I truly believe that sustainable tourism is the way of the future and with the leadership of major travel companies, we can make huge strides in making sustainable tourism mainstream. What I have found throughout my internship is that people want to make travel better and they are genuinely interested in learning about sustainable tourism and responsible travel, however they still don’t fully understand and to be honest, I don’t think the travel companies really understand how to fill in the gaps. Some companies tout their sustainable practices proudly while others hide them pages deep in their website. Everyone uses different terms like community impact, environmental commitment, global citizenship, sustainability, our promise, etc. and for travelers, this information can be confusing and vague.
As a part of my webinar series I created for my internship to present to travel agents, I tried to explain sustainable tourism in the simplest way possible:
- Sustainable Tourism: “Tourism that respects both local people and the traveller, cultural heritage and the environment”… while ensuring “future tourists and tourism businesses can enjoy and profit from the same destinations.” (A combination of UNESCO wording a wording from Sewing Seeds of Change)
- Sustainable Tourism is Better Tourism
- Better for the traveler
- Better for the community visited
- Better for the planet
- Sustainable Tourism is about being a Responsible Traveler
And most importantly:
- ANY type of travel can be Sustainable Travel
What I’ve found when discussing sustainable tourism with people at the office and with travel advisors is that the buzzwords ecotourism and voluntourism always come up. These are great but I always stress these are part of sustainable tourism, but not quite the whole package.
For example, I recently went on a Fathom cruise. Fathom is well known in the travel industry right now for being the first American cruise to sail to Cuba in recent time. The cruise line also sails to the Dominican Republic where passengers take part in Impact + Travel activities on shore and also engage in social innovation workshops on board. The shore excursions include reforestation efforts, teaching english, assisting at a woman’s cooperative, and laying cement floors for families. While many guests on board really bought in to the whole “we’re making a difference” thing, I felt a little disenfranchised. These aren’t feelings I included in my webinar series – because I do think Fathom is a great way for some people to take baby steps towards sustainable tourism – however I just couldn’t help but feeling like Fathom missing the boat on creating an amazing sustainable tourism opportunity. For instance, the cruise line doesn’t have an environmental commitment listed on their website and the only mention of one on board was to please reuse your towels and don’t throw anything overboard. The excursions don’t allow for travelers to make meaningful connections as you only interact with people for minutes at a time in some cases.
If sustainable tourism is going to catch on, companies need to go all in. If you’re going to have travelers volunteering, have them recycling and avoiding plastic straws too. If you’re going on an ecotrek, make sure the money is going back into the community. If you’re leading a cultural immersion tour through Europe, interact with the locals, take your trash with you, and find a fuel efficient bus. While researching sustainable tourism options through the vendors available to travel advisors, it’s difficult to produce a list of lots of companies that have truly sustainable cruises and tours rather than just bits and pieces or an overall company goal to “protect the planet” that has no measurable initiatives attached.
While we wait for companies to go all in, I made sure to stress in my webinars that travelers need to be responsible travelers. This means acting out pillars of sustainable tourism and knowing that the rest of the world might not catch up as quickly, but eventually if we all focus on protecting the environment, supporting communities, and preserving cultures, sustainable tourism will catch on.