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.



AITO announces the winners of its Sustainable Tourism Awards 2011

The winners! Back row, from left to right: Megan Freese of Explore; Mike Sykes of Dragoman; Guy and Amanda Marks of Tribes Travel; Judith De Witt (judge); Pia Louw of the Tenerife Tourism Corporation; Chris Breen (chairman of AITO ST Committee); and Dick Sisman (judge). Front row, from left to right: Gavin Bate of Adventure Alternative; Luc Genest of Rezidor Hotels; Richard Hume of the Tenerife Tourism Corporation; and Richard Hammond (judge)

Sustainable Tourism (ST) is at the very heart of The Association of International Tour Operators’ (AITO) ethos, and the annual AITO ST Awards – presented at an AITO anniversary dinner on 23rd November, 2011 – are always big news in the travel industry. AITO’s ST guidelines state that travel and tourism should benefit host communities, respect local cultures, protect the environment and conserve natural resources, and member companies are rated by AITO accordingly. With 24 companies currently awarded the top rating of 5 stars, the ST Awards 2011 were hotly contested.

Judge and environmental guru Dick Sisman says: “This year’s entries show once again the depth of understanding that AITO members and their affiliates have for projects which support communities and the environment in tourism destinations around the world. I am particularly pleased to see the new Roger Diski Community Project award, which remembers a remarkable man and his love for the host communities who helped to make tourism such a special event for him and continue to do so for us.”

The results are:

The ‘AITO Affiliates Green Award 2011’ is for the AITO business partner or tourist office deemed by the judges to best demonstrate sustainable practice in a tourism or non-tourism area, and the winner was the Tenerife Tourism Corporation. Highly commended in this category was the Rezidor Hotel Group.

For the Tenerife Tourism Corporation, achieving sustainability across the island is a group effort, involving various hotels, businesses and visitor attractions. Tenerife now boasts the world’s first-ever village of carbon-free homes and, with one of the world’s three largest Solar Photovoltaic Plants, the island hopes to soon be able to generate more than half of its energy through natural energy resources. The Government too has played a vital role by funding various initiatives focusing on, for example, recovery and protection of the seabed, and using wind power to run public transport. The Ocean Dreams Factory, meanwhile, has developed the unique Flyover diving project which allows visitors and residents to meet marine species and participate in conservation activities themselves.

In 2001 the Rezidor Hotel Group (runner up) introduced a Responsible Business programme, which focuses on respecting social and ethical issues in the company and community, reducing negative impact on the environment. Nearly 50% of Rezidor hotels have already been awarded eco-labels, and the company hopes to reach its target of 100% by 2015. This year the company also supported the UN Refugee Agency by collecting monetary donations from employees and guests at all 315 operational hotels, to raise funds for Libyan refugees. Rezidor even has a designated Responsible Business Action Month which, this year, managed to raise €85,000 for charity.

The winner of the ‘Most Innovative Sustainable Tourism Initiative 2011’ was Tribes Travel, and the joint highly-commended runners up were Wilderness Scotland and Explore.

Tribes Travel (winner) has introduced a system of environmental and social impact auditing of the properties with which it works around the world. So far, over 300 properties have been assessed across 17 countries, establishing their relative eco strengths and weaknesses, before publishing their grading on the company’s website. This process helps to raise environmental awareness among property owners, who are able to make positive changes as a result. Tribes also has a business plan to push sales for the higher-graded properties as an added incentive for those with a lower grading. The audit form has been so successful that the company has shared it with the Ethical Tour Operators’ Group so that other operators can replicate it.

Wilderness Scotland (joint runner up) has put together a Wilderness Guide Training Programme (WGTP) which provides adventure travel guides with unique training focusing on client education, awareness and understanding. The course teaches guides how to inspire clients about nature conservation and sustainability, with added modules on the Leave No Trace campaign, wilderness cookery and astronomy. The programme currently has over 1,500 clients per year, and is delivered in partnership with local businesses and accommodation services who participate in the Green Tourism Business Scheme.

Explore (joint runner up) has recently introduced ‘Responsible Travel’ cards on all tours in India, with the intention of rolling them out elsewhere if the scheme proves successful. These cards outline topics including how litter and recycling should be dealt with whilst on the trip, tips on what to wear, and advice on how to respect local sensitivities and cultural differences. The cards also mention any local projects supported by Explore, with advice on how customers can give something back to the community should they wish to. Explore is dedicated to fundraising for various projects around the world, and is heavily involved in the running of a number of Sustainable Tourism courses.

The final award was the ‘Roger Diski Community Project 2011’, and was won by Adventure Alternative. Highly commended was Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel.

Adventure Alternative (winner) impressed the judges with its long-term development plans for two rural village communities in the Nepal Himalaya. One of its main achievements has been to improve the quality of inhabitants’ lives and to stem the migration of younger generations to the more urban lowlands, thereby rejuvenating this unique community. Locals have been involved with projects including the design and build of a hydro-electric plant, the building of new classrooms and improved facilities at local schools, and the creation of an annual medical camp where western medical students and Nepali doctors provide free consultations and medication. The company also funds eight teachers’ salaries in local schools and sponsors 12 local children to go on to higher education in Kathmandu. As winner of the award, Adventure Alternative will receive a £1,000 bursary which will be put towards a project to establish a tea production co-operative in Bumburi.

Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel (runner up), set up the Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives (TESFA) initiative in 2003. Its aim was to set up a network of community-run tourism enterprises which would allow visitors to trek through the Ethiopia’s remarkable landscape while putting money into local communities at the same time. Treks have been incorporated into Wild Frontiers’ group tour itineraries and the project has increased employment in the region by offering guiding, cooking and home-stay opportunities to local families.

To ensure that AITO’s ST programme is kept fully up to date, a dedicated ST committee of members and advisors reviews progress and ensures that AITO is at the forefront of environmental thinking. To find out more about the 140 AITO specialist tour operators and their ST initiatives, visit