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.