NOW talks to Justin Francis, co-founder and managing director of Responsible Travel, an online travel company and responsible tourism pioneer promoting over 5000 more authentic holidays worldwide. He has been included in Courvoisiers The Future 500, Thames and Hudsons 60 Innovators Shaping Our Creative Future and taken his place on the Advisory Board of The International Centre for Responsible Tourism.
If you had one hour in a room with all the world’s leaders this year – what would you ask them?
I’d ask them to tell me one NEW and important thing they would commit to today as a result of the meeting. I’m very pragmatic about change, and actions give me more confidence than words.
All the environmental crisis we face have a huge toll on humanity – on poverty, security, public health and disaster preparedness. The interconnected nature of our eco systems and climate means that no country or community can be immune to any of these threats. How can we best harness human power and creativity to come up with solutions for all of our sakes?
We live in a new epoch, the Anthropocene – the first where humans are having a significant impact on the earth’s ecosystems.
Until now we’ve been able to believe that we are pin pricks – nothing we do makes much difference on our vast planet. Now we have to accept that we are changing it and the evidence is everywhere.
The planet seems smaller and more vulnerable in other ways too. Carbon emissions in America change the weather in Africa, and as a result water shortages in Africa can contribute to migration that affects Europe. We, and the issues, are all, as you say, all interconnected.
The question for companies has been the same as for us as individuals. For years many said, why bother doing anything if nobody else is?
However, a few businesses started thinking ‘we’ll do something anyway, because it’s the right thing to do’. These pioneers got others to copy. Before long we’ll reach a tipping point and the question will be ‘everyone else is doing something, what reason do we have for not doing anything?’
Your business can be a pioneer or ‘accelerator’ in your sector or part of the world. As Margaret Mead said – ‘Never forget that a small group of people can change the world – indeed it’s the only thing that ever has’.
There are examples of the negative environmental and social impact of corporate greed all around us. Some companies are starting to realise that addressing sustainability issues can actively spur economic activity and growth – how would you galvanise more companies to act responsibly?
In our sector, travel and tourism, there is a real commercial advantage to more responsible tourism.
Many customers want to experience and learn about local places, people, culture and ways of life in ‘authentic ways’. What we are basically saying is that ‘we want a little access to local people’s lives please.’ Of course local people are more likely to agree if there are real benefits to them and proper consideration given to the impacts of tourism.
So in essence, we have the ‘authenticity’ advantage. My business Responsible Travel will grow sales 50% this year versus last year based on this.
What in your opinion is the most pressing sustainability issue facing the travel industry today?
The interesting thing about tourism is that, apart from CO2, the issues are different in every destination. Switzerland doesn’t have much of a poverty issue, parts of Peru do. In Ireland water conservation isn’t a big deal, but in parts of a Sub Saharan Africa its critical. What’s important is not great long global sustainability checklists, but addressing the big issues locally.
Do Travellers Care about Sustainability?
They care very much about eating fresh local produce; that the water they swim in is not polluted; that a local guide can sensitively share their culture and local sights; that animals are not abused in tourism; that the maid that cleans their room is fairly treated and paid. All these things are about responsible tourism. Most tourism businesses who try and fail to interest people in sustainability would be better off talking about these things.
Can you share a favourite place to stay, or a useful product or service, that you feel is doing something genuinely sustainable for people and planet?
Disclosure: I’m on the Board of a safari company in Kenya, Basecamp Explorer Kenya, that I think does things right. The Norwegian owned company has a deep and genuine partnership with the Maasai community to develop and run safaris in and around the Masai Mara. The tourist gets an extraordinary experience with wildlife and tribal people, who in turn get income and jobs from their land (they own the land) and a range of community projects.
Do you think it’s important for ‘eco’ companies to prove they are sustainable, rather than just say they are?
Customers no longer believe vague marketing statements, they’ve rightly become more sceptical. I’m worried about lots of sustainable tourism certification schemes because you can rarely see what the accredited business has actually achieved (just a logo). At Responsible Travel, we publish operators commitments to responsible tourism on every page AND we invite our clients to feedback on this – we publish this too.
What do you do in your daily life and when you are travelling in the name of sustainability?
I’m uncomfortable with the word sustainability when applied to international travel. It’s rarely sustainable when a flight is involved. However, given that so many people (1 in 11 globally) and so much conservation is dependent on tourism I think there is a need for responsible tourists – those who take responsibility for their impacts and try to manage them.
I only book with operators whose responsible tourism policies I’ve thoroughly checked. We’ve done this work for you on Responsible Travel, and promote holidays from 400 of the best of these tour operators globally.