Responsible Tourism a win win at World Travel Market 2012

I have just come back from the annual expedition to the World Travel Market in London, one of the biggest travel trade events in the world with countries selling their treasured possessions, be they natural, cultural or unapologetically artificial, to those who want to buy. It is an overwhelming event, a place where our long awaited holiday or wanderlust wishlist becomes a mere ‘product’, or something which ‘adds value’ to a ‘destination’. It highlights the fact that tourism is a massive industry, still one of the biggest in the world. An industry where people, who for me are central to a truly responsible and fair tourism venture, are referred to as stakeholders. Which sounds a bit like ‘spear carriers’ on stage – Irrelevant players who stand at the back and only move when told to.

There is at least one event at the World Travel Market where people are put centre stage –  World Responsible Tourism Day with its affiliated Responsible Tourism Awards. Set up in 2004 by it started off in a quiet corner of this vast market place, quietly handing out Responsible Tourism Awards to people who were doing extraordinary work on the fringes. It is now a rock ‘n roll event, with flashing lights and music, major international sponsors for each category, including Virgin Holidays as its key sponsor.  One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the focus on individual achievement.

The Awards are divided into categories, and the nature of the award winners varies greatly, from slums to sumptuous resorts. Do also check out those who were highly commended, because their stories are ones which will get your feet itching and hopefully travelling in an increasingly responsible way.  Because the minute I walk out of the Awards and back into the mainstream marketing and bartering of travel products all around, the majority of which still have no intention of putting ethics before profits, I realise this effort to create change is one worth celebrating through all our travel choices. Choices which also, hopefully, provide you with the most fulfilling and exciting holidays ever.

Tours in the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, by Reality Tours wins overall Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Award

Best for poverty reduction (and Overall Winner)

Winner: Reality Tours and Travel, Mumbai, India

As well as winning this category, Reality Tours and Travel won the Overall Award for Responsible Tourism at the awards this year, to highlight the huge achievements of working in this difficult and controversial area of tourism. Established in 2005, they offer city and village tours in Mumbai and beyond, and this Award is for their educational Dharavi Slum Tours. Aware that many have mixed feelings about slum tours, Reality Tours aims to take an educational look at the strengths, opportunities, challenges and issues of life in the Dharavi community.

They donate 80% of post-tax profits to their sister NGO, Reality Gives. Reality Gives provides educational programmes for residents of Dharavi, and supports a number of micro-enterprise and community initiatives including sports, beekeeping, and youth empowerment programmes.

Among the success stories the company is able to lay claim to is that of Kaveri, who participated in their Youth Empowerment Program in 2011. A resident of Dharavi all her life, she had been a school drop-out. Although she had been unable to afford the course deposit of Rs500, which is charged to ensure attendance and reimbursed upon successful completion of the programme, Krishna, Reality’s co-Founder paid Kaveri’s deposit as he believed in her enthusiasm and willingness to succeed. In May of this year Kaveri joined Youth Career Initiative’s Hotel Management Programme and is now training at the Four Seasons in Mumbai.

Best accommodation for local communities

Winner: Soria Moria Boutique Hotel, Siem Riep near Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Soria Moria Boutique Hotel is named after the Norwegian fairytale Soria Moria Castle, which is often interpreted as being about individual paths to perfect happiness. For its employees, fairytales can come true, as its exemplary employee training programme supports staff from entry level jobs right up to management positions. Which may seem like the norm to me or you, but is still worryingly rare in tourism.  For example, General Manager Sam Sokha started out as a dishwasher at Norwegian owner Kristin Holdø Hansen’s first guesthouse. The only English she knew was how to introduce herself. With the support of the Soria Moria Employee Elevator programme she is now studying for her Masters in Business Administration (MBA). All the hotel’s employees are local, including management positions, and by their innovative Employee Ownership Scheme they have also  become partners and majority owners in the business with 51% of the shares.

Highly Commended:
La Villa Bethany (India)
Bulungula Lodge (South Africa)

Best accommodation for the environment   

Winner: Song Saa Private Island , Cambodia

Located in the Koh Rong archipelago in Cambodia, the luxurious Song Saa Private Island has 27 stunning villas that deliver on style, intimacy and picture perfect surroundings. Beauty isn’t just skin deep at Song Saa though, as its thorough and holistic approach to conservation sets it apart. Song Saa was instrumental in the foundation of Cambodia’s first marine reserve, they have created artificial reef structures to support the rehabilitation of coral, and built nestboxes to encourage hornbill conservation. Their Sala Song Saa School provides environmental and agricultural education for local people and youth training on organic soil husbandry.

Highly commended:
Bohinj Park Eco Hotel, Slovenia
Maliba Mountain Lodge, Lesotho

Best carbon reduction initiative

Winner: Sawadee Reizen

The Dutch small group adventure tours company Sawadee Reizen has identified that changing to direct “point-to-point” flights is the most effective way of reducing the carbon footprint of trips, resulting in a reduction in carbon emissions by an average of 10%.

Highly commended:
Beechenhill Farm, UK (
ITC Sonar, India:

Best destination for conserving architectural heritage

Winner: St Kilda, Scotland 

The St Kilda islands were abandoned in 1930 by the remaining 36 islanders when life on St Kilda became unsustainable and the buildings rapidly fell into disrepair. Between 2008 and 2010 the National Trust for Scotland carried out a sympathetic restoration and you can still participate in this by joining one of their work parties in May and June, if you can face the eight hour boat journey from the Western Isles alone. Work party members get stuck into repairing stone walls, repairing turf roofs, clearing drains and repainting.

The judges saw the National Trust for Scotland’s work in St Kilda, the UK’s only mixed World Heritage site, important to both the cultural and natural heritage of the World, as a good example of the contribution which tourism can make to the maintenance of built cultural heritage in remote areas.

Highly Commended Responsible Tourism in Palestine Credit

Best engagement with people and cultures

Winner: South Nottingham College in Partnership with The Institute of Travel and Tourism of The Gambia 

About the winner: The South Nottingham College of Travel and Tourism curriculum team worked in partnership with local people to set up and run a vocational tourism education institute within the Gambia. This was staffed by Gambian students who were sponsored to study at the college in Nottingham, who subsequently returned to Gambia with the skills to train others.

Highly commended:
Uptuyu Adentures:
Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between People – The Siraj Center, Palestine:

Best for conservation of wildlife and habitats 

Winner: Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve, Chile

About the winner: Since 2000 the Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve has conserved over 100,000 hectares of Patagonian temperate rainforest. The owners have changed the way in which they, and the local community, secure a living from this large piece of Patagonian forest, moving from logging to conservation and sustainable tourism.

Best in a marine environment 

Winner: Moonraker Dolphin Swims, Australia

About the winner: Moonraker Dolphin Swims offer the opportunity to swim with wild Burranan Dolphins and Australian Fur Seals, whilst taking steps to ensure the dolphins do not become habituated and remain truly wild. Port Philip Bay in Victoria is one of Australia’s last remaining homes for this genetically unique family of dolphins. They are wholly committed to monitoring the populations and their health, as well as practising strict interaction rules.

Highly commended:
blue o two, UK:

Best in a mountain environment

Winner: 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking 

About the winner: Owned and run by the Chheti sisters, 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking train and employ women as high-altitude guides and porters, a break from tradition in the male-dominated Nepalese trekking industry. Employment means empowerment for women in the impoverished west of Nepal, their wages can lift whole families out of poverty and allow the women themselves to continue their education, a rare opportunity in a country where, according to UNESCO, just 2% of female school leavers go on to university.

Along with their sister organisation Empowering Women of Nepal (EWN) a local grassroots non-profit organization, they are working to gain gender equality, the elimination of child labour, peace and responsible economic development. The judges were impressed by their work to empower women and by their success in combining business and social goals.  So, if you are a woman trekker, and would love to have a woman guiding you, check them out. Their ethos is well summed up by the sisters who say “We do not bring stop watches in our back packs, we bring time… time to stop and smell the mountain flowers, watch the monkeys play, the eagles soar, time to really enjoy all the sights and sounds of a foreign land”. Go girls.

Highly commended:
EcoCamp Patagonia, Chile (

Three Sisters Adventure - Winners Best in Mountain Environment Photo:

Best in responsible transport

Joint winners: Big Lemon Bus Company, UK and Green Tomato Cars, UK and Australia

This year the judges decided to award two winners in this category, partly because there were a number of strong nominations this year, but also to reflect the importance of taking responsibility for reducing carbon emissions in all kinds of transport. Based in Brighton in UK, all of the Big Lemon Bus Company’s vehicles run on biodiesel from locally-sourced waste cooking oil. And London and Sydney-based Green Tomato Cars use low emitting vehicles, so customers can be confident that they are getting from A to B in the greenest way possible short of using public transport, cycling or walking.

Highly commended:
Grand Canyon Railway: (
The New Forest Tour (

Best innovation 

Winner: The Nature Observatorio Amazing Treehouse, Costa Rica

The Nature Observatorio Amazing Treehouse is suspended in the canopy of a Nispero tree, 25m above the forest floor. The Treehouse is, according to designer and developer Peter Garcar,  just a guest of the tree for 5 to 7 years, and great care is taken to ensure that when the tree house is removed there will be no trace of it ever having been there. Income from paying guests is used to fund the purchase further forest, which is placed under protection. Peter hopes to take the concept worldwide to demonstrate that a living tree is more valuable than a dead one. The judges were particularly interested in the innovative fractional ownership, whereby an additional  500 square metres of forest is set aside on behalf of every tourist booking a week over 5 years.

Best tour operator for promoting responsible tourism 

Winner: Explore 

For Explore, Responsible Tourism is a commercial decision, not just an ethical one. By operating responsibly they believe their customers will have a better experience. The judges were impressed by how they engage travellers in their Responsible Tourism approach. Their Responsible Tourism pages give information to customers about how they can make their trips more responsible both before and during their trip, as well as when they return home and their multi-award winning status show that they certainly practice what they preach.

Highly commended:
Biosphere Expeditions:

Best in responsible tourism writing

Winner: Emma Thomson for At Home With the Himba, pubished in Wanderlust Magazine 

The judges particularly liked Emma Thomson’s account of her homestay with the Himba and the makeover she had while dressed as a Himba woman. A colourful and engaging piece without being preachy, the article explains why this more responsible form of tourism makes such a better tourist experience. On the day before she leaves she is ogled by some tourists, and to quote from her article “for a brief moment, I catch a glimpse of life on the other side of the fence.”

Highly commended:
In Search of an Alternative Palestine by Gail Simmons 
Salt of the Earth by Caroline Eden

Best volunteering organisation

Winner: Elephant Human Relations Aid 

Elephant Human Relations Aid focuses its activities on the conflict between the desert elephants of Namibia and local communities, caused by elephants damaging vital water points. Their short-term volunteer teams strengthen water points so they can be used by both humans and elephants without getting damaged.



The people who created the beautiful Bivouac, Yorkshire

A Bivouac shack Photo: The Bivouac

I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about the people I meet in this field of ‘responsible tourism’, and how sometimes, it is the they who make us want to visit a place. Their stories, their commitment, their love of a region. So, let me introduce you to Sam and Beth Hardwick, the owners of Bivouac, one of the most stunning campsites in the UK , located in Yorkshire. I don’t want to put it in the ‘glamping’ box because it is something more than this somehow. As a result of my chatting with the Hardwicks, I invited Beth to write a guest blog for me, to share her story of how The Bivouac was born. Because I do firmly believe that it is the people who make the place. Over to Beth….with thanks.

“Sam and I worked long hours during our dating period. I had my own business and he worked in the city. We decided that when we got married we’d quit our jobs and go traveling together for some proper revaluation time. We backpacked around the world talking the whole time about what we believed in; what made us who we are; what inspired us; how we wanted to live; what we were good at and no so good at. Some key themes came from this such as community, faith, family, sustainability, simplicity and nature. There was a lot more talking … and then Bivouac fell out.

So we came home, rented out our house and converted a garden shed to live in whilst we began building the dream.  It was a very long up and down journey through finding land, gaining planning permission, getting a government grant and raising a family all at once. The initial plan was that this Bivouac adventure would add massive value to our family, but at times we felt we had lost that ability as our family life got more disjointed as we got further in. But now, even though we have to work really hard, this was the best thing for family life.

Bivouac Interior Photo: Bivouac

Family life means a great deal to us. Bivouac is a place where we want family life and spending quality time together to be inspired again and time and space is given to just being together, in the outdoors, in our activities or cozy by the fire.

We have had our own family torn in bits with the death of our third daughter Florie Briah. She caught a nasty virus and was not old enough to fight it and she died from the damage to her heart that it caused. This happened just as the thirty or forty guys arrived on site to build the project with us. It was like living in a nightmare which couldn’t stop or slow down. We had folk living with us, needing us each day, when all you want to do is hide and catch breath. But, the flip side of this is that everything we believed we were building, community, and ethos of family and friendship, transparency, creativity – it all came into play in that season and I knew then, no matter how hard things were – Bivouac had been birthed. In Florence’s memory we are raising money to build a natural play park here on site. Free to use and designed for families to play, laugh, relax and reconnect.

We have Martha Willow 4, Elsie Myla coming up 3, full of life, creative and amazing company. We are a long way off where we hope to be, but this place is something special and I am so very privileged to have time here with my family, building something for other folk and us to all enjoy and take a part in. Bringing back something about life which might get missed far too often”.

Photo copyright: Bivouac

For more details on Bivouac, see

A greener shade of Wight

shack3Gone are the purple rinses, the Isle of Wight is the new black. Or should I say green. It surfs, it sculpts, it sings, and it’s shouts sustainability.  It was also the guts of a hundred quid to go there by car ferry on the weekend I wanted to travel, which certainly encouraged me to go green. It was cheaper to travel by train from London with a family railcard, and so began our pickings from a rich menu of green offerings on the Isle of Wight.    It even has a green tourism website with endless suggestions on how to enjoy this beautiful island without destroying what it has to offer.  A website which adds ‘chilling’ to its list of activities wins my green vote straight away and so we started as we meant to go on.


I booked a cute little beach shack a few miles from Cowes, booked bike hire through a company which delivers and collects wherever you want, in this case at the ferry terminal, studied cycle maps into the early hours and obsessed over five day weather forecasts.  One small backpack each, no packing the car with ‘stuff’, no stopping on the M25 to adjust our dodgy bike carrier, and no arguments over directions.  So far so chill.  Two and a half hours after leaving home, we were lashing across the Solent on the Red Funnel high speed jet. This is not the cheapest option, but it is only a twenty minute crossing and worth the look on my children’s faces as we took off. It was so fast, I was slightly concerned it wasn’t going to stop.  But we settled gently into the quay at West Cowes, where John, the bike guy, gave us our bikes and took our luggage, to be dropped to us later at the shack.  The Island is cyclist heaven. Just enough hills to push yourself, or your bike and tagged on four year old in my case, varied landscapes of coast, forests and estuarine marshes.  We took the coast road from Cowes, through Gurnard, up quite a few steep hills and, about forty five minutes later, down a dusty track to the sea, and our shack. dscf0169


The shack is a gloriously simple wooden summer house, painted in pastel blue and white, overlooking a buttercup filled meadow dipping down to a quiet sandy beach.  The children leapt onto the swingseat hanging from an oak tree in the garden and I had to blink twice to check I was not on the set of a Boden photo shoot.  Our dusty backpacks and sweaty trainers suddenly looked out of place among the collection of carefully chosen vintage bric a brac and funky fifties furniture. . But Helen, the owner with the enviable designer eye, is not precious about her vision – it is a place for having good old fashioned ‘Enid Blyton’ fun.  She leaves antique board games, binoculars and even a copy of the Famous Five itself, for sticky sandy hands to explore. With its solar powered lighting, no electricity, wood burning stove amply supplied with driftwood, composter, recycling, and environmentally friendly cleaning products provided, this ticks many of the green boxes. And the solar powered mobile charger is inspired.


A pre-ordered hamper of Island goodies awaited the hungry cyclists, enabling us to prepare a gastronomic evening picnic watching the sunset over the bay.  The menu included locally made organic pasta served with the Island Garlic Farm’s Confit de Tomates.  To drink, a chilled rosé from Rossiters Vineyard, and local apple juice.  The cheese course was a coup.  A blue cheese from the Isle of Wight cheese company which was recently awarded the Fortnum & Mason Best English cheese award 2007.  We finished off with cake and biscuits baked only a few miles away and the children used the, now nearly empty, canvas style bucket (ordered instead of traditional hamper, as it was easier for us to bring home) to collect driftwood. You can also order a splendid breakfast hamper, with local muesli, bacon, sausages and eggs. The strapline here should really be ‘fill before you chill’.


It would not be difficult to fill your days doing nothing at the shack.   Buckets, spades and fishing nets were provided, the boys cycled safely up and down the lane, chased butterflies across the meadow, and swam several times a day.  But I couldn’t resist some of the other Island activities on offer.  One day we took a two mile cycle to riding stables for the boys’ first horse riding experience. Hugo, my younger boy,  had been talking for weeks about riding on a white unicorn, so when Faye the farmer led the most perfect white pony towards a seldom silenced four year old, there was no explanation needed for why it didn’t have a horn sticking out of its head.  As far as he was concerned, his dream had come true.


There were many such highlights on this trip.  Putting coffee on to brew, and hopping down for an early morning swim watched only by onlooking oyster catchers and curlews.  Cycling in nearby Parkhurst Forest and spotting red squirrels.  Or shopping at the superb weekly Farmer’s Market in Newport, and picnicking along the offroad (and gloriously flat) Medina estuary cycle route nearby. But the big high was saved for last.  We took our final view of what had by now become our new favourite place in the world, from the top of a sixty foot ancient oak tree.  The Isle of Wight is one of a handful of places in the UK where you can go recreational tree climbing.  Guided by New Zealand arborist, Paul, who confesses he would rather preserve and climb trees than follow his original career path of cutting them down, we donned our harnesses and helmets, and I prayed for a head for heights. There was no reason to fear. In this remote field, located a few miles from East Cowes, Paul gave us detailed tuition in the art of tree climbing, mastering ropes and knots as well as a greater appreciation of the ancient gem which supported our weight throughout.  I watched Louis, my eight year old, climb gracefully from branch to branch, handling knots and carabeener clips like an expert.  louis-climbing It was like watching a dance performance as he climbed, then swayed, and finally swung gently upside down to a soundtrack of nothing but birdsong.  My climbing was more baboon than Bussell, but I finally caught up with my little elf lying high up in a tree hammock eating the chocolate eggs which awaited him.  We lay in the hammock together, swaying gently with the breeze and the world seemed to stop for a while.  Under Paul’s constant supervision, we absailed gently back to earth, where we landed on a picnic rug laid out for afternoon tea. Paul pointed out that the milk was from a farm only a mile away, and the homemade cakes from a local bakery.  I realised that people here don’t just promote Island produce because they have to, but because they are proud of it.  They have every right to be.


After three hours of climbing, absailing, chatting and eating, we headed back to the boat.  We locked our bikes by the jetty, and waited for our bags to be delivered back to us. They were running a bit late, stuck in traffic apparently, happily not something I had experienced in the last few days.  Nor was I worried about catching the boat as they run every half hour.  In fact, I realised that something had happened to the uptight London timekeeper in me.  I really didn’t care.  Or, as they say on the Isle of Wight, I had finally chilled.


Catherine and family travelled from London to Southampton with South West Trains,, and to West Cowes with Red Funnel, see


To stay at ‘The Shack’ see  Weekly stays from £375 and weekend stays from £175


Catherine hired bikes from Wight Cycle Hire.  Adult bikes £30 (children £20, Tags £15) for three days. Baggage collection free of charge. They deliver and collect from anywhere on the Island. See


If you bring your own bikes, you can store or transport your luggage with £6 per bag


Micha the white ‘unicorn’ can be found at Romany Riding Stables, Porchfield, tel: 01983 525467. 


Order top hamper for treats on arrival from


For the best ever trip to the treetops with Goodleaf, see – 2.5 hour climbing experience costs £25 for children and £35 for adults. 5% discount to anyone arriving by public transport, pushbike or by foot.


(This article was first published in The Observer, 10 June 2007)