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National Geographic travel writer Costas Christ films a documentary.Handout

In the late 1970s, Costas Christ was working on a Harvard wildlife research project in Kenya where he witnessed firsthand the mounting disconnect (and tension) between the local people and the safari tourism industry. Since tourism, at its core, is a business whose “product” is selling nature and culture, Christ could not fathom why tour operators were not doing a better job of ensuring that the natural habitats they were visiting – and the people who made those destinations so interesting – were not better cared for. So he set about to change it.

On the leading edge of green travel initiatives for the past 40 years, Christ helped coin the word ecotourism, and later was one of the founding members of a movement that is now widely known as sustainable tourism. The Globe and Mail talked to the award-winning National Geographic travel writer after he spoke at the Meaningful Travel Summit hosted by Tourism Cares, an organization that works with tourism organizations to improve the industry’s social, environmental and economic impact. Christ shares his thoughts on common misconceptions surrounding sustainable travel and why it’s so important to the survival of the industry and the planet. He also gives pointers on how each of us can travel a little smarter.

National Geographic travel writer Costas Christ says the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a greater understanding of the importance of planetary health and wellbeing.Handout

COVID-19 shutdowns worldwide presented an opportunity for the industry to rebuild with a renewed focus on social responsibility. Are you seeing signs of this?

The pandemic has given rise to a greater understanding that we will never have personal health and well-being without planetary health and well-being. Scientific research has shown that often pandemics have their origin in disruptions and damage to nature, along with large-scale deforestation. With more travellers today asking questions about the social and environmental impacts their trips will have, the travel industry is also responding to this shift. For example, last year the TreadRight Foundation, based in Toronto, launched a climate action plan in addition to other initiatives supporting social justice and conservation for the Travel Corporation, one of the world’s largest travel companies. So yes, I am feeling more encouraged that the travel industry is moving toward a future where sustainability is the rule and not the exception. Are we there yet? No. The global travel and tourism industry, considered to be among the largest industries on Earth, needs to do a lot more and move a lot faster in fully embracing sustainable tourism leadership.

Is the tourism industry ready to take an honest look at itself when it comes to being sustainable?

Not yet. There is still way too much talk without doing the walk. For example, sustainability is still considered optional by many travel companies and, too often, budget allocations are not made to support implementation – such as investing in a self-bottling water purification system at a hotel in order to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles. Pick up almost any vacation brochure and it is filled with beautiful images of unspoiled nature and crowd-free cultural sites. I have never seen a brochure advertising a tropical holiday with photos of a beach covered in plastic trash or images of ancient cultural sites being damaged by mass tourism crowds. My point is that, at the very least, the tourism industry has a responsibility to invest in protecting what it also relies on for its own business success. While the industry at large has yet to truly embrace sustainable tourism, it is happening slowly but surely, and that is what gives me hope.

What are some of the most common misconceptions about sustainable tourism?

One is that you have to give something up to have a sustainable holiday, when really it is about gaining something more – a great vacation and knowing that what gave you such enjoyment has also contributed in positive ways to making the world a better place. Another is that going on a sustainable holiday is only for luxury travellers. The truth is sustainable tourism runs the full gamut from budget to luxury – it has always been about making tourism better, not making it more expensive.

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What does it really mean to be a sustainable tourism operator?

In 2005, I was asked by the United Nations Foundation to help establish global criteria for sustainable tourism. Today, that criteria has been embraced globally, including by 196 nations of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Travel and Tourism Council, among others. While there are many individual criteria, they can be grouped under three pillars: environmentally friendly practices; protection of natural and cultural heritage; and social and economic well-being of local people. A sustainable tourism operator will be able to document how they are positively impacting all three of these pillars.

Which tour operators are doing a good job?

The member hotels in Beyond Green [a new hospitality brand, located across five continents, which Christ helped co-found] represent true sustainable tourism in action. When someone books with them, they are joining a growing movement of travellers committed to having a positive impact on people and the planet. Tour operators like G Adventures and Big Five Tours and Expeditions are sustainability leaders, and Uniworld River Cruises, which pioneered the world’s first standards for environmentally friendly river cruising, is also very committed to sustainability. Twenty years ago, I could have counted the number of such companies on two hands. Today there are many more to choose from and that is a good thing.

The tourism industry has a responsibility to invest in protecting what it also relies on for its own business success

Costas Christ

What are key questions to ask if you want to make your holiday as sustainable as possible?

Try to avoid getting lost in the lexicon jungle that confuses even the most well-meaning travellers – terms like geotourism, ethical tourism, conscious travel, regenerative travel etc. all vying to pitch people as being something new or different. In reality, it’s mostly marketing spin trying to repackage sustainable tourism practices already well-established. When I plan on booking a trip with a tour operator, before I sign on, I ask these three questions: Can you give me an example of how your company follows environmentally friendly practices, such as the elimination of single-use plastics?; in what ways are you involved with supporting the protection of nature?; how does your business also benefit local people in the places you visit? In the past, those questions may have seemed odd to a tour operator or hotel. Not any more. If you don’t get a straightforward answer find another company to go with. I want my hard-earned vacation dollars to reward those companies that share my values as a sustainable traveller.

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