Profits with Principles

Sustainable low resBy Kris Madden

IMAGINE you are poor, but you are part of a unique culture and country with rare natural beauty that draws foreign tourists from all over the globe. They come in droves, pointing cameras at your children, haggling with the artisans in the market over a few cents, and dressing in ways that you consider to be inappropriate.

Now imagine a different tourist, one who seems to have an understanding of your culture and wants to experience it fully. One who is conscious of the precious resources they use such as water and power, and who supports local operators and contributes to the economic growth of the country. Which traveller would you most welcome?

Sustainable tourism is the concept of visiting a place as a tourist and trying to make a positive impact on the environment, society and economy. It’s the end-game of responsible travel – being aware of the impact that your travel has on the places you visit, and as much as possible, minimising any negatives.

Pacific Asia Tourism executive director Steve Noakes, who is also an adjunct professor in sustainable tourism at Griffith University, says there is still a long way to go until the industry is able to recommend products which can genuinely be described as having sustainable tourism practices and policies.

“Some travel agents selling to niche markets would be more in-tune with promoting products which meet minimum international standards for sustainable tourism, however, for mainstream travel agents, the harsh reality of reaching weekly sales targets still overrides any prioritisation to do the best for the planet,” he says.

Noakes says he’s seen many within the industry try to do the right thing, but there still remains evidence of ‘greenwashing’ – when claims don’t line up with minimum international standards.

“The journey for sustainable tourism has progressed significantly, but it’s still in the early stages – especially with the rapid growth of tourism infrastructure in China, India and other parts of Asia. It’s important for travel agents to understand sustainability because the planet depends on it – and ultimately, their business will too,” he says.
Likewise, World Expeditions CEO Sue Badyari says the company relies on its travellers not only understanding, but embracing the concept of sustainable tourism.

“We’ve invested heavily in our Responsible Travel Program on the basis that it’s the right thing to do and that people understand and support it. Fundamentally, we are asking our travellers to be part of our responsible travel solutions,” says Badyari.

For instance, the company allows travellers to offset carbon emissions on flights, with around 40% of passengers taking up the option.

Badyari says agents can support the sustainability agenda by helping to educate their clients. “Just tell people why it’s important – that is, for the long term benefit of the places they visit,” she says.
Meanwhile, Intrepid’s Responsible Business Program Specialist Liz Manning says sustainable tourism is no longer the exception – it’s now becoming the norm.

“It’s not just something that a handful of niche travellers want anymore, it is well and truly in the mainstream so it’s important for tourism companies to walk the talk and provide a quality, sustainable product,” she says.
“Customers are demanding sustainable experiences more and more, and it is a big reason why customers return to a brand.”

Intrepid is a prime example, with all of its trips now carbon offset. The company prides itself on working with locally owned establishments and using public transport to provide a genuinely sustainable offering.
Travel agents should also keep in mind that dealing with sustainable operators and establishments will deliver a superior experience for their clients.

“It’s in agents’ interest to be up-to-date with sustainable tourism products, as consumers are experience driven and a sustainable product will enrich their experience and help sell more product,” says Manning.

With 1.1 billion international travellers crossing borders last year, it is more important than ever for the industry to take stock of the impact tourism is having on our planet and aim to manage it as best we can for the future.