By Samantha Bray, Managing Director of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST)
There is a movement afoot. Can you feel it?
We are experiencing an awakening among many consumers, businesses, and governing bodies that there is more to satisfaction and success than transactional production and consumption. We’ve recognized that what we do and how we do it matters, and we are beginning to understand - in very tangible ways - that we do truly reap what we sow.
This is true for the tourism industry as well. At CREST, we feel the awakening buzzing through our projects and email inboxes daily. While tourism has grown exponentially over the last fifty years with countless benefits, there have been serious drawbacks. The patterns of overdevelopment and overtourism, “the-customer-is-always-right” mentality, and instant gratification are no longer working for a planet that is mired in resource overuse, climate crises, and poverty. The world is waking up to a better form of tourism that addresses these issues rather than exacerbates them.
In travel, many thought leaders have shown us that sustainable and responsible tourism does not mean a positive and enjoyable travel experience must be hampered in any way. In fact, these travel opportunities create richer experiences. Companies began using a triple bottom line approach of balancing people, planet, and profit to define success, rather than solely focusing on profit. Destinations have slowly begun to evolve from having destination marketing organizations to destination management organizations, guiding a more holistic and inclusive approach to development. Travelers are increasingly seeking companies and destinations that offer environmentally and socially responsible products and experiences. Why? Because there is a recognition that if the people and the planet that a tourism destination or product are built upon are not taken care of, then there is no tourism industry in the long-term. Sustainable and responsible tourism is the competitive advantage.
Over the past two decades, we have seen a fourth pillar added to the triple bottom line: purpose. As consumer demand for environmentally and socially responsible products and experiences have grown, forward-thinking travel businesses and destinations have integrated social and environmental program support and consideration for the greater good into their tourism offerings. It’s not only the right thing to do; it’s good business.
As an update to CREST’s seminal 2011 Travelers’ Philanthropy Handbook, within this Impact Tourism Handbook we take a deeper look at the thoughtful and innovative ways in which this pursuit of purpose is materializing. As the triple bottom line has evolved into the quadruple bottom line, what CREST has historically referred to as travelers’ philanthropy has also evolved into the terminology impact tourism. CREST has chosen this more proactive and holistic name to fully demonstrate how this concept has expanded and to encompass the wide range of types of programs and models currently represented within the field of tourism. In defining impact tourism, we have slightly modified the original definition of travelers’ philanthropy to be tourism that makes strategic contributions of time, talent, and treasure to social and environmental projects in destinations. This includes tourism businesses, travelers, and organizations in partnerships with host communities.
As Martha Honey explains in the overview chapter of the Travelers’ Philanthropy Handbook, it’s about:
Growing from experiments by small ecolodges in remote regions, impact tourism today encompasses corporate-wide and destination-wide programs, voluntourism, donor travel, and more. It represents a relatively new type of international development assistance that is flowing directly from the travel industry into host destinations. At a time when sustained development assistance from international agencies, governments, and NGOs is increasingly hard to come by, this method of funding has potential to play a critical role in the well-being of communities. Impact tourism is not about impulse giving or collecting loose change for charities without further touch-points. Rather, it is about generating, in an organized and strategic manner, tourism company and visitor support for local community projects through true partnerships. It is also about integrating impact tourism into the core experience of responsible travel to ensure healthy communities are the basis for a healthy tourism sector.
Dr. Wangari Maathai, Founder of Green Belt Movement and 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate, explained in the Foreword to the original Travelers’ Philanthropy Handbook: “The contributions of “time, talent, and treasure” produced by [impact tourism] are intended to be in addition to the cost of travel or the vacation package purchased by the visitor…. Like all development aid, [impact tourism] needs to be done well. It takes careful planning; learning from and working with the host community; building bridges and coalitions; offering a hand up and promoting empowerment, not handouts. Which is why this Travelers’ Philanthropy Handbook is so vital. This unique and comprehensive Handbook, written by several dozen leaders in the field, covers the theory and practice, as well as the pitfalls and best practices, of [impact tourism].
This is an important point. While responsible tourism on its own seeks to maximize environmental, social, and economic benefit, impact tourism is meant to go a step above the responsible tourism experience. Whether this is through contributions from the travel business on behalf of the visitor or from the visitor themselves, is up to the travel business. While this is still an evolving field and no program is perfect, the case studies in the Impact Tourism Handbook represent experiments in seeking purpose that have evolved into something very robust and positive. Fully recognizing that “doing good” does not always mean “doing right,” we have sought to be transparent with challenges and lessons learned. We hope this Impact Tourism Handbook will encourage you as a destination manager, business or nonprofit representative, or traveler to consider how you may better leverage partnerships and resources to make a positive difference. In most cases, travelers will not give – in any way that adds up - if they are not asked, and the businesses and destinations showcased through these case studies provide examples of how it can be done in an unobtrusive, educational, and positive way.
The following factoids featured in CREST’s 2019 “Case for Responsible Travel: Trends & Statistics” exemplify the current opportunity of impact tourism:
To connect the dots between consumer interest and meaningful financial support, within the Impact Tourism Handbook you will find five topical essays and 22 case studies that offer a deep dive into how, in partnership with local communities, responsible tourism businesses, travelers, and organizations are making these strategic contributions of time, talent, and treasure to social and environmental projects in destinations. It features examples of the following types of providers:
Beyond the Impact Tourism Handbook, we invite you to explore CREST’s other resources on the topic:
We hope that you will share your own innovative approaches to impact tourism. Please share information about your programs with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or share your experiences via social media using #TimeTalentTreasure. By pooling our collective knowledge, we can better understand how the tourism industry can effectively support sustainable development and environmental conservation in the destination communities we love.
Samantha Bray is the Managing Director of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), providing administrative, research, and consulting support for a wide-range of sustainable tourism projects. A native of the rural Missouri, Samantha grew up with an appreciation for the charm of small-town communities and the unspoiled environment. As a tourism professional, she is a strong advocate for sustaining and enhancing our world’s cultures and environments through travel and using tourism as a mechanism for community empowerment. Samantha has conducted a wide range of sustainable tourism projects, ranging from climate change trainings in the Caribbean to community-based tourism development in the United States to rock-hewn church preservation in Ethiopia. Samantha is a leader within the newly formed global Future of Tourism Coalition, which aims to forge a new and better future for tourism, is an advisor for the DC-based Destination Stewardship Center, and is a trained Climate Reality Leader. Samantha was one of the first students of geotourism through her undergraduate program at Missouri State University and holds a Master of Tourism Administration with a concentration in Sustainable Destination Management from The George Washington University.
 Mandala research LLC. (May 2016.) The Role of Sustainability in Travel & Tourism. Mandala Research LLC. pp. 12-13. http://mandalaresearch.com/downloads/role-sustainability-travel-tourism-2016/.
 Charuta Fadnis. (September 2015).Good Travels: The Philanthropic Profile of the American Traveler. Phocuswright. New York, NY: Phocuswright. p. 10. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/54de6549e4b054179782b0eb/t/560adce0e4b0c7c832b3e825/1443552480118/TC-Good-Travels-092915.pdf.
American Recreation Coalition. “Concessioners Help Visitors Contribute to National Parks.” http://www.parkpartners.org/Concessioners-Help-Visitors-Contribute-to-National-Parks.html.
Lindblad Expeditions. (2018). “2017 Impact Report: Our Positive Impact Oceans + Coastal Communities.” Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund. https://www.expeditions.com/globalassets/pdf/lex-ngfund_impactreport_2017.pdf.