Sustainability & Travel For Purpose: Actionable Steps For Tour Companies

April 9, 2021
Keri Pfeiffer
11 min read

Recently, WeTravel has been at the center of really candid conversations around sustainability and travel for purpose.

Between our ongoing LinkedIn series and a webinar roundtable, we have hosted several expert speakers from travel businesses actively taking strides to be more sustainable in all senses of the word.

Looking To A Future Of Sustainable Travel

We know that sustainability is on the mind of countless tour operators and travelers at the moment. The pause from COVID-19 has given everyone a chance to think about travel in the future and how we can do things in a way that positively impacts the destinations and people we visit, environmentally, socially, and economically.

Because sustainability is this fluid concept, our expert speakers are finding that many travel businesses are interested in becoming more sustainable but are unsure of where to start.

To help you find this point, we will share some of the insights and ideas from the conversations we have had. We have set these out in a Q&A format to hopefully answer some of the questions you might have on the subject.

At the end of the article, we will also share links to the videos for you to watch in your own time.

Future Of Travel

About Our Expert Speakers

Amber Nelson

Amber is Co-founder, Head of Tours, Guides & Sustainability at Impact Travel Collective.

She combines sustainability with design, tourism, and project management, to her knowledge and love for her home region, the Americas, specifically Brazil, Mexico, and the US.

The Impact Travel Collective is dedicated to promoting the future of tourism, one which is based on sustainability, innovation, and collective action. It acts as a platform to connect guides and travelers virtually and in person for small group, positive impact tours in Latin America.

Kelley Louise

Kelley is Founder & Executive Director at Impact Travel Alliance.

Kelley is a travel entrepreneur passionate about storytelling and social good. She specializes in creative marketing and social media management for clients in the travel and impact space.

Impact Travel Alliance is the world’s largest community for socially conscious travelers. It is a 501(c)3 nonprofit aimed at improving the world through travel, educating, and empowering travelers with the knowledge to positively impact local communities and the environment.

Greg Takehara

Greg is CEO at Tourism Cares.

Greg’s journey with Tourism Cares began in 2003 as a volunteer and has continued with intention and passion as CEO. He has been in tourism for over 32 years, with his current efforts focused on creating and inspiring positive social and environmental impact to ensure a lasting sustainable future.

Tourism Cares believes travel is a powerful tool that can be used for global good. Their mission is to unite the travel industry and advance its positive impact to help people and places thrive.

Travel For Purpose

John Sutherland

John is the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Collette.

Based in Rhode Island, John has worn multiple hats in the travel industry. He has experience in Customer Service, Product Operations, and even tour guiding, his most recent being to build out Collette’s corporate social responsibility program.

Collette has been guided travel experts for nearly 100 years. The company offers more than 160 tours to destinations on all seven continents. Drawing on their rich history, they are driven by their values of caring more and doing more for their guests.

Nadine Pinto

Nadine is the Sustainability Manager at the Treadright Foundation.

In 2020, Nadine was recognized by Corporate Knights as a Top 30 Under 30 Sustainability Leader in Canada.

Her primary focus is leading sustainability at The Travel Corporation via the Treadright Foundation, which owns and operates 40 award-winning brands, including guided travel experiences, independent holiday packages, boutique river cruising, luxury hotels, and safaris across 70 countries.

Pablo Martinez

Pablo is Founder & Director at Etnica Travel.

He has worked hand in hand with developing communities in Guatemala, seeking to solve problems of development and sustainable community growth while aiming to rescue natural, cultural, and ancestral heritage.

Etnica Travel is a social enterprise devoted to connecting local, responsible, and community-based travel experiences around Guatemala. They work under fair trade principles, sustainability, and co-creation, valuing the cultural and natural heritage the country has to offer.

Guatemala Travel Companies

Expert Insights For Travel and Tour Companies

Q: As a travel business, how can we define sustainability?

Greg

It’s no easy task defining sustainability; it has more than 300 definitions, but we feel it is a really strong umbrella term.

What we have found is that sustainability is very personal. It is a journey that has no definitive beginning or end.

From small steps to big actions, it all makes the difference. And it takes all of us to create this ripple effect.

Because the travel industry is more dependent than most on the health of local communities, environments, and cultures, we look at sustainability in three pillars: people, planet, and profits.

Sustainable tourism takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of the environment and host communities as well as those of the visitor and the industry.

Sustainability is core to travel and is really no longer a specialty or niche segment. All travel should be sustainable travel.

If we don’t choose to conduct business more responsibly, we won’t have any product to sell. And to ensure a thriving future for the industry itself, we must have a more purpose-driven one.

Pablo

The way in which we project sustainability parameters at Etnica is by ensuring that our practices respect all social, ecological, economic, cultural, and political aspects of each community with which we get involved.

By taking concrete actions in these specific goals and fields, we seek to ensure sustainability. And this is achieved in the long term.

UNWTO Definitions

Nadine

At the travel Corporation and Treadright, we view sustainability as our impact on the planet, people, and wildlife. And those are really our three pillars.

We work toward these in two ways.

The first is through philanthropy in Treadright Foundation, where we fund sustainable tourism projects all over the world.

The second way is through our sustainability strategy. And that addresses how we can make a smaller impact on our environment, local communities, and wildlife through our operations, offices, and trips.

Amber

At ITC, we try to give the power of the definition to the people on the ground to discuss their version of sustainability with the traveler themselves.

To do this, we have created a tool called the Impact Worksheet, which every guide or operator who works with us has to fill out for every single tour that they do.

That impact is tied to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, so there is a very clear metric that the guide can learn about.

Many guides have not been yet empowered to take sustainability into their own hands. That hard work of owning sustainability is usually taken on at the company level or even a destination level.

So, because we’re actually empowering our guides to take that on, the definition of sustainability is as varied as our tours are.

Q: How are traveler demands around sustainable travel choices going to change coming out of the pandemic?

Travelers Goals Coming Out The Pandemic

Kelley

Our specialty at Impact Travel Alliance is that we teach travelers how to explore in a way that has a positive impact on local communities and the environment.

We are caused based in terms of what our editorial schedule looks like. We will look at things like ocean conservation, or women’s empowerment, or social justice. Then we break those down to talk about how you as a traveler can positively impact each of those causes throughout all types of travel experiences.

Our community grew about one and a half times last year. So, it was encouraging to see how much this message around sustainable tourism has resonated within our audience.

Nadine

One of our brands is Contiki. Being youth-focused, they did a bit of research to look at what millennials are looking for when they come back post-COVID.

A point that stood out was millennials wanted to participate in sustainable travel. So, we do know that the younger generation is engaged in this.

John

We did poll our travelers on some of this stuff.

Collette’s average traveler is aged 68. We found about 60% of our traveler demographic did want sustainability.

Amber

We are getting new clients because they’re interested in the conversations that we’re having.

They usually come for the first time, because they’re interested in it.

But then something magical happens on tour. The guide is so passionate about what they’re doing to own sustainability that the traveler is transformed.

The traveler then repeats their experience with us because they can’t wait to see the next guy’s passion for sustainability.

FAQs On Sustainability

Q: What role do travel companies have in informing their clients on best practices before they actually go on tours?

Nadine

All our travelers receive a Make Travel Matter Checklist with their e-documents when they book with us.

This is a checklist with tips they can look at before, during, and after their travels to understand how they can be responsible.

We also train up our tour managers and our trip directors so that they understand the issues and can explain them to our travelers.

John

We try to weave our sustainability or responsible travel into our marketing.

We also share tips for responsible travel in our tour documents and train our tour managers.

As tour operators and industry leaders, we shouldn’t wait to be pushed by market demand for sustainability.

We know that these destinations aren’t going to exist the way we want them to in 50 years, or sooner if we are not doing the work.

So, we actually have to take the lead and share those values and passion for sustainability with the travelers.

Pablo

In all of our travel programs, we display the opportunities and the alternatives that our travelers have of supporting initiatives in the sector of education, conservation, and food safety.

Even those travelers who don’t get involved in sustainability surely appreciate it when you point out the efforts made to ensure the positive impact on the communities that they will visit or in the experiences in which they will be getting involved.

How To Be A Better Travel Company Coming Out Of The Pandemic

Kelley

Many people hear sustainable travel, and they think about ecotourism in Costa Rica or voluntourism in Africa.

And they’re not necessarily thinking about how they can apply sustainability to any travel experience, no matter what their budget is, no matter what their travel style looks like, or no matter where they’re going.

So, all of our programming at Impact Travel Alliance comes back to that core idea of exploring how we can push sustainable tourism into the mainstream by engaging with travelers and helping them understand how they can incorporate positive impact into any type of experience.

Q: Within the company, what sustainability standards do you use?

John

At Collette, we look at GSTC; we look at B Corporation; we look at a certifying body like Travelife and say, okay, where should our focus be? What are the details on how to meet those standards?

Then we use those types of things for inspiration and guidance into what to do. From there, it’s all topic-based.

In designing our impact moments on some of our tours, we also took inspiration from other good tour operators out there.

Ideally, we would be heading toward adopting a set of standards and following through on that.

But sustainability is a sliding scale. Adopting one set of standards will change in five years, so we try to do the best we can with each topic we take up.

Amber

Getting Started With Sustainable Business Practices

Our answer to that was the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

But the big challenge is always to take these goals and translate them to your specific circumstance. There were some training programs out there that I was able to do to learn how to do that.

The UNWTO has done a great deal of the translating for the tourism industry. They have this great website, Tourism For SDGs, that gives you an excellent place to start.

Q: How do you ensure that the partners you work with, for example, your suppliers, adhere to best practices or your sustainability goals?

Pablo

How Etnica was created was by following the basis of co-creation along with our potential partners and collaborators.

We go through an integration process based on shared knowledge and common goals. Basically getting to know each other, and how we are compatible to work together.

Nadine

It’s so simple for us to choose to be more sustainable; our suppliers have to be en-route, they have to have the capacity for our groups, that sort of thing.

So we do our best to engage with our suppliers, and we send out a letter letting them know what we’ve done from a sustainability perspective. Then we invite them to tell us what they have been doing.

And we showcase them on our social media as well to create that community.

John

Find Ethical Travel Partners

So we have an animal welfare policy here. We went through all of our products, pulled out all the animal inclusions, created a massive spreadsheet, and sent it to an external auditor.

When we received the audit documents, we went back to a few dozen partners to gain more clarity on what they are doing.

Many of our vendors met our standards. And those that didn’t heard from us. We said, ‘this is what we care about, this is what we want to do, and we want to move forward in this direction; are you with us?’

Q: Where should a tour operator start; what are two or three things can we focus on?

Amber

Sustainability has to be a constant practice.

The best way to do that is to begin joining in the conversation with other experts on sustainability in the industry.

Tourism Cares has done so much, and they have excellent newsletters to subscribe to.

There are all sorts of great companies to connect with, such as Sustainable Travel International and the people behind the Future of Tourism Initiative.

The other important document that you may or may not have on your radar is what I would call a Theory of Change document.

If you Google or look it up on YouTube, you will find a lot of resources. But what this does is helps you clarify what sustainable initiatives you are inputting. What do you expect out of them, and what are the results?

It is a really great framework, and creating this document for yourself will clarify how you’re going to operate as a company.

Impact Guidance For Travel Businesses

Pablo

An essential for us is to get involved.

Don’t just sell destinations. Get to know them. Get to know their people. What their efforts and goals focus on; what their threats and challenges are.

Q: What about post-trip? How do you do the follow-up and then essentially inspire and create the demand for sustainable products?

Pablo

It makes sense to connect the travelers in a way that they feel like the destination they just visited became their home. For example, if their experience involved reforestation in the mangroves, send them photos of how that part of the mangrove is doing.

Q: What about concerns regarding local suppliers and fair division of profit?

Pablo

When we meet our collaborators or fair trade artisans, we start exchanging views and goals and objectives to see if they lack anything that might be related to the quality of the experience.

Then, if we work with them, we can complement what they lack so that the experience is five stars.

It’s all about working together with your partners to ensure that the price travelers are paying is market-related. And if not, work with collaborators so they can achieve sustainable pricing and get a fair wage.

Travel Business Network

Additional Resources

Watch the replay of the webinar roundtable on sustainability 101 here.

Watch the replay with Amber Nelson in our series Travel Has Many Parts; Follow The Journey here.

Watch the replay with Kelley Louise in our series Travel Has Many Parts; Follow The Journey here.

Subscribe to Tourism Care’s monthly newsletter here and check out their Meaningful Travel Platform here.

Join ITC’s online community to keep the conversation going or by emailing amber@impacttravelcollective.com.

Download Treadright’s traveler checklist here.

Follow WeTravel on Linkedin to see all our latest updates and future events.