Village Woman, Isaan, Thailand.

Luxury Travel, Sustainable Travel and Responsible Tourism

I’ve been reflecting upon luxury travel, sustainable travel and responsible tourism following a spate of sumptuous experiences, from Relais and Chateaux luxury lodges in New Zealand to a Borneo cruise on a super-yacht with Orion Expeditions, and an Orient Express Eastern & Oriental train journey.

So why have these luxury travel experiences had me thinking about responsible tourism more than other trips we’ve done, like, say, island hopping in the Mediterranean, the safari we did in Kenya a couple of years ago, our many road trips in Italy over the years, or staying in a swish serviced apartment in Sydney?

I guess it’s because when we embark on trips we’ve organized ourselves, when we’re travelling independently, and when we’re settling into one city for a while, we are in a much better position to understand the impact of our travel — whether it’s on the people we encounter, the local community, the environment, the country, and even the world.

Whenever I organize any kind of travel that we do I am continually asking myself questions about how sustainable it is — what kind of carbon footprint will we be leaving by flying instead of taking the train or driving, how green is that airline, hotel or tour company, is that five star resort we’re staying at giving anything back to the community, where are the products sold at that local market mainly coming from and who are the profits really going to, and is that restaurant focused on local seasonal produce or are they importing most of the items on their menu?

In stark contrast, when we travel on trips organized by others, especially when it’s an luxurious all-inclusive trip, like the rail and sea journeys we’ve done recently, unless I ask the travel agent, tour company, or PR person some questions about their company’s attitudes toward responsible travel and if they have a sustainable tourism policy, we really have no idea about the impact we’re having on the world when we do those trips.

To me, that’s irresponsible. It makes me feel concerned and even anxious. And when it’s a luxury travel company that might be known for its extravagances and frivolities, for its flamboyant events, and costly activities, for the indulgent pampering of guests in locations where there’s poverty, or the wastefulness of resources in a community that has suffered environmental damage, I also start to feel guilty and begin to feel responsible.

Unfortunately, when I’m putting the organization of our travel in the hands of others (which I rarely do in fact), it’s generally because I’m too busy to organize the trip and I don’t have time to question every minute detail — from the local tour companies being used to the source of the produce being put on our plates — and the organizers probably don’t have time to answer all my questions anyway.

All I can really do is check the company’s website or ask to see their sustainable travel policies, and trust that they are following their own responsible tourism guidelines if they have them. Although that’s not a task that’s as easy as it sounds.

Curious, I checked a handful of the websites of the companies we’ve recently used, as well as the sites of some of a few big global travel companies that offer luxury holidays like Thomson in the UK and and found that while many do have impressive sustainable travel policies, they’re often not on the main travel site that ordinary travellers use to do research or make bookings, but are buried within the corporate site of the parent company, for example, in the case of Thomson, on the site of TUI Travel PLC. That’s great for investors but these are also things that the average traveller wants to know. Don’t they? Or do they?

After I discover the sustainable travel policies deep within the bowels of a website, I then ask myself what’s the reality on the ground? How can I be sure that the travel companies we’re using are doing all the wonderful things they are saying they are doing on their websites?

I guess once the trip is underway, I can observe the everyday reality on the ground, I can ask questions of staff and people I encounter, I can also adjust my own behaviour and watch how and where I spend my money. But what happens if I witness practices I’m uncomfortable with or conduct that bothers me because it’s not as responsible as it should or can be, or as sustainable as the company’s guidelines suggest?

Is it up to the ordinary traveller — and indeed, the travel writer — to provide travel companies with feedback on how they could change their ways and improve their responsible tourism practices? Do we have the right? Or should we just be making sure that if we see something we don’t like we use different companies next time we travel? What do you think?

Pictured above? A woman from an off-the-beaten-track village in Thailand’s Isaan region that we visited on the Orient Express trip — the company gave back to the village in numerous ways and the experience we had felt like a two-way exchange.

There are 5 comments

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  1. Emilie Hagedoorn

    For consumers it is indeed very hard to know if a tour operator is as responsible as it claims to be. In my experience they tend to exagerate what they do well and convenietly hide what they don’t…. However, the good news that tourism certification can help weed out the greenwashers!

    In South Africa it is possible to have an organised trip that is is Fair Trade Tourism certified. 4 years ago Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa (FTTSA) started looking into fair packaging and developed criteria to certify the tourism value chain. The reason was that in tourism packaging the little guys in the developing destination very often draw the short straw. Tour operators from the North (even the supposedly responsible ones) can be quite ruthless when it comes to contracting and their relationship with inbounds and other local suppliers can be great one day and all over the next.

    There are now 14 Fair Trade Tourism packages on sale developed by various tour operators in SA and Europe. Some of these tour operators are small and independent but some are very large like KUONI and TUI.
    A FTT package consists only of FTTSA certified accommodation, guarantees fair contracting, binding cancellation agreements, pre-payment, long standing trade relationships and ensures that part of the STO flows back into a Fair Trade Tourism Development Fund which will benefit tourism workers.
    A tour operator that sells a FTT package has not only had the contracting checked by an auditor (Trade audit) but has also had the auditor come to the business to check how it operates (Company audit). This process has to repeated every two years so you need to committed as well as transparent!
    The FTTSA standard has been GSTC recognised and we are currently working on rolling out Fair Trade Tourism certification into neighbouring countries like Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Madagascar and Tansania.

    To stay in touch with FTTSA you can like us on Facebook or get our Newsflash: or start following our new FTT blog:

    Any other questions please get in touch with me:

    Best wishes,

    European Representative FTTSA

  2. Lara Dunston

    Hi Emilie

    Thanks so much for your detailed comment – much appreciated! The idea of ‘fair trade’ is something that ordinary travellers around the world have historically associated with retail, and particularly with arts, crafts and textile, with responsible travellers knowing to look out for ‘fair trade’ shops or crafts workshops that follow ‘fair trade’ principles when it comes to working with local artisans. (We’ve covered the notion of ‘fair trade’ here extensively on Grantourismo before too, in relation to everything from ethical fashion in France to crafts on Bali.) But I’m not sure how aware travellers are of the idea of ‘fair trade’ being applied to tour operators and travel companies.

    We only became aware of the fair trade certification being applied to tour operators in South Africa when we were in Cape Town a couple of years ago and used a few excellent companies that were certified. It might take some education and awareness-raising through the global travel media – with all due respect, in language that ordinary travellers can understand, i.e. talking about places, operators and experiences, rather than destinations, in-bounds and packages and so on – to communicate to travellers that they should also look out for ‘fair trade’ certification when doing their travel research and planning and choosing operators in South Africa, and Africa – and one day, the world. It would certainly be great to see some global standardization when it comes to certification and symbols used that travellers could look out for wherever they travel across the planet.

    Thanks so much for dropping by to leave those details for our readers.

    all the best

  3. Priyank

    Hi Lara,

    Very nice article on a topic that is very close to me (I studied sustainable business for my MBA). As you may know, sustainability comes in three forms – economic, environmental and social. I think many organizations are waking up to this idea of sustainability within their operations. However, these things don’t pay and at the end of the day profits and shareholder satisfaction is what the companies care for. It’s sad.

    Secondly, in terms of environmental impact and carbon footprint, the tourism industry does not have many levers to make a meaningful impact. Small steps, yes, but unless the major industries sign up, these steps will make little difference.

    Where tourism industry could make a difference is the area of social sustainability and that’s where we are seeing most of the action (and abuse). Local tourism, ‘real experiences’, grassroots organizations etc. are sprouting up as we speak. I have great hopes and excitement for these initiatives!


  4. Lara Dunston

    Hi Priyank – I’m so disappointed I missed this so long ago. It occasionally happens when we’re so busy. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments.

    Yes, I studied sustainability in its many forms also, as part of a Masters in International Studies which focused on the making of the third world and modernisation and globalization – that was way back in the 1990s, so have long had a deep interest in it, especially, as a pro travel writer, in travel and tourism.

    I’m not sure if you’re speaking about tourism globally or with specific reference to your own country, but I think tourism businesses woke up to the fact that it made sense in so many ways (financially, socially etc) to be sustainable and responsible.
    Australian companies, including travel companies, adopted Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) principles as a way of giving something back to communities way back then, when I was do my MA research.

    Developing a CSR programme became something every business did, almost as important as a business plan. And not because they felt obligated. Studies showed businesses felt responsible and felt a sense of duty. Keep in mind that 99% of Australian businesses are small to medium-sized businesses, so under 200 employees, so they can more easily see the effects of their actions on their staff, the community, the environment, local organizations, and their own business, and that’s a great motivational tool to keep giving back. These may be small steps but they add up.

    It’s not quite true that “these things don’t pay and at the end of the day profits and shareholder satisfaction is what the companies care for”. I continually engage with hotel GMs and tour operators in the course of my work and for many years I’ve been hearing them say that CSR also makes financial sense, whether it’s funds donated to local training programmes for disadvantaged people, green initiatives in their community, or introducing more eco-friendly practices in their workplace and infrastructure. eg. things like solar heating, insulation, long-lasting low emission light bulbs, etc might be expensive to install, but long-term monitoring shows they not only reduce emissions but save the companies money.

    And, yes, indeed, local tourism, ‘real experiences’, grassroots organizations etc have been sprouting up since we launched Grantourismo in 2010 with the mission to focus on that sort of travel: slow, local, sustainable and experiential. Many of these are sincere, but many unfortunately seem to be just people jumping on the bandwagon, but I do believe that many of them will have a profound and positive impact on the communities in which they operate.

    Now we just need more large organizations, big businesses, and governments to take this stuff seriously – especially the current Australian government! Because they’re the ones doing the most damage, esp. when it comes to the environment and climate change.

    Thanks for dropping by! And so sorry to miss this at the time. Hopefully you might still be subscribed and see it.

  5. Brooke Vlasich

    I enjoyed reading everyone’s comments and was encouraged to learn more about Fair Trade Tourism. It’s something I’ll be looking into for the future.

    Thinking back on tours I have taken, I have appreciated that they use local guides who know the area, which I hope I turn benefits the local economy. I’m unfortunately not aware of their sustainability practices, but I do think it’s important to ask. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to alert companies of practices you don’t agree with or areas where there’s room for improvement. I believe that if consumers commit to companies who have more sustainable actions, other large companies and industries will have to change their ways to attract more business.

    I know that there is no easy answer, but I do think it’s important to see travel as a way to connect with others and learn about ourselves. Going on vacation to relax and kick back is good and needed at time, but I get more fulfillment from traveling and feeling I made a difference in the world.

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