We have much rebuilding to do. Once the pandemic took away our ability to travel, we saw tens of thousands of people become impoverished and an alarming rise in poaching. Sustainable travel represents the single biggest resistance to these issues. Employment opportunities created by tourism give locals a vital seat at the table. This is still the best way for travel dollars to directly reach Indigenous communities. Our company is built on this belief, from the hotels we visit – where at least 85 percent of staff come from the local area – to providing entrepreneurship education to women weavers in Peru. With travel on hold, Big Five shifted its focus to raising funds for those in need. One silver lining of the pandemic: It’s made the need to get off the beaten track all the more important. The essence of a country is in the spaces between the large attractions and crowds, where life remains much the way it was 300 years ago. If we can maintain the need to travel with purpose and remain humble in seeing travel as a privilege, a bright future will be waiting.
The world’s pause brought awareness to the impacts of overtourism. Travelers are reevaluating their priorities. Moving forward, they’ll be seeking out companies that go beyond comfort and luxury to provide meaningful experiences and show how their journeys support local economies. From the beginning, Aqua Expeditions has been committed to contributing to communities and protecting the environment. But the pandemic allowed us time to rethink our approach. One example is our support for the paiche project in the Peruvian Amazon, where we partner with local fishers working to nurse populations of this endangered species of native fish back to health. In addition to serving their sustainably caught fish on board Aria Amazon, we provide the tools needed to expand their business and sell to new markets throughout the country.
Over the past few decades, travel has become the third-most-important industry in Alaska, behind oil and seafood. Oil is in decline here, and the seafood industry is in peril. Travel will save our state by providing a sustainable revenue source. Overtourism, we’ve known, is detrimental to nature – and now we know that crowding is detrimental to our health. In Alaska, there’s been a trend toward bigger, bigger, and more – more cruise ships with more people on board, more buses heading to Denali. Can we all take a beat and step back and value quality over quantity? My family owns two wilderness lodges – Winterlake and Tutka Bay – that accommodate only 12 people each. The ROI is not a business-school model, but we have a tremendous quality of life. We have to protect and preserve those places we wish to survive for future generations.
The pandemic has demonstrated how interconnected our world is, and my hope is that this pause will lead to a heightened consciousness in the tourism industry. It’s important that travel providers acknowledge and embrace their responsibility to the planet and people living and working in the places where they operate. A few key areas of focus should include conserving water and limiting energy consumption; serving healthy and sustainable food; eliminating single-use plastics; promoting local hiring, development, diversity, and inclusion; and protecting local communities, culture, and heritage. Many companies have long been committed to addressing these issues, but there is always more that can be done.
The upside for sustainability is that destinations and hotels that can provide space and privacy will now be the ones most in demand. And it’s these smaller hotels that find it easier to implement sustainable best practices such as sourcing local foods, providing community-curated tours, and caring for the natural world. With current concerns about long-haul travel, I hope that travelers will seek new experiences in their home countries. I’d also like to see Anantara get more involved in nature-based tourism, similar to our camps in Cambodia and East Africa. This model has already shown how a socially distant, nature-immersive guest experience can protect the environment and fund broader conservation programs.