Thoughts on Sustainable Travel

After a couple of years on the periphery of the travel industry, last October’s second annual Travel + Social Good Summit inspired me to jump back in with both feet. As an indie solo traveler for most of my life, my instinct has always been to avoid the consumption-orientation of a lot of tourism. But the couple-hundred travel professionals at the Summit showed a level of enthusiastic  participation normally absent from regular, marketing-heavy travel events.

I had found my people.

Since then I’ve become a co-founder, with a small gaggle of others, of the New York chapter of Travel + Social Good – one of about a half-dozen other charter chapters worldwide. Our mission is “Building a community and sharing stories to inspire change in the way we travel.” In short, our goal is deliberately yet infuriatingly (at least for me) vague. But the idea is to attack the problem from both sides, targeting travel professionals but also using media to change travelers themselves.

(Though really, on this second point, we’re just riding the wave of what Millennials appear to want, and also what their Gen-X elders once wanted. At least we said we did….and I think we still do. But perhaps I’m an outlier, speaking only for myself. )

Anyway. Specifically, our chapter wants to take advantage of our location in the US media hub to try to steer the conversation in media away from their standard service pieces (10 best beaches in Bonaire!) toward a more authentic narrative, including stories of social good in travel. We’re going to do this not by starting a new media company (AFAR and others have already done so) but to sort of pitch and publicize stories that groove on what we’re saying.

So what the hell do we mean by social good?

Personally, I think “social good” in travel has some distinct but overlapping facets:

  1. Offerings that are an extension of a traveler’s personal social responsibility already practiced in everyday life. This means eco-friendly options for hotels and tours (e.g. bike instead of bus, hanging towels instead of getting new ones every day, etc.), filtering local water instead of buying bottles, and other eco-sustainable choices.
  1. Sustainable offerings specifically related to travel: Destinations that practice sustainable tourism development (e.g. Costa Rica); encouraging travelers to eat & stay at locally-owned establishments; tour operators that respect/support rather than exploit/destroy local culture, custom, and wildlife; giving travelers the chance to buy carbon offsets for flights; and so on.
  1. Teach tourists how to be a “good” traveler (the don’t-be-an-asshole rule): Asking before taking photos of people, respecting local customs and mores (e.g. covering shoulders and/or hair in certain Muslim countries/districts); being open to trying new food, drinks and experiences; learning a word or two in the local language; not handing out candy/other stuff directly to kids – but most importantly, actively and opening engaging with the local population as humans.
  1. Actively engaging in some specific “for good” activity: e.g. donating supplies to a local school, volun-tourism (if a particular program has been proven effective/useful – I tend to be deeply skeptical), taking part in beach cleanups and similar activities…
  1. On the provider side, “social good” encompasses not only the operators used as examples above but also local governments and tourism development operations, which can be done in a sustainable manner…or not. Connected to this is the notion that a local government can choose to exploit resources not for tourism, but for other economic benefit (e.g. dynamite fishing or trawling vs. snorkel/scuba tours, cutting down forests vs. nature tours or birdwatching, etc.).

Tying all this together is the idea of tourism diplomacy: the nature of exchange between responsible travelers and people at their destination. If travel is done “well,” then both sides come away with an authentic, personal understanding (both positive and negative) of each other. Based on my personal experiences, a lot of good for the global society can come from these ad-hoc exchanges.