Partnerships are what make sustainable tourism a reality and leading UK based walking and cycling tour operator, Headwater, has demonstrated that sustainability is about creating genuine community agreements. After a year of working closely with over 400 hotels and over 100 agents and local guides, they put have put in place a new and pioneering Sustainability Programme and Charter.
Due to the nature of its work, Headwater works with a plethora of ground handlers. Complex infrastructures are often used by tourism businesses as barriers to creating sustainable and ethical practices, but this company rose to the challenge. They have assessed every holiday in their 2014 portfolio, and evaluated every component using an agreed set of eight criteria. Not wanting to overload their suppliers with paperwork, they talked through the procedure with them at the annual contract meetings, so that suppliers did not feel as if they were being ‘examined’. Reviewing sustainability standards will now become an annual event at Headwater.
The aim of the Sustainability Programme is to give each holiday an overall ‘Sustainability Score’ which appears in all brochures, in print and online. It is impressive to see that local employment and local food sourcing also feature in these criteria, areas often upstaged by recycling and renewable energy initiatives by other schemes.
According to Headwater, most of their suppliers bought into the idea especially when they got to talk it through face to face, as it soon became evident that they were all engaging in sustainable practices already, but just not shouting about it. And the proof is in the pudding. In their cycling programme, only 5% of holidays scored less than 80%, with several scoring 95%. 81% of their walking holidays scored at least 80% with Spain’s Camino de Santiago and the UK’s Wye Valley walking holidays both hitting 99%. Tina James, Managing Director at Headwater, adds “ Going forward, it is vital that we both maintain these high standards but also continue to work with staff, suppliers and customers in order that all our holidays achieve, or exceed, our global 80% Sustainability Target” . Read more about Headwater’s sustainable initiatives here.
“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, leaving 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 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.
WalI love the choice of words that Ron Mader, editor of Planeta.com, has used to guide us through this year’s Responsible Tourism Week, an online conference which was created by Ron himself. Every day he used a new theme, teaching us to be Attentive, Generous, Creative, Empathetic, Curious and Grateful while immersing ourselves in the world of travel, whether we are hosts, guests, writers, photographers, publishers, tourist boards, activity providers etc.
I am always bowled over by the personalities I meet on my travel writing expeditions. They demonstrate the practice of these key words throughout every aspect of their businesses and so I am taking this opportunity to celebrate them. Please visit their websites, follow them on Twitter or Facebook, spread the word about them, and use them as case studies to inspire others to act the same way. Or, if they have businesses which are open to guests, just go visit them. They will all be glad to say hi, I am sure.
Attentive – One of the most attentive people I know is Valere Tjolle, a UK based sustainable tourism consultant with Totem Tourism and Sustainable Travel editor at Travelmole. Anyone who has been lucky enough to meet and chat with Valere in detail about the issues of sustainable tourism will know that there are few more attentive people than him. He talks and writes about sustainable tourism in a way that steers clear of academic bluff, he has no hidden agendas, he has been working in tourism for long enough to see responsible tourism go from niche to norm, back to niche and then to a place which lies strangely in between the two. When hearing about worldwide tourism projects he is attentive to all the details, highlights them on Travelmole for all of us to read. He listens to everyone’s stories, asks all the right questions and pushes the envelope when questioning tourism leaders. His attentiveness means that many people, who wouldn’t normally be given one, have a voice. He has also decided to extend his already busy life into a tour operator business, just launched this week, bringing tourists to the wonderfully undiscovered region of Romagna in Italy . Still in its infancy, Watch this space , Best of Romagna, for more details.
Generous –Having walked on The Wales Coast Path a lot, one of the most glorious long distance walking routes in UK, I was struck by the generosity of landowners who are happy to share their space with tourists. I stood on the Pembrokeshire coast after walking from headland to headland all day, looked out across the water and thought how amazing it would be to walk the whole coast of my native Ireland. But sadly it isn’t possible, due to land access issues. This is the same in so many countries, but in Wales farmers and other land owners have opened up paths for walkers, albeit in exchange for a small remuneration, meaning that not only can you now walk the length of the coast of Wales, but around the whole country as the Coast Path now links up with the Offa’s Dyke Long Distance Trail which follows the inland border with England route for 285kms. All thanks to the generosity of strangers.
Creative – This is a tough one as creativity oozes from every project I visit, but I think Echologia in the Mayenne region of France wins my creative prize this year.Apart from their website, that is, which has a way to go, but I forgive them as they have put all their creative energy into their stupendous eco set up. The proper name is actually EcH20logia, because this extraordinary 70 hectare site revolves around water, ecology and lodgings, with three disused limestone quarries offering natural gems of a getaway now that their underground water sources have been allowed to seep back up to the brim again. Poised in and around these teal coloured water holes are a collection of twenty different places to stay, from yurts spread across a wild meadow, tipis within diving distance of the natural reed filtered swimming pool, cabins poised among the trees which overhang the waters or two cabins which float serenely in the middle of one of the basins. And all the creative vision of a group of local men and women who wanted to bring this dead space back to life again. Their vision is Zen like, but not in a purist, whispering way. It’s just about chilling in nature really and their act of replacing a loud, industrial space with something so natural is worthy of praise.
Empathetic- This is a tough one, but when I get a room full of food producers and tourism providers who just thrive on local sourcing, I really start to feel the love. Connecting tourism with local producers is when responsible and ethical tourism starts to kick ass. There are so many tourism businesses which go the extra mile to ensure that they source their food locally, totally empathising with the farmer down the road and working hand in hand to create the most deliciously local experience. In Ireland, John and Sally McKenna’s Guidebooks , Best Restaurants and Best Places to Stay not only capture all the flagships of local produce in Ireland, but are written with total empathy and love for everyone mentioned in the book. Organic Places to Stay website has a wonderful selection of places to stay all around the world, which use organic and local produce. I am totally in love with the small island site, Real Island Foods on the Isle of Wight just off the South coast of England, where you can order all your local produce before you arrive, so that it is waiting at your self-catering accommodation when you arrive. Surely a model to emulate in other small destinations? Other websites in the UK which promote the food of love include farmison.com which has a plethora of farm to fork food and bigbarn.co.uk which is a great short cut to finding local producers on your travels. Just enter a postcode to find your nearest market, farm shop, artisan producer etc. Please feel free to comment on this below if you have found similar food tourism networks around the world, so that I can spread the word, and provide the ultimate feast of tourist sites with local food at
Curious – Well, I guess I have to come back to travel writers for this one. The people who love to dig and delve, but who also put responsible tourism at the heart of their work. Twitter has been a wonderful way for all of us to communicate and share ideas, and so here is a shout out to some of my favourites. Gail Simmons (@travelscribe) writes about the Middle East with great wisdom and sensitivity and has been Highly Commended at the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards twice. She has introduced me to the wonders of Palestine and the exciting tourism developments happening at The Siraj Centre . Caroline Eden (@edentravels) works a lot in Asia and was also Highly Commended at the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards 2012. Matthew Teller is also rather brilliant on the Middle East, and is a wonderful commentator on Twitter too. Kevin Rushby is The Explorer for The Guardian newspaper and he is, basically, just too cool for school and I am at my greenest when reading his work….with envy that is! Richard Hammond of the UK’s Green Traveller website wrote the green travel column in The Guardian for years and then went on to found his website, which features hundreds of green holiday ideas all of which are accessible by train. He also has a writers’ blog on his site which he contributes to regularly as well as a team of other writers. Such as Paul Miles who lives on a houseboat and so no better man for writing about slow travel and slow living (@Travel_n_green), Rhiannon Batten – the author of Higher Ground: How to travel responsibly without roughing it, and also regular feature writer for The Guardian and The Independent in UK (@rhiannonbatten), and Jeremy Smith who is former editor of The Ecologist magazine and starting to write a lot about wildlife conservation via his blog Fair Game and on Twitter @jmcsmith.
Jini Reddy is one travel writer I would love to travel and work with one day. She just seems to sing from the same songsheet as me, as you can see just from her trip portfolio, which includes a canoe trip along Botswana’s Selinda Spillway and taking tea with the women of Pakistan’s pagan Kalash tribe (@Jini_Reddy). And last, but not least, Leo Hickman, environment editor for The Guardian newspaper in the UK, who also wrote the wonderful book on responsible tourism – The Final Call. He is also very active on Twitter, so follow and fall in awe, like I do every time I read his fine pieces of journalism, such as this recent one on flying and climate change. And to conclude, the Saint of all travel scribes, Robert Macfarlane , whose books seem to glow on my bookshelves telling me to pick them up and read them again and again. If you haven’t treated yourself already, check out the ever curious compositions of this extraordinary travel writer in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012), The Wild Places (2008) and Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003)
Grateful –Well, asI get to share Tweets, cross paths and go on journeys with nearly all the above, who else could be more grateful than me, of course?
With thanks to Ron Mader and all the participants of #rtweek2013 and #rtyear2013, as well as all my fellow travellers.
I remember pitching a column idea to some editors a few years ago, on one of those ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ sort of days. It had the working title of ‘The People I Meet’. My aim was to get human stories onto the travel pages and, in the process, create a consumer awareness of responsible tourism without labelling it such. So many people get uptight about terminology linked to the responsible tourism movement but my feeling is that, call it what you will, it always comes back to people. Predictably I received several polite ‘no thanks’ to the pitch, but the one which stood out was from a leading broadsheet which just said “We and our readers want to read about places, not people. If you could get an interview with Richard Branson, however, we might run it”.
So, I put the idea to bed for a while, and in my own way, still try to incorporate the people I meet into my travel features. For example, Ben Llongisa, the Maasai elder whom I met a few years ago and who, against all odds, has created a lodge to host tourists in his village of Enkereri in Kenya ( see the video thanks to The Travel Foundation). I remember one of the editor’s arguments against ‘people stories’ was that they don’t sellholidays and, in an effort to keep their sponsors and advertisers happy, they need to talk about the place first and foremost. However, ever since leaving home at eighteen, it has so often been people who have lead me to a place, not effusive editorial or ‘on brand’ marketing campaigns. In fact, it was hearing a Maasai elder speak at WTM about how they just ‘needed a voice’ that made me want to go to Kenya in the first place.
Of course, I accept that not every traveller wants to holiday in order to ‘give people a voice’ or indeed, an ear. But I do believe that people’s stories do often influence our travel choices. The success of the much missed BBC Radio Four’s Excess Baggage or popular books such as A Year in Provence are simple examples of this. Last year we had the honour of hosting Michel Awad in our home, the co-founder of the Siraj Center in Palestine, an interfaith, community based tourism initiative in Palestine, which runs walking and cycling holidays. Michel talked to us about his fascinating organisation, which works closely with the Palestinan Center for Rapprochement Between People, enabling them to partner with many grassroots organisations to discuss and act upon issues such as water distribution and, of course, changing tourists’ perceptions about Palestine. Palestine is now at the top of my list of places I hope to visit in the near future, not because of a PR pitch or an alluring article, but because I met a lovely person doing extraordinary work there. I will certainly be needing a people-phile editor to commission that one as the stories will, hopefully, be worthy of a weighty word count.
In other industries, speakers reminded us, the commercialisation of an industry needs to take into account all the costs involved and a true analysis of the social, or human cost should take place in tourism destinations as well. There was a lot of talk about UN Guiding Principles, endorsed in June 2011, which outline how States and businesses should implement the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework in order to better manage business and human rights challenges. So, do destinations which are marketing themselves for tourism protect their country from human rights abuses by travel companies, for example? Secondly, adhering to the corporate responsibility to respect human rights in all tourism activities, and then thirdly, providing greater access to victims to seek a remedy for any injuries resulting from human rights abuses.
The tourism industry was also being urged to get a system of due diligence in place quickly if they were to play ethical catch up. What are the country’s human rights risks, are you linked to them in any way, how transparent are you being about these risks, and do you have adequate remedies available when, as one human rights expert stated ‘ when bad things happen’ ? Tourism businesses were being advised to ‘stop being the experts and go out and see what people think on the ground – not just once, but often, as human rights issues change all the time – and if you don’t engage you won’t know’. We are not just talking about the Burmas and Balis either here. This could involve child sex tourism in Eastern Europe, inhumane working conditions in the UK hospitality sector, or people displacement in Scotland in the name of a golf course. And if, as a tourism organisation, you are super proactive in the area of remedying some of these issues, then these are stories you might want to shout about. And hopefully, if any editors out there don’t want to shy away from the human element in tourism, I can then share.
By writing about people who are creating a force for change in tourism, we can not only assist them in seeking remedy, but we can also simply remind tourists that human beings and their homes are central to our holidays. I stayed at a Cretan house a few years ago, and we invited our hosts in for a bottle of wine on the first night. A bottle of home made wine they had been kind enough to give us, by the way. In spite of our language barriers, we enjoyed the wine, more wine, songs, laughs and warmth. And then more wine. When we left, our host told us we were the first UK family in twenty years of hosting, to invite him and his family in. This is far from a human rights issue, but for that human, it was certainly a big issue. If it is this hard for us to even say ‘hi’ on holiday, then we have a long way to go before we hear the real stories behind the smiles. But, we have to start somewhere.
I had a call from a friend who was stuck in London during the worst of the snow, “You must know how to get me home without flying”, she said. “I need to be back in Dublin tomorrow and every airport in Europe seems to be closed”. Within minutes she was sorted. “ Catch the 9am train from London Euston direct to Holyhead with Virgin Trains, arrives four hours later, then onto 2pm Irish Ferries crossing to Dublin port, arriving just after 5pm. Hop in a cab or shuttle bus, and home and dry in time for tea” I said.
She booked it immediately online via Virgin Trains and Irish Ferries, with last minute rates of £55 sterling for the single train journey and £25 sterling for the one way crossing. She had a lot of work to do on the way, so upgraded to first class on the train, (£97 sterling). This is the best train upgrade around, in my view, with free food and drink the whole way. Enjoy smoked salmon and scrambled eggs as you lash through the Shires, bagels on the border and a glass of something lovely to strengthen the sea legs as you follow the North Wales coastline. With free WI-Fi and generous reclining seats, you won’t want to get off at all. Although to be honest, Virgin’s latest speedy trains are so comfortable, economy feels like first class compared to any of my memories of what was the journey from hell all those years ago when ‘budget’ meant the ‘bus’.
I got a text at 5.15pm from my friend – “just drifting past the South Wall. Best trip home ever. Will never fly again”. This I doubt, but every snow cloud has a silver lining. It’s hard to convince people about the joys of greener, slower travel, unless they actually experience it. You can bring as much luggage as you want, including bikes. You check it all in now, so no lugging it round the ship anymore. You don’t have to hide your make-up bottles either. Even Holyhead terminal is better these days. On a recent trip, a Donegal man who makes the trip six times a year told me, “It breaks my heart.In the old days we begged them for a new terminal and now it’s here, but it’s empty. It used to be a cattle market, dirty and full of drunks”. Sounds like a bad budget airline, I thought.
If you aren’t making a last minute booking, book a Sail and Rail package. This is possible using various methods. If you are travelling out of the UK, go through booking agency Raileasy, and remember to put your home station first, not just Euston, as you can get a through ticket from any station in UK. Do check if you are travelling direct to Dublin Port or Dun Laoghaire, as some services mean you have to change at Crewe or Chester stations. You can’t get a first class ticket on this package, but book well in advance with Virgin Trains (virgintrains.co.uk), and you can get a First Class Single for approx. £50 sterling, with great food and drink served all the way through Wales and England. Note, however, that this is a mid-week deal, and there is no food at weekend, so you are just paying for a bigger seat if travelling Saturdays or Sundays.
If you are travelling from Ireland to UK and want to get a good SailRail package, do this at Irish Rail, either by phone
+ 353 1 8366222 ( Mon to Fri 9-5), email email@example.com, or call in to one of the following Irish Rail stations: Athlone, Ballina, Cork, Drogheda, Claremorris, Dublin Connolly, Dundalk, Ennis, Galway, Killarney, Limerick, Limerick Junction, Longford, Mallow, Mullingar, Sligo, Thurles, Tralee, Tullamore, Waterford, Westport or Wexford.
Or you can do just as my friend did, and book online the night before, roll on, roll off, no bother. I’m not sure she really cares that her carbon footprint was at least half of flying, to be honest. But if she can see that travelling the greener way is a much better experience all round, then it’s a win win. Any other converts can check out all European rail routes with details of journey lengths, transits, and overnight accommodation, as well as green places to stay nearby, at the newly launched www.greentraveller.co.uk
An edited version of this article was fist published in The Irish Times, 16 January 2010