Headwater hits sustainability head on

Cycling in Provence with cycling and walking company Headwater
Cycling in Provence with cycling and walking company Headwater

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.

Sustaining the wonderful island of Sark

Sark - Catherine overlooking Dixcart Bay
Catherine overlooking Dixcart Bay on Sark

If there is one place I could go back to this mid summer, it would have to be Sark. One of the Channel Islands, it takes a good while to get there but it is so worth it. Sark lies 11 km east of Guernsey and about 40 km west of the Cherbourg Peninsula of France. I discovered it on a trip to (also gorgeous, but not quite so special) Jersey a few years ago, which I was heading to by ferry from the south of England. I got chatting to a crowd of cool young ones, who told me they were en route to Sark. They come every year around midsummer to gaze at the stars, because Sark is not only car free, but it is totally free of street lights and so an astronomical Arcadia.

Trying desperately to emulate these youthful adventures, I returned to Sark with my family at Easter for four days, and saw straight away what brings people back year after year. Young and old. Everyone is on a bike here, and not just in that day tripping tourist way. It is the way of life, with everyone from farmers, priest, shopkeepers and kids all just bombing around on the island’s sandy or gravel tracks. The only vehicles are tractors and we only saw two of those during our stay and we covered most of the island during that time, which isn’t hard. Sark is only 5.5 kms square, and yet has over 60 kms of coastline. There is something about that statistic that evokes a world of hidden treasures and surprises. Secrets and whisperings. And we were not disappointed.

Stocks Hotel,Sark
Stocks Hotel,Sark

It took me all of about five minutes to release my uptight urban leash on the kids here, who wanted to take off immediately on their hired bikes.  This transition from mainland to island traveller was facilitated with reassuring ease and charm by the manager of our stunning Stocks hotel, Paul Armorgie, whose family has owned the hotel since 1979, and who encouraged our now feral fellas to take off and explore. Because Paul celebrates independence – something that has sadly become an issue on Sark over the last couple of years. Stocks is now just one of two independent hotels left on the island, the rest all part of the Barclay brothers’,  British property and media magnates, growing involvement on the island. Already owners of neighbouring Brecqhou island, they  have, in the last five years,  according to an article in The (UK’s) Guardian newspaper, “snapped up almost a quarter of land on the three-mile-long island, along with many of Sark’s key businesses”, and the upset caused by this among locals has hit headline news on several occasions.

Don’t let these politics put you off visiting this island, however. And don’t for a second think that this is a billionaire’s playground, with yacht filled marinas and casinos on the main drag. You are met off the ferry by one of the island’s tractors which takes your luggage (and you in the passenger trailer behind if you so wish) to your chosen accommodation. And as for casinos, well, the only gamble you will take here is whether the boat will sail or not. Because if the winds pick up, you can risk being stuck here for an extra night or two. Which is what did happen to us, and boy did we thank our lucky stars. All ten million of them glittering down at us in the skies which are indeed so clear, which is why Sark was declared the world’s first Dark Sky Island in 2011 by the International Dark Sky Association.

Rush hour on Sark
Rush hour on Sark

The team at Stocks know that sustainability is the only way to go on Sark. They watch patiently as the blow ins plant vineyards instead of allowing the land to be used for traditional farming. And instead of fighting them, they quietly plough their own furrow and create a model permaculture garden. They invite the chefs of River Cottage to come and do a foraging and feasting cookery course with their guests, and their extraordinary chefs, Byron and Kendra Hayter creating gourmet gems out of Sark’s natural hamper of home grown produce.  In particular, of course, the locally landed fish. During our stay we managed to sample Kieran Perrée’s scallops, which he is licensed to hand dive for in Sark waters, Dave Scott’s Sark lamb and wild sea bass landed by Jonathan Shuker from Sark waters.

Stocks Hotel has been designed not only with class and chic in mind, but also with home from home comfort. And as well as the solar heated swimming pool, horses and carriages on site for guest rides, homemade wines and wild flower liqueurs, every corner at Stocks Hotel is infused with fun. After a day of walking or cycling, we were welcomed back into the fold like a member of the family, as we shared stories from our various discoveries that day. For example, Little Sark, a tiny peninsula joined to the ‘mainland’ by a narrow isthmus called La Coupée, where there is now a reinforced road with sturdy railings, so you  feel totally safe when crossing it. We took the coastal route there, following a steep bluebell and fern-filled Dixcart valley just two minutes from the hotel, to the sea at Dixcart Bay. The stream that we followed down there culminated in a waterfall on the beach, where there is a sea arch which leads you through to another hidden bay just beyond that and calm, clean, safe bathing waters. From here we headed back up to the cliff path which segues from sunlit yellow gorse to hedgerows full of nesting birds, the sea coming in and out of view all the time between them.

Sark scallops
Sark scallops

The walk to La Coupee is only about half an hour, and after crossing the dramatic bridge, and taking in the clifftop views , we headed La Sablonnerie on Little Sark for afternoon tea. Cream tea at La Sablonnerie is a must, given that they use their own cream, and their scones are now well ensconced in my fine food memory bank. And like Stocks, it is also well and truly Sarkee, having been in the same family since 1642.

At the end of our second day, we cycled up to the North coast and dropped the bikes at the top of the path marked La Eperquerie, an old landing point for boats. From here we walked out to more dramatic cliff hanging walkways, picnicked at a rocky headland, got lost in a wild maze of heather and gorse, and then headed back inland to more manicured one inside the magnificent gardens at the Seigneurie, the home of the island’s ‘seigneur’, or traditional feudal leader of Sark.

Sark is a landscape for lazing musings or romantic hideaways. Independent thinkers and those who find solace in nature. Don’t put it on your bucket list, just go and savour its beauty now.  Not only because those who strive to protect and conserve this special place deserve all the support we can offer, but because no matter how hard they try, the blow ins will never be able to blow out the stars. And the main star here is Sark itself.

La Coupee isthmus , Sark
La Coupee isthmus , Sark

Catherine and her family stayed at Stocks Hotel (stockshotel.com). A family room has a separate interconnecting room with bunk beds and costs from £225 sterling per night bed and breakfast, or from £265 sterling bed, breakfast and dinner. If you stay for four nights or longer, Stocks Hotel will refund the ferry crossing with Sark Shipping Company.

Getting to Sark:  If you want to travel the slow and green way,  take a train to Poole or Portsmouth with South West Trains and then the ferry to Guernsey with Condor Ferries (condorferries.co.uk). There are also excellent Sail Rail deals available, which are not very well publicised. Look up the excellent seat61.com/ChannelIslands for details. Be careful with your timings as there are only a couple of sailings a day from Guernsey to Sark, which you can book through Sark Shipping Company. Return tickets £27.80 adults, £12.90 children. For more information on Sark, see sark.co.uk and for more information on getting to Guernsey see Visit Guernsey.

An edited version of this article, by Catherine Mack,  was first published in The Southern Star newspaper, Ireland

 

 

HF Holidays – fine fellows celebrate a hundred years of outdoor holidays

Catherine near the top of a snowy Pen-y-Ghent
Catherine near the top of a snowy Pen-y-Ghent

Long before the words ethical or eco started creeping into the tourism industry’s boardrooms, there was one man who was quietly laying the foundations of fairness in travel. Thomas Arthur Leonard (or TA as he was known)) founded HF Holidays in the UK a hundred years ago and, although his achievements have been relatively uncelebrated to date, the centenary of an organisation which still remains the only UK holiday provider that is a truly co-operative society, gives us a good opportunity to take stock of this pioneering philanthropist’s achievements (www.hfholidays.co.uk).

I found there was no better way to get to grips with his greatness than by hiking up to the top of Pen-y-Ghent, one of the three peaks of the UK’s Yorkshire Dales, on an unseasonably freezing day. So cold, in fact, that I was sure the HF Holiday guides would cancel the walk, with snow flurries concealing the summit. But no, they are made of stern stuff at HF Holidays. This organisation was created in 1913, after all, seeking to, against all odds, get people into the outdoors so that they could still enjoy the landscapes all around them, in spite of a growing sense of worldwide angst. And also, to do so on the cheap. Leonard had already created the Cooperative Holiday Association in 1894, but feeling that this had been swamped by the middle class, he created the Holiday Fellowship (HF), a Society which sought to provide basic, accessible walking holidays at in the UK and abroad. In the 1930’s he also helped create the Youth Hostels Association, keeping rambling real for generations to come.

Although HF has moved on from single sex bunk rooms to superbly equipped country manors, such as Newfield House in Malhamdale, Yorkshire, the base for my Yorkshire Dales walking break, there is still one core ethos of this walking society which has stuck with HF Holidays. All their guides, or ‘leaders’ as they call them are volunteers. Or good fellows, Leonard might have called them in his day.  Many of them have grown up with families who went on HF walking holidays, and now they want to share the love. They are all passionate about walking, cycling as well as a plethora of other outdoor activities.  They are also all warm, generous people who celebrate the notion of ‘fellowship’ without being in your face, let’s all hold hands and thank God for life sort of people. In fact, if I could sum these guys up, they are what you imagine the perfect grandparents to be and, if I could, I  would like to adopt each and every one of the guys who led us around the Yorkshire Dales for that role in my children’s lives.

Newfield Hall, Malhamdale Photo Credit: HF Holiday
Newfield Hall, Malhamdale Photo Credit: HF Holiday

So, as much as this centenary is about celebrating the achievements of TA Leonard, it is his legacy that lives on through people which what makes HF a very special company to holiday with, if outdoor activities are your thing. And of course, their walking leaders are hard core, which you need in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia or Glencoe, just to give you that added incentive to climb the next stretch which, in our case, we couldn’t actually see because of snow. But on we trekked, feeling with every step that we were in very safe hands, the route being judged with expertise along the way.  We took a steep, slow climb up to the peak, but due to the extreme and icy conditions our leader guided us down a gentler route down Pen-y-Ghent.

The rather stark, boy scout feel that HF Holidays had in the past has gone a little softer round the edges in modern times,  however, as we all jumped into the swimming pool at Newfield House on our return, pampered ourselves with a little pilates, and massaged those well stretched muscles with a petit Pino Grigio by the fire. Not sure if that would have passed TA Leonard’s middle class radar, really. Not to mention the fine selection of packed lunches, with poached salmon sandwiches and fine local cheese.

International walking holidays was also part of TA Leonard’s vision and this has now become the biggest growth area for the organisation. An organisation which is still, by the way, a truly cooperative and non-profit organisation. You can sign up to be a member and shareholder, attend the AGMs and have your say in how they move things forward in a world that is being swamped by 1 billion travellers, the majority of whom are still being seduced by pure profit driven travel. HF Holidays also realises that it needs to sustain its set up for the next generation, and so it has created a young person’s membership which adults can sign up to on behalf of anyone under 16. Too cool for school, really.

Double ladder stile on Pen y Ghent - in summer. Photo: HF Holidays
Double ladder stile on Pen y Ghent – in summer. Photo: HF Holidays

Another development is the (great value) Freedom Break, whereby you just use one of HF’s accommodations as a base for independent walking, but get full board accommodation, an OS Map and plenty of detailed information on best trails etc. These are just applicable to a certain number of UK locations at the moment, however, such as the Isle of Wight (superb coastal walking just a couple of hours from London), the Cornish Coast Path or the Lake District.  However, I was glad to be in the safe hands of a group and our superbly informative and affable guide, Mervyn Flecknoe, as we climbed up Pen-y-Ghent.  As we took our final steps down from the peak, we strode  across some massive flagstones made from local limestone. For an organisation that proudly promotes ‘Leave No Trace’ as part of its outdoor ethic, this is one impressive exception. Because, although they don’t shout about their conservation and care practices at HF Holidays, there is a lot going on behind the scenes. These flagstones, which prevent erosion caused in hiking hot spots, were funded by HF’s Pathways Fund, a charity which guests can donate to, and which not only works with leading conservations charities to protect landscape but also provides assisted holidays to those who could not otherwise afford one. Like I said – Foundations of fairness. For a hundred years. Fair play, HF, and happy birthday.

For more details of HF Holidays, including walking, cycling and outdoor activity holidays in varied locations from Barbados to the Brecon Beacons, or Kenmare to Kenya, see www.hfholidays.co.uk. Or follow them on Twitter @hfholidays or on Facebook (HF Holidays).

 

Trinidad and Tobago – Sustainability with a Smile

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Matura beach – one of Trinidad’s top turtle nesting beaches

“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”.

Salybia Beach, Trinidad
Salybia Beach, Trinidad

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”.

Tobago Cocoa Plantation
Tobago Cocoa Plantation

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.

The steel pans, Trinidad's national instrument
The steel pans, Trinidad’s national instrument

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.

Catherine and Francis Superville, turtle watching guide with Nature Seekers, Matura Beach, Trinidad
Catherine and Francis Superville, turtle watching guide with Nature Seekers, Matura Beach, Trinidad

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.

 

For more information on Trinidad and Tobago, see the official website. Go Trinidad and Tobago.  

How do I find the words?….

WalrtweekI 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.

  1. 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.

    Pembrokeshire coat path between St justinian's bay and Porth Clais
    Pembrokeshire coat path between St justinian’s bay and Porth Clais
  2. 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.

    Catherine's canoeing out to their beds at Echologia
    Catherine’s canoeing out to their beds at Echologia
  3. 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.
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  4. 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
    John and Sally McKenna's Guidebooks to Ireland
    John and Sally McKenna’s Guidebooks to Ireland

    their core

  5.    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.
    The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane
    The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane

    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)

    Catherine, totally grateful to be walking in Jersey
    Catherine, totally grateful to be walking in Jersey
  6.   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.

 

Volunteer Tourism – needs to go viral, not parasitic

Missionvale, South Africa Photo: Una Shannon, volunteer with People and Places

At the last view, 415 people had watched the debate which took place at the World Travel Market in London in November 2012 on volunteering tourism on YouTube. Not exactly viral. However, if you are one of the million people who are thinking about using your valuable holiday time and money to volunteer next year, I highly recommend taking an hour of your time to watch this panel discussion about one of the fastest growing sectors of tourism which, to date, is still unregulated. Also, you could then prove one major player in the industry wrong. Richard Oliver, Chief Executive of Year Out Group, an association of leading gap year providers, responsible for sending 24000 young people abroad during 2011, claims that ‘For the volunteer, research and planning is essential …. and I have to say that young people don’t do it very well…. I am routinely disappointed that parents don’t get involved at least to take a discreet interest in what their children are doing…when things go wrong, parents are the first to jump on the bandwagon’ .

Year Out Group does not organise volunteering tours per se. They represent other organisations which do, and there is indeed a wealth of information on their site for volunteers to sift through, including a long list of questions that you should ask a gap year or volunteering holiday provider in order to get a clear picture of the work you will be getting involved with. There is also a Code of Conduct and Year Out Group’s members must ‘provide annual confirmation that they continue to meet these criteria’.

The criteria which volunteering holidays must meet in order to feature on Year Out Group’s site include guarantees on financial security for their clients, accurate websites and literature, professional support and welfare which ensure that all programmes are vetted and monitored by member organisations and that security and safety procedures are in place (all of which are basic legal requirements anyway, surely?). As well as this, member organisations agree to adhere to ethical considerations, albeit down at the lower end of the Code’s List of priorities. These include protecting the environment, respecting local culture, benefitting local communities, conserving natural resources and monitoring pollution.

Una Shannon, volunteer in Missionvale with People and Places

All great on paper, but with no actual obligatory regulation, bar the British Safety Standard  BS8848 for group activities which may not apply to certain volunteering holidays anyway, the thing which ‘routinely disappointed’ me was not the fact that parents didn’t do their job, but that Year Out Group which represents all these volunteering holidays doesn’t  do thorough checks on their babies. According to Oliver, “Ethical issues are important but with so many activities in so many countries it has not been possible for Year Out Group to audit and we therefore do require the individual volunteer to do a considerable amount of research and planning for themselves to check out the organisation and to check out the individual project”.

Oliver goes on to emphasise that the young  internet generation is only interested in “instant response”, and “this doesn’t work for international volunteering” and that as a result these volunteers are, again, ‘routinely disappointed’ and that ‘the provider is disappointed too because they’d like to be able to help but can’t’. And yet, somehow it is acceptable for volunteering associations, of which there must be many around the world at this stage,  to use the internet to promote thousands of volunteering opportunities, so many in fact that they don’t have time to audit and who claim that the best auditors are the volunteers. But hey, when in doubt – blame the parents.

Another of the key speakers, Paul Miedema of Calabash Tours, an organisation working in urban townships of the slums of Port Elizabeth in South Africa does not blame the parents however. He goes to the core of the matter by waking tourists and tourism providers up to his reality saying, “I am pretty annoyed at some of the volunteer tourism practices taking place…it seems to be the belief that we can be the play thing of people that come from the north and come and play with us in the south, have a wonderful experience and go home…. some of us are then left to pick up the pieces”. As Miedema points out, it is a lot more complex than that, and with a big boom in volunteering tourism happening worldwide at the moment “everyone is scrambling around looking around for projects, because that is what they need to sell’. He stresses the need for well-structured community centred volunteer experiences with deep insight into the local context, adding “We need to go about it the other way round, in my view. What are the needs  of the local people is the starting point” and stresses that volunteering holidays “are not about selling a beach package. A lot of the work I do is about bringing people to people….creating a shared humanity’.

Fairtrade in Tourism South Africa, of which Calabash Tours is a member

There is a clear contrast in outlooks here. Year Out Group is very volunteer centred, emphasising the CV credits that a young person gets for volunteering, assuring parents on their website that “Volunteering in a community overseas helps to develop valuable life skills, which can set young people apart when applying for universities and jobs” and which “enable young people to develop their soft skills, broaden their education and develop a wider perspective on life.”  Whereas Miedema talks about Calabash’s process with much more of a community focus although not denying the importance of volunteer safety; “It is our responsibility to educate the communities about what the potential risks of this are, so that they can agree to do this as a community. What are the rights of children or vulnerable adults within these communities?”

Miedema also points out that in October 2012 a US volunteering organisation Peace Corps volunteer was imprisoned for fifteen years for sexually abusing children in an AIDS centre for pre-school age children in South Africa. “This is happening more than we want to admit”, says Calabash, “ It is our dirty little secret and it’s time we open that up and talk about it and talk honestly about that, and talk about the risk to volunteers but also to the communities”. And with a passioned plea, Miedema sums up by saying “Too much of what I see around me benefits only the volunteer… If you can’t do it in your own country, why do you come and do it in mine? If you are eighteen years old can you teach English here in a class? Can you work with children here in England without a CRB screening? Why do you want to do it in my country? Just because we are vulnerable? Just because we are in need? If you can’t do it at home, I don’t want you to come and do it with us.”

And so with a growth sector comes grave concerns.  Sallie Grayson, co-founder of UK organisation People and Places, which was awarded the Best Volunteering Company at the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards in 2009, is equally frustrated with the desperate need for change in the industry, saying that ‘The big boys need to stand up and take responsibility of what is going on in the volunteering market” in her presentation. People and Places’ rules are simple and clear when it comes to volunteering holidays : They take their time to match volunteer skills with specific community led projects and these are always projects which already exist, and are not volunteer dependent; they carry out criminal record checks and work closely with all their project providers in situ to ensure that the volunteer role is genuinely necessary; they guarantee to her volunteers that their role is not simply a money making exercise which may, in the worst scenario, put a local person out of a job and, they are totally transparent about the percentage of the volunteer’s  money which ends up in the community. And so consequently, she has serious doubts about volunteering organisations which offer discounted, last minute trips due to the fact that serious project and volunteer liaison is simply not possible in such a short time.

There has been no major expose of the volunteering industry within the media to date, with the exception of a superb documentary People and Power:  Cambodia’s Orphans Business by Al Jazeera on child trafficking in Cambodia  in May 2012 (see below).  You can watch this on You Tube too, and interestingly it has had over 30,000 hits so far, although considering the fact that it exposes the vast profits being made by US volunteering organisation Projects Abroad, as well as its shabby practices in terms of fundamental child protection, informed consent in the community, transparency and project supervision, this film  should be viral by now. But nothing is viral yet in volunteering tourism yet, it would seem, as so much of what really goes on is being kept under wraps. It is time to get the message spreading, volunteers speaking about their experiences, governments reacting and acting, and the media talking. That way, we can get the responsible volunteering message viral, and in so doing, stop the industry from becoming totally parasitic.

For more information see Better Volunteering and Better Child Protection as well as the ongoing work of the International Tourism Partnership and Tourism Concern. There are also some very interesting comments in response to this post below, and in particular those from the team producing the voluntourism documentary, Hope was here, which you can find more about, including its superb trailer,  if you click here.

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 responsibletravel.com 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 (beechenhill.co.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 www.sirajcenter.org

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: uptuyu.com.au
Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between People – The Siraj Center, Palestine: sirajcenter.org

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: blueotwo.com

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 (ecocamp.travel)


Three Sisters Adventure - Winners Best in Mountain Environment Photo: www.3sistersadventure.com/

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: (thetrain.com)
The New Forest Tour (thenewforesttour.info)


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: biosphere-expeditions.org

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.

 

 

Wild swimming in a bog pool – beat that

Catherine swimming in a bog pool in Soomaa National Park, Estonia

It’s not every day you get to swim in a bog pool in real wilderness. But head to the Soomaa National Park in Estonia, just two hours drive from the stag-filled bars of its capital, Tallinn, and you will find yourself in the middle of Soomaa. Which translates as ‘Land of Bogs’ where you can meander through meadows and mires by canoe,  hike across squelchy sphagnum moss with the aid of ingenious bogshoes, and cool off in the most divine natural pools you will ever come across.

Unlike many other peat bogs around the world, Soomaa’s grew out of the ground, “rising slowly like a loaf of bread”, Aivar Ruukel, my guide says, ” forming cracks on the crust where rainwater lakes have now been formed – these were our swimming pools when we were children”.  Soomaa National Park is one of twelve protected wilderness areas in Europe, and a member of the Pan Parks Foundation (panparks.org), an organisation which aims to protect some of this our most undisturbed land and seascapes, and here on Kuresoo bog, the largest of Soomaa’s bogs at 110 square kms, you really do feel like you are at one with wilderness.

Catherine canoeing in the Soomaa National Park

Aivar Ruukel is the founder of leading ecotourism provider, Wilderness Experience in Estonia and knows every hidden path, concealed creek and foraging treasure trove in this part of the world. He is a wonderful ambassador not only for sustaining the ecotourism he truly he believes in, but also for the Estonian people and their innate sense of being at one with nature. As we hike across the dramatic landscapes of  their ancient woodland, which then opens out into a vast bogland, where cranberries are tucked in under layers under moss,  like jewels hidden and forgotten by pirates in times gone by. Aivar and his co-guides Algis and Ain’s eyes are always open to nature’s surprises, their focus on the fecundity of it all – from Chantarelles to Cloudberries, always sharing their innate joy of this forage into their own backyard even though they have spent all their lives here.

But for me, the real way to connect is to dive straight into these pure dark waters. Encircled by reeds which glisten in the autumn sun I strip off and jump in, having had the sense to throw my swimmers in my backpack. The Estonians do it their way of course, au naturel, but it will take a few days for me to shed my urban modesty.

Catherine bog shoeing in Soomaa National Park, Estonia

Back at my charming riverside guest house, Riisa Ransto, where my lovely host has preheated the wood burning sauna, I bash myself with birch and sweat out whatever impurities are left. However, a few days hiking, canoeing and swimming in this stunning wilderness will detox and destress you quicker than any spa. Until you notice the price of the beer, that is, and all that goodness is undone, the upside being that you have just another excuse to dive into the wilds again.

For more information see Wilderness Experience in Soomaa , soomaa.com. From €510 per person (minimum two people) including airport transfer from Tallinn or Riga in Latvia, four days of guided activities, five nights’ accommodation and all meals. Activities include canoeing, bogshoeing, foraging, wild animal tracking, or back country skiing and kicksparking in winter months.  For more information on Estonia, see visitestonia.com

Wild swimming for families

Kids love to go wild swimming too Photo: Catherine Mack

Ever since returning from my swimming holiday a few years ago, my kids have been pestering me to know when they can do one too. Most swimming holiday providers don’t cater for kids, or families, being aimed more at the long distance neopreners. However, there is a place for everyone, and Dan Graham and Gabby Dickinson who founded the new outdoor swimming company based in North Wales, Gone Swimming, have filled this gap in the market.

This coming October half term, from Saturday 27 – Tuesday 30 October, they are running a family wild swimming long weekend, teaching not only the skills of open water swimming to parents and children, and as Dan is a water safety expert and Gabby is a child care professional (as well as complete water babies themselves) they are well qualified to do so too.

They are basing the trip in Cwm Pennant Hostel in the Cwm Pennant Valley close to the base of Snowdon. From here, they have a plethora of outdoor swimming spots on the doorstep, and the choice of swim will depend on the weather conditions and also the sort of thing that families are hoping to do.

Gone Swimming want to provide families with the knowledge they will need to make sure that they carry on wild swimming long after the Half Term. They will be reading the maps, deciding on locations as well as learning about how cold water affects both adults and the kids. Dan and Gabs will be with them in the water and every step of the way, but this is not a coaching or training weekend, more a blast in the open water sort of weekend. And yes, wetsuits are a must!You can also hire them from Gone Swimming if needs be.

Learning to embrace the cold while wild swimming Photo:Catherine Mack

There is an early booking offer on this trip of £300 per person, adults and children alike (a saving of £50 per person over the regular price) – that is for an all inclusive three night stay (arrival Saturday and depart Tuesday). It is also worth noting that they will pick you up from Bangor station if you choose to go by rail, so dig out your Family and Friends’ Railcard and get a great offer on the train too.

 

 

 

WTTC Launches 2013 Tourism For Tomorrow Awards

The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) is inviting tourism businesses, organisations, and destinations worldwide to apply for its prestigious Tourism for Tomorrow Awards.

Each year, the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards recognise global leadership in sustainable tourism best practices. Due to its rigorous three-step judging process involving 22 independent expert judges from all around the world, and including an on-site evaluation of all award finalists, the Awards have become one of the highest accolades in the global Travel & Tourism industry.

Applicants should demonstrate how they are actively engaged in a successful programme of sustainable tourism practices and management, including maximising social and economic benefits for local people, reducing negative impacts to the environment, and supporting the protection of cultural and natural heritage in destinations where they operate.

Award applicants may enter in one of four Award categories: Global Tourism Business, Conservation, Community Benefit, and Destination Stewardship and can submit their entries online at www.wttc.org/tourismfortomorrow until 26 November 2012.

David Scowsill, President & CEO of WTTC said: “The Travel & Tourism industry has immense influencing power and has the potential to raise awareness and initiate action on the sustainability agenda among consumers, employees, and governments.

With its ninth year under WTTC stewardship, the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards are rewarding top sustainable tourism practices globally. These are outstanding examples, reaching new heights in the world’s sustainable tourism advancement.”

Finalists and winners receive complimentary flights and accommodation and will be recognised during a gala Awards ceremony which takes place alongside WTTC’s Global Summit in Abu Dhabi, UAE on 9 April 2013, attended by Travel & Tourism industry leaders, government representatives and members of the international media.

Costas Christ, Chairman of Judges, stated: “A tremendous amount of work goes into the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards each year. These Awards are truly global in nature, with a team of nearly two dozen judges from all around the world, ranging from indigenous tourism leaders to international sustainable tourism experts, and hailing from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe.

One day there will be no need for Awards that recognise sustainable tourism best practices. Care for local people and the planet will simply be a part of how every tourism business operates. Until then, the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards are shining a light on the sustainable tourism visionaries of today that are helping to lead the way forward.”

In 2012 ‘Destination Røros,’ won in the Destination Stewardship category, ‘Saunders Hotel Group’ won the Community Benefit Award, ‘Inkaterra Peru’ won the Conservation Award and ‘Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts’ won the Global Tourism Business Award.

The strategic partners of the 2013 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards are Travelport and the Travel Corporation’s TreadRight Foundation.