‘I always hoped that Responsible Travel could help to change tourism and make it more caring,’ says Responsible Travel founder Justin Francis, who got his wake up call in a career advertising tobacco and sugary cereals. He went on to learn the ropes of business as a force for social and environmental change at the feet of late ethical business pioneer Anita Roddick (of The Body Shop), before setting up his own business in 2001 to combine his business ethics with his love of travel.
Responsible Travel now helps travellers have authentic and life-enriching adventures, while ensuring that local communities, the environment and wildlife benefit. ‘Responsible Travel launched online four years before Facebook. It was early days for the internet and even earlier days for responsible tourism,’ says Francis. ‘Businesses are sceptical about whether their customers care about these issues, but by creating a commercially successful business based around responsible tourism, we proved there is real consumer demand.’
Responsible Travel is now the world’s largest marketing platform for ethical providers, selling around £20 million holidays a year. Its holidays – around 400 in 190 countries – are rigorously screened for their commitment to responsible tourism. Benefits are displayed to customers, who are briefed about key issues in the places they’re visiting and whose reviews provide an important audit.
‘There are a couple of other things we’ve done to try to create positive change in the travel industry,’ Francis told NOW. ‘One is a pat on the back for those doing great work (Responsible Travel founded The World Responsible Tourism Awards in 2004) and the other is a big stick in form of our activism and campaigns.’
Campaigns have included a halt on featuring holidays that include orphanage volunteering, elephant riding and orca or dolphin shows, and it has just become the first travel company to stop promoting holidays that visit zoos, after an independent survey showed that UK zoo visitors overestimate zoos’ contribution to conservation by tenfold – and almost 90% are concerned about the adverse effects of animals being held captive.
A recent initiative – ‘Trip for a Trip’ – means for every holiday booked via their website (where the customer opts in), Responsible Travel funds a day trip for a disadvantaged child in a developing country.
‘The future of responsible tourism lies in finding innovative ways to make travel more accessible to all,’ says Francis, who is encouraging other travel businesses to adopt the scheme and by 2020 hopes to have given one million disadvantaged local children a great day out. ‘So far we’ve enabled children living beside a wildlife reserve in Swaziland to see zebras for the first time in their lives, and village children close to Angkor Wat in Cambodia have visited the iconic temples.’ It’s inspiring stuff.
Francis believes future change lies in destinations themselves planning more carefully, and tourists switching onto the issues involved. ‘The way to excite people about responsible tourism is through great film content, storytelling and examples.’ he says. ‘Responsible tourism is so not about having a guilt trip – it is about opening up people’s eyes to the ethical ways to travel in the world, which still tap into our dreams.’