Any of us working in sustainable tourism have heard of the fine work of The Travel Foundation (TF) over the last decade. However, the TF still isn’t known by most travellers. Their Travel Lottery is a genius initiative to get tourists who are passionate to protect the destinations they love waking up to the work of the TF. WhatTF? – you’re brilliant.
Tickets are now on sale for this first ever Travel Lottery in the UK, whereby holiday makers have a chance to win prizes while raising vital funds for carefully monitored, community led sustainable tourism projects. Tickets cost £2 and the first draw is at the end of March. Each ticket is a chance to win back the cost of their holiday in the form of a cash prize of up to £5,000. Prize draws are monthly, with a guaranteed cash prize of at least £1,000 given away in each draw.
The lottery is the first of its kind for the travel industry, creating a unified way of fundraising that protects and invests in communities and natural environments in popular holiday destinations; from Cyprus to St Lucia and from Turkey to Thailand. Customers will be able to buy tickets from travel agents and other companies when they book holidays and buy related products and services. Launch partners Midcounties Cooperative Travel and Holiday Extras will sell tickets for the first draw, and many more travel companies are expected to join them in the coming months. The aim is to sell at least 100,000 tickets and raise more than £50,000 for good causes in the first year.
Customers can also buy tickets directly from www.thetravellottery.co.uk, either for a single draw or by signing up to play regularly. At least 50 pence from each ticket goes to projects run by The Travel Foundation, with a focus on work that will sustain the local environment, wildlife, history and culture. These projects also help to tackle poverty by creating opportunities for local people to benefit from tourism. These projects include: helping beach operators in Kenya earn a better living from tourism and provide hassle-free tours for holidaymakers to enjoy; finding new ways to help local businesses grow and thrive alongside all-inclusive hotels in Cyprus; supporting local communities in Jamaica and Turkey to create great tourism experiences whilst protecting the marine environment; Continuing to develop the business skills of Mayan women in Mexico so they can supply locally-produced honey products to hotels.
I can stand by the projects of The Travel Foundation, as I wrote one of my first travel articles about their superb work to stop the exploitation of the Maasai in Kenya a few years ago. You can read more about that trip here, but watch the progress made by the villages, with the help of The Travel Foundation , since then in the video below. Watching these Massai elders, teacher and children, with whom I spent precious time, now growing their own sustainable tourism products is what gives me faith in this mad maelstrom of mass tourism.
Well done The Travel Foundation for making a new mark on the consumer side of the tourism industry, creating a social media-friendly way to share sustainable tourism stories and carrying the responsible tourism movement forward another good few steps.
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
“They don’t like tourists in Trinidad, you know, but I’m sure it’ll be interesting anyway” a neighbouring passenger told me as he got off the London to Trinidad flight at its brief stopover in Tobago, leaving me somewhat speechless as I waited for the plane to prepare for take-off again to my final destination of Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital. A few hours later I was sitting in a press conference with the Minister of Tourism for Trinidad and Tobago, and it was tempting to share this exchange with him, but I thought it might be best to go gently with four more days of the 14th Annual Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development still to go.
The Honourable Stephen Cadiz is unlike many other tourism ministers, relaxed, in an open neck white linen shirt, personable, informal, and refreshingly honest about the challenges ahead in putting Trinidad on the tourist map. He confirmed what was immediately evident en route from the airport to the impressive Hyatt Regency Hotel, located on the water’s edge of Port of Spain. Trinidad is an industrial nation, with an economy based on years of exploiting oil and gas reserves. As we looked out at the bay, peppered with freight ships, Cadiz gave us the facts: “55 000 people are engaged in the manufacturing industry here, accounting for $1billion GDP. However, that accounts for only 5% of employment. And, at the moment, tourism still only provides 6% of GDP in Trinidad and Tobago.” He also stressed that, unlike other Caribbean countries, all inclusive enclave tourism is not the right direction for Trinidad, stating that “All-inclusive enclave can’t be sustainable. In Trinidad and Tobago 70 cents of the tourism Dollar remains on our islands. The average for the Caribbean is 55cents, some territories as bad as 10 cents. I want to be able to go to 80 cents on the dollar. Now you are talking true sustainability. And you can’t do that with the all-inclusive enclaves”.
Cadiz admitted that the time had come to move away from a non-renewable energy dependent economy and that, to date, their natural and cultural heritage reserves remain unexploited for tourism purposes. “At the moment, Tobago is our leisure market destination”, continued Cadiz “as a place for just chillin’ and sittin’ down on the beach. Then twenty miles away is this crazy place called Trinidad. We have our Carnival, of course, but now we have to start creating, branding and marketing an all- year-round product”.
When questioned about the tourism product potential in Trinidad, Cadiz referred to the ecotourism opportunities in the North, with hiking, waterfalls, cocoa plantations and fecund turtle nesting beaches. The South of the island is home to the 150 acre La Brea pitch lake, not your traditional tourist attraction, admittedly, but fascinating to many, as the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world. The East coast boasts acres of coconut plantations and is home to a well-integrated cultural mix of Hindus and Catholics. From this, the country boasts a rich history of food, music and ritual which tourists relish every year at Carnival, but are not valued as fine, experiential products for the rest of the year. “Local people tell me that Trinidad can never build a tourism industry”, says Cadiz, “but I say absolutely we can. People have no idea of what they have here and that tourists want to see it. It’s about taking what we do naturally every day and making a tourism product out of it. This is where we have missed the boat”.
Over the next few days at the Conference, it was clear that Trinidad has not missed the boat, however, but was just starting to build it. An evening at the Phase 11 Panyard, home to the reigning champion of the island’s annual Panorama competition for steel pans, was our first immersion in community culture and tourism. This is just one of many community panyards throughout Trinidad, home of the steel pan, and it is impossible not to be totally enthralled by the beat of the island’s home grown sound and national instrument. Their rendition of Moon River, the smell of Doubles stalls wafting through the air, washed down with a Rum and LLB (Lemon and Lime and home-grown Angostura Bitters) cocktail, was the perfect cultural cocktail for any visitor to this welcoming neighbourhood. Closely followed by calypso performer, whose ingenious improvised song about sustainable tourism got the message across quicker than any Powerpoint or pie chart. I suggested to Minister Cadiz that he bring him to the World Travel Market. After all, Trinidad and Tobago is the home of Calypso, and if anything can make sustainability sexy, this Calypsonian can.
Trinidad and Tobago’s natural heritage is at its most harmonious on the turtle nesting beaches, however. Conservation and protection of these precious areas is currently in the hands of Turtle Village Trust, (TVT) an NGO specialising in turtle conservation. TVT acts as an umbrella group for all the community turtle conservation projects that have developed in Trinidad and Tobago over the last twenty years. Its Executive Director Dr. Allan Bachan presented at the Conference and described his organisation as “a unique model, where private, public sector and communities have come together to expand in the region. A region which has the highest number of sea turtles in the Western hemisphere”.
Turtle beaches have gone from having 2500 visitors in 2000 to over 21000 visitors today, and you can only visit them with a guide working for the Trust during the turtle season. During that time 80% of Trinidad and Tobago’s villagers are employed in turtle conservation and tourism. “But we need to balance development and conservation of national resources”, Bachan added, something which was more than evident at Matura Beach, which I visited a couple of days later. It was a daytime visit, and so there was no sign of the hundred or so leatherbacks which had visited this seven mile sandy stretch the night before. At Matura the beach is patrolled and protected by one of TVT’s community organisations, Nature Seekers and, under the wonderful guidance of Francis Superville(listen to my quick chat with him here) who has seen this community change from poachers to protectors over the last generation, we saw turtle trails and learned about their reforestation programme which ensures the sustainability of these swathes of Galba, Olivier and Lay Lay trees, to name but a few, which line the white sands of this luscious northern coastline.
What doesn’t line the sands in Trinidad and Tobago, however, is evidence of protection at government level. How much longer can local communities, paid by funds raised by an NGO from organisations like BP (ironically) be expected to work in good faith and for little money, just for the love of it? Matura Beach, as well as many others, has Environmental Sensitive Area status, but as yet there is no National Park in Trinidad or Tobago. This must surely be the first step in putting real faith into its sustainable tourism product, enabling not only a future for its flora and fauna, but a guaranteed income for those who have worked round the clock, and with little investment, to keep the resources alive to date.
When I asked Minister Cadiz when Trinidad and Tobago might see a sustainable tourism policy put in place at government level, he said that a draft was due to go to stakeholders for consultation. I couldn’t help wondering if the likes of Francis at Matura Beach, Christiana Gabin, our seventy year old guide at the Tobago Cocoa Plantation, Kelly and Carl Fitzjames at Brasso Seco Paria Eco Community, Elton Pouchet of In Joy Tours who organised our memorable panyard excursion, Andrew Welch of Banwari Experience which leads tours crossing all cultural aspects of Trinidad and Tobago, Courtenay Rooks who not only leads hiking tours to Paria Springs but is also President of Trinidad and Tobago’s Tour Operators Association were on that list of stakeholders. I certainly hope so, because although none of these was presenting Powerpoints to the hundreds of international delegates visiting their country, they are all making their mark on the ground, for sure.
There is no question, however, that when chatting to these all these individuals working in Trinidad’s nascent tourism industry, be it at government or grassroots, there is a genuine commitment to sustainability. And, as for liking tourists, well, let’s look at their national food as the perfect analogy. Because just like the famous Double, Trinidadians wrapped us up tight in a warm and spicy cocoon of deliciousness for a few days, leaving a lingering taste and a thirst for more. And as long as the environmental and tourism authorities protect and value the ingredients and the chefs, this country will be cooking up an a la carte menu of locally produced sustainable and quality tourism products which will bring a smile to every guest’s face.
But will it make the hosts smile too? Can we make people actually like tourists? Tourism Minister Stephen Cadiz summed it up perfectly, saying “I don’t have to teach people how to smile here. We do it naturally. One of the traits that Trinidad has is that we understand what it is to laugh at our own selves. We do that very easily….that is half the fight in building a tourism business – we, as a people, are who we are. What we don’t understand, is the value of what we have. Because that is what the real traveller wants to see. And that is what I am trying to explain to Trinidad and Tobago. Be natural.” For a full version of Catherine’s one to one interview with Minister Cadiz, click on Youtube screen below.
WalI love the choice of words that Ron Mader, editor of Planeta.com, has used to guide us through this year’s Responsible Tourism Week, an online conference which was created by Ron himself. Every day he used a new theme, teaching us to be Attentive, Generous, Creative, Empathetic, Curious and Grateful while immersing ourselves in the world of travel, whether we are hosts, guests, writers, photographers, publishers, tourist boards, activity providers etc.
I am always bowled over by the personalities I meet on my travel writing expeditions. They demonstrate the practice of these key words throughout every aspect of their businesses and so I am taking this opportunity to celebrate them. Please visit their websites, follow them on Twitter or Facebook, spread the word about them, and use them as case studies to inspire others to act the same way. Or, if they have businesses which are open to guests, just go visit them. They will all be glad to say hi, I am sure.
Attentive – One of the most attentive people I know is Valere Tjolle, a UK based sustainable tourism consultant with Totem Tourism and Sustainable Travel editor at Travelmole. Anyone who has been lucky enough to meet and chat with Valere in detail about the issues of sustainable tourism will know that there are few more attentive people than him. He talks and writes about sustainable tourism in a way that steers clear of academic bluff, he has no hidden agendas, he has been working in tourism for long enough to see responsible tourism go from niche to norm, back to niche and then to a place which lies strangely in between the two. When hearing about worldwide tourism projects he is attentive to all the details, highlights them on Travelmole for all of us to read. He listens to everyone’s stories, asks all the right questions and pushes the envelope when questioning tourism leaders. His attentiveness means that many people, who wouldn’t normally be given one, have a voice. He has also decided to extend his already busy life into a tour operator business, just launched this week, bringing tourists to the wonderfully undiscovered region of Romagna in Italy . Still in its infancy, Watch this space , Best of Romagna, for more details.
Generous –Having walked on The Wales Coast Path a lot, one of the most glorious long distance walking routes in UK, I was struck by the generosity of landowners who are happy to share their space with tourists. I stood on the Pembrokeshire coast after walking from headland to headland all day, looked out across the water and thought how amazing it would be to walk the whole coast of my native Ireland. But sadly it isn’t possible, due to land access issues. This is the same in so many countries, but in Wales farmers and other land owners have opened up paths for walkers, albeit in exchange for a small remuneration, meaning that not only can you now walk the length of the coast of Wales, but around the whole country as the Coast Path now links up with the Offa’s Dyke Long Distance Trail which follows the inland border with England route for 285kms. All thanks to the generosity of strangers.
Creative – This is a tough one as creativity oozes from every project I visit, but I think Echologia in the Mayenne region of France wins my creative prize this year.Apart from their website, that is, which has a way to go, but I forgive them as they have put all their creative energy into their stupendous eco set up. The proper name is actually EcH20logia, because this extraordinary 70 hectare site revolves around water, ecology and lodgings, with three disused limestone quarries offering natural gems of a getaway now that their underground water sources have been allowed to seep back up to the brim again. Poised in and around these teal coloured water holes are a collection of twenty different places to stay, from yurts spread across a wild meadow, tipis within diving distance of the natural reed filtered swimming pool, cabins poised among the trees which overhang the waters or two cabins which float serenely in the middle of one of the basins. And all the creative vision of a group of local men and women who wanted to bring this dead space back to life again. Their vision is Zen like, but not in a purist, whispering way. It’s just about chilling in nature really and their act of replacing a loud, industrial space with something so natural is worthy of praise.
Empathetic- This is a tough one, but when I get a room full of food producers and tourism providers who just thrive on local sourcing, I really start to feel the love. Connecting tourism with local producers is when responsible and ethical tourism starts to kick ass. There are so many tourism businesses which go the extra mile to ensure that they source their food locally, totally empathising with the farmer down the road and working hand in hand to create the most deliciously local experience. In Ireland, John and Sally McKenna’s Guidebooks , Best Restaurants and Best Places to Stay not only capture all the flagships of local produce in Ireland, but are written with total empathy and love for everyone mentioned in the book. Organic Places to Stay website has a wonderful selection of places to stay all around the world, which use organic and local produce. I am totally in love with the small island site, Real Island Foods on the Isle of Wight just off the South coast of England, where you can order all your local produce before you arrive, so that it is waiting at your self-catering accommodation when you arrive. Surely a model to emulate in other small destinations? Other websites in the UK which promote the food of love include farmison.com which has a plethora of farm to fork food and bigbarn.co.uk which is a great short cut to finding local producers on your travels. Just enter a postcode to find your nearest market, farm shop, artisan producer etc. Please feel free to comment on this below if you have found similar food tourism networks around the world, so that I can spread the word, and provide the ultimate feast of tourist sites with local food at
Curious – Well, I guess I have to come back to travel writers for this one. The people who love to dig and delve, but who also put responsible tourism at the heart of their work. Twitter has been a wonderful way for all of us to communicate and share ideas, and so here is a shout out to some of my favourites. Gail Simmons (@travelscribe) writes about the Middle East with great wisdom and sensitivity and has been Highly Commended at the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards twice. She has introduced me to the wonders of Palestine and the exciting tourism developments happening at The Siraj Centre . Caroline Eden (@edentravels) works a lot in Asia and was also Highly Commended at the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards 2012. Matthew Teller is also rather brilliant on the Middle East, and is a wonderful commentator on Twitter too. Kevin Rushby is The Explorer for The Guardian newspaper and he is, basically, just too cool for school and I am at my greenest when reading his work….with envy that is! Richard Hammond of the UK’s Green Traveller website wrote the green travel column in The Guardian for years and then went on to found his website, which features hundreds of green holiday ideas all of which are accessible by train. He also has a writers’ blog on his site which he contributes to regularly as well as a team of other writers. Such as Paul Miles who lives on a houseboat and so no better man for writing about slow travel and slow living (@Travel_n_green), Rhiannon Batten – the author of Higher Ground: How to travel responsibly without roughing it, and also regular feature writer for The Guardian and The Independent in UK (@rhiannonbatten), and Jeremy Smith who is former editor of The Ecologist magazine and starting to write a lot about wildlife conservation via his blog Fair Game and on Twitter @jmcsmith.
Jini Reddy is one travel writer I would love to travel and work with one day. She just seems to sing from the same songsheet as me, as you can see just from her trip portfolio, which includes a canoe trip along Botswana’s Selinda Spillway and taking tea with the women of Pakistan’s pagan Kalash tribe (@Jini_Reddy). And last, but not least, Leo Hickman, environment editor for The Guardian newspaper in the UK, who also wrote the wonderful book on responsible tourism – The Final Call. He is also very active on Twitter, so follow and fall in awe, like I do every time I read his fine pieces of journalism, such as this recent one on flying and climate change. And to conclude, the Saint of all travel scribes, Robert Macfarlane , whose books seem to glow on my bookshelves telling me to pick them up and read them again and again. If you haven’t treated yourself already, check out the ever curious compositions of this extraordinary travel writer in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012), The Wild Places (2008) and Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003)
Grateful –Well, asI get to share Tweets, cross paths and go on journeys with nearly all the above, who else could be more grateful than me, of course?
With thanks to Ron Mader and all the participants of #rtweek2013 and #rtyear2013, as well as all my fellow travellers.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
“Wil-der-nessssss!” is the protagonists’ chosen cry of freedom as they lash through snow covered forests pulled by teams of huskies in Roddy Doyle’s superb children’s book called, aptly, Wilderness. Set in Finland on a family expedition it reveals a land of wild landscapes, ice covered lakes, remote forests, snow, snow and more snow. As well as offering the usual Doylian jaw aching comedy juxtaposed with heart aching tragedy, this book captures the sheer exoticism of these remote places. I am not a huge skiing fan, but this sort of winter wilderness is just what I seek in a winter holiday. So too is one new tour operator, Magnetic North Travel, founded by green travel writer and entrepreneur Laura Greenman (and no, her name is not made up).
I like companies that are based on a philosophy, and Magnetic North Travel was set up after Laura travelled extensively in Scandinavia, and discovered the Norwegian philosophy of Friluftsliv. Although this sounds more like something you might buy in Ikea, it actually translates as Free Air Living. And, unlike the Swedish indoor retail therapy, this philosophy is based on the idea that spending time outdoors, in nature, can really help us recuperate as individuals. This sounds like common sense, and it is, which begs the question-why is it more common for people to head to the plastic wilderness of Alpine ski resorts, cruise on massive liners around the fragile Fjords, or cram into Santa’s myriad grottos in Lapland?
Friluftsliv is about learning from traditions and discovering nature by using these traditions. Magnetic North Travel’s Autumn Bounty trip, for example, combines the traditional Northern Lights experience in Sweden with a day of foraging for wild berries, making and baking bread in traditional wood burning ovens, felt making, going on early morning wildlife safaris and sleeping in wilderness huts. All in the hands of an expert local guide.
When the snow kicks in, you can head to Tromso in the North of Norway, not only to catch the Northern Lights, but stay in an ice hotel, go husky dog sledding, snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing. The joys of Magnetic North Travel is that it is small and sustainable, and they know their guides so well, that they can prepare a bespoke trip for you. Other options include saunas in the snowy wilderness, dips in an icy river, see the Northern Lights on horseback, in the snow of course, ice fishing and wild ice skating. Or check out their Winter Solstice trip to Tromso in Norway, including all the aforementioned experiences being accompanied, as with all their trips, by guides for whom these activities have been at the core of life for generations. There is no set itinerary simply because, as Greenman states, ‘ we would like our guests to help set the pace from the start and to put the emphasis on being in nature rather than following timetables’.
You will find nothing but local food at one of Magnetic North Travel’s greatest finds – a hotel in the trees, located on a farmstead in a forest in the Unesco World Heritage site of Geirangerfjord. Here, you can overdose on friluftsliv in a glass room suspended in the trees, allowing you to enjoy nature’s finest, day and night. Explore local environs on cross country skis, snowshoes, river rafts, or go climbing along dramatic ravines, salmon fishing and grouse hunting depending on the season.
And for those of you who would love to discover the Fjords, but couldn’t quite face those giant cruise ships, Magnetic North Travel has the ultimate in ecochic in the snow. An Arctic spa boat trip through the Fjords, where you can take in the views of the Lyngen Alps from the comfort of the onboard sauna. The boat sleeps up to twelve, so this trip can only be arranged for groups, but beats a corporate trip to a three star in the Trois Vallees, for sure. Here, you have an onboard chef serving local food, you can moor easily to have a day of skiing, with your personal guide taking you to the peaks and guiding you back to shore where you can freshen up in the deckside saltwater pool. You can also try a bit of Arctic fishing, a King Crab safari, reindeer sledding and whale watching on this trip. Friluftsliv is not just common sense cool, it is also one Scandinavian concept that is about as far from flatpack as you can possibly get.
I remember pitching a column idea to some editors a few years ago, on one of those ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ sort of days. It had the working title of ‘The People I Meet’. My aim was to get human stories onto the travel pages and, in the process, create a consumer awareness of responsible tourism without labelling it such. So many people get uptight about terminology linked to the responsible tourism movement but my feeling is that, call it what you will, it always comes back to people. Predictably I received several polite ‘no thanks’ to the pitch, but the one which stood out was from a leading broadsheet which just said “We and our readers want to read about places, not people. If you could get an interview with Richard Branson, however, we might run it”.
So, I put the idea to bed for a while, and in my own way, still try to incorporate the people I meet into my travel features. For example, Ben Llongisa, the Maasai elder whom I met a few years ago and who, against all odds, has created a lodge to host tourists in his village of Enkereri in Kenya ( see the video thanks to The Travel Foundation). I remember one of the editor’s arguments against ‘people stories’ was that they don’t sellholidays and, in an effort to keep their sponsors and advertisers happy, they need to talk about the place first and foremost. However, ever since leaving home at eighteen, it has so often been people who have lead me to a place, not effusive editorial or ‘on brand’ marketing campaigns. In fact, it was hearing a Maasai elder speak at WTM about how they just ‘needed a voice’ that made me want to go to Kenya in the first place.
Of course, I accept that not every traveller wants to holiday in order to ‘give people a voice’ or indeed, an ear. But I do believe that people’s stories do often influence our travel choices. The success of the much missed BBC Radio Four’s Excess Baggage or popular books such as A Year in Provence are simple examples of this. Last year we had the honour of hosting Michel Awad in our home, the co-founder of the Siraj Center in Palestine, an interfaith, community based tourism initiative in Palestine, which runs walking and cycling holidays. Michel talked to us about his fascinating organisation, which works closely with the Palestinan Center for Rapprochement Between People, enabling them to partner with many grassroots organisations to discuss and act upon issues such as water distribution and, of course, changing tourists’ perceptions about Palestine. Palestine is now at the top of my list of places I hope to visit in the near future, not because of a PR pitch or an alluring article, but because I met a lovely person doing extraordinary work there. I will certainly be needing a people-phile editor to commission that one as the stories will, hopefully, be worthy of a weighty word count.
In other industries, speakers reminded us, the commercialisation of an industry needs to take into account all the costs involved and a true analysis of the social, or human cost should take place in tourism destinations as well. There was a lot of talk about UN Guiding Principles, endorsed in June 2011, which outline how States and businesses should implement the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework in order to better manage business and human rights challenges. So, do destinations which are marketing themselves for tourism protect their country from human rights abuses by travel companies, for example? Secondly, adhering to the corporate responsibility to respect human rights in all tourism activities, and then thirdly, providing greater access to victims to seek a remedy for any injuries resulting from human rights abuses.
The tourism industry was also being urged to get a system of due diligence in place quickly if they were to play ethical catch up. What are the country’s human rights risks, are you linked to them in any way, how transparent are you being about these risks, and do you have adequate remedies available when, as one human rights expert stated ‘ when bad things happen’ ? Tourism businesses were being advised to ‘stop being the experts and go out and see what people think on the ground – not just once, but often, as human rights issues change all the time – and if you don’t engage you won’t know’. We are not just talking about the Burmas and Balis either here. This could involve child sex tourism in Eastern Europe, inhumane working conditions in the UK hospitality sector, or people displacement in Scotland in the name of a golf course. And if, as a tourism organisation, you are super proactive in the area of remedying some of these issues, then these are stories you might want to shout about. And hopefully, if any editors out there don’t want to shy away from the human element in tourism, I can then share.
By writing about people who are creating a force for change in tourism, we can not only assist them in seeking remedy, but we can also simply remind tourists that human beings and their homes are central to our holidays. I stayed at a Cretan house a few years ago, and we invited our hosts in for a bottle of wine on the first night. A bottle of home made wine they had been kind enough to give us, by the way. In spite of our language barriers, we enjoyed the wine, more wine, songs, laughs and warmth. And then more wine. When we left, our host told us we were the first UK family in twenty years of hosting, to invite him and his family in. This is far from a human rights issue, but for that human, it was certainly a big issue. If it is this hard for us to even say ‘hi’ on holiday, then we have a long way to go before we hear the real stories behind the smiles. But, we have to start somewhere.
Since leading holiday company, First Choice decided to make 100 per cent of its holidays ‘all inclusive’ packages this year, it has grabbed the headlines. An all inclusive holiday is one where flights, accommodation, food, drink and entertainment are paid for in advance of the holiday so that customers can, more or less, leave their wallets at home. Demand for such holidays has been increasing over the last few years (a third of all package holidays booked in the UK are all inclusive now) and so First Choice says that this switch over is merely a response to customer demand. In spite of the fact that the company has a responsible tourism plan which is crammed as full as an all inclusive buffet. A veritable smorgasbord of sustainability, in fact, which proudly states that, “We in the travel industry often get to meet those who are most affected by the big social and environmental issues of today. So perhaps this gives us a greater chance to create a better world through the way we operate”. So, is the all inclusive holiday the way to a better world?
I pick First Choice merely because it calls itself the ‘The home of the all inclusive’, but of course there are many other companies offering similar packages. First Choice even has an all inclusive calculator on its website, where you can work out just how much you are saving, compared with staying at the local villager’s apartment, buying fruit and vegetables at his mother’s market stall, eating at his uncle’s restaurant, renting canoes from his neighbour, and buying ice cream from his best mate. Don’t do that, First Choice says, because you can get it all in their resort and at half the cost.
“We are just doing what our clients want us to do’, emphasised First Choice’s representative at a recent debate on the sustainability of all inclusives, as if to suggest, it’s nothing to do with us, we just have a duty to uphold. So, imagine this. A region such as West Cork in Ireland, the Isle of Wight in England, or the Pembrokeshire in Wales, is suddenly marketed as THE next destination for, say, Russian tourists. The Russian tourists want casinos, golf courses and all day buffets, all within the resort gates, with no access to local people, except to come and clean the rooms and serve the food. The use of locally produced food is not guaranteed, no one needs to use local cottages, canoes, walking guides, car hire, bikes, markets, tourist offices, gift shops, bakeries, pubs, etc. Looking at the ‘I want therefore I get’ school of commerce, it’s not hard to imagine what the reaction of the host nations would be.
The ‘pro’ argument for all inclusives is always that local people should be happy because they offer ‘employment’. At a recent conference on responsible tourism, when one international hotel chain which was boasting its ethical practices in the Caribbean, because it was now buying all its jam from an island producer, I challenged them: “Why stop at jam?” I suggested, “Surely there are so many other products you could source locally?” to which the response was, “Have you any idea what that would do to our profit margins? And anyway, we employ hundreds of people here every year, which is more than they had before we arrived.”
In a BBC television interview last week, where Nick Longman, Distribution Director at First Choice defended the decision to move to a 100 % all inclusive model, he said “Businesses have to be innovative in how they get to customers and I would also suggest they would want to work with our hotels”, adding that First Choice is “developing dine-around programmes, where we may give people the opportunity to go out into the town to eat and drink in bars that we have relationships with”. This suggestion that, for example, traditional cafés selling cafes con leche and cervezas were just not innovative enough or, indeed, commercially minded, is beyond patronising.
I also asked a representative from the Spanish Tourist Board recently, who was agreeing that all inclusives were not a positive model for the Spanish economy, why they just didn’t go out on a limb and ban them. “We can’t do that, it is a free economy, they can do what they want”.
Until the customer starts to say no, that is. Especially if it is, as suggested,solely customer desire which drives boardroom decisions. Many customers are capable of calculating the real costs of costa del consumerism, especially if they know that only 10% of tourist spend in Turkey makes its way into the local economy due to the all inclusives, for example. Or that in Kenya, 87% of tourists go on all inclusive holidays, and yet over half of local people live on less than $1 a day. These statistics are from recent research from Tourism Concern, the leading UK charity campaigning against the exploitation of human rights in tourism, which is currently leading a campaign highlighting the destructive impacts of all inclusives in destinations all around the world. Check out their online questionnaire on the subject, to give much appreciated feedback on these issues.
Jost Krippendorf, author of a superb book The Holiday Makers (Butterworth-Heinemann) put it perfectly in his detailed study of the impacts of international tourism: “Why has the loss of local autonomy – certainly the most negative long-term effect of tourism- been totally ignored? Why does the local population tolerate it?…the determining factor is perhaps the very nature of the process: it creeps in, moving on soft soles and one only becomes fully aware of it when it has reached an advance stage. Tourism is a kind of friendly conquest, which takes place not only with the acquiescence of the conquered, but at their explicit invitation” and that eventually, “foreign infiltration it total”. He concludes that “it is a new and devious form of colonialism, because it creates, in a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-its-mouth way, a new dependence and exploits people and resources”.
The fact is that all inclusive resorts are not always the cheaper option. I used the First Choice all inclusive ‘calculator’ to see just how much a saving they say I would make if I buy an all inclusive holiday in Lanzarote, compared with a self-catering one. For a week in July, with two adults and two children, they offer a deal of £2768 (Sterling) all inclusive, and claim that a similar holiday on a non inclusive basis would cost £4349. Although the calculator is not an exact quote, described as merely an ‘entertaining tool’ , I thought it would be equally entertaining to compare the cost of staying at a wonderful eco-friendly glamping resort which I wrote about earlier in the year, Lanzarote Retreats. Here are the approximate costs for a family of four in Sterling: Flights £800 (quote from 29 April 2012), accommodation, £700, airport transfers £100, day trip to water park £100, day trip to local island £122. Total: £1822. If I were to add on £946 for food and drink for the week, that would bring me up to the same cost as First Choice’s all inclusive deal, as opposed to the £4349 they were suggesting. And even eating out a couple of times, buying fish from the local fishmonger, shopping at the local markets, buying the finest Lanzarote wine at €10 a bottle, I can make a grand a week spread a long way and have an wonderful and truly sustainable holiday. So, you can consume and care, without it costing you or your hosts a fortune. But at the end of the day, the real choice is yours.
(An edited version of this article was first published in The Southern Star newspaper, Ireland)