Sustainable tourism charity the Travel Foundation was set up 10 years ago this month. Chief executive Sue Hurdle spoke to Travel Weekly about the trade’s  reaction at the time and how far it has come

Q. What spurred you to start the Travel Foundation?

As the Asian saying goes, ‘Tourism is like fire: you can cook your dinner on it, but if you are not careful, it will burn your house down’. One of the reasons I chose to spend my career in travel and tourism was its potential to benefit the people and environment in destinations.

Tourism can provide jobs and business opportunities, generate funds to conserve the environment and promote cultural understanding. But if it is not carefully managed, tourism can harm destinations and destroy environments, over-consume resources, leak profits overseas, create divisions between visitors and locals, and stimulate crime.

The Travel Foundation was created to find ways to deliver tourism’s positive potential more consistently across mainstream forms of tourism. From the outset, the approach has been more pragmatic – testing ways of doing business that can be incorporated day-to-day. 

Q. What was the industry’s reaction when you started?

Few companies had considered anything to do with sustainability. Those that were, focused on supporting things such as orphanages and animal centres. 

There was awareness of the need to do something about the negative impacts of tourism and what many wanted from us was a nice project, preferably involving animals or children.

Q. What has been achieved over the 10 years?

In 2003, we didn’t have all the answers – we still don’t – but it has been a journey of discovery.

Through our programmes, the Travel Foundation and its partners have learned about better ways to do things and developed tools to put these into practice – such as measuring improvements to the bottom line from reducing water and energy consumption.

We’ve also been finding effective ways to help local producers get their goods in front of hotels, restaurants and customers, and motivating staff and customers to play their part.

Where once companies wanted ‘cuddly’ projects, now they want to change their business – to yield greater benefits for destinations, to offer better experiences for customers and to protect their product.

Companies that might have struggled to write a policy in 2003 now have teams working on corporate responsibility and some, such as Tui Travel, have included sustainability targets for managers.

Destinations are looking to create policies that support better tourism and trade associations such as Abta and Aito, which have sustainability committees and teams.

Awards and certification initiatives such as Travelife and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council have emerged to create and raise standards.

The academic world is now developing much closer links with industry and provides it with sustainable tourism graduates. Consumer demand is finally beginning to increase.

Q. What comes next?

The change we’ve seen since 2003 has been encouraging, but more organisations need to get involved. The business case for doing this is very strong, whether to save costs, recruit and retain staff, meet changing customer demand and gain competitive advantage, protect the resources the product is built on or manage risks and avoid regulation.

The level of change needed to ensure we continue to benefit from tourism in the long term can’t be achieved by companies or countries in isolation. We need to see much greater collaboration across the wider industry – with destination authorities, accommodation and transport providers, ground agents, operators, agents and NGOs.

About the Travel Foundation

• Independent UK charity founded in 2003
• Funded by industry and holidaymaker donations; now turns over £1m a year
• Runs overseas projects in 16 countries
• Offers practical tools and advice for UK companies
• Runs consumer-facing Make Holidays Greener initiative