World Tourism Day is Sept. 27, and this time around, the United Nations has dubbed the day as Sustainable Tourism: a Tool for Development. Brett Tollman, chief executive of The Travel Corporation and founder of The TreadRight Foundation—TTC’s not-for-profit that encourages minimizing the travel industry’s footprint on the planet—views sustainable tourism as an important initiative for the success of the tourism industry as a whole.
In honor of World Tourism Day, Tollman took the time to answer a few of our questions about sustainable tourism and what agents, travelers, and the industry as a whole can do to have a more positive impact on the Earth.
Jessica Poitevien (JP): How would you describe the idea of sustainable tourism to someone who is new to the concept?
Brett Tollman (BT): The concept of sustainable tourism is exactly what it sounds like. It’s about traveling and experiencing the world in a way that will allow the generations to come to explore and enjoy our planet in the same way we do today.
As a travel company, we recognize that it is our responsibility to help protect the places we visit and take care of the world around us.
JP: When and how did you realize the importance of sustainable tourism?
BT: When I was about 10-years-old, I read an article about Paul Newman that would come to shape my thinking about sustainability from that point forward. The overall article was about Newman’s recently established foundation, but it was the details about Newman’s meticulous approach to recycling that particularly struck me.
That idea stayed with me as The Travel Corporation (TTC) founded our own not-for-profit dedicated to sustainability through The TreadRight Foundation some 10 years ago, and I continue to reflect on Newman’s impassioned commitment to the planet now as the United Nations has designated 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
JP: What do you believe the travel industry can do to help preserve the planet?
BT: As one of the world’s largest sectors, the travel industry has tremendous potential to be a significant force for positive change. As an industry, we can help to increase public appreciation of the environment and help to spread the word on the value of connecting with the natural world and other cultures and communities in a sustainable way.
Travel can also contribute to environmental protection, conservation and restoration of biological diversity and sustainable use of natural resources, as the attractiveness of the natural world is a vitally important asset for our industry, proving that maintaining the vibrancy of natural sites is crucial to tourism organizations being able to continuously benefit from their existence.
JP: What about individual travelers?
BT: Travelers can help preserve the planet by honoring their hosts and learning about local customs, traditions and social practices; supporting local economies by purchasing souvenirs like locally made artisan handicrafts and products; respecting wildlife and their natural habitats; purchasing products that aren’t made using endangered species; reducing water and energy waste; treading lightly; and sharing their knowledge and rewarding experiences when they return home.
JP: What new advances have you seen in sustainable tourism in the last couple of years?
BT: The United Nations designating 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development has been a valuable rallying point to help bring about significant change in our industry. The goal is to support changes in policies, business practices, and consumer behavior towards a more sustainable tourism sector that contributes to sustainable development goals.
TTC signed on as a Diamond Sponsor of the UN International Year of Sustainable Development because we recognize the importance of continually pushing the agenda with our travelers, partners, and employees. That’s why we’re on our own sustainability journey, adopting and implementing a social responsibility strategy to integrate best practices and reduce our operational environmental footprint, protect the planet’s wild places and cultures, reduce the impact at our offices, help stamp out animal cruelty, empower the disenfranchised, and impact our communities through our employee volunteering program. We’re also encouraging and educating our team and the travelers who explore the planet with our award-winning brands to do so in a positive and sustainable manner.
JP: What should agents communicate to their clients about sustainable tourism?
BT: Travelers simply need to be educated about what to look for as they make their travel-related purchases. One thing that’s valuable to keep in mind is that sustainability-minded travel companies are partnering with leading sustainability organizations to help save wildlife and elevate communities in the places they visit.
If clients are looking for a reference guide for themselves, agents can recommend The United Nations World Tourism Organization’s excellent yet simple guide book ‘Tips for a Responsible Traveller,’ which you can find at tourism4development2017.org.
JP: Are there any tours or programs in particular that agents should recommend to their clients interested in sustainable travel?
BT: TTC has partnered with ME to WE so that travelers experiencing three iconic destinations—India, the Ecuadorian Amazon, and Kenya—have the unique opportunity to book ME to WE Immersive Volunteer Trip extensions on upcoming or set departure dates, or as a requested custom trip.
This summer, some of my family members and I were privileged to have taken part in one of these incredible purpose-driven trips to Kenya. It was a week of truly life-changing memories. It was a remarkable trip, guided and organized by WE co-founders, Craig and Marc Kielburger, that included other involved and passionate families from Canada and the U.S. It was a week of learning, exploration, observation and participation. We also received an in-depth view of the social change that they have brought to the communities in the Maasai Mara over the past 20 years. They have built schools and clean water wells, provided the first hospital and ambulance service, built farms, helped empower women, and are now in the midst of building a college.
We were all blown away—it is a truly sustainable community model they have built, which as they say is all about giving a hand up, not a hand out to the people in the communities they are involved with. This entire region of Kenya has been lifted out of despair, and the hope and excitement is palpable.
JP: What accomplishment or initiative are you most proud of?
BT: I’m very proud of the 40-plus sustainable travel projects The TreadRight Foundation has helped support around the world in the near decade since it was founded. It has been inspiring to collaborate with sustainability leaders like our TreadRight Ambassador Celine Cousteau and amazing organizations like the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, Wilderness Foundation, Wildlife SOS, Just a Drop, National Geographic, Happy Hearts Fund, the National Trust, and many more to help maintain the natural attractions and unique heritages across the planet.
I’m also proud of the work we’re doing within our organization as part of our social responsibility strategy that included a pledge to World Animal Protection in 2015, which I signed on behalf of TTC and its family of brands, committing us to not sell, offer or promote venues or activities involving elephant rides and shows, and committing to proactively communicate this commitment to protect elephants to customers, and encourage elephant-friendly tourism.
In concert with that pledge, we introduced our TreadRight Animal Welfare Policy, which assists our operations teams as they vet and assess all animal-related activities TTC offers, and those activities that do not meet the requirements of the policy are phased out and/or removed; this includes events and attractions ranging from elephant rides to running with the bulls.
JP: What changes do you hope to see in the travel industry in your lifetime?
BT: The World Travel & Tourism Council has released a pledge campaign this year called Is It Too Much Too Ask? It communicates the need for us all to make now the time to be counted, to make a change, asking each of us to personally commit to making travel and tourism an even greater force for good in the world.
That’s what I would like to see happen. I want everyone to come together and commit to the planet. Commit to speaking up when you see irresponsible, dangerous, unsustainable, or plain wrong practices or activities that may cause harm to people, animals, or the planet.
There may be no [other] industry with more opportunity to affect the positive transformation of the planet, but we have to act now, and we have to act together.