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Striving for sustainability

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The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) brings together over 140 of Britain’s specialist travel companies – and it takes sustainable tourism very seriously. B&GT caught up with Chris Breen, chairman of AITO’s sustainable tourism committee, who firstly explains how he got involved with the organisation, and more specifically, sustainable tourism.

I started out working as a naturalist guide in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, which is probably one of the finest wildlife locations anywhere in the world, and in my view is certainly Africa’s. I came back and worked for a big travel agency in London. A year or two after that I started Wildlife Worldwide, which I ran and grew for many years—it’s now 20 years young and still specializes in bespoke, personalised wildlife holidays around the world.

I can’t think of a better way of spending a holiday than enjoying the beauty of wide-open spaces while at the same time giving something back to those places. Wildlife Worldwide was a member of AITO for many years. There has always been a very strong environmental and sustainable ethic to what I do. I’ve always had a strong interest in sustainable tourism. I am now the chairman of the AITO Sustainable Tourism Committee and very proud and delighted to be so.

Do you have any personal stories that have shaped your views about sustainable tourism?

One of my very good Zambian friends, as a result of the work he was doing as a naturalist guide, ended up with an opportunity to come over to the UK to do a master’s degree in wildlife and conservation based tourism. The opportunity was offered by a client who could see that this chap was a highly intelligent and brilliant guy. He now actually lectures here in the UK.

It’s an amazing story— especially for someone who had spent the majority of their life in a remote part of Africa. He now regularly travels back to Africa leading trips and teaching people about the destination and conservation-based tourism.

How does the AITO Sustainable Tourism Committee function?

Essentially, it is our job to influence the way the different members of AITO to operate from a sustainability perspective. All members of AITO are completely (and proudly) independent and many of them are doing outstanding things when it comes to sustainable tourism in the areas of the world where they operate. We try to collate a lot of that information and promote it to newer members who want help and guidance on how they can improve, whether it’s here in the UK or overseas.

Could you give some examples of sustainable projects run by AITO members?

There are many AITO operators who are doing amazing stuff—and amazingly they don’t shout it from the rooftops. There is a fantastic project in Mexico, which is supported by Nomadic Thoughts, called New Life Mexico. It works to support vulnerable children and young people through social, health and education programmes. It’s got an excellent website—well worth a look. But it’s all supported entirely by tourism and is a great example. There is a lot of extremely good work going on in The Gambia, which is being supported by an organisation called Serenity Holidays or Gambia Experience. They’ve done an enormous amount of work to help local people develop their own businesses—some in tourism— entirely backed by the tourism industry.

What do you think drives people to become involved in these inspiring projects?

Largely, in my experience, the people who are involved in this good work around the world—certainly all of my industry colleagues, friends and associates—are very much doing it for the right reasons; because they want to improve the lives of people in the destinations they work in—be that Nepal, Gabon, Brazil, Mexico or wherever.

A lot of what is done by tour operators is borne out of a great passion for a particular region.Journey Latin America, which is another one of AITO’s members, is another really good example. They do fantastic work in Mexico, Colombia and many other countries in Latin America. In my case, it was my first really wild experience of going to a really wild place. That experience helped me build a company, which has helped me personally look at different parts of the world with a respectful head on my shoulders—and it’s a fantastic privilege to be able to say that.

Responsible or sustainable— traveller or tourist… Is there a difference?

To answer the first part of the question, responsible tourism versus sustainable tourism, I think that is partly an issue of nomenclature—in so far as, what many organisations historically referred to as responsible tourism is now referred to as sustainable tourism. But I think that sustainable tourism is probably the right terminology. You could be in Canada driving along the road within the speed limit and claim to be responsible, but you might be in a car that does one mile to the gallon, so you weren’t travelling in a very sustainable manner! I think the word sustainable talks about the future, whereas responsible doesn’t necessarily take that into account. Given the choice, we’d go for sustainable every time, but for many people, it’s just the flick of a switch, perhaps wrongly so.

Regarding traveller or tourist, I’m going to give you a very personal answer. I think it’s pure and utter snobbery. I think it stems back to the time when people used to travel with backpacks—and there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve done it myself. But there was an air of superiority from those that travelled with backpacks over people who went on a two week holiday to the south of France or Italy for example. Actually, the reality is that if you are going somewhere to see, enjoy or experience it, whether you refer to yourself as a traveller or a tourist doesn’t really matter. If you’re not a resident there, you must be a visitor. I am delighted to go to the Masai Mara as a tourist. If someone else wants to refer to me as a traveller or anything else, it makes no difference.

Who should be driving sustainable tourism—industry or the consumer?

It is absolutely the industry’s responsibility. There is no doubt about that in my mind. If a company cannot be bothered to offer sustainable holidays, by definition it must have a limited life span. If what a company is offering is destroying the very place it relies upon, then the product is finite. As an example, if I was offering holidays to go and mine gold in northern Australia, I’ve got a relatively limited time period over which those holidays can operate—I’m using up the resources—there’s nothing sustainable about that. On the other hand, if I’m offering tours to go and see places where gold exists, I can do that ‘til kingdom come.

What trends are you seeing in public awareness of sustainable tourism?

Sustainable tourism is increasingly spoken about by journalists and as it permeates the media, there seems to be an increased desire from people travelling overseas to ensure that they are doing it the right way. I’m a great advocate of travelling overseas, not only because I run a travel company, but also because it’s enormous fun and educational. Meeting people in new places is one of life’s great privileges. But for many destinations, people will have to fly, which has carbon emission implications and how horrendous that can be for the environment, so pressure needs to be applied to airlines to improve what they operate. Airlines are consequently starting to talk about the types of fuel that they are using or developing to make air travel a more sustainable option.

Could you tell us about AITO’s sustainable star classification system?

First things first: all AITO companies fulfil an obligation to 100% commitment to sustainable tourism—those are one star organisations. And depending on the level of responsible or sustainable activity, organisations can gain 2, 3, 4 or 5 stars. The star rating system was never really designed to be consumer facing—there are a number of organisations, like Travelife, that are becoming industry standard in terms of rating systems. It’s really a self-help system= within AITO to encourage members to develop and improve sustainable practices. Through training and development companies can enhance sustainability with and for each other.

What is your view on carbon offsetting?

My personal view, which may or may not be shared by AITO, is that whilst carbon offsetting is very important, we now need to think “beyond carbon”. We need to be thinking about the conservation of resources generally, whether that’s water or other minerals. And we need to find ways in which we can help local communities and some of the poorest people be resilient to the climatic changes, both short and long term, that we are all facing.

I think if people want to offset their carbon, that’s fantastic and important, but we must remember that it is only one small part of the picture. I got involved a while ago in an email discussion with a journalist who decided not to travel to a particular location in the world because it would have been too detrimental from the point of view of carbon emissions. And when I read that, it made me very angry. The particular area in question was very good for gorillas and I felt that it was important for that person to visit the area and report on what they’d seen. For me, it is utterly hypocritical to say, I’ve been there and I know how good it is, but you can’t go because this area needs to be preserved, and to get there is bad for the planet. That’s nuts.

Any other thoughts for our readers?

Discussions of this nature are interesting, especially if they have an impact—if they touch a nerve for someone somewhere. And if that one individual decides to take a more sustainable holiday or thinks about something in a more sustainable way on the back of having read an article, then this interview has been worthwhile. The message definitely needs to be projected that sustainability in travel is crucially important for us and future generations. Otherwise, our children won’t be able to enjoy many of the great things we’ve been privileged enough to enjoy ourselves.

The thing that drives me personally and professionally is that if I do what I’m doing well enough, and those people that I influence around me do it well enough, with luck and a fair wind, my three children should be able to see the many wonderful things that I’ve had the opportunity to see.

This feature was originally published in our Guide to Sustainable Tourism, which you can download for free here.

Further reading:

The Guide to Sustainable Tourism

Sustainable tourism: an essential link in the world’s ‘value chain’

Editors Choice

2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage

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Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/droidworker

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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Environment

How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018

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eco-responsible
Shutterstock / By KENG MERRY Paper Art | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/kengmerrymikeymelody

Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.

Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:

1. Energy – produce it, save it

If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.

It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.

While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.

energy efficient

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By My Life Graphic

Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!

2. Don’t be just another tourist

Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.

3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly

eco-friendly

Shutterstock / By Khakimullin Aleksandr

We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t  mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.

To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.

It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.

4. Know thy recycling

People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.

People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.

5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool

Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.

All in all

The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.

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