Sustainability: Fad or Fundamental?

SUSTAINABILITY is the buzzword at the moment, with many companies keen to tout how they are supporting the environment or helping the communities that they visit. But what is the real impact of these practices? Adam Bishop takes a closer look.

SUSTAINABILITY is the buzzword at the moment, with many companies keen to tout how they are supporting the environment or helping the communities that they visit. But what is the real impact of these practices? Adam Bishop takes a closer look.

With so much hype currently circulating in the travel sector around the issue of sustainability, it should come as no surprise that agents and consumers alike can often find it difficult to determine if brands have undertaken genuine change to their business models, or are simply jumping on the bandwagon in the pursuit of a favourable perception. There is little doubt the choices travel companies make with regard to ethical practices have broad implications for the ongoing conversation around sustainability, especially when it comes to notions of authenticity, effectiveness and permanency.

While not exactly a new phenomenon, some companies in the market have elected to focus more of their efforts on promoting themselves as environmentally friendly rather than investing in genuine structural change — a marketing practice referred to as “greenwashing”. So, for agents and consumers seeking to preference the services of bona fide sustainable travel operators, it is more important now than ever before to investigate and understand in greater detail what the term sustainability actually means in the travel context, and whether the policies that brands are implementing are having the desired long-term impact they are claiming to make.

Animal welfare

A broadening definition for what constitutes unethical animal practices in the tourism industry has sharply increased the pressure on travel operators to ensure they are not complicit in any form of animal cruelty. While the push to guarantee animals are treated humanely throughout all forms of travel is being fought vigorously on many fronts, perhaps there is no stronger focal point at the moment than the plight of elephants.

The Travel Corporation (TTC) is one of more than 50 travel brands to ban all forms of elephant rides across its itineraries, a move that Neil Rodgers, Managing Director for TTC offshoot Adventure World Travel, believes will contribute to seeing the whole travel industry migrate towards “observational only” wildlife tours.

“The agents who are being successful right now are those working on these niche bookings, those clients who are travelling once with them do not want to have the feeling they have been placed in a product that has a negative impact on the animal or the environment,” Rodgers said.

“So, in a business sense it is logical for the agents to be upskilled and to book programs where it is only observational, because their clients will actually come back and thank them for it,” he added.

And it’s not just elephant back riding that has come under the moral microscope, with animal rights groups such as World Animal Protection challenging the entire practice of “domesticating” elephants for the purposes of interactive tourism.

The animal rights group claims the term domesticated is a disingenuous label because it implies that the animal has lost its wild instincts, in the same way cats, dogs and horses have adapted successfully to a life of human companionship.

“For elephants, nothing could be further from the truth, the usual visitor experience of elephants in tourism paints a skewed picture of a captive elephant’s life,” World Animal Protection states in a report on elephant abuse.

The Travel Corporation has worked closely with World Animal Protection on formulating its animal welfare policy.

“Programs in Asia which included the kinds of experiences that people thought were good for the animal such as elephant washing, we now stay away from those kinds of programs,” Rodgers said.

So, what are the commercial costs that operators face when drawing such a clear ethical line on animal welfare? Well, according to Rodgers it’s all about how you package that shift to consumers.

“There are certain marketing tactics to use, organisations like PETA use some quite confronting imagery, we choose not to use that in our marketing communications because it just switches people off and they just don’t want to look at it,” Rodgers said.

“Instead of showing a picture of an elephant with a metal hook behind its ear, the greater benefit we’ve found is educating people on how they can make a positive change.”

“I know a lot of people use that rhetoric and there is a lot of greenwashing out there, but I think when you look at TTC’s TreadRight initiatives over the last decade, it really does put its money where its mouth is”.

When asked whether the decision to ban practices such as elephant riding was guilty of viewing animal welfare through a western-centric lens, Rodgers advocated for a “balanced approach”.

“One of the strong points when TreadRight partnered with Wildlife SOS was that they didn’t immediately go out there and say this is absolutely bad and you shouldn’t do it, we stopped some of these programs but with the money that they invested, which was considerable, it went into an education centre to actually break the chain,” Rodgers said.

“We are very strict with our DMCs and operators on the ground and if we find out that anything is against our policy we will remove our volume of business from them…it is very much a hand of the western traveller coming down but it has to be in balance,” he added.

Single-Use Plastics

Perhaps the most ubiquitous form of sustainable policy change emanating from the travel sector has been the phasing out of single-use plastics. High on the hit list for brands have been plasticbags, water bottles, straws, polystyrene and food packaging.

Norwegian-based cruise line Hurtigruten has been one of the companies at the front line of implementing a major policy shift, with the business formally removing all single-use plastics from its entire operations in July last year.

“We were the first major cruise company in the world to do it,” said Hurtigruten Managing Director, APAC Region Damian Perry. “At first we thought ‘how do we actually do this?’ We’ve been operating for so many years with plastic cups, plastic bags, a lot of plastic waste… but it only took four months to do a turnaround which is quite amazing,” he added.

One of the criticisms that brands have faced when announcing their intentions to phase out the use of single-use plastics has been the charge of tokenism, with some companies committing to only partial eliminations over long-term periods, an observation not lost on Perry.

“It’s not only about banning plastics like single-use straws, it’s actually about really working toward making the whole expedition cruise industry more sustainable,” he said.

“To actually go out there and say something like ‘we are going to remove straws by 2025′, that is simply not enough, that is really riding the wave… the thing is about sustainability there is no free ride, you have to be able to prove it, you have to be accountable, you have to action it, if you don’t you will be found out very quickly by the consumer,” Perry added.

Perry is adamant that taking the plunge and showing leadership on making sustainable changes such as banning plastics also serves to enhance the brands’ commercial outcomes, as the move typically initiates an internal review of operations which often uncover new ways to make savings.

“Our operational team have not returned any reports suggesting we’ve had an increase in costs, in fact when you actually do something like this and make such a strong statement and have been so clear on our direction other benefits come your way,” he said.

“The biggest benefit has been an internal one, it’s really engaged all of our people globally… it also helped to create a real mission and focus on being more fuel efficient so we’ve actually improved our fuel efficiency and over the last year our fuel improvement has experienced a 10% improvement which is actually a cost benefit,” Perry added.

Hurtigruten’s banning of single-use plastics has seen more than three tonnes of plastics removed from the company’s fleet over the last 12 months, a positive result that excludes the plastics saved by applying pressure to its supply chain partners as well.

“We actually did a deep dive and found that the plastics issue was engrained in our supply chain as well, so we engaged with our supply chain partners and said. ‘look this is our direction going forward and you have to join us on this journey and remove plastics from your supply chain’,” Perry said.


Considered an integral pillar of the sustainability conversation in the travel industry is the need to ensure communities on the tourist trail are included as economic beneficiaries and that their way of life doesn’t come to harm.

One line of thinking in this quid pro quo philosophy is to avoid a purely transactional model, instead ensuring towns and villages are provided with the building blocks by tour operators for long-term economic prosperity.

Small group tour operator Hands on Journeys believes the best way to achieve this ambition is to employ local guides as opposed to flying workers in.

“By hiring local tour leaders, we are creating additional jobs for locals and giving travellers the opportunity to meet people from a different part of the world who are doing good for their community,” said Hands on Journeys Founder Simla Sooboodoo.

“Conversations with local communities are absolutely vital to developing actual sustainability, if we can’t understand their life, and if we haven’t lived it, we can’t tell them how to make it better,” she added.

While Sooboodoo concedes employing local guides may require a greater time investment from travel brands in the short-term, she believes the process ultimately creates a better product in addition to fulfilling an important sustainable objective.

“It takes us more time to find good tour leaders using a localised approach, [but] it’s an important choice, they may not have worked in our way at all before, so there’s a lot of time spent choosing the right people and training them well,” she said.

“Wanting to make a change in a community doesn’t mean you should suit up and walk into that community telling them you have money to invest and this is what you are planning to do. It’s wrong. They are people, not business transactions,” Sooboodoo added.

Intrepid Group is another major travel brand pushing the virtues of local job creation on the ground through its Intrepid Foundation.

Intrepid covers all administrative costs and matches all donations, with funds channelled through to projects which focus on creating jobs and job readiness for local communities the company visits.

“That’s really a great way for customers to engage and is a great way for us to have a positive impact on the ground,” said Intrepid Group’s Chief Purpose Officer Leigh Barnes.

Outside of the foundation, Intrepid also engages in community-based tourism projects in partnership with local non-government organisations to help communities fill an important need.

“For example, a town near Bagan in Myanmar was suffering due to climate change, their crops and their farming weren’t delivering what they used to so we worked with an NGO called Action Aid and the local community to build cabins… now they have empowerment to run the project,” Barnes said.

Carbon footprint

The term “carbon neutral” is bandied about a lot in discussions about sustainability, but what are the implications of the term for the travel industry? One brand that has gone to great lengths to firm up its commitment to achieve a zero-net release of carbon dioxide is Intrepid Group, completing an extensive policy framework in 2010 to ensure its offices and tours operate on a carbon neutral basis via a carbon offset scheme.

Intrepid engages in an annual audit of its carbon emissions, purchasing carbon offsets in order to reduce its footprint back to zero.

The company’s Chief Purpose Officer Leigh Barnes said Intrepid invests in a range of environmental projects around the world that align with its core objectives around sustainability. “We invest in rainforest protection programs, in Malaysia we have a burning off program, we invest in wind farms in Turkey — so we have a number of different projects that we offset, and we get certified by the governing body,” Barnes said.

Outside of participating in an offset scheme, Intrepid has also works to mitigate its carbon footprint by implementing carbon friendly alternatives during its tours. These include using 21 different kinds of public transportation globally, staying in locally-owned accommodation, and eating at locally-owned restaurants where the food has been sourced close-by.


Although not necessarily paying an immediate financial dividend, Barnes believes having a fully developed carbon emissions policy improves the rate at which customers come back to travel with Intrepid.

“What we find is that customers actually travel with us again because we are carbon neutral, I think a lot of the time customers are making that first decision based on itinerary, dates and prices, that is a consistent driver, but we know when they travel with us again and again because of things like our responsible business messages regarding carbon,” Barnes said.

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