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The Future of Sustainability

The U.N. declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism, a concept covering everything from carbon offset and eco-tours to washing towels and how staff are treated. Travel agents can bring real value to consumers navigating this maze of choices.

“Clients are better informed now but we can provide them with insider information, so they don’t have to read 100 reviews,” says Lauren Hoffman of Global Basecamps, which customizes experiences for travelers.

Almost two-thirds of U.S. travelers claim to have taken a ‘sustainable’ trip in the past three years. These travelers spend more (an average of $600) and stay longer (up to three days). For both millennial and older travelers, a clear focus is on collecting experiences instead of material wealth. That sits well with sustainable tourism’s emphasis on exploring local culture and giving back to the community.

Another green trend is to travel less and stay longer, as seen in the boom in ‘bleisure’ travel; combining a business trip with pleasure. The growth in flexible working times has aided this, as have employers looking for unusual incentives. Exploring nearer home is a definite trend and taking the car on a road trip is a more eco-friendly option than flying.

Denver, Colorado, and Vancouver, Canada, are two destinations proving popular for those wanting to get close to nature. Both combine outdoor activities with a vibrant city center. Overseas destinations highlighted for 2017 include Mérida and San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, which both appeal to those wishing to explore the country’s music and art.

While a large majority of U.S. travelers wish to practice sustainable travel, there’s still confusion over what that means. Agents have a vital role in helping visitors understand the wider aspect of reducing the impact of tourism, something that brings strong benefits to visitors as the examples below show.

Europe
The historic poverty and conservatism of Sicily has delivered a unique character, as visitors embrace the charms of its ancient way of life. Farming methods that remain almost completely unchanged for centuries are now seen as ecologically rich, and indeed as a tourist attraction.
Visitors have been welcomed into hill villages that were previously at risk of being emptied as young people left for the big towns. Sharing traditional methods is a way to create employment, as well as pass on skills to this new generation that once saw no value in them.
The transport links put into place, both by land and sea, to help tourists reach their hotels and guesthouses, are also a real benefit in stabilizing local communities.

Southeast Asia
Sometimes the simplest things can help make a big difference to the impact of tourism. Global Basecamps’ clients staying in Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat have the opportunity to deliver water filters to the Kampong Khleang village community, near Tonlé Sap Lake. Waterborne illnesses are a major issue, as the often unsanitary lake is their main water resource.
“Instead of people just taking photos, I thought of this way to give back,” says Lauren Hoffman. “UV water filters are really small so every traveler who’s willing can carry a filter in their luggage. We deliver it to their home before they travel, then they meet with the family that’s receiving it.”
Lauren says that the clients deliver fantastic feedback, as do the local villagers. “There’s a language barrier but this allows both sides to connect on a personal level. The local people love the opportunity to invite visitors into their home and show them how they live. The clients talk to their friends, who want to jump onboard and do the trip as well.”

Africa
Southern Africa has boomed in recent years while East Africa has suffered from safety concerns; however, 2017 might be the year for Kenya to reassert its prominence as a tourist destination. Operators have seen a marked rise in bookings from the U.S. for the host of ASTA’s Destination Expo 2017.
The last three northern white rhino in the world live in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, along with some 115 black rhino and chimpanzees rehabilitated from the black market. The conservancy also works with local communities, providing healthcare and helping farmers with rainwater capture schemes for irrigation, among other initiatives. It’s a recognition that wildlife protection must provide value for local people beyond employment as cooks and cleaners — or it has no future. olpejetaconservancy.org

Latin America
While we tend to think of sustainable tourism as a small-scale initiative, Chile’s southern Lake District has seen a project that involved a $10.5m investment. This area, between the Los Lagos region and Patagonia, is seeing increased interest from U.S. visitors drawn by its wild beauty, with attractions such as the whitewater Futaleufú River and fly-fishing in Yelcho Lake. Eight wooden churches, built using shipbuilding techniques dating to the 18th century, were restored as part of a community-based tourism development in Chiloé and Palena. As well as introducing a new generation of craftspeople to the skills involved in preserving the churches, the scheme also trained local people in tourism skills such as guiding and management. Each church is the center of a community that doesn’t wish to see its spiritual essence trivialized as it’s made more open to tourism. Such cultural challenges are at the heart of sustainable tourism.

North America
The sixth-largest of the Hawaiian Islands, with a population of around 3,000, Lanai still has acres of tropical forests, pretty beaches, and 100 miles of remote trails. And while it also has a rich cultural history, its recent past is equally fascinating. Billionaire businessman Larry Ellison bought most of Lanai in 2012, with a vision to transform it into ‘the first economically viable, 100 percent green community’. Among his many plans are: using seawater to make drinking water; using solar power to run a fleet of electric vehicles (gas ones would be banned); and feeding the island by organic farming (irrigated by that desalinated seawater, of course). With its green-minded Four Seasons Resort now open, the island promises to be a fascinating experiment in whether sustainable tourism is compatible with luxury tourism. gohawaii.com/lanai

The Caribbean
While Cuba has been attracting the headlines, islands such as Dominica show the diversity of the Caribbean offering. The 3 Rivers Eco Lodge in Dominica is a family business with a strong ecological philosophy. The property is solar-powered, including the water pumps, and kitchen waste is composted for the organic gardens. The lodge’s pick-up truck even runs on used vegetable oil, which is collected from local restaurants as well as the property’s kitchens. The sustainable goals of the lodge also extend to embracing the local community, with employees from nearby villages being trained as staff and suppliers. Guests are also encouraged to enjoy a taste of local life — a boost to the economy. Among other activities, visitors can learn about traditional farming methods, have a cookery lesson, or play music with a local reggae and calypso band. 3riversdominica.com

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