COVID-19 is one of the deadliest natural disasters the world has ever seen. Scientists who study pandemics say COVID, SARS, ebola and avian flu are consequences of human incursion into animal habitats.
Rob Jordan, of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, explained in the Stanford News, “Viruses that jump from animals to people, like the one responsible for COVID-19, will likely become more common as people continue to transform natural habitats into agricultural land.”
If we ever thought of sustainable travel as an altruistic impulse, we now know better. Sustainability is a matter of self-preservation. Perhaps that’s why the COVID pandemic has accelerated the trend toward the embrace of sustainable tourism practices.
As devastating as the pandemic has been for the travel industry, Robin Tauck, the new chair of Tourism Cares, sees in it opportunities for action and for the advancement of more positive-impact practices in tourism.
“I think this COVID pandemic, which has literally hit everyone on planet, will create an urgency to restructure some of our collective corporate travel practices, toward smaller groups, and more caring for the places we visit, engaging our leaders, employees and clients,” she told me last week. “It will accentuate the importance of positive impact to places and people of travel.”
In a year that has brought travel to a standstill, Tourism Cares has seen a surge in interest in its activities. The association added 18-20 new members in the last year.
“We haven’t lost one member as a result of COVID,” Robin said. “That’s significant because it’s needed now more than ever. Associations and companies are taking on sustainability as one of their main strategic pillars.”
The Future of Tourism
Tourism Cares is the association travel of businesses dedicated to protecting the places that tourism depends on as travel destinations. Robin Tauck was voted last November to be chair for 2021-24. She’s been on the board since 2010, but has been close to the organization since its inception in 1998 as an initiative of the U.S. Tour Operators Association called Travelers Conservation Foundation. The mission was set back then. Robin’s father, Arthur Tauck, served as chairman of the association 2002-07.
Robin Tauck has been devoted to sustainable tourism practices since the mid-1990s. As co-president of the Tauck company in 1998, she spearheaded Tauck’s World of Giving, a philanthropic arm of the company. During the Clinton administration she worked with both Hillary and Bill Clinton on Save America’s Treasures, an initiative under the National Trust for Historic Preservation to save treasured cultural sites and artifacts of the United States. During all that, she found time to establish a charitable foundation, TRIP Foundation, and earned a degree in sustainability from the University of Cambridge in London.
In the 2000s, the Traveler’s Conservation Foundation expanded beyond the tour operator association to all segments of the travel industry, including airlines, hotels, destinations and insurance companies. They decided that by banding together they could make a greater impact than they could by themselves.
Expansion and Diversification
The name Tourism Cares evolved from two clean-up and restoration events, Tourism Caring for Ellis Island and Tourism Caring for New Orleans. The events brought together hundreds of volunteers from member companies at a destination to work physically to help clean up or restore it.
The cleanup events were like little Woodstocks, a calling out to the industry to ask for volunteers join an effort to restore some wonderful place in distress. The opportunity to work together with an army of people for a good cause was energizing and exciting and they became major industry events that people looked forward to.
The events placed CEOs side by side with entry level employees working basic labor jobs. For the companies whose employees participated, they were great morale boosters.
The Shift to Meaningful Travel
Tourism Cares has held about 30 of the restoration events in cities and national parks, sometimes as many as five in a year. In 2012 it initiated a second format of event, the five-day Meaningful Travel Summits. So far, they have been held in Jordan, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Colombia.
At the Meaningful Travel Summit in Jordan, the leadership developed its first Meaningful Travel Map which maps out tourist attractions that qualify as “social enterprises,” where the money you spend stays local and supports local communities. Now they are developing into a series. The Meaningful Travel Map is meant to offer tour operators and travelers ways to have authentic and enriching experiences of the places they visit and to have more intimate engagements with locals, while also having the pleasure of knowing you are providing a benefit.
“Tour operators who attend the summits have transformed their packages to include these social enterprises,” said Robin. “And what a difference it has made economically for those communities, for the guest experience and for the tour operator themselves! That’s exciting. It shows economic impact, inclusion impact. It’s not going one time and do something and leave. It’s creating a long-standing benefit adding tens of thousands of visitor dollars into the value chain.”
Hope for a Brighter Future
COVID was not the only thing in 2020 that inspired interest in sustainability. The year 2020 also saw devastating forest fires, intensifying hurricanes, and new heat records. But nothing compares in impact to COVID.
As the single event affecting more people than anything ever before, the pandemic had an unprecedented global synchronizing effect. It created changes in the global psyche that are beginning to show their effects now. Forbes recently reported that the pandemic has changed luxury purchasing from conspicuous to conscientious.
COVID has brought different kinds of awareness, and highlighted concerns that might have been more easily ignored before. Never have we been so aware of our vulnerability to natural forces we can’t control. The pandemic has subtly altered people’s values.
Aoife Brophy Haney, departmental research lecturer in innovation and enterprise at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, recently suggested that the pandemic provided a sort of experiment that revealed new possibilities.
Interviewed by BusinessBecause.com, she said, “A radical upheaval of society to stop climate change may have previously seemed impossible. The magnitude of the task on a global scale is daunting. But now, the shared experience of lockdown has demonstrated to people that locally, a different way of life in which environmental values rank highly is possible. The cumulative effect of local effort on a global scale could be huge.
“It comes down to how you think about the future. We’ve seen different versions of the future that are now possible, that weren’t really on people’s radars before something like this actually happened.”
It’s been a hard year, but I join Robin Tauck in having high hopes for a brighter, more sustainable future.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.