Interview: ‘Business, not government, must lead on sustainable tourism’

The Travel Corporation’s chief sustainability officer Shannon Guihan speaks to Ben Ireland

“We made our targets as a way to help reduce the many woes of the world.”

It’s a bold statement, but one The Travel Corporation’s Shannon Guihan makes confidently as she explains the 11 new sustainable travel goals laid out by the parent company of tour operators Trafalgar, Insight Vacations, Contiki and cruise line Uniworld.

One of the targets of the firm’s five-year How We Tread Right strategy is to have at least one of its Make Travel Matter experiences available on 50% of its tours by 2025.

To put that into perspective, the company’s 40-plus brands run a collective 1,500 tours. So the goal is that 750 of those will involve one of these excursions within five years from now. Insight Vacations is on the way, with 30% of its tours offering such experiences.

Explaining that “the experiences differ a lot but there absolutely needs to be a component of education”, Guihan says tours range from visits to a women’s cooperative in Jordan and a café to support acid attack survivors in India to a foraging and cooking tour in Ireland and a refugee tour of Berlin.

But that is just one of the 11 goals published by the company, which operates in 70 countries, has 40 offices around the world and facilitates 1.9 million travellers annually (in most years). Others include carbon neutrality by 2030 or sooner; reducing printed brochures, food waste and single-use plastics; and boosting biodiversity.

Guihan believes that the only way the travel industry will become more sustainable, and combat its reputation as a polluter, is if the innovation comes from businesses – not governments.

She also believes “sustainability is critical” for travel’s bounceback from the severe impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the industry.

Yet Guihan points out that TTC “embraces sustainability at executive level” and the issue is “regularly discussed” in the boardroom. “Our unique selling point is the health of the destinations,” she adds. “Without the health of the destinations and people in those communities, there is no travel and tourism – as Covid has illustrated.”

But does every travel firm place the same level of emphasis on the issue? Or is price more of a factor in the usually competitive mass-market?

Guihan admits: “I used to be 100% of the mind that you had to be niche to be sustainable.” But: “Over 20 years in the industry I learned about the opportunity and the power of big operators. We have more than 40 travel brands, so for us to put these standards in place across all of our brands is pretty impactful and powerful.”

So she concludes: “If you are of the mindset that only niche specialist operators can affect change you are being very irresponsible. It’s become a duty of the whole travel and tourism industry.”

And what do customers think? “You’re going to have those guests looking for sustainability, and those motivated by price, and everything in between,” says Guihan, who predicts more companies – and their customers – will ask about the footprint of their travel post Covid-19.

What’s more, it’s “important as a business decision” to move towards this way of thinking, according to Guihan who notes a “growing realisation, pre-Covid, that this was a unique selling proposition” for TTC.

The firm’s 11 sustainability goals have been drawn up over 11 months since last October in line with UNWTO sustainable development goals – so each tour, for example, must meet certain criteria to be classed as a Make Travel Matter experience.

But Guihan admits she has “never been a proponent of certification schemes” adding: “We’re too complex to sit on rubber stamp models.” Her point is that companies can’t wait to be told exactly what to do about sustainability by governments, trade associations or NGOs – they must find solutions themselves.

“With that many experts and that much guidance we don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” she says, explaining that guidelines and recommendations require “a little interpretation” and a “geat deal of thought” to make them relevant to each travel company’s programme.

And Guihan believes the industry can put competitive differences aside to focus on the issue and collaborate. Offering advice to other tour operators keen to make steps towards becoming more sustainable, she says: “Build a reporting structure around your goals”.

She pointed out that most of TTC’s 11 goals set out today have target dates, and says the others will have delivery dates once initial reports have been completed. Goals have to be “measurable, realistic and specific”, Guihan adds.

Companies also have to create a mentality of sustainability among their staff as well, she adds, pointing out a pledge TTC launches last year to Make Travel Matter. “That was the lightbulb moment for our sales team,” Guihan says. “So it’s not just my team shouting about it.”

Travel agents are also encouraged to take the pledge, here.

But do goals such as reducing printed brochures, food waste and single-use plastics; and boosting biodiversity matter in terms of sustainability if travellers are flying all over the world on fuel-guzzling aircraft?

“Flying is one element,” Guihan says. “When you look at the industry as a whole, there are communities worldwide that are so reliant on travel and tourism – so that argument to stop flying tomorrow is just not going to happen, it’s unrealistic. The realistic approach is to change the way in which we do things.”

Sustainable aviation fuels will “absolutely” be part of that as they’re developed, says Guihan, who added that carbon offsetting was a way of “drawing down our footprint” as an “interim approach”.

Guihan believes the most important battle to win for a sustainable travel future is getting companies to make it a priority. And she says the industry is “no longer taking baby steps” in that area.

“Now, if you are the brand that doesn’t make a commitment to carbon neutrality, you’re lagging,” she says, noting that once companies see the business benefit “that provides money to the currently very expensive carbon capture techniques out there”.

“The more people you get on board, and the more investment, brings the costs down – and make it more sustainable,” Guihan adds.

One of TTC’s 11 goals is to be carbon neutral by 2030. Guihan insists this is realistic, and reiterates her over-arching point, that “businesses need to stand up to make these changes”.

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