The pandemic has revealed the power of travel, for better and for worse. Can agents use this to usher in a new era of conscious travel?

World of good

We’re more than 20 months into the pandemic and there is a mixed view of how this seismic event will affect travel in the long term. However, a recurring theme pops up in every discussion about travel trends, and that is building travel back ‘better’.

The growth in conscious travel – travel that is mindful of its impact on the planet and its communities – is not a new concept, but one built around long-indicated consumer demand.  At this November’s  ABTA Travel Convention, the organisation’s Chief Executive, Mark Tanzer, opened the event by talking about the challenges of building back customer confidence post-Covid, saying: “Part of that confidence is the confidence to travel with a good conscience.” 

But according to a Travel Intelligence Report commissioned by representation company Lotus this September, there isn’t much consumer demand. Its survey showed fewer than 10% of the UK population ask for sustainable travel options, just four per cent have compensated their CO2 emissions and six per cent have chosen eco-friendly accommodation if it cost more. 

Changing attitudes

G Adventures’ recent research begs to differ and shows that 33% of UK travellers are more focused on travelling responsibly now than before the pandemic. 

“Mindsets are shifting and the pandemic has given travellers time to rethink their travel decisions,” says the operator’s Managing Director, Brian Young.

There is no denying that the travel hiatus has produced hard evidence of the negative impact travel can have on the environment. 

“We all saw the headlines about marine life returning to Venice and people in India seeing the Himalayas for the first time thanks to the lockdown easing pollution,” says Zina Bencheikh, EMEA Managing Director for Intrepid Travel. 

The shutdown also highlighted the good that travel can do. 

Giles Hawke, CEO of Cosmos, points out: “As tourism begins again it is great to hear the responses from our local partners, who are finally seeing their livelihoods restarting. We can really see the importance of tourist money in these destinations.”

Melissa Tilling, CEO of not-for-profit travel agency Charitable Travel, thinks that agents have a professional responsibility to champion conscious travel. 

“Ultimately, it’s the customer’s decision as to how they holiday but it’s now an agent’s job to present responsible options,” she says. 

“It’s also a great way to demonstrate knowledge and expertise.”

Intrepid’s Bencheikh agrees. “Agents are often the first point of contact for the customer so it’s important that they are primed and ready to talk about this topic in an informed and helpful way,” she says. 

Positive points

But, as Young points out: “No one wants to feel like they are being preached to, or made to feel bad about their holiday choices.” He thinks that drawing on the positives of travel can help. 

“Travellers usually book an adventure based on the destination or type of holiday they want, but when they are there meeting locals and seeing the positive impact of their trip, they become more engaged with the idea of responsible travel.”

Bencheikh recommends focusing on social sustainability too. “Talking to customers about how they can make sure their trip benefits local communities is a good place to start,” she says. “And using a local guide, eating in local restaurants, even hopping on public transport, are all fantastic ways to get under the skin of a destination.”

If a client isn’t set on a destination, Tilling agrees with steering them to ones in the developing world, where tourism can be a significant force for good, or those that rely on it and have been decimated by Covid-19. 

The World Bank’s TCdata360 database released last year listed the Maldives as the country most reliant on tourism, which  generates 75.1% of GDP and creates 36.7% of jobs. The top 50 most dependent countries included many island nations in the Indian Ocean, Caribbean, Pacific and even the Mediterranean, but there’s no denying the list misses out many needy countries.

Spread the love

Tilling also recommends suggesting secondary destinations to spread the benefits of tourism. 

“Even close to home there are less developed countries.  Alongside Greece you could suggest its less-developed neighbour Albania,” she explains. “And within developed countries there are less-visited resorts or cities that could benefit from tourist money. Be bold with options and aware of where you can make a difference.” 

G Adventures’ Young points out that responsible travel is often equated to ‘roughing it’, but it’s important to show that this is far from the truth. 

Even if a client is set on visiting a developed and popular destination, bookings can still make a difference – by seeking out hotels with sustainable credentials, for example. Preferred Hotels’ Beyond Green collection, launched last year, only includes properties that meet over 50 sustainability indicators.

Or book hotels that are locally owned. “Swapping large all-inclusives for small, family-run hotels doesn’t mean you won’t have a great room,” says Young. He points out that 600 of G Adventures’ tours are audited using a ‘Ripple Score’, which shows the percentage of money that goes directly to locally-owned businesses. “Across all trips we average 93, meaning 93% of all money spent on tours goes into the hands of local people,” he adds.

Agents can also book tours that visit isolated or marginalised communities. Intrepid Travel teamed up with Nepal’s World Wildlife Fund to create a village-run community of homestays and activities for travellers in the Madi Valley.  “The project creates jobs, generates income, and empowers local people, particularly women, economically, socially and personally,” says Bencheikh.

Look for the good

There are many travel companies offering less obviously sustainable product but supporting charities, championing causes or making an effort to be more sustainable.   

Indeed, agents can always offer the chance to donate to a charity with each booking. 

Tilling points out that The Charitable Travel Fund helps tourism communities in need, with money currently going to places like Cambodia, where Covid-19 caused a 99% decline in international tourism.  

Cosmos recently launched its Lighthouse Project, focused on ensuring holidays have a positive impact on people, the planet and places. Hawke summarises with a quote: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”