September 2020 Nine Experts on How the Pandemic Will Change Sustainable Tourism

Nine Experts on How the Pandemic Will Change Sustainable Tourism

Angkor Wat, one of the most-visited attractions in Cambodia.
Angkor Wat, one of the most-visited attractions in Cambodia.
Photo by Getty Images
Industry leaders on the benefits of responsible travel – and their hopes for the future.

Sustainable travel matters now more than ever. That’s our takeaway after interviewing nine industry experts, who all emphasized its role in preserving the environment, protecting cultures, and, perhaps most pressing in the wake of the coronavirus, supporting local economies. In 2019, tourism accounted for one in ten (330 million) jobs around the globe. But as the pandemic forced the world to take a collective time-out, it also paused many of the economic opportunities that travel – when done well – creates in the communities we visit. Here, our panelists’ thoughts on the benefits of responsible tourism – and their hopes for the future.

Big Five has focused on supporting women weavers in Peru.
Big Five has focused on supporting women weavers in Peru.
Photo by Getty Images

Ashish Sanghrajka, President, Big Five Tours & Expeditions

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.

Francesco Galli Zugaro, CEO and founder, Aqua Expeditions

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.

Kirsten Dixon, Owner and chef, Within the Wild Adventure Company

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. 

Marina Elsener Director, sustainable development and communications, North and Central America, Accor hotel group

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.

John Roberts, Group director of sustainability and conservation, Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas

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.

Case in point: Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.
Case in point: Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.
Photo by Korena Bolding Sinnett

Gerald Lawless, Ambassador, World Travel & Tourism Council; former president and CEO, Jumeirah Group

International travel provides a direct export contribution to the recipient country and ensures that local communities receive this economic benefit. This is particularly important in the developing world. We need to measure success not only in terms of numbers of people taking trips, but also in the value of such trips economically, socially, and environ-mentally. I’d also like to see contributions to carbon-offset programs and initiatives such as the Emirates Airline Foundation, which supports education in developing countries, be encouraged through tax breaks. And destinations that draw large crowds need to work with alternative nearby attractions to ease demand. Ireland’s introduction of the Wild Atlantic Way is a good example of how we can move visitors away from main centers such as Dublin. Economically, this has had a significant effect on small towns and villages along the seaboard, which helps the slowdown of population drift to larger cities.

Sherwin Banda, President, African Travel, Inc.

Tourism represents 7.1 percent of Africa’s GDP and is a significant tool for economic development and job creation on the continent. Before Covid-19, many parts of Africa saw incredible growth; for example, Rwanda’s tourism GDP grew by 10.9 percent in 2019 due to its support for projects that promoted sustainability while benefiting the local people. Women are a driving force in Africa, so we look to support them on African Travel safaris. In South Africa’s Sabi Sabi game reserve, we connect guests with female rangers, and in Tanzania, we give them beaded gifts made by women from the isolated Mkonoo Terrat village. This income helps the women care for their elders and send their children to school. Africa is already a top destination for 2021, with more people now looking for the natural spaces that a safari provides. It will be important for governments to balance human needs to manage this growth and ensure everyone’s well-being, and I hope they’ll look to past successes in places like Botswana, Rwanda, and Kenya. Travel matters, and when harnessed correctly, it will change the world.

Erin Green, Virtuoso travel advisor

Travel brings people together. It allows us to learn about different ways of life and appreciate beautiful destinations we’ll want to protect. As our world goes through this challenging time, it’s vital that we continue to build these levels of understanding. And because climate change poses such a huge threat – both for travel and life in general – it’s critical that we continue to place pressure on the airline industry to research and develop new fuels and technologies to help reduce carbon emissions.
A chance for change in Rio.
A chance for change in Rio.
Photo by Getty Images 

Sarah Taylor, Virtuoso travel advisor

When we travel, we’re guests in another country being welcomed into the cultural em-brace of the place we’re visiting. We need to treat that experience and the giver of that experience with utmost respect, honor, and care. The “giver” is not only the hotel or tour guide, but the airport employees, essential workers, neighborhoods, land, and entire ecosystem of the place we visit. Travel is a gift that enables us to experience other cultures, and we need to see it as such. My hope for the future is that more travelers adopt this perspective, and not only “take” the experience, but give back to destinations in a positive way. One way to do this is through community service. On a visit to Rio de Janeiro, for instance, I volunteered in a favela (a shanty settlement) where we cleaned and organized a school and library. As much as I love shopping and supporting local merchants, there’s something especially inspiring about participating in community events. Making a positive impact on others touches your soul in a different way than spending can.

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