Sustainable tourism might be a popular buzz word, but it’s still a challenge.
“We need to be doing much more,” says Randy Durband, the chief executive officer of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, a nonprofit group for sustainable travel. “There are many good things happening in travel and tourism, but we need to move faster and we need more players participating.”
Industry experts agree that sustainable tourism needs attention now, as travel around the world — even to once remote places — is on a rampant rise. According to the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations specialized agency, international tourist arrivals grew 7 percent in 2017, the highest increase since the 2009 global economic crisis. That growth continued in 2018, with the UNWTO reporting 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals last year, a 6 percent increase from 2017. It’s the ninth consecutive year of growth, and well above UNWTO’s long-term forecast of 3.8 percent for the period 2010 to 2020.
That’s a big footprint.
“We are at a point in history where eco-friendly and sustainable tourism should no longer be a buzz word, but an imperative,” says Samantha Bray, managing director for the Center for Responsible Travel. “With what we know about climate change and the impacts of over-tourism on destination communities around the world, governments, travel businesses, and travelers should all be doing their parts to make sure these communities remain both resilient and great places to live and visit.”
Are travelers concerned?
“Knowledge and awareness are increasing, but one of the biggest changes is that consumers are learning that supporting sustainability doesn’t need to come at the expense of the experience,” says Jessica Hall Upchurch, vice chair and sustainability ambassador for Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel agencies, with more than 17,500 travel advisers worldwide. “Travelers can go to beautiful resorts or cruise the rivers and oceans, and still do so in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the environment.”
Bray agrees. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that traveling sustainably somehow puts a damper on your trip or is difficult. I would argue that the opposite is true,” she says. “Traveling sustainably means engaging authentically with the local people at the places you visit, buying local, getting a real taste of culture, having the opportunity to appreciate history and heritage, and enjoying pristine environments.”
Here are three top conservation-led companies in the travel industry that are leading the way for sustainable tourism in remarkable and successful ways.
This conservation pioneer and winner of a WTTC Tourism for Tomorrow award is grounded in the belief that low-impact tourism can actually protect conservation lands and benefit local communities. It started 29 years ago when the company purchased and rehabilitated overgrazed, barren farmland in South Africa to reintroduce large mammal species that originally lived there. With the support of local community leaders, the Phinda Private Game Preserve now includes 28,555 hectares of pristine wilderness, with thriving herds of rhinos, elephants, leopards, lions, cheetahs, buffalo, and more. Local schools and health facilities have been improved, and a significant portion of the land has been returned to its ancestral owners.
That success, widely considered an enviable blueprint for ecotourism, is being repeated at andBeyond properties and projects in Africa, Asia, and South America, maintaining the company’s core ethic of Care of the Land, Care of the Wildlife, Care of the People, and expanding its model and vision in Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Chile, Argentina, and Peru (the Amazon).
“Our vision is a long-term one, and it has to be, because meaningful conservation and community development work takes a long time to develop, implement, and measure,” says Josh Kent, CEO of andBeyond.
The company’s 29 luxury lodges and camps are small, minimizing physical footprints, and hyper focused on sustainable practices. Its vision 2020 plan calls for a reduction of its carbon footprint by 8 percent, focusing on renewable energy, sustainable designs and building materials, reduction of water use, and the installation of ground-waste-water treatment plants at all properties.
The company is also dedicated to the preservation of endangered species. Among its initiatives, is the establishment of Rhinos Without Borders, relocating endangered rhinos to safe, low-poaching havens. Its Oceans Without Borders facilitates research and conservation of marine habitats around andBeyond lodges and reserves. The company has conducted some of the most extensive leopard research in the world, and is now spearheading the groundbreaking translocation of Indian bison in India, reversing the bison’s local extinction. The vision 2020 plan supports wildlife conservation education as well, with a goal of offering local communities 50 conservation lessons per lodge per year. For example, the Lake Manyara Tree Lodge recently invited 37 children and three teachers to the lodge for a day of wildlife viewing and lessons on the importance of protecting wildlife and the environment.
The Africa Foundation, founded in tandem with andBeyond, works with local communities to help build schools and hospitals, develop local gardens and farms, and set up craft markets and small businesses. The company is also committed to using local sources (farmers, designers, artists, etc.) and drawing employees from the local community.
“Beyond that, we are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to make a difference. We want to leave the world better than we have found it,” says Kent. “That’s our guiding light, and for us it is immediate and urgent, and it is also indefinite.
The Intrepid Group
Sustainable travel has always been part of Intrepid’s DNA. It was founded 30 years ago by Australians Darrell Wade and Geoff Manchester, who believed even then that travel could have a positive impact in the world, and that responsible, small group travel experiences were the way to go. Their first business plan included donations to local communities—long before they were making money and “giving back” became an oft-cited catch phrase.
Today, the Intrepid Group, one of the world’s largest adventure travel companies, offers small-group, sustainably operated adventure tours through three brands: Intrepid Travel, encompassing all styles of adventure travel; Peregrine Adventures, offering premium, upscale adventures; and Urban Adventures, offering day trips in top destinations around the world. Globally, the company has some 1,800 employees and trip leaders operating out of 40+ offices, driven by the company’s mission: ‘Change the Way People See the World.’ To that goal, all of its 2,000 or so small-group trips showcase local experiences, and are locally-operated and locally-led, ensuring that a bulk of the tourism money stays in the local economy.
The company has racked up a slew of awards and accolades for its environmentally responsible practices. In 2010, it became the first carbon-neutral travel company in the world, reducing carbon emissions by using public transport when possible on trips, choosing energy efficient accommodation options, minimizing the number of flights, and investing in renewable energy projects. It’s a participant in the United Nations Global Compact, committing to sustainability and human rights principles, and in 2018, it became the world’s largest B-Corp certified travel company, joining an elite and growing number of businesses that meet the “highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose . . . using business as a force for good.” Some of their recent initiatives: Removing elephant rides and visits to orphanages from their itineraries.
Intrepid is also focused on working alongside local organizations and communities to ensure that locals and travelers do more than coexist — that tourism actually helps places and people thrive. Through the not-for-profit Intrepid Foundation, the company has invested in more than 50 projects around the world and donated $7 million to local communities.
Lindblad-National Geographic Expeditions
In 1967, Lars-Eric Lindblad led the first ever non-scientific expedition to Galapagos. He knew that tourism would be the key to preserving the fragile environment, and that travelers could be potent forces for the preservation of the places they visited. He paid the salaries for the first two Galapagos National Park rangers, and financed a study on managing Galapagos tourism. (Not only were the findings adopted, they still form the foundation of national park policy today.)
Since then, his son Sven Lindblad has built a global travel company with conservation and environmental stewardship at the core of its business. Since 1997, the company has raised with its guests some $15.8 million to support conservation efforts in the places they explore. In 2017, the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund (LEX-NG Fund) supported initiatives in Alaska, Baja, Galapagos, the Peruvian Amazon, Cambodia, Antarctica, the Pacific Northwest, Central America, and beyond. Funding also went toward National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project, with a goal of protecting 20 of the ocean’s wildest places by 2020. Other initiatives include killer whale research in Antarctica, artisan training in the Peruvian Amazon and Galapagos, conservation-based research projects to protect humpback whales in Southeast Alaska, and the eradication of invasive rats in Galapagos. Its growing farm-to-table program supports local farmers in remote areas.
At sea, National Geographic scientists conduct research and encourage cruise passengers to learn about their work — while kids engage in fun activities, from earning their Zodiac “driver’s license” to wildlife tracking. All are designed to inspire guests to make a positive impact on the world.
“Nature and the environment are man’s greatest assets,” says Sven Lindblad, CEO, Lindblad Expeditions. “I believe certain forms of travel broadens understanding and creates reverence, both essential if we are to be in balance with our planet.”