Virtuoso Life January 2020 How Sustainability Became the Biggest Luxury Travel Trend

How Sustainability Became the Biggest Luxury Travel Trend

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Costas Christ on how sustainable travel moved from nature-focused to nurturing us all.
Sustainability is undeniably one of the most, if not the most, important transformations happening in travel today. Decades ago, conversations about “sustainable tourism” revolved almost entirely around nature-based travel – primarily African safari lodges and camps, along with a handful of small tour operators. From there, it spread to the Americas, in particular, Costa Rica and Belize.

The moment that really sparked the larger movement came in 2002, when the United Nations hosted the first World Ecotourism Summit in Québec City. It became clear that we needed to take the ideas that started with ecotourism – protecting the environment and ensuring economic benefits from tourism to local communities – and paint them across the entire travel industry, from airlines and cruise ships to city hotels, holiday resorts, and so on. In 2005, the United Nations Foundation asked me to help define a global set of sustainable-tourism criteria. Together with about a dozen other experts, I worked to create the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Criteria. Today, those criteria falls under three pillars: environmentally friendly practices, protecting natural and cultural heritage, and social and economic benefits to local people.

It was incredibly inspiring when the luxury travel industry and large organizations such as Virtuoso and the World Travel & Tourism Council also embraced these principles. Virtuoso launched the Sustainable Tourism Leadership Awards in 2011 and now hosts an annual Sustainability Summit with industry executives and travel advisors to help chart the path forward. Virtuoso Life was one of the early travel magazines that featured regular coverage of sustainable tourism to show travelers how they can have the vacation of a lifetime while also helping protect the planet for future generations.
Initially, success was a travel company committing to protect habitat, recycle, or build with local materials. Today, success is measured not by commitments, but by on-the-ground actions and impact – from eliminating single-use plastics to using renewable energy sources to not just employing locals, but also providing micro-enterprise funding and opportunities to empower them as business owners.

Two decades ago, big cruise lines were among the worst environmental offenders, being repeatedly slapped with major fines for illegally dumping waste at sea. All-inclusive resorts were also a concern: Their business models were based on separating guests from the local community and keeping tourist dollars inside the resort, rather than going to independent businesses. Now, some of the large-ship cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean, are helping lead the way with environmental stewardship. And more all-inclusive resorts are adapting to travelers’ desire for cross-cultural connections. Along with the Slow Food movement, which supports small farmers and sustainable fisheries, we’re seeing resorts source more supplies locally – not only to reduce their carbon footprint, but also to have a more positive economic impact on the destination and give guests a greater sense of place.

These days, the industrywide push is to eliminate single-use plastics. I think the next focus will be biodiversity conservation to halt the cascade of plant and animal species extinction currently underway. What will we be talking about in five or ten years? A post-fossil-fuel world where renewable energy is the rule, not the exception.

Costas Christ is chairman of the TreadRight Foundation and serves as Virtuoso’s senior advisor for sustainability. He is a former senior director at Conservation International.

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