by Shelley Seale
One of the biggest trends these days is “going green” – that is, living in a way that lessens impact on the planet and moves from a mentality of consumerism to that of sustainability. And the greening of America presents both a debate and a huge opportunity in the travel industry.
According to The International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is growing at three times the rate of traditional vacationing, increasing annually up to 30 percent. Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel – in other words, leaving a smaller footprint in the places we travel, both on nature and the people who live there. Travelers are growing increasingly interested in more sustainable experiences, and not only out of a sense of guilt or responsibility.
Traveling in a way that respects the environment; gives something back to the indigenous communities rather than merely taking away or, even worse, exploiting. Responsible travel immerses the traveler in the local culture creates deeper, far more enriching experiences.
The benefits of traveling in such a way long outlast the trip itself; the traveler is left with far more than just the photographs, and this is highly appealing to a growing number of people. Itineraries that include homestays, language lessons, visits to local artisan villages, cooking or surfing classes, and volunteering abound.
How can travel agents and tour operators take advantage of this trend to grow their business, and fulfill customers’ needs, while making sure their own practices are truly responsible and sustainable?
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) provides the following guidelines for those who wish to implement and participate in ecotourism activities:
• minimize impact
• build environmental and cultural awareness and respect
• provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
• provide direct financial benefits for conservation
• provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people
• raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate
It is clear that consumer interest in sustainable travel is high, but for many in the industry the question remains: Is it feasible? Kelly Bricker, Executive Director of TIES, emphatically believes it is. “Ecotourism has proven its place in the world, that if done well and with principles in place, it is one of many solutions to biodiversity conservation and wise use of resources around the globe,” says Bricker. “I think we all hope that when we leave, some place, community, or person, is a little bit better off because of efforts we achieved together and ideas we implemented to make things work in a sustainable way.”
Tourism businesses, including hotels, tour operators and travel agents can demonstrate their commitment to sustainability by meeting the standards for social and environmental practices that have been created by leading certification programs such as those offered by TIES or another similar group, Sustainable Travel International (STI). Both are non-profit organizations that provide education and resources for travel providers, and develop sustainable tourism standards. Worldwide, there are more than fifty such certification programs for ecotourism, and more are being created every year.
The Sustainable Tourism Conference, initiated by Rainforest Alliance, the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Foundation, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization, launched the Sustainable Tourism Criteria in October 2008. These criteria will serve as the minimum standard that any tourism business should aspire to reach in order to protect and sustain the world’s natural and cultural resources while ensuring tourism meets its potential as a tool for poverty alleviation. TIES is planning to launch its first workshop on implementing the GSTC at the Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2009 to be held in Portland, Oregon.
Shelley Seale is a freelance writer based out of Seattle and Austin, but she vagabonds in any part of the world whenever possible. Her forthcoming book, The Weight of Silence, follows her journeys into the orphanages, streets and slums of India where millions of children live without families. Her mantra is “travel with a purpose.” You can reach her at www.shelleyseale.com