May 31, 2016

Gap in the Market Volume 1: Responsible Travel

by Malek Murison

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responsible travel

This week marks the first instalment of our industry insight collection. In each volume, we want to highlight a particular sector of the travel industry and delve a little deeper into it. We hope that this will open your eyes to the possibilities out there, and maybe even inspire you to set up your own marketplace. With the help of Travelshift of course!

First up is Responsible Travel. It’s a pretty young sector, and we’ll be the first to admit that there’s a lot of nonsense and uncertainty out there around what actually constitutes ‘responsible’ travel. So that’s the first thing we’ll be looking at. Then we’ll take a closer look at why you might want to consider setting up in this space. Here goes…

What is Responsible Travel?

Great question. Broadly, responsible travel is tourism with an ethical slant, with a higher purpose, and with the aim of improving or raising awareness for a certain scenario. It can be roughly categorised into the following:


This involves travel to natural areas, with a focus on conserving the environment and improving the welfare of the native population.

Ethical Tourism

This kind of travel aims at destinations where ethical issues are the key driver, e.g. social injustice, human rights, animal welfare, or the environment.

Sustainable Tourism

Tourism that leads to the management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support systems.

Why is it important?

So why do people suddenly care about ethical, sustainable tourism? Well, according to a study done last year from the Centre for Responsible Travel (CREST) much of it comes down to economics, as well as arguably the result of increased industrialisation: Global Warming.

Responsible tourism has become increasingly important, as the inequality gap between the world’s richest and poorest nations continues to widen, while the realities of climate change become ever more apparent.

To highlight this staggering rise in equality, an Oxfam study in 2014 concluded that the world’s 85 richest people control US$ 1.7 trillion – the same amount as the bottom 50%. That’s 3.5 billion people of the global population. That same year was also the hottest year on record, only for the record to be broken by last year, 2015. All in all, things aren’t looking too great here on planet earth. But what’s that got to do with travel?

Well, tourism happens to be the largest global service industry that we have. And as travel trends continue this dependency is only going to increase. It also happens to be one of the top industries in the majority of poor countries, and therefore has a vital role to play in reversing, or at least softening, these catastrophic trends.

As one of the world’s largest economic sectors, tourism is especially well‐placed to promote environmental sustainability, “green” growth and our struggle against climate change through its relationship with energy.” – UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon

So the bottom line is this: We need to hope that in a growing number of destinations, business leaders, natives, and local authorities will realise that safeguarding what makes an area distinctive – its cultural assets, natural habitats, historic features, or even scenery – is a major step in reaping benefits from responsible tourists. For that reason it’s a trend that needs to be encouraged.

But whatever the marvellous Ban Ki-Moon may say, there’s not going to be a change overnight in the behaviour of travellers. These things take time. But is there a growing at least a growing market? Is the collective consciousness of the global traveller beginning to click into gear?

ethical and responsible travel
An important part of ethical travel is ensuring that tourism is handled in a way that will protect the environment local businesses depend on.

We spoke to Michael McColl, co-founder of Ethical Traveler, to get his thoughts on the power of travellers to change the world for the better.

"Ethical Travel is easy to define," he said. "It means simply being mindful of your impacts as you travel, maximizing your positive impacts and minimizing the negatives."

His organisation, Ethical Traveler "is an alliance of the world's travelers, dedicated to protecting human rights and the environment.  We find that many governments don't much care what the environmentalists and the human rights advocates think.  But one thing they often DO care about is tourism revenues.  When we tell a minister of tourism that we love their country, but that a current practice is making travelers uncomfortable with supporting the country with their travel dollars, we often get that government's attention."

Travelers have clout. We vote with our wallets." - Michael McColl, co-founder, Ethical Traveler

McColl highlighted the fact that travellers may have more power than they realise to make a difference. "Our economic power as travelers is enormous," he said. "If you'd like to use your power to reward a destination that is among the best in terms of protecting human rights and the environment, take a look at our list.  Countries who see that international tourism is rewarding their efforts will be encouraged to do more. And their neighbors will be forced to do the same, to keep up."

The market for responsible travel

So, on the one hand we have a host of problems that tourism can help to solve. On the other, we have a huge traveller community apparently eager to do things in a more sustainable, environmentally friendly manner. Surely this is a recipe for success.

In fact, according to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism has already made a big impression worldwide, proving a popular way to see the sights without leaving a negative trace. It’s even estimated that this kind of tourism could grow to be as much as 25% of the global travel market within six years. That’s roughly equal to US$ 470 billion per year in revenues. Boom.

The world’s terrestrial PAs (protected areas) receive about 8 billion visits per year – of which 80% are in Europe and North America…These visits generate approximately US$ 600 billion per year in direct in‐country expenditure and US$ 250 billion per year in consumer surplus”- Andrew Balmford et. Al, Walk on the Wild Side: Estimating the Global Magnitude of Visits to Protected Areas

The Business Case for Responsible travel

So there’s obviously a clear ethical case for travel agencies to set up more responsible trips and excursions. But what you might be wondering is: is there a business case too? Does it make financial sense to target responsible travellers?

In short, the answer to the first question is yes. Here’s why. A joint 2012 report by The Travel Foundation and Forum for the Future outlines six key benefits travel businesses will gain by adopting responsible practices. They will:

  • Reduce costs and improve efficiencies.
  • Manage risks and meet emerging legal and regulatory requirements.
  • Engage staff in CSR, which has proven to be a key driver of employee satisfaction.
  • Gain a competitive advantage by offering differentiating experiences to customers.
  • Meet emerging consumer trends.
  • Protect the future of your business by protecting the environment on which it depends.

That's quite a number of reasons. Not only are travellers leading the trend towards responsible tourism, it stands to be a profitable sector for travel agencies too. Such is the necessity for more responsible tourism, agencies already putting positive steps into practice are seeing the benefits. And these range from customer and employee satisfaction to the protecting the very foundations of the business.

Travellers and tourism operators alike are beginning to realise that travel needs to become more sustainable if it's to continue growing at its current rate.

The encouraging thing is that sustainable tourism is becoming more widely accepted – so much so that UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, now believes it will go from ‘alternative’ to ‘mainstream’ within a decade.” —Alex Blackburne, Editor, Blue & Green Tomorrow

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Travelshift software gives you a fighting chance to start competing with the big boys from day one. Get in touch and give us a try.