While a new study shows responsible tourism gaining momentum among consumers and suppliers, selling it can pose challenges for even the most dedicated agents.
That’s the experience of two sustainability-minded Colorado travel sellers, who say helping their clients to travel responsibly requires patience, subtlety and plenty of homework on suppliers and destinations.
They also say the results can be deeply satisfying – and that travel sellers can play an important role in advancing responsible tourism, a term that encompasses everything from green practices to voluntourism.
The good news for clients with an interest in responsible tourism is that their options are growing, according to a study from the Center for Responsible Travel. It reports that the travel industry is finding that sustainability is “good for the economic bottom line.” (See sidebar.)
Qualify clients carefully
While clients may like the idea of responsible tourism, the agent needs to ask a lot of questions to determine how just big a priority it is and what experiences are right for them, said Peggy Lichter, COE (chief of everything) for Wiser World Travel in Boulder.
“You need to ask things like how important sustainability is to them, what level are you looking for, do you care if the tour operator contributes to a carbon offset program or if suppliers conserve energy and recycle,” she said.
Don’t preach – or sacrifice comfort
While she likes to steer clients toward sustainable practices, it’s important to not come on too strong, advised Lichter, a former corporate trainer who was inspired to start her agency after staying at an eco-lodge in New Zealand in 2006.
“You have to be careful not to turn people off. Don’t preach.”
Even clients who want to engage in volunteer activities and who request eco-friendly lodgings rarely are willing to sacrifice comfort, she noted.
“One couple was interested in helping with leatherback turtle restoration in Costa Rica. But when they discovered that the station just had dorm-style accommodations, it didn’t happen,” she said. “If the situation isn’t comfortable, they won’t go for it.”
Fortunately, responsible travel does not require barebones travel, Lichter said. “Some of the eco-lodges are very comfortable. You can do your volunteering in luxury.”
Challenges with suppliers
Lichter, who frequently arranges trips for high school and alumni groups, makes it a priority to support tour operators and other suppliers that are locally based and have a sustainable focus. However, it’s not always easy, she said.
She encountered this recently when booking a group tour with a small Swedish operator that is highly regarded for its sustainability practices. “The itinerary was all set, but everything fell apart when we found they did not have the liability insurance the group required,” she said. “It can be hard to support the little guys.”
Lichter also noted that while many suppliers profess on their websites or in marketing materials to follow sustainable practices, the truth can be difficult to determine.
“Companies can say anything they want – but is it true? There is a lot of abuse of the terms surrounding responsible travel,” said Lichter.
Susan Sparks of Aspen-based Points of Interest Travel said that while most of her clients support the idea of responsible tourism, they don’t usually ask about it when planning a trip. “Their interest is there, but it’s passive,” said Sparks, an affiliate of Brownell Travel.
“My clientele is very concerned with the ecological balance, and they generally lead their lives in an eco-friendly way, but they aren’t saying they want hotels with a high level of environmental certification.”
Yet when she steers clients toward a hotel with sustainability features, they appreciate it, she said. “Clients may not choose a hotel because it has a beehive on the roof or a chef’s garden, but they are delighted when they find it.”
Luxury that’s eco-friendly
Like Lichter, Sparks noted that a hotel can be both luxurious and eco-friendly. In fact, environmental practices can contribute to comfort, she said.
“I recently stayed at the Mandarin Oriental in Paris, which has very high environmental standards, including lights that automatically dim and triple-paned windows,” she said. “I didn’t immediately think about the windows from an energy-saving point of view, but I did notice that they kept the room nice and quiet.”
Boding well for responsible tourism is the fact that clients are increasingly seeking authentic experiences, according to both Sparks and Lichter.
“Instead of just observing things, people really want to experience where they are going,” Lichter said, adding that mass communication has boosted awareness among clients that they are living in a global community.
“My clients don’t want to go somewhere to just sit on the beach – they want to experience the local culture and see how people live,” Sparks said. “When this happens, they are often inspired to do something that makes a difference.”
In one example, a client visiting Cambodia was inspired to donate a well to a local family in a water-deprived area. “After she got home, she decided to dedicate part of her law practice to studying how communities in Cambodia can get improved water,” Sparks said.
Opening the door
In some cases, Sparks has facilitated clients’ philanthropic efforts. “One client made a donation to the tour guide so his village in Cambodia could receive a water pump. It happened because I told him about the opportunity to do this.”
She believes that travel agents have the responsibility to “open the door” for clients who want to leave something positive behind but may not have thought of it or know how to go about it.
“Travel pros have the ability to facilitate responsible change,” she said. “They can help Third World destinations have a better standard of living without destroying their culture.”