If I may, I want to suggest we carve out a small section of our business plans for one more set of goals and promises. Travel professionals have a powerful opportunity to influence a wide swath of public opinion regarding the environment and the people with whom clients will interact in their travels. Our own self-interest suggests we do our best to be good stewards of both destinations and the indigenous, but the opportunity extends far beyond self-interest.
Florida’s manatees are in serious trouble, having undergone two years of drastically declining numbers. Maybe I shouldn’t be turning up the volume on the plight of the manatee, but being from West Virginia I do know about the practice of taking canaries into coal mines to test the air for humans. Canaries die faster than we do, so if the canary dies, it’s time to clean up the mess so humans can carry on.
The long-term health of our industry depends on what amounts in many cases to self-regulation. Tour operators and cruise lines operate without a great deal of oversight, even in the face of legal regulation and social pressure. Too often, a bit of excess oil is intentionally dumped overboard in our oceans or fragile environmental systems face the consequences of increasing numbers of affluent tourists. Climate change now hangs heavy over many destinations as ocean levels rise and glaciers melt. The ivory trade threatens the very existence of the planet’s largest mammals as thousands of elephants and rhinos are slaughtered for trinkets and pseudo medicines. There are still porters in Peru and Tanzania who continue to work under inhumane conditions. Men from the United States travel to Thailand, Guatemala, and central Europe for encounters with underage victims of the sex trade. As a travel professional, you can ensure your clients are informed of these problems, are aware of the issues involved, the countermeasures, and the travel industry’s responsibility for negating each.
In many cases, the real cost of the environmental impact is “off-balance-sheet” – absorbed by the environment rather than by the traveler. The cumulative effects often show in places where we least want to observe the impact of humanity. But it is not only the environment per se that bears the brunt of tourism’s numbers. Trafficking in human slavery, the exploitation of animals, and of cheap labor are all intersected at some point by our profession.
These are not esoteric causes, but problems at the heart of some of the planet’s most correctable pathologies. Some of the key points worth noting:
- While consumers believe travel service suppliers should be good stewards of their environment, over half (54%) also believe that individuals themselves have the greatest responsibility for preserving and protecting the environment.
- Six out of ten (58%) travelers say they believe that environmental programs by travel service suppliers could have a positive effect on the environment.
- The majority (51%) of consumers will continue to patronize “green” travel service suppliers regardless of an economic downturn. In fact, nearly half (48%) of travelers say that continuing to support environmentally-responsible travel service suppliers is a necessity, even in an economic downturn.
- Less than one-third (29%) say it is easy to find out about environmental policies and initiatives of travel service suppliers
These key findings hold the promise of gradual evolution to a more sustainable travel industry. Travel professionals can be an important catalyst in the transformation of our industry from a 19th-century model to a 21st-century ideal. If fewer than one-third of travelers find it easy to obtain information on sustainable travel, there is a role for the socially conscious travel consultant to play.
Many might argue travel is itself a part of the problem. The footprint of tourism is heavy and deep and our impact on some very fragile environments is significant. Yet, it is balanced by the opportunity for millions of people to acquaint themselves with new cultures, new ways of thinking, an expanded vision of being a world citizen. We can only hope. We can certainly do our part in playing a positive role to offset the negative influences of travel and tourism.
Collectively, our profession touches millions of people each year. Pick a good cause. Educate yourself. Pass along just a small bit of information to your clients each and every time you engage in a travel planning effort. Help to make us all better world citizens. Make sustainable travel an issue. Because it is. The evidence indicates your clients want this type of information. Who better to provide it than a travel professional?
We will not always get second chances. Somewhere, a canary just lost its wings.