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:

  • Helping tourism businesses become actively involved as ‘good citizens’ in their travel destinations.
  • Assisting local projects that provide a ‘hand up’ not a ‘hand out;’ that is, projects that promote social empowerment, education, and entrepreneurship that   lead   to sustainable, long-term   development   and   environmental conservation.
  • Enriching the travel experience through meaningful, culturally sensitive, and productive interactions with people in host communities. Done well, [impact tourism] benefits the destination, the travel business, and the traveler.

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:

  • A 2016 study by Sustainable Travel International and Mandala Research found 86% of the 2,292 travelers surveyed agreed that making a concerted effort to ensure the local community will benefit from its presence would positively increase the brand perception of a corporation. 78% of travelers were very or somewhat likely to choose a company that reinvests a portion of its proceeds to those in need in the local community.[1]
  • Many travelers are seeking opportunities to give their time, talent, and treasure to the destinations they visit. In a 2015 Tourism Cares and Phocuswright survey of 2,551 U.S. travelers, 55% indicated that within the previous two years, they had given back to a leisure destination, either through volunteering their time or through cash and/or in-kind donations. Nearly half (48%) of all U.S. leisure travelers felt that it was very important for their spending and donations to positively benefit local communities within their vacation destinations. Causes that address issues related to basic necessities, such as food, water, and shelter, were the top philanthropic priority for 42% of U.S. travelers.[2]
  • The National Park Service’s Guest Donation program solicits donations of just one dollar per stay at America’s national park lodges and other overnight facilities. The donations are particularly helpful as the National Park Service (NPS) has a $12 billion maintenance backlog. Derrick Crandall, Counselor for the National Park Hospitality Association (NPHA) said, “the American public strongly supports continued federal appropriations for our national parks. This support is bipartisan and cuts across all demographic groupings of Americans.” The top earners for donations in 2015 were Yosemite National Park with $461,000 and Grand Canyon National Park with $253,000.[3]
  • The Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund is 100% donation-based from expedition guests. In 2017 alone, it raised $1.4 million worldwide that was distributed to various projects and grants in the categories of conservation, education, research, storytelling, and technology. Through a targeted communication strategy to solicit philanthropic support from their Galápagos Islands tour clients, Lindblad Expeditions quadrupled the average philanthropic giving to the Charles Darwin Foundation from $1,800 to $6,700 per Galápagos tour. The program raised over $4.5 million over a ten-year period to support local conservation efforts of the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galápagos National Park.[4]

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:

  • Independently-Owned Accommodations & Tour Operators: Looking to the origins of impact tourism, how small businesses have built innovative impact tourism partnerships with host communities.
  • Destination-wide Impact Tourism: How the public, private, and civil sectors can come together to support environmental, cultural heritage, and social programs within a destination community at scale.
  • Donor Travel: How NGOs can appropriately engage their donors to visit impact sites, increasing interest and involvement, providing educational opportunities, and increasing giving commitments.
  • Corporate Sustainability & Social Impact: How large tourism companies can support destination communities, mobilizing employees through volunteerism, traveler engagement, and strategic partnerships.
  • Voluntourism: How travelers and tourism businesses can avoid the pitfalls of voluntourism to have experiences that are respectful, impactful, and beneficial to all parties.

Beyond the Impact Tourism Handbook, we invite you to explore CREST’s other resources on the topic:

  • The Case for Responsible Travel: Trends and Statistics 2019: CREST’s 2019 edition of our annual Trends & Statistics report includes a special focus on impact tourism, providing cutting-edge examples of how tourism businesses, travelers, and organizations are making strategic contributions of time, talent, and treasure to social and environmental projects in destinations. The report was prepared in collaboration with more than 30 leading organizations and institutions.
  • 2019 World Tourism Day Forum videos: Watch video footage from our third annual World Tourism Day Forum on September 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. This event, “Impact Tourism: Giving Time, Talent, and Treasure,” was hosted in partnership with the Organization of American States and features diverse presentations on impact tourism pioneers, destination-wide programs, community perspectives, donor travel, corporate sustainability, and social impact, voluntourism, and in-kind donations.
  • Travelers’ Philanthropy Handbook: This 2011 CREST publication marks the first comprehensive publication on travelers’ philanthropy. This 250-page Handbook includes original essays, case studies, and surveys by some 30 experts, plus a Foreward by Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr. Wangari Maathai. The Handbook covers the principles, origins, and growth of travelers’ philanthropy and offers practical “how-to” advice, dos and don’ts, and best practices for businesses, community organizations, and travelers interested in developing or participating in travel give-back programs.
  • Travelers’ Philanthropy: Giving Time, Talent, & Treasure film (Film, 36 minutes): This CREST produced film, directed by Charlene Music and Peter Jordan, profiles community and conservation projects in Costa Rica, Kenya, and Tanzania that are being supported by tourism companies. The filmmakers talk with community members, travelers, and experts about both the benefits as well as the pit falls of this relatively new form of development assistance. We are grateful to ProParques in Costa Rica and Basecamp Foundation in Kenya for underwriting the cost of this production.

We hope that you will share your own innovative approaches to impact tourism. Please share information about your programs with us at 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.

About the author:

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.


[1] Mandala research LLC. (May 2016.) The Role of Sustainability in Travel & Tourism. Mandala Research LLC. pp. 12-13.

[2] Charuta Fadnis. (September 2015).Good Travels: The Philanthropic Profile of the American Traveler. Phocuswright. New York, NY: Phocuswright. p. 10.

[3]American Recreation Coalition. “Concessioners Help Visitors Contribute to National Parks.”

[4]Lindblad Expeditions. (2018). “2017 Impact Report: Our Positive Impact Oceans + Coastal Communities.” Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund.

This Impact Tourism Handbook was made possible by generous financial support from Elevate Destinations, Hilton, Holbrook Travel, and Overseas Adventure Travel.