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Transforming Travel: It’s a Big, Big Task

Opinion: Sven Lindblad, CEO, Lindblad Expeditions

An article in the New York Times on August 27 bore the headline “Move Over Sustainable Travel, Regenerative Travel Has Arrived.” It got a lot of attention, rightfully so, as it was a very meaningful article. The first two paragraphs were telling.

“Once accounting for 10% of employment worldwide, the sector is poised to shed 121 million jobs, with losses projected at a minimum of $3.4 trillion, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council,” referring to an industry devastated by the pandemic.

In the second paragraph the author writes, “But in the lull, some in the tourism industry are planning for a post-vaccine return to travel that’s better than it was before March 2020 — greener, smarter and less crowded.”

If sustainable tourism, which aims to counter-balance the social and environmental impacts associated with travel, were the aspirational outer limit of ecotourism before the pandemic, the new frontier is ‘regenerative travel’ or ‘leaving a place better than you found it.’

Okay—we have a noble idea here—leaving a place better than we found it. But what hits me, haunts me, challenges and motivates me, is daunting. According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism accounted for an $8.9 TRILLION contribution to global GDP. It resulted in approximately 330 million direct jobs (pre Covid-19). 2019 saw approximately 1.5 billion international arrivals growing at a 4% clip.

This is a massive beast, with an equally massive set of players—governments, hotels, cruise lines, airlines, car rentals, national parks, theme parks, restaurants, shopkeepers, big and small. I could go on and fill this page with a list of those involved.

There clearly are some noble players, some having been mentioned in the New York Times’ article, but there are far more where the principles of regenerative tourism will not only be outright rejected, but feared. The key problem is the concept of restraint—less crowded translates to the bulk of the travel industry, as less profitable. And that problem will only be exacerbated coming out of this pandemic when people will be scrambling to make up lost ground. Any talk of restraint will largely be met with unmentionable reactions.

I think few people realize how marginal many travel-related businesses are. I remember back in the 1990’s, the director of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) told me that, of the 57 brands represented by the association, the average profit margin was 3%. I’m not sure what it is today but I recall being shocked, as these brands were the cream of the crop. If an airline were to decide permanently to remove the middle seats, that would represent about a 33% drop in capacity. I personally like the idea and would be happy to pay for the room, but a ton of people wouldn’t.

Mass tourism, i.e. cheap crowded flights, large overcrowded hotels and cruise ships are not appealing on so many levels, but they provide opportunities for many who could not otherwise afford to travel. The affordability factor inevitably comes at a price and it’s usually, sadly, overcrowding.

There is literally only one country in the world that built tourism strategically. The goal was to provide economic value, to promote its unique culture and traditions without disrupting the culture or the “gross national happiness” of the country— Bhutan.

Their doors opened for the first time in 1974. Numbers were restricted and the cost was comparably high. Initially the policy was referred to as ‘high value-low volume’, but later there was a subtle change to ‘high value-low impact’, a nod to the fact that some found their policy elitist, allowing in only the wealthy. Reality, though, is you can’t have it both ways. The trajectory of nearby Nepal has been very different where there is comparatively much greater volume, almost five times more international visitors and a very different cultural effect. Bhutan, I would say, engages in ‘regenerative travel’ and has done so for nearly 50 years. They are a model of a very particular point of view.

I believe my company has been engaged in regenerative behavior for decades. In fact, our behavior as a travel company is cited by many as the “Lindblad Model.” However, while that is flattering, I reject the idea that a true model yet exists.

I came into this business as fluke. I was a naturalist, a photographer with absolutely no business training. Yes, I did have a very famous father, Lars-Eric Lindblad, who is often, and correctly, referred to as the father of eco-tourism, and who, by the way, worked on behalf of Bhutan’s king in the 70’s to develop Bhutan’s tourism strategy.

I was living in Kenya for most of the 70’s. One day my father came to visit my camp from which I spent a year and a half photographing elephants. He asked me if I would consider coming back to the States to work for him. He was my hero and I, of course, said yes despite not wanting to leave Africa, and having no interest in the travel business. What I learned, however, in the first year of working for him was that tourism could be a brilliant vehicle for getting people more interested in nature and conservation, and that was powerfully motivating.

In 1979, having worked for my father for a year and a half, I decided I wanted to branch out on my own and, in partnership with my father’s company, started what was then called Special Expeditions. I was idealistic and at times angry that people didn’t see what I thought was important. I spent many nights despondent about the carnage inflicted upon elephants for their ivory and rhinos for their horns. As a diver I have seen the absolute devastation of fish stocks and the bleaching of coral reefs. I’m obsessed about global warming and the future of our children. We humans have not been good stewards of our environment, nor have we shown proper respect for cultures around the world. But I am no longer angry, because I have realized that everyone comes to the table with different influences which result in different priorities and value systems. There are millions of people who have been taught to look at short-term economic gains as the key driver of success; few have been taught that a healthy environment is critical to human well-being and survival.

If we really want to make the idea of ‘regenerative travel’ a reality, we have to engage far beyond the reach of entities and people who today are attracted to the idea. We have to find ways to make a huge industry find value in change. And we have to find strategies to make travelers themselves find value in change—in terms of the kind of positive pressure they can put on markets, and by reconsidering some of their behavior.

We have to make people genuinely take future generations into consideration in all that they do, including travel. It’s a big, big task.

Recently the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, a man I deeply admire, said at a gathering of the World Tourism Organization, “Let us ensure tourism regains its position as a provider of decent jobs, stable incomes and the protection of our cultural and natural heritage.” I have one quarrel with his words “regains its position.” I believe, if we sat down and had a coffee together and I asked him about those words, he might consider altering them to say, “gains a position” — to recognize the fact that an immense amount of work still needs to be done.

(Source: Exploring with Sven)

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