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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 it is still one of the leading providers of walking holidays in the UK and Europe. Although TA’s 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.
“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.