Purpose beyond profit is the trend driving tourism growth now and companies, travellers and destinations are all winners.
It’s no longer enough to hang towels up in the hotel bathroom and think you are doing your bit for the environment. Small eco steps such as conserving water and energy are one thing but sustainable and ethical travel is quite another. As social media fuels an explosion in global travel it has become more important than ever to find ways to stop travellers loving once beautiful destinations to death.
The good news is it seems they are listening and the trend towards sustainable tourism is growing. According to a poll carried out by global insurance specialist AIG Travel more than three quarters of respondents believed sustainable travel is important, up from little more than half of respondents the year before. In reporting the findings a spokesperson for AIG said that travel agents and companies providing information on sustainable travel and incorporating sustainable travel practices into their offerings may enjoy higher consumer loyalty than those that don’t.
That certainly seems to be working for Australia’s Intrepid Travel, which has become the world’s largest provider of adventure travel experiences. The company has recorded three years of record growth, which CEO James Thornton says is driven by an increasing global demand for sustainable travel and his company’s commitment to having a “Purpose Beyond Profit”.
This awareness is part of a growing trend towards sustainable and ethical tourism which UNESCO describes as “tourism that respects both local people and the traveller, cultural heritage and the environment.”
The UNWTO further defines it as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”
Ecotourism Australia certifies and represents sustainable tourism businesses that operate in natural areas, ensuring they have a strong and well-managed commitment to sustainable practices. Its certification program is one of only six worldwide accredited through the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
Lina Cronin, audit manager, says: “Sustainable tourism is of paramount importance, not only because of our responsibility to take action against climate change and other environmental challenges of our time but also because of the fact that people will continue to travel. Without looking after the places and cultures that we visit these will no longer be around for future generations to enjoy.”
It’s now considered best practice for those involved in the tourism industry to be part of a globally recognised certification program when it comes to sustainability. “There are lots of businesses now that are jumping on the ‘sustainability bandwagon’ and marketing themselves as being sustainable without having any hard facts or proof to back this up. For the consumer, it can be hard to tell the difference between a genuinely sustainable tourism business and one which is ‘greenwashing’.
“We believe that tourism done well can be a force for positive change, fostering environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation. By treading lightly and being a more responsible tourist, we can help ensure that tourism creates better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit,” Cronin says.
Paving the way
In Australia, Lord Howe Island is just one example of a destination that has sustainability front and centre of its planning and management. Sometimes being sustainable means leaving things untouched. “Approximately 75 per cent of this UNESCO World Heritage listed island’s original natural vegetation remains intact and undisturbed,” Cronin says.
Other times, sustainability requires making big changes. Costa Rica is set to become the world’s first single-use plastic and carbon-free country by 2021 (99 per cent of its energy has come from renewable resources such as solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal since 2014). It’s also high on the sustainability charts for its biodiversity, protected rainforests and wildlife.
Elsewhere, Slovenia was recognised as the world’s most sustainable country by the United Nations in 2017 during the International Year for Sustainable Tourism and Development. In this country famous for its breathtaking natural scenery, they retain their lush forests, separate their waste, only allow cyclists, pedestrians and buses running on natural gas into the city centre (10 years ago its streets were clogged with traffic) and build green spaces like there’s no tomorrow. Slovenia ticked an incredible 96 out of 100 boxes on sustainability, environment, climate, culture, authenticity, nature, biodiversity and more to achieve the title.
When it comes to benefiting local communities, tour operators with a sustainability focus are way ahead of the game. Last year Intrepid Group achieved B Corp certification following a rigorous three-year process and chief purpose officer Leigh Barnes says sustainable travel is the only kind of travel they do. Their small group adventure tours to more than 120 countries include destinations off the beaten track, meaning the tourist dollar is spread to areas that need it most, and they only use local guides wherever they go.
“These jobs not only help local economies, they instil a sense of pride and empowerment to various cultures around the world,” Barnes says.
In 2014, despite elephant rides being hugely popular with tourists, Intrepid became the first global tour operator to ban them. Since then, 180 others have followed. Further back in 2010, Intrepid became carbon neutral, offsetting 290,000 tonnes of carbon emissions from both their trips and offices worldwide. Kalgoorlie-Boulder, 500km inland from Perth, is one of Barnes’ personal favourites when it comes to sustainable destinations.
“It’s implemented an innovative technology in the field of renewable energies combining solar thermal energy with ground heat exchangers. They have reduced gas consumption by more than 70 per cent and emissions by 216 tonnes per year. There is a social initiative which sees natives of the area take guided tours in Karlkurla Park, showing the flora and fauna and sharing their knowledge about natural medicines, the land and the history of the area,” he says.
The little things
Adventure World Travel has also committed to a sustainability model to have a positive impact on the communities it visits to protect wildlife and marine life and care for the planet we call home. Managing director Neil Rodgers says all of its tours adhere to the World Animal Protection guidelines whereby all experiences are observational only.
“If everyone made a few key changes when travelling such as reducing the consumption of single-use-plastic and making a conscious effort to pick up even just three pieces of rubbish when at a beach or park, purchasing from local artisans to keep their heritage and livelihood alive, as opposed to mass market souvenir stores – together we can make a difference,” he says.
How to be a responsible traveller
- Offset your flight.
- Ask questions about how tour companies support the local economy, employ locals and minimise their impact on the environment.
- Look for companies with globally recognised certifications – these include B Corp, Earth Check and Ecotourism.
- Reduce, refuse, re-use, recycle – same as at home people.
- Swap your hotel room for a night in a local village.
- Explore neighbourhood haunts instead of eating in chain restaurants.
- Buy from local stores and artisans to benefit the community instead of big business.