It was such an honor to have the opportunity to give the keynote for Immersion Travel Magazine‘s Sustainable Travel Summit. Below, check out the written version of my talk. You can also view any of the other sessions from the Summit online here. And if you haven’t seen it yet, visit Immersion’s Kickstarter to help them build their dream platform for sustainable travel news!
I met Wendy, indirectly, through Instagram. She’s the type of person who lights up when she talks to you, and it’s immediately apparent that she cares deeply about those around her. As you get to know her, it also becomes apparent that, while incredibly humble and down-to-earth, Wendy is also immensely talented. A year ago, she was working as an art director in New York City, and was in the midst of a career that many would envy. But, like so many of us with a wanderlust heart and sense of adventure, Wendy craved something different. So, she quit her job, packed her bags, and set off.
In the past year, she’s been to Australia, Bali, France, Malaysia and more. And as she’s jetsetted around the world, she’s shared her story in a very open and honest way through social media. One of the really beautiful things about Wendy’s experiences is witnessing how much travel has pushed her to learn and grow. And like so many travelers do, she’s discovered a sense of purpose through her experiences.
In a recent feature online, Wendy wrote,
The Most Memorable Type of Travel
It’s no secret that travelers crave authentic experiences. It is no longer enough to visit New York City and see the Statue of Liberty or Times Square; travelers are also seeking off-the-beaten-path experiences to understand a destination from a local’s perspective. Airbnb’s rise and rapid success is due, in part, to this phenomenon – as they famously tout, you can live like a local, if only for a night.
As a New Yorker myself, I’m incredibly proud of my city, as most New Yorker’s are. And it’s not to say that I don’t think that you should visit Central Park – because you certainly should – it’s just to say that I don’t think your favorite experience will be one that’s on any top 10 list for tourist destinations.
If you asked me for my recommendations on what to do in New York City, I’d give you a list of my favorite restaurants, telling you how they source their food, and the stories behind the menu. I’d tell you about my favorite stores, and the incredible entrepreneurs who opened them. I’d tell you about League of Kitchens, which is seriously one of the coolest experiences I’ve found, anywhere. League of Kitchens is a platform that allows you to book a cooking class with an immigrant, which is hosted in their own home. I had the pleasure of meeting Despina, a Greek immigrant, who taught me to cook the best shrimp and rice dish, which has actually become my go-to home cooked meal for whenever I want to impress someone.
Another amazing set of experiences in New York are the tours that Urban Adventures offers. They host a handful of small walking tours around New York City – you can go on a Prohibition tour of speakeasies in the East Village, which is a diverse mix of history, culture and libations. And if you ask any New Yorker, we all hate Times Square, and will absolutely avoid it at all costs. But Urban Adventures hosts a tour of Times Square that you should absolutely go on – they’ll teach you to somehow magically avoid the crowds, the best local gems in the area, and the history behind the evolution of the iconic destination.
And then there’s Turnstile Tours. There’s food carts all over Manhattan, but I’m willing to bet that you don’t know the stories behind them, or the best ones to go to. Turnstile does, and they’ll share their secrets with you. And they’ll take you to Prospect Park, an absolutely stunning park in Brooklyn created by the same designer behind Central Park, where you will absolutely get lost in its magic.
Our most memorable experiences are usually not the ones listed in a guidebook. The memories we can’t stop thinking about are the ones that offer you a unique look into a destination, and in doing so, can also empower the local. All of the experiences above are not only cool – they also benefit our community. League of Kitchens empowers entrepreneurs. Urban Adventures funnels money directly into the local economy. Turnstile Tours is a registered B Corp. As we explore, we become more connected to our world – which leads us to want to make a positive impact.
The Current State of the Industry
We think of tourism in an interesting way. We look at the amount of tourists visiting a destination, and we take that number and say it’s good or it needs improvement because of XY-and-Z reasons. We look at the previous year, and project growth and set targets, and as consumers, we often feel that tourism is this incredibly great and powerful thing that fuels the economy of entire countries. But far too often, we don’t take a step back and take a critical look at the impact of those numbers. There is a gap between how we look at an amount of tourists, and the impact they actually achieve. What value does a tourist have?
If travel is transformative, and leads us to want to make our world a better place, how can we build an industry where every traveler is a changemaker? Not only is this a nice thought – because of course, we should solve our world issues through tourism, that seems like a duh moment – but it’s also a good business decision. If a traveler’s favorite memory from their trip is the localized experience, especially if they can feel good about empowering that community, then there is an incredible amount of potential for businesses to harness consumers’ loyalty through purpose-driven experiences. Just take a look outside of our industry, at clothing companies like Reformation or Patagonia that have cult-like followings. I will actually spend more money on something that I know is ethically made, and I know I’m not alone.
How We Can Change Our World Through Travel
The idea is contagious, isn’t it? We can solve issues like poverty or inequality, all around the world, through something that is so universally appealing as travel. 2017 is the UN Year of Sustainable Tourism, and it is such a powerful time to be a part of our industry. If you’re not familiar with the Global Goals, take a moment to look them up. It’s a series of 17 highly ambitious targets that, if accomplished, will end virtually all of the world’s most pressing issues by 2030. And each of the Goals has the potential to be positively impacted by the travel industry.
But we cannot change the world through travel until we change our industry. In its current state, it’s tragically flawed. Far too often, tourism dollars are funneled outside of local economies and into outside destinations. Due to a phenomenon called tourism leakage, on average, less than 10% of the money you spend while traveling actually benefits the local economy. So the question stands: How can we transform our industry into a force for good?
The First Step to Transform Our Industry
The first step to pushing our industry forward is to take a critical look at how we view sustainable tourism. When I talk to you about sustainable tourism, what do you think of? Most people’s knee-jerk reaction is to draw parallels between sustainability and ecotourism, or voluntourism. Which is fine if that’s what you want to do, but to be blunt, for most travelers, that’s simply not the case. Consider the amount of trips you’ve taken this year, and take a critical look at how many were for ‘do-good’ purposes, and how many were for strictly business or leisure?
For some reason, we associate sustainable tourism with giving back, rather than something that can be implemented into any business model (and in turn, build loyalty and profit). But sustainable tourism, in its simplest definition, is simply tourism that positively impacts the community, environment and economy of the destination you’re visiting – a mindset which can certainly be applied to any business model. And I’m not just talking about supporting local or shopping local – corporations should be held accountable as well. Corporate responsibility is key to pushing the industry forward.
We can take action today to build the travel industry of the future. In order to build a better travel industry, we must move sustainable tourism from niche to mainstream. And in order to shift this mindset, the best place to start isn’t while we’re traveling, it’s actually at home.
If you are new to the sustainable travel space, it can feel overwhelming. You may have just started to learn about some of the perils of voluntourism, or this nasty business called greenwashing, and when your eyes are opened to all of the complex riddles within the space, frankly, it can feel almost paralyzing. What is right, what is wrong, and what exists in that blurred space in between? What if you found out, for example, only after returning from a trip to Asia, that there’s inhumane practices behind riding an elephant? What if your intentions were good, but you just didn’t know?
So here’s the key – you need to start small, and take baby steps to educate yourself on ethical travel. I cannot stress this enough: Sustainability is a lifestyle. If you don’t start today, and at home, then you’re almost certainly going to enter a state of overwhelm when you’re abroad and outside of your comfort zone. These decisions will become easier, even secondhand nature, over time. Do you remember when recycling wasn’t the norm? Now, it’s almost off-setting when you’re in someone’s home and they don’t have a recycle bin. We’ve shifted our mindset and made steps to improve our environment because our society pays attention to small, every day actions from a collective group of individuals.
There are so many resources out there for us to learn to be more mindful of our actions. One of the really interesting components to consider about sustainability has to do with the products that you buy. Where did they come from? Were they ethically sourced? Did they empower local communities? I love looking at all of this through the lens of fashion, and knowing that what I put on every day reflects my values. For some inspiration, visit the ethical fashion blog Ecocult, which also touches on travel and lifestyle. And to become a more mindful traveler, there’s about a million and one ways to learn more. A great starting place is Sustainable Travel International’s Travel Better program, an online course designed to help you understand how to travel more ethically.
Planning for the Future – Business Trends to Learn From
The vision to transform our industry into a force for good is a grand one, and while immensely rewarding work, is not without its hardships. I’ve spoken to so many people within the industry – both entrepreneurial and established travel professionals – who feel completely alienated from the rest of the industry. Yes, sustainable tourism is a niche, so yes, it can feel like it’s you against the world (of tourism). I feel very fortunate that I have been in a position where I am able to witness a growing community around the world made up of individuals who are deeply passionate about sustainability and innovation. You are not alone in your quest to change our world through travel, and one of the most empowering things about our community of changemakers is that we’re eager to learn and grow from one another.
The time is now to push our industry toward a more impactful future. The vision to solve issues like poverty through tourism is an inspiring one, but the work can be daunting, which is why we need to break down our goals into concrete steps. Below, find three tactics that any business can apply to their organization (and trends travelers can look for when booking experiences).
#1: Implement a Holistic Business Model
The first thing you need to understand about sustainability and incorporating it into your business model is that it’s about more than just giving back. We’re witnessing the rise of businesses that integrate sustainability into their entire company. You can do well by doing good. An incredible business that understands that sustainability is about more than just giving back is Visit.org. Through their platform, you can book an experience directly with a local nonprofit or organization. 100% of host revenue is invested directly back into the local community. Another example is G Adventures, which has a sister nonprofit, Planeterra. Planeterra is a social enterprise incubator that works with local projects on capacity training and catalyst grants – and includes the projects in G Adventures itineraries.
Whether you’re a business owner developing your own company or a traveler searching for a sustainable experience, please understand that it’s no longer enough to equate sustainability to only a portion of your business model. It’s not enough go to a hotel that skips washing your sheets because that’s a green solution, when really your team is more focused on saving money from not washing towels. Travelers are smart, and we crave more than a sugarcoated experience. If you want to learn what sustainability really looks like, head over to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s (GSTC) website for a comprehensive look at criteria for a sustainable businesses.
#2: Be Transparent
If you’re doing something to improve our world, tell your audience how and why you’re doing that. There are so many companies out there with incredible initiatives and they’re simply not marketing it the right way, which means they’re missing out on opportunities. Perhaps brands shy away from talking about what they’re doing, because something feels inherently strange about ‘bragging’ about the good you’re doing, or perhaps it just doesn’t occur to you, because it comes so naturally. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with improving our world and making a profit from doing so. I want to celebrate that.
Local Expeditions donates 5% of ticket bookings to a charity of their tour guide’s choice, and it says so right on their homepage. Hostelling International USA has one of my favorite examples of transparency on their website, because they walk you through exactly what sustainability looks like, and then tells you how HI USA implements those practices into their organization. And on social media, Humanity Unified does a beautiful job of telling the stories of the women their nonprofit is empowering through visual storytelling, but also through spelling it out exactly where your money is going and how they’re providing long-term solutions. All of these organizations weave this holistic approach to sustainability into their branding and message, and by doing so in an authentic way, they’re able to build loyalty and awareness.
We live in an age of ideas and innovation, and by working together, we can achieve far greater things than we could on our own. It’s crucial that we work together to push our industry forward.
Collaboration between brands and local communities are entering an exciting stage. It’s time for the white savior complex to end – we have no excuse to go into a community and tell them what they need. We must ask how we can offer a helping hand to empower. Intrepid does a beautiful job of finding local organizations to partner with. You can book each of their experiences in confidence that they have thoroughly vetted their local partners and are working directly with them to make a more impactful experience, for both traveler and destination.
Collaboration also happens in what may seem like unlikely partnerships. Another beautiful example is between JetBlue and the US Fish & Wildlife Services. The organizations worked together to create videos on flights to the Caribbean that educate travelers on how to protect the beauty and wildlife of the islands. The campaign, which was something as simple as educating airline passengers about the harmful effects of buying jewelry made from corals, has had a tremendous effect on protecting our environment.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Travel+SocialGood community. Our vision is to build a network of travelers and change makers around the world who are eager to collaborate and learn from one another. We have Hubs (local chapters) in more than 15 cities around the world. Each of the individuals, brands and organizations that I’ve mentioned throughout this article are in the TSG community – a fact, in itself, that is pretty incredible to think of in terms of our diverse network of changemakers. If I could explain to you how inspiring it is to see how our community has flourished, and how humbling it is to witness the actions of passionate innovators in New York City, Chicago, Austin, Sao Paulo, Tunisia, Kathmandu and so many more… But I don’t quite know how to put words to that feeling, so all I can do is welcome you into our family so that you can see for yourself.
The Time is Now
We are on the brink of a powerful transformation in our industry. Now, more than ever, it’s important to take a stand for what we believe in and press forward with our vision. The timing is right – travelers care about the destinations they’re visiting, and purpose-driven travel offers an opportunity for not only more authentic experiences, but also empowered communities. We care about causes, not just companies, and it is possible for brands to integrate these value-driven ideas into their business models.
Sustainable travel no longer has to be a niche. We have the ability to empower empower local communities, protect our environment and provide lasting solutions to improve our world, all through something so universally appealing as travel. And that is a powerful fact to consider.
As Wendy so poignantly wrote, “It’s our responsibility as travelers to learn, educate and bear witness to the events that are happening in the world. It’s not always easy, but it’s necessary.”
Let’s transform the travel industry into a force for good.
View the full version of my talk on Travel+SocialGood,
The Future of the Travel Industry || Sustainable Travel Summit Keynote