a national sustainable tourism plan for the Himalayan kingdom.
Costas Christ of Virtuoso (center), is working with local community leaders in Bhutan on a national sustainable tourism plan for the Himalayan kingdom.

"Travel shouldn't conquer a destination but enhance it," he said. "But you wouldn't have the greatest migration in the Serengeti if it weren't for travelers and their dollars." Similarly, he added, "it's very hard to protect and safeguard cultural heritage if the people who live closest ... haven't [been given] a seat at the table."

Virtuoso asked Christ to look at sustainable travel more than a decade ago, to bolster a portfolio that now numbers more than 2,000 agencies, travel providers and destinations. Virtuoso now offers its travel advisers webinar training, live events and a Sustainable Travel Leadership Award program. is developing an interactive sustainability platform for operators and hotels.

"What do we really sell?" Christ asked. "We sell culture and nature. When was the last time you read a brochure saying, 'We'll give you a great spa treatment in a clear-cut forest?' In the sustainable world, the [profit and loss] includes the environment."

Destinations sustainable

Kenya's Masai Mara and Pensacola, Fla., on the Gulf Coast are literally and figuratively half a world apart. But both locations needed to combine financial success and sustainable practices.

Cottar's 1920s Safari Camp features 10 posh tents and family antiques, an homage to when the Cottar family's great-grandfather, inspired by Teddy Roosevelt, moved to Kenya. The 6,000-acre Olderikesi Wildlife Conservancy preserves natural habitats in concert with the local people.

"We run the tourism entity, and the conservancy is owned by the Masai community," co-operator Louise Cottar said via Skype from Nairobi. "We worked for 10 years to have the community allocate one plot in perpetuity that can't be subdivided. We don't make a profit from that. But it attracts a higher-yielding clientele, and I think we get more business out of it."

Cottar's is one of 10 "ecospheres" allied with Long Run, which protects more than 5 million privately held natural acres. Long Run has a "4C" framework: conservation, commerce, community and culture.

"They helped us think through our business," Cottar said. "It was a very arduous process. It's not something you can 'green-wash.'"

Cottar's employs its own rangers, builds roads and operates an on-site school that has trained staff. Water purification and runoff collection replaced trucking in 12,000 plastic water bottles a year over eight-hour drives, and the camp broke even within 10 months.

"We then put the savings into other initiatives that were sustainable but also helped the bottom line," she said. "We've chosen to have fewer beds and more wilderness, so there's a premium."

Luxurious yet based on sustainable practices, Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp partners with the resident Masai, respecting them as stewards of the land and embracing how they wish to represent themselves to visitors.
Luxurious yet based on sustainable practices, Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp partners with the resident Masai, respecting them as stewards of the land and embracing how they wish to represent themselves to visitors.

An all-inclusive room costs just under $1,000 a night per person in peak season, and occupancy has run at about 30%, which Cottar attributed to Kenya's at-times shaky politics and an oversupply of beds in the region (two-thirds of bookings are through agents, with commissions ranging from 25% to 40%).

"To work and protect, with the community, from poachers and others," is a Cottar's precept.

But community interaction isn't always a magic sustainability bullet. When I was in Ecuador some years ago, local tour guides went on strike for more tourism to the fragile Galapagos Islands. Poor governments can be equally aggressive. Nevertheless, local involvement is a key to meaningful experiences, said Jamie Sweeting, who is both G Adventures' vice president for sustainability and president of its associated Planeterra Foundation.

"You have to raise the capacity of the community so it can make decisions actively and not passively," Sweeting said.

Cottar agreed.

"We asked the community what kind of engagement they wanted," she recalled. Instead of dancing for tourists, "they wanted to showcase some of their learned experiences: how you graduate from one age group to another." The women sell their wares in the camp's shop. "They decide what to make; they make the profit," Cotter said.

And profit, Cottar concluded, "has to underpin sustainability, and vice versa."

Screening for green

Here are some tips agents can use to encourage sustainable travel. Read More

Though a far different venue, Pensacola and its Destination 2020 plan also aim to attract tourism without compromising local living.

"We asked, 'What do we want to look like five years from now?'" said Steve Hayes, Visit Pensacola's president. "It was build more condos vs. saying we have a certain feel and ambience that we don't want to change. How do we grow tourism so we don't lose that? If you're going to develop you want to do it smartly and have a good investment."

Destination 2020 caps construction, protects parkland and supports a turtle-protecting Leave No Trace beach ordinance. The plan promotes off-season visits and tourism styles from historic-district encounters to a National Park Service ferry with docents describing local habitation.

It also means saying no to incongruous events. A televised festival was nixed because it would "set back our progress in building a family environment," Hayes said. "It's more about the quality of what you're showcasing. If we do it right, we'll still reap the economic benefits."

Niche sustainers

Donna Zeigfinger is a vegan. So are most of her clients. Her agency offers "destinations that make a difference."

"I won't not book any destination," she said from Cabin John, Md., where her Green Earth Travel uses Nexion/Travel Leaders Group for tickets and hotels. "My preference is to have a group of people who are vegan and not do running of the bulls or hunting trips."

She researches hotel practices and uses to find vegan and vegetarian restaurants near them.

"My goal is to tread lightly and eat lightly," Zeigfinger said. While acknowledging that "it's hard at times," she added, "but I think it's growing. People are becoming more aware. They realize they have to pay and are willing to pay."  

Recently she sold out a 15-to-20-person vegan trip to Italy. "That tells you something," she said.

Zeigfinger's favorite ecoresort is Natura Cabana in the Dominican Republic. She celebrated her 20th anniversary there and also does animal rescue through

Donna Zeigfinger
Donna Zeigfinger

That country is also a destination for Fathom cruise line's oceangoing experiment in social impact travel.

Launched as a boutique operation within megaparent Carnival Corp., Fathom, per its website, "combines your love of travel with your desire to make a difference."

Fathom made news in May when its Miami-ported Adonia became the first U.S. cruise ship to visit Havana in a half-century. But if Cuba involves cultural tourism, Puerto Plata, D.R., is the Adonia's alternating voluntourism destination. Fathom president Tara Russell, a business veteran who doubles as global impact lead for Carnival's 10 brands, said that the Dominican Republic was chosen as "a partner location of promise." So were on-site allies.

"No matter how valid our model, it's all about having the right people on the ground," Russell said.

That model calls for 700 passengers per seven-night voyage. Besides sea and sand activities, as many as three "impact days" can be spent participating in voluntourism activities. These include helping women's cooperatives produce chocolates, building English skills and fashioning clay water filters.

Fathom's launch has experienced its own shakedown period, dealing with issues ranging from mechanical problems to skepticism about voluntourism.

One travel agent told the Associated Press, "People don't know why they would want to go and pay to work somewhere; people want a vacation."

Prices have been significantly discounted recently, and any voluntourism intrinsically needs to guard against amateurs doing poor jobs or taking work away from locals.

Russell remained firm. Introductory pricing at discounts had been planned for 2016 from the beginning, she said, because "it takes time to build the market." In the second week, she said, half the travelers rebooked. Visitors are dispersed to avoid overpowering small facilities. Local response has been positive. The marketing is targeting churches and service organizations.

For Russell, the goal remains "building a business model that radically transforms people's lives, delivering authentic, sustainable social impact and scale."

Agents, she felt, could offer "a compelling new way to provide a unique experience." At least some are responding. Kristen Sorice, a millennial who is a partner at Cruise Planners of Yonkers, N.Y., reported that colleagues who made the trip "didn't think they'd like it but had an experience they won't forget."

Giant steps

"We need to see more commitment, especially on the part of the bigger players," Virtuoso's Christ said. "We need to take it much further, much faster."

Generating half of travel's carbon footprint, aviation is embracing efficiencies from fuel to design.

"We're 70% better than we were at the dawn of the jet age; that's 1% saving of fuel consumption a year," said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. "Pollution and fuel reduction are your profit margin if you're an airline."

Cruising, oft criticized for its scale and occasional high-profile lapses, seeks to reduce emissions, consume less fuel, use hydrodynamic hull coatings and recycle waste and waste water. Sustainability is "absolutely essential" to the business case, said Bud Darr, senior vice president of technical and regulatory affairs at CLIA.

"Guests are seeking a destination experience that involves beauty," Darr said. "For us to have a sustainable business for the long term we have to act in a sustainable and responsible manner."

Volunteers help make ceramic water filters for improving water quality in the Dominican Republic.
Volunteers help make ceramic water filters for improving water quality in the Dominican Republic.

And off the ship?

"The shore side continues to offer opportunities to increase our levels of sustainability and minimize our footprint," he said.

"Footprint," in fact, has emerged as a sustainability watchword.

The policy of the Globus family of brands is to "leave only footprints and take only photos." Globus stresses environmental and cultural preservation, and its tour directors engage passengers with a "do no harm" code of conduct. It has introduced emission-efficient motorcoaches, funds "iconic destinations" and is a member of the Sustainable Travel Leadership Network.

"We don't simply want to show travelers the most spectacular destinations and sights," channel marketing manager Vanessa Parrish said by email. "We're taking responsibility for their preservation. We can't prove this is a competitive business advantage, but we do know it's a responsible business value."

"Reducing our footprints" is Marriott International's mantra to prune energy and water consumption 20% by 2020, "green our multibillion-dollar supply chain" and "educate and inspire associates and guests to conserve and preserve." Its Ritz-Carlton brand is expanding socially responsible programs to all its properties worldwide.

German-based TUI Group is a leader in sustainable travel throughout its massive, diversified operation.
German-based TUI Group is a leader in sustainable travel throughout its massive, diversified operation.

Reportedly the world's largest leisure, travel and tourism business, the TUI Group, offers an omni-channel template for sustainable travel. The Hannover, Germany, megafirm's portfolio includes 1,800 travel agencies, 300 hotels and resorts and 77,000 employees as well as transportation up to and including Boeing 787 Dreamliners. It operates to the U.S. and many other countries.

"We're quite aware that that size [of operation] gives us responsibility to seek to influence our suppliers and destination governments," director of group sustainable development Jane Ashton said from London. "And customers are now expecting that trusted brands will take care of communities and environments."

TUI's "Better Holidays, Better World" philosophy orients the entire company around a three-pronged "Sustainability Strategy" from 2015 to 2020:

• "Step lightly" calls for a 10% reduction in carbon emissions across hotel nights and ground-passenger travel. Similar savings are set for a 140-plane fleet that has been named "the most climate-efficient charter airline in the world" and for a 13-ship cruise fleet that includes state-of-the-environmental-art vessels.

• "Make a difference" seeks to deliver 10 million "greener and fairer holidays" by mandating that TUI's supply chain subscribe to "credible sustainability certifications," swaying host-country policies and increasing local sourcing and staff development.

• "Lead the way" calls for investing 10 million euros [about $11 million] a year to "enhance the positive impacts of tourism" via the TUI Care Foundation.

"We've realized tens of millions of euros in cost savings through ecoefficiencies," Ashton said. "That's been true for our suppliers, as well. And investors see it as a proxy for a generally well-managed company. Equally important is the social aspect: the engagement of our colleagues, the impact on communities and destination and customer satisfaction and customer-experience quality."

Ashton's conclusion came full circle from Costas Christ's opening thought: "The travel and tourism sector can be a powerful force for good."