There is a lot of talk of the new normal in travel. How we are all going to be sustainable, savvy and sensitive when we are allowed out of our cages again. I have always believed that sustainability is normal in tourism, and so this isn’t new for me. It isn’t new for the following sustainable tourism companies either, who have been flying the fantastic flag of fair and fun tourism for many years.
So, if you are revving up to travel again but want to not only keep things responsible but also remote, here are some beauties in my book. These ten sustainable tourism companies are led by pioneering people who will look after you, your loved ones, their own communities and environments. I don’t like top ten type round ups, because ranking leaders like this is just nonsense, so they’re in alphabetical order.
‘Responsible tourism? Oh please. Does that mean not dropping your litter as you walk through the rainforest?’ was the scathing reaction of a colleague when I told her that I was taking on an MSc in Responsible Tourism Management over a decade ago. I tried somewhat pathetically to defend my tiny corner. Then, a few years later, an award-winning travel writer said loudly in my direction at the ABTA convention,”I am so tired all of this f***king eco shit” which was met with a round of back patting and communal cackling from his peers. By then, I had learned to smile politely and walk on. But oh, how they laughed.
Any of us working in sustainable tourism have heard of the fine work of The Travel Foundation (TF) over the last decade. However, the TF still isn’t known by most travellers. Their Travel Lottery is a genius initiative to get tourists who are passionate to protect the destinations they love waking up to the work of the TF. WhatTF? – you’re brilliant.
Tickets are now on sale for this first ever Travel Lottery in the UK, whereby holiday makers have a chance to win prizes while raising vital funds for carefully monitored, community led sustainable tourism projects. Tickets cost £2 and the first draw is at the end of March. Each ticket is a chance to win back the cost of their holiday in the form of a cash prize of up to £5,000. Prize draws are monthly, with a guaranteed cash prize of at least £1,000 given away in each draw.
The lottery is the first of its kind for the travel industry, creating a unified way of fundraising that protects and invests in communities and natural environments in popular holiday destinations; from Cyprus to St Lucia and from Turkey to Thailand. Customers will be able to buy tickets from travel agents and other companies when they book holidays and buy related products and services. Launch partners Midcounties Cooperative Travel and Holiday Extras will sell tickets for the first draw, and many more travel companies are expected to join them in the coming months. The aim is to sell at least 100,000 tickets and raise more than £50,000 for good causes in the first year.
Customers can also buy tickets directly from www.thetravellottery.co.uk, either for a single draw or by signing up to play regularly. At least 50 pence from each ticket goes to projects run by The Travel Foundation, with a focus on work that will sustain the local environment, wildlife, history and culture. These projects also help to tackle poverty by creating opportunities for local people to benefit from tourism. These projects include: helping beach operators in Kenya earn a better living from tourism and provide hassle-free tours for holidaymakers to enjoy; finding new ways to help local businesses grow and thrive alongside all-inclusive hotels in Cyprus; supporting local communities in Jamaica and Turkey to create great tourism experiences whilst protecting the marine environment; Continuing to develop the business skills of Mayan women in Mexico so they can supply locally-produced honey products to hotels.
I can stand by the projects of The Travel Foundation, as I wrote one of my first travel articles about their superb work to stop the exploitation of the Maasai in Kenya a few years ago. You can read more about that trip here, but watch the progress made by the villages, with the help of The Travel Foundation , since then in the video below. Watching these Massai elders, teacher and children, with whom I spent precious time, now growing their own sustainable tourism products is what gives me faith in this mad maelstrom of mass tourism.
Well done The Travel Foundation for making a new mark on the consumer side of the tourism industry, creating a social media-friendly way to share sustainable tourism stories and carrying the responsible tourism movement forward another good few steps.
“They don’t like tourists in Trinidad, you know, but I’m sure it’ll be interesting anyway” a neighbouring passenger told me as he got off the London to Trinidad flight at its brief stopover in Tobago. It left me somewhat speechless as I waited for the plane to prepare for take-off again to my final destination of Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital. A few hours later I was sitting in a press conference with the Minister of Tourism for Trinidad and Tobago, and it was tempting to share this exchange with him, but I thought it might be best to go gently with four more days of the 14th Annual Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development (April 2013) still to go.
The Honourable Stephen Cadiz is unlike many other tourism ministers, relaxed, in an open neck white linen shirt, personable, informal, and refreshingly honest about the challenges ahead in putting Trinidad on the tourist map. He confirmed what was immediately evident en route from the airport to the impressive Hyatt Regency Hotel, located on the water’s edge of Port of Spain. Trinidad is an industrial nation, with an economy based on years of exploiting oil and gas reserves. As we looked out at the bay, peppered with freight ships, Cadiz gave us the facts: “55,000 people are engaged in the manufacturing industry here, accounting for $1billion GDP. However, that accounts for only 5% of employment. And, at the moment, tourism still only provides 6% of GDP in Trinidad and Tobago.” He also stressed that, unlike other Caribbean countries, all inclusive enclave tourism is not the right direction for Trinidad, stating that “all-inclusive enclave can’t be sustainable. In Trinidad and Tobago 70 cents of the tourism Dollar remains on our islands. The average for the Caribbean is 55cents, some territories as bad as 10 cents. I want to be able to go to 80 cents on the dollar. Now you are talking true sustainability. And you can’t do that with the all-inclusive enclaves”.
Cadiz admitted that the time had come to move away from a non-renewable energy dependent economy and that, to date, their natural and cultural heritage reserves remain unexploited for tourism purposes. “At the moment, Tobago is our leisure market destination”, continued Cadiz “as a place for just chillin’ and sittin’ down on the beach. Then twenty miles away is this crazy place called Trinidad. We have our Carnival, of course, but now we have to start creating, branding and marketing an all- year-round product”.
When questioned about the tourism product potential in Trinidad, Cadiz referred to the ecotourism opportunities in the North, with hiking, waterfalls, cocoa plantations and fecund turtle nesting beaches. The South of the island is home to the 150 acre La Brea pitch lake, not your traditional tourist attraction, admittedly, but fascinating to many, as the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world. The East coast boasts acres of coconut plantations and is home to a well-integrated cultural mix of Hindus and Catholics. From this, the country boasts a rich history of food, music and ritual which tourists relish every year at Carnival, but are not valued as fine, experiential products for the rest of the year. “Local people tell me that Trinidad can never build a tourism industry”, says Cadiz, “but I say absolutely we can. People have no idea of what they have here and that tourists want to see it. It’s about taking what we do naturally every day and making a tourism product out of it. This is where we have missed the boat”.
Over the next few days at the Conference, it was clear that Trinidad has not missed the boat, however, but was just starting to build it. An evening at the Phase 11 Panyard, home to the reigning champion of the island’s annual Panorama competition for steel pans, was our first immersion in community culture and tourism. This is just one of many community panyards throughout Trinidad, home of the steel pan, and it is impossible not to be totally enthralled by the beat of the island’s home grown sound and national instrument. Their rendition of Moon River, the smell of Doubles stalls wafting through the air, washed down with a Rum and LLB (Lemon and Lime and home-grown Angostura Bitters) cocktail, was the perfect cultural cocktail for any visitor to this welcoming neighbourhood. Closely followed by calypso performer, whose ingenious improvised song about sustainable tourism got the message across quicker than any Powerpoint or pie chart. I suggested to Minister Cadiz that he bring him to the World Travel Market. After all, Trinidad and Tobago is the home of Calypso, and if anything can make sustainability sexy, this Calypsonian can.
Trinidad and Tobago’s natural heritage is at its most harmonious on the turtle nesting beaches, however. Conservation and protection of these precious areas is currently in the hands of Turtle Village Trust, (TVT) an NGO specialising in turtle conservation. TVT acts as an umbrella group for all the community turtle conservation projects that have developed in Trinidad and Tobago over the last twenty years. Its Executive Director Dr. Allan Bachan presented at the Conference and described his organisation as “a unique model, where private, public sector and communities have come together to expand in the region. A region which has the highest number of sea turtles in the Western hemisphere”.
Turtle beaches have gone from having 2500 visitors in 2000 to over 21000 visitors today, and you can only visit them with a guide working for the Trust during the turtle season. During that time 80% of Trinidad and Tobago’s villagers are employed in turtle conservation and tourism. “But we need to balance development and conservation of national resources”, Bachan added, something which was more than evident at Matura Beach, which I visited a couple of days later. It was a daytime visit, and so there was no sign of the hundred or so leatherbacks which had visited this seven mile sandy stretch the night before. At Matura the beach is patrolled and protected by one of TVT’s community organisations, Nature Seekers and, under the wonderful guidance of Francis Superville (listen to my quick chat with him here) who has seen this community change from poachers to protectors over the last generation, we saw turtle trails and learned about their reforestation programme which ensures the sustainability of these swathes of Galba, Olivier and Lay Lay trees, to name but a few, which line the white sands of this luscious northern coastline.
What doesn’t line the sands in Trinidad and Tobago, however, is evidence of protection at government level. How much longer can local communities, paid by funds raised by an NGO from organisations like BP (ironically) be expected to work in good faith and for little money, just for the love of it? Matura Beach, as well as many others, has Environmental Sensitive Area status, but as yet there is no National Park in Trinidad or Tobago. This must surely be the first step in putting real faith into its sustainable tourism product, enabling not only a future for its flora and fauna, but a guaranteed income for those who have worked round the clock, and with little investment, to keep the resources alive to date.
When I asked Minister Cadiz when Trinidad and Tobago might see a sustainable tourism policy put in place at government level, he said that a draft was due to go to stakeholders for consultation. I couldn’t help wondering if the likes of Francis at Matura Beach, Christiana Gabin, our seventy year old guide at the Tobago Cocoa Plantation, Kelly and Carl Fitzjames at Brasso Seco Paria Eco Community, Elton Pouchet of In Joy Tours who organised our memorable panyard excursion, Andrew Welch of Banwari Experience which leads tours crossing all cultural aspects of Trinidad and Tobago, Courtenay Rooks who not only leads hiking tours to Paria Springs but is also President of Trinidad and Tobago’s Tour Operators Association were on that list of stakeholders. I certainly hope so, because although none of these was presenting Powerpoints to the hundreds of international delegates visiting their country, they are all making their mark on the ground, for sure.
There is no question, however, that when chatting to these all these individuals working in Trinidad’s nascent tourism industry, be it at government or grassroots, there is a genuine commitment to sustainability. And, as for liking tourists, well, let’s look at their national food as the perfect analogy. Because just like the famous Double, Trinidadians wrapped us up tight in a warm and spicy cocoon of deliciousness for a few days, leaving a lingering taste and a thirst for more. And as long as the environmental and tourism authorities protect and value the ingredients and the chefs, this country will be cooking up an a la carte menu of locally produced sustainable and quality tourism products which will bring a smile to every guest’s face.
But will it make the hosts smile too? Can we make people actually like tourists? Tourism Minister Stephen Cadiz summed it up perfectly, saying “I don’t have to teach people how to smile here. We do it naturally. One of the traits that Trinidad has is that we understand what it is to laugh at our own selves. We do that very easily….that is half the fight in building a tourism business – we, as a people, are who we are. What we don’t understand, is the value of what we have. Because that is what the real traveller wants to see. And that is what I am trying to explain to Trinidad and Tobago. Be natural.” For a full version of Catherine’s one to one interview with Minister Cadiz, click on Youtube screen below.