Take Responsibility – The Importance of Sustainable Tourism

Raise your hand if you knew that 2017 was the International Year of Sustainable Tourism.
Good for you! Now, how many of you did something about it?

It’s understandable if your sustainability efforts took a backseat to this year’s more urgent problems: natural disasters, terrorist threats, disease outbreaks. But sustainability remains one of the greatest long-term challenges faced by the tourism industry. In fact, it underlies all three of the issues I named above, each of which can be tied directly to climate change, globalism, tourism’s impact on communities, and other pieces of the sustainability puzzle.

This holiday season, as I reflect on the past 12 months and look at the year ahead, I’ve been thinking about sustainability a lot, and whether the travel industry is doing enough to address it. The answer: probably not—at least not yet. But we are all talking about it. And that might be biggest accomplishment of the UN’s International Year campaign.

“There’s hardly a CEO left on the planet who is unaware of this thing we call sustainable tourism,” says Costas Christ, the longtime National Geographic journalist who is also Virtuoso’s global sustainability strategist. “Now, how they react and invest is another story. But the level of awareness has been immense this year—and awareness is the first step.”

Christ has spent decades pushing travel leaders to focus on long-term sustainability. From his point of view, the industry is growing too big and too fast to survive—unless we do something about it. “What do the people in this business think that we’re selling? What is our product? Distilled to its essence, it’s nature and culture,” he told me. “But both of these things are being massively degraded. Wildlife is being poached, natural habitats are being destroyed, local communities have been disrupted by tourism. What are we doing to protect our product? Think of it this way: If we were selling something that was kept in a warehouse, and somebody with a sledgehammer was smashing everything in that warehouse, we wouldn’t just sit there.”

It’s a daunting issue, but organizations from the World Travel & Tourism Council to Skift have provided useful frameworks to help the industry grapple with it. Virtuoso is also helping to lead the way forward; they have received sustainable tourism leadership awards and held their inaugural Sustainability Summit earlier this year. Christ himself has defined three “pillars” to guide our efforts. One is environmentally friendly practices, such as recycling and reducing carbon footprint. Another is protecting our natural and cultural heritage, whether it’s an ecosystem, a historic monument or a local artistic tradition. The third is supporting the economic and social well-being of local people—making them partners in what we’re trying to protect.

Here are a few examples of companies and organizations that are doing something in these areas. I think they’re worth sharing in the hope that they’ll inspire further action. Further examples were cited by Gail Grimmett, president of Travel Leaders Elite, in a recent column for Insider Travel Report. I agree with both Gail and Costas that we can’t afford to do nothing.

Environmentally Friendly Practices: Six Senses has long woven sustainability into all of its resort operations. At Zil Pasyon, their new property in the Seychelles, that means restoring the natural habitat by planting only native species; using solar energy; treating wastewater to use in irrigation; and refining its own drinking water to reduce the use of plastic bottles (which are difficult to recycle in the Seychelles). The Brando Resort in French Polynesia has gone a step further, pioneering the use of seawater air-conditioning, which pumps very cold water from the depths of the Pacific—the pumps powered by renewable coconut oil—to cool the villas and other buildings. The resort is also close to being carbon neutral.

Protecting Natural and Cultural Heritage: With more than 1 million acres under its management, Singita considers itself as muchas conservation company as a safari operator. Its programs to combat wildlife poaching, reintroduce threatened species, and support research projects are as remarkable as its luxury lodges. Uxua Casa, a small hotel in Trancoso, Brazil, supports Bahian culture by sponsoring a school that teaches capoeira, the traditional martial art/dance technique. It successfully lobbied Unesco to grant it special protected status.

Supporting Well-Being of Local People: The city of Venice is coming up with innovative ways to combat the effects of “overtourism” and ensure that more locals reap the benefits. Its new “#Detourism” campaign encourages visitors to explore beyond the usual sights and have more authentic experiences in lesser-known neighborhoods. In Cambodia, About Asia donates 100% of all profits to local educational efforts, including a teacher training program, that have supported more than 50,000 children.

As always, I welcome your thoughts on the important issue of sustainability. What is your company doing, and how can we, as an industry, work harder?

Let’s keep the conversation going!