Earth Day should be like that: Making a concerted effort to apply environmental conservation to all aspects of our everyday lives is one of today’s key messages.
Vacations may seem like exceptions to everyday life, but conservation awareness is arguably more important and relevant when we break from our daily routines. Do we use nine fresh towels at home? Do we wash our sheets every day? Do we burn through single-use shampoo and soap bottles? Then there’s the fresh, local fare we expect at the buffet. What are we eating, exactly, and where and how was it raised, grown or caught?
Fact is, just about every aspect of a vacation can have a negative impact on the environment. So we have three options: One, never go on vacation, which is a bit like saying we should ditch our homes, move into geothermically-heated caves and consume nothing but kelp. Two, vacation independently and educate ourselves on the best practices of environmental travel. This is certainly viable, and I’m not opposed to putting in the work, but isn’t a vacation supposed to be work-free? Plus, not everyone has the time to do this. In short, Option 2 can be a bit of a Catch 22.
This brings us to Option 3: Arrange vacations through companies that apply best practices for us. It’s easy to be cynical about eco-motivations, so it’s essential for travel outfits to walk the walk and offer proof that they favour environmental substance over style.
The TreadRight Foundation provides an example of this. Founded in 2008 by the multinational Travel Corporation – which includes brands such as Contiki, Trafalgar and Insight – the not-for-profit group oversees dozens of projects that support sustainable tourism and foster the preservation of popular tourist sites such as the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, the Grand Canyon, and the Brazilian Rainforest.
It does this mainly by partnering with expert-led, locally-based initiatives, which brings us to Céline Cousteau (pictured above). You may recognize her surname – she's the granddaughter of legendary French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau – but she's also an accomplished environmental activist in her own right, having founded, among other projects, CauseCentric Productions, a non-profit that aims to help other organizations communicate their messages through film.
"With the experiences I have," Cousteau, 39, explains – visiting remote tribes in the Amazon rainforest, diving with manatees and humpback whales, the list goes on – "I play a role in helping Treadright tell the story they want to tell. They have the means" – thousands of young, energetic, eco-minded customers, as well as access to funding – "and I have the content."
I had a chance to chat with Cousteau about sustainable tourism, and what it means to put words into action, a couple years back while she was in Toronto. (She also offers some great eco-travel tips in a video at the end of this post.)
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing sustainable tourism?
A: A lot of people have the mentality that, “I'm on an island, I should eat fish.” It's a limited resource, and the reality is you're also building facilities, in potentially fragile ecosystems, that are going to house tourists, use natural resources, and don't really give much back. So I think the tourism industry has a huge responsibility to balance things out.
Q: How can this be achieved?
A: I don't have the perfect formula for you, but I think the way to start is to ask: Can we choose local operators who are more environmentally minded, hotels that don't wash their sheets every day, don't use chemicals? Can we go to a restaurant that only serves sustainable seafood? I think all these things start to build a system where tourism has less of an impact, and inspires people onsite to be more environmentally minded and attract tourists who want that.
Q: Can you point to any projects that are making this work?
A: My father (Jean-Michel Cousteau, also a renowned environmentalist) was involved in a resort in Fiji (that now bears his name). When he got involved they changed their environmental policy. They started a grey water system and a water purification system. They started doing a vegetable garden for the restaurant. Another one that I'm dreaming of going to is in Raga Ampat, Indonesia. It's called the Misool Eco Resort. A young couple started it and basically grew the resort in a sustainable way using locally-sourced sustainable wood, by training local people in English, hotel management and carpentry, and then hiring them and contributing to the local economy. They work with local government and schools, they work to stop shark-finning in the area, and at the base of it, it's a dive resort. But they're really starting off on the right foot. So by choosing to stay at a place like that, you are actually contributing to sustainability. In this day and age, we don't have an excuse for not doing things right.
Q: What are some ways travellers can get involved with conservation?
A: One part we're looking at is whether it is possible for travellers to visit, for example, a project that Contiki is involved with, or should we just introduce them to a project and say, "you're travelling to Guatemala, and we're supporting this local initiative, so you can meet the marine biologist who's supporting it, and by the way 5 per cent of the profits go to the project." Just by the virtue of that, the company can make a local impact, educate their travellers, everybody benefits in the end.
Q: How can this benefit the travel experience itself?
A: I feel the traveller these days wants more than just a regular trip. We're looking for added benefits, and those benefits come in many different forms, whether it's added content or education, whether its exclusive excess to something. Being able to add something around conservation is that added benefit, and more and more I feel the younger audiences want something more than to just get on a bus and go. Travellers now want deeper experiences. We're giving access to people you wouldn't normally have access to: Scientists, divers, filmmakers.
I don't think we should deter people from going on vacations for hedonistic reasons – because they're better people when they come back – but at the same time we can't accept the idea that if we don't know, it's OK. That it's OK to be naive. It's important to know that we have to give back, so there's an ocean for your children and grandchildren to enjoy.