The How-to guide for Sustainable travel

On doing well by doing good in the tourism industry.

The myth of El Dorado, which drew global attention in the era of colonization, was essentially built on the premise that the golden city is out there for the taking. And while many thought they had the correct treasure maps, no one could seem to find it. El Dorado remains, to this day, a metaphor for idealistic goals deemed unachievable.

Sustainable travel is not an El Dorado. Indeed, while the landscape is littered with variants on its meaning, and even more treasure maps for creating a sustainable experience, it is in fact a goal that can be achieved by anyone planning a travel experience. Moreover, it is a goal that should be achieved by everyone involved in the industry.

Not only is sustainable travel good for the world, it is good for the bottom line. It can serve as a key to gaining new clients, nurturing existing relationships, and doing well by doing good. Consider the following a guaranteed, tried and tested treasure map for reaching Tourism’s El Dorado.

STARTING WITH WHY

To grasp at the value of sustainable travel, we must first gain an understanding of just how large and potentially impactful the industry is. In short, it is ubiquitous. Over a billion trips were recorded in 2012, with a trajectory of reaching 1.8 billion by 2030. It encompasses 9.5% of global GDP, and employs one out of every eleven individuals globally[1]. Next to energy, it is considered the developing world’s key strategy for rising out of poverty.

Yet, after scratching the surface one finds a darker portrait of the industry. Only 5% of a traveler’s money spent abroad remains with the community visited, and that number drops among poorer destinations. Flights alone account for 2% of global carbon emissions, and will increase due to higher traffic and greater efficiency in other industries. The most popular forms of tourism, namely big-ship cruising and all-included resorts, are also usually the most destructive to the environment and the neighboring communities.

But here’s the catch. While the status quo may seem dispiriting, demand for a better industry is clearly there. A recent Booking.com survey reveals that over half of their customers are likely to choose a destination based on its social or environmental impact[2]. A 2012 TripAdvisor survey reflects a 71% interest in making more eco-friendly choices in the coming year, with 65% already doing so[3].

As for those pesky millennials: given that by 2017 they will emerge as the largest and highest spending demographic in the world ($200 Billion a year)[4], and that they already take the most trips, the attention placed on them is well-founded. It is worth noting that while 70% of Generation Y will report always coming back to the brand they love, only 16% report any loyalty to travel brands[5]. Tourism is the major industry with least traction among the largest and most influential demographic of the next 20 years.

The much-reported success of new businesses that have build impact into their model, such as Warby Parker and Etsy, has successfully reverberated across the business field. No company worth its mettle goes on without proudly displaying its CSR report to all who care to listen, and the transition from a reactive ‘give back’ approach to a proactive ‘shared-value’ business model is taking firm hold across industries. From Nike and Unilever to Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, positive impact now has a seat on the board of directors.

As the world moves towards a redefinition of business, it is our turn to help push Travel to meet its potential for positive impact on a global scale.

BACK TO WHY

  • Building impact into your travel product will result in greater loyalty for your brand. Travel at its core is built upon the desire of the traveler to achieve self-actualization. Empowering the travelers to be change heroes will make you their guide — the ‘Yoda’ to their ‘Luke Skywalker’. They will feel gratitude for this, and you will win their loyalty and likely their advocacy as well. Word of mouth is still the king of successful marketing.
  • We live in a time of storytelling. The ability to communicate complex messages, or in other words, stories, is the feat that set us apart from other mammals. With all the innovation that has shaken up marketing, branding, public relations, and everything related, storytelling remains at the core of it all. The components that make up an impactful trip — the communities that benefit, the projects and lives you support through offsetting, the authenticity you were able to provide — those are the stories that will feed the interest of perspective clients and the retention of your current rolodex.
  • Because it’s the right thing. You will do well by doing good.

MAINSTREAMING IMPACT

The goal of this exercise to do away with the term ‘sustainable travel’. All 1.8 billion trips to be taken in 2030 should be optimized for impact, by default. Traveling in a way that is better for the world cannot be left to the agency of the client. After all, positive impact is already expected by that, and they are reaching out to you, the travel professional, to meet their demand. The onus for pushing sustainability from niche to mainstream thus rests on the supply side of the travel industry.

Be the agent of change.

Unfortunately, as with all things worth striving for, becoming an agent of change in travel will not be a simple linear process. There isn’t a single, definitive index for approved travel products yet, and with the apparent ubiquity of green-washing (when claims of impact aren’t carried out correctly, if at all) doing good isn’t always so easy.

And so, bearing the above in mind, the following is a universally applicable checklist of questions and actions to be used when planning travel. In drafting this document, I relied mostly on the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) as the authoritative source on this issue. I highly recommend combing through sets of criteria they provide.

As a rule of thumb, it is always best to first seek out any third-party certifications achieved by the business or organization in question — particularly certifications that include an external audit and that are recognized by the GSTC. This approach is the most effective shortcut for optimizing travel for impact. Unfortunately, many of the most impactful businesses in the travel world, particularly in the developing world, do not have the ability to go through certification even if they deserve accreditation. So keep this in mind as you read through the checklists below.

ENVIRONMENTAL FOOTPRINT

1. Transportation

a. Flights

i. Is your flight time minimized.

1. Direct flights are always to be preferred.

ii. Can flights be skipped in favor of alternative transportation?

iii. Are the flights offset for carbon emissions?

b. Overland/water

i. Are you using public and non-carbon emitting modes of transportation where possible?

ii. Are the vehicles electric/hybrid?

iii. Are the vehicles of newer models?

iv. Are you calculating and offsetting your carbon emissions?

2. Hotels

a. Does the hotel have any third-party certification recognized by the GSTC?

b. Was the hotel built in a manner that respected and preserved its natural surroundings?

c. Does the hotel have any set policy with regards to environmental footprint? Does the hotel follow all local, national and international standards for environmental protection and preservation?

d. Is the staff trained to uphold the environmental standards set forth of the hotel?

3. Tours and activities

a. Activities

i. Does the company contracted for leading activities have an environmental policy set in place?

ii. Does the business follow all local, national and international standards for environmental protection and preservation?

iii. Is the staff trained for environmental stewardship.

iv. Are the activities purchased avoiding any environmental harm?

b. Restaurants

i. Does the hotel have any third-party certification recognized by the GSTC?

ii. Was the hotel built in a manner that respected and preserved its natural surroundings?

iii. Does the restaurant follow all local, national and international standards for environmental protection and preservation?

iv. Does the hotel have any set policy with regards to environmental footprint?

v. Is the staff trained to uphold the environmental footprint?

vi. Are the ingredients used locally sourced? Do they avoid any endangered or threatened species? Do they avoid ecosystem imbalance?

c. Shopping

i. Are souvenirs and other purchases free from endangered or threatened materials?

ii. Is any ecosystem imbalance avoided?

ECONOMIC EQUITY

1. Hotels

a. Are the properties locally owned?

b. Is there a policy in place respecting all international, national and local laws regarding compensation, worker’s rights and human rights?

c. Are local shops and vendors preferred for on-property retail?

d. Does the hotel support the local community

i. Is there a donation built into the business model?

ii. Is there any documented proof of any claims?

2. Tours and activities

a. Are the activity providers locally owned

b. Do they have a policy in place respecting all international, national and local laws regarding compensation, worker’s rights and human rights?

c. Are traveler funds diffused across geographic, ethnic and cultural lines, enabling economic inclusion for all communities at the destination?

d. Do the activity providers have any community support or impact built into their business model?

i. Do tourism funds spent directly translate to supporting a local community or cause?

ii. Is there documented proof for this?

3. Restaurants and retail

a. Are the businesses locally owned?

b. Is there a policy in place respecting all international, national and local laws regarding compensation, worker’s rights and human rights?

c. Do the businesses prefer authentically local supplies and ingredients?

d. Does the businesses support the local community

i. Is there a donation built into the business model?

ii. Is there any documented proof of any claims?

SOCIAL AND CULTURAL EMPOWERMENT

1. Are local and indigenous cultures respected, enhanced and empowered?

a. Are the visual representations of local cultural stories and sites authentic, and not commodified?

b. Are cultural sites actively maintained and preserved?

c. Do locals have the same access to sites as tourists?

2. Are the tourists provided with truly authentic experiences?

a. Are the visits and activities respectful of local culture and heritage?

b. Are the local communities direct beneficiaries of incoming tourism?

c. Are local communities consulted in order to avoid any unfair abuse of privacy and dignity?

3. Are touristic experiences regenerative for the sites visited?

a. Are tourism dollars used to protect and improve the sites visited?

b. Are the tourists instructed on how to pay proper respect to sites, culture and heritage?

While ideally every organization you engage with would be able to answer ‘yes’ to all those questions above, you will likely discover a reality that is a bit more complex. Use your best senses in making decisions informed by the information compiled using the checklists. If you read this far, you clearly care about this issue, and I trust you’ll do the best you can.

The holistic approach to impact

HOW TO AMELIORATE THE ‘TOUGH’ CASES

Some travelers will undoubtedly remain adamant about preferring cruise-liners or all-inclusive resorts. When this is the case, the following checklist can be applied:

1. Suggesting alternatives that are more positively impactful.

a. Mega-yachts instead of major cruise-liners.

b. Eco-resorts or resorts with third-party certification recognized by the GSTC instead of standard resorts.

2. Offer alternative, impact-focused excursions at the destination visited.

3. Offset the entire experience with a recognized carbon-offset program.

4. Create an ‘impact report-card’ providing a summary of the positive impact they generated based on the decisions made.


Travel is as old as humanity itself, and as ubiquitous as our incessant, primal need for exploration. The industry is already the world’s largest, and will only grow as populations emerge from poverty and technology lowers the affordability bar. It is in our DNA. It is our right. Indeed, the United Nations has declared the freedom to travel as a human right, cited in article thirteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While not mentioned in any of the of UN sustainable Development Goals, which set the agenda for global development in the next 15 years, the travel industry will play a significant role in their success. This can only be achieved through a renewed awareness of the definitive role that each travel professional can play.

Awareness and action, through use of tools such as the checklists offered in this piece, will transform Travel into a global force for good — and the world into a friendlier, healthier, and safer place for us all.


Gilad is a social entrepreneur in the travel space, having founded Travel+SocialGood, Only Six Degrees and Sustain the Stoke. He lives in New York City, and is always planning the next escape.

The tourism industry is projected to reach over 10 trillion dollars in annual GDP by 2020, employing more than 1 in 11 around the globe. What if every action you take as a traveler can amount to social good?

Travel+SocialGood is expanding to a global network, and we’re looking for leaders to build innovation hubs in your series. Join us! For more information email me at Gilad@Travelsocialgood.org

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