Today, the USTOA hosted a converstion about Sustainable Travel and how tour operators can start to incorporate it more in their programs.

Cathleen Johnson, formerly of Edleman Travel, began the conversation reminding everyone of the official definition for sustainable travel from the UNWTO, saying “sustainable tourism takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.”

“I think we’ve all gone far beyond awareness in that journey [for sustainable tourism]; I think we’re all quite aware that sustainability is a huge issue. But I think some of us are still in the understanding stage,” said Johnson. “We’re still trying to understand the consequences of inaction. And, when we look at overtourism, that could be one of the greatest signs of the inaction that our industry has contributed to. But the next phase is probably the most crucial stage in our sustainability journey and that is action. And we really need to move into action; particularly in light of the realities of this pandemic that we all continue to suffer through; of the frequency of the natural and man-made disasters that are destroying some of our finest assets as tour operators and suppliers. And of course, the frightening conclusions of the IPCC report that was recently released. We all know we are in trouble, and we all know that tourism can help allay some of that trouble. But the message that we want to bring today is that as members of USTOA, we can not underestimate the amount of responsibility and the opportunity that you have to make a difference in this whole journey,” she added.

Johnson continued by saying that, “At the last count from 2018 from USTOA, you moved nearly 10 million people around the world. That’s 10 million people you have the power to influence, to educate, and to inspire to be more knowledgeable, to be more conscious and caring, and to be more responsible travelers.

“If we were to take it one step farther, imagine the impact that you could have, if you as an association catalyzed a movement towards a more sustainable industry, by leading the rest of your industry and the other associations to push a sustainability agenda,” she said.

“Many of you might be asking why you should take action, particularly when you’ve just gone through year from hell and continue to be in that hell. But, you are continuing to experience massive hits to your business,” said Johnson.

She then noted that in the most recent survey members of USTOA took internally, they identified three barriers to getting on the sustainability train.

  1. Customer willingness to accept any additional cost to sustainability
  2. Identifying opportunities -34 percent of your members said you don’t have any opportunities for sustainable travel
  3. The ability to implement practices and operationalize sustainability

And, she responded to these hurdles with reasons to take action toward sustainability.

Compelling reasons for actions:

  1. It is simply the right thing to do for your business, for your customers, for the world, and for your own personal integrity.
  2. Customers are demanding sustainable travel. The most recent survey from, which surveyed 30,000 people in 30 different countries said that 83 percent of global travelers thing that sustainable travel is vital. 61 percent said that the pandemic has made them want to travel more sustainably in the future. And, almost 50 percent don’t believe there are enough options in the sustainable field

“That demand for sustainable travel truly is growing. And, as some of the most influential and the largest companies in the travel industry, you must stay ahead of the trend,” said Johnson. “You can’t get behind the trend. You can’t wait for it to be a bigger trend. It’s not just about saving the planet, but it is about asset preservation. This is destruction of your product offering. You have the power to make a difference, and even though it may mean you have to change your outlook on ROI—think of ROI differently instead of Return On Investment, think about it as Return on Involvement on the fight for sustainability.”

sustainable travel
Travelers want to connect with the local people and places they visit.

Greg Takehara, CEO, Tourism Cares followed by sharing a few points to help USTOA members focus on sustainability. “Think of your focus on sustainability as your insurance policy. It’s all about protecting our assets, and in this case our assets are the people and places of travel. It’s what and who we sell, but it’s also who we are. We’re talking about an aspect of self-preservation as well.”

He added that to inspire the members, they should “unlock the potential of your sustainability journey. It always starts with a seed, so you need to find yours. It’s all about what we can do together…about one community helping another community.

Then, he told them, “tell your sustainability story, and take note when others are telling theirs. Tourism Cares loves to meet everyone where they’re at in their sustainability journey, but it always starts at a very personal place,” he adds. Share those personal stories. “Sustainability is a big focus especially for future generations. It’s how they’ll think about their travel patterns. It’s especially important right now; about the good that your companies are doing. Now is really not the time to be humble.”

Takehara noted that members should allow Tourism Cares to be their connection point. “If everybody sends us their point person for sustainability, we can convene them to help think tank and work together, because each of us alone can’t do it ourselves.

“We all win by helping each other. We need to become students and stewards of sustainability. If you’ve marveled at the work that sustainability-focused companies such as The Travel Corporation, Intrepid, Lindblad, to name a few, have done in this area…they will be the first to want to share what they have done with all of you,” he says.

Takehara shared that last year they started a Sustainability Journey Cohort Group to bring members to work with Tourism Cares, and talked about how to get started. “The key is always collaboration, and not competition,” he says. And he reminds members that what gets measured, gets managed. So it’s important you do the measurements within your organization.

Emma Cottis of Goway, who participated in the cohort group, chimed in and said, “It’s fantastic to see this come forward with the amount of focus USTOA as an organization is putting to this issue, and it’s imperative now. When we all saw the IPCC report and the numbers, it was just devastating. I can not express enough that this is not something you can ignore. The biggest issue for companies like Goway is ‘How do you start?’ and the overwhelming question was ‘How do we save the world?’ And the answer is, one person doesn’t; we go back to that ripple effect, and we have to start somewhere,” she says. Adding that the cohort helped them look at their business and figure out what they’re doing well already, and what could they modify moving forward.

sustainable travel
Demand for incorporating sustainable travel into itineraries is up.

Keith Sproule, executive director, Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy, added, “because of where we operate—Africa, Asia, Latin America—we understood the inequity in the context of travelers reaching these very remote, isolated destinations. The world’s natural cultural heritage sites, these are natural stewards, the host communities. And, we needed to make sure that we were structuring benefit to those communities,” he said. “We built out a portfolio of 44 projects in 24 countries, and it was expanding up until 2020. [These are] really focused on healthcare, job creation—especially for women. And we’re very proud that the company began 2020 with 44 projects in 24 countries and through today they remain.

“In the context of 2020-2021, we opened the door for our guests to support these projects,” Sproule added. “Our total impact in 2020 went up when we quantified the investments we were able to make, not just the corporate commitment, but also the guests. The guests were at home thinking about those villages, the schools they visited, the clinics they went to, and they would ring in and ask questions. ‘What’s happening? How are those kids studying? Is there something we can do?’ And, we crafted some really creative support over the last 18 months, and that was a really beautiful thing.”

“In terms of demand,” he said, “we are getting more requests now to incorporate into our itineraries visits to these types of locations and these projects than ever before. It feels like after that time at home, the reflective aspect, people are really wanting their next travel journey to be incorporating—especially if it’s multigenerational—visits to these sites, and more connectivity back to the local hosts.”

Sproule added that companies in the context of 2020 and 2021,  are being asked to step up to show up differently by their guests. “They want companies to incorporate more of the human side, the project site visit side into itineraries,” so, he says, “They’re being built in to our Luxury Small Group Journeys, into our Tailor Made itineraries.

“Our staff is asking us to be different. Millennnials…Gen Z, HR, they ask. Whether it’s in the U.S., Australia…they ask, ‘What can we be communicating?’ Tell your story for recruitment. It’s a must these days with younger generations coming into our industry. They’re going to demand a lot,” he says. “In the context of 2020 and social equity, social justice concern, our staff in the Chicago office asked, ‘Can’t we do something domestically?’ So we vetted different organizations and started to work with the Boys and Girls Club, put together a webinar training introduction to the travel and tourism industry and had very enthusiastic staff presentations about product, and marketing, and what they could do to get involved. And then we took innercity youth to Idaho and focused it on the issues of being present and mindfulness and bridging it back to their lives in Chicago. Back in the office, the pride that was had of having to deliver something like that, is something we’re going to continue to do going forward. And, that was entirely staff-driven.”

Before concluding the conversation, Terry Dale, president and CEO of USTOA said, “I feel a responsibility at the USTOA to call upon my colleagues at other organizations to work with tourism cares, because I think doing it as an industry is more…I think we all need to join forces and support Tourism Cares.”

Now, if you’re thinking how can you start to implement Sustainable Travel into your offerings, Johnson offered the following tips to get started:

  • Get certified with Travel Life – for tour operators
  • Use tourism Cares – 14 questions for tour operators on site
  • Get educated yourself with Tourism Cares
  • Operationalize sustainability
  • Educate your clients on your website
  • Join the coalition- the future of tourism coalition
  • For USTOA –
  • Creating a marketplace at your conference for Sustainable DMOs and operators
  • Focus your next conference on sustainability

For more information, visit

And, check out, “USTOA Survey Forecasts 2021 Travel Recovery.”