▶ Tourism ex­pert Greg Klassen tells Hay­ley Skirka why trav­ellers must up their so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity to pre­serve the fu­ture of the in­dus­try

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE -

“Chil­dren of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to pre­serve and pro­tect your beau­ti­ful and unique is­land home.”

If you’ve been to the tiny Pa­cific Ocean ar­chi­pel­ago of Palau in the last two years, then you’re likely fa­mil­iar with these words. They are the open­ing line of a pledge stamped in ev­ery vis­i­tor’s pass­port, which must be duly signed be­fore trav­ellers are per­mit­ted into the coun­try.

In­tro­duced in De­cem­ber 2017, the Palau Pledge in­sists that trav­ellers tread lightly, act kindly and ex­plore mind­fully dur­ing their time on the is­lands. As the first coun­try in the world to change its im­mi­gra­tion laws for the cause of en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, Palau is at the fore­front of a push to en­cour­age trav­ellers to be­come more so­cially re­spon­si­ble.

For Greg Klassen, part­ner at in­ter­na­tional man­age­ment con­sul­tancy Twenty31, the Palau Pledge marked a turn­ing point in a decades-long ca­reer in tourism. Born on Canada’s Van­cou­ver Is­land, Klassen cut his teeth in the tourism in­dus­try and quickly fell in love with it. He even­tu­ally be­came the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Desti­na­tion Canada and has been recog­nised by Strat­egy magazine as one of the top names in the travel and tourism in­dus­try.

He has worked with more than 50 desti­na­tions to help them recog­nise what makes them spe­cial. The com­pany has served as re­search ad­viser to Dubai Tourism, as­sisted Ras Al Khaimah in po­si­tion­ing it­self as an ad­ven­ture hub and worked with tourism au­thor­i­ties in Jor­dan to mar­ket the coun­try as a place for off-the­beaten-path travel. How­ever, it was through his work in Mi­crone­sia that Klassen found the in­spi­ra­tion to coin the term “trav­eller so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity” – a com­mit­ment from tourists to tread lightly on the land.

Klassen was work­ing on a project in Palau while the is­land na­tion was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an ocean cri­sis, with fish­er­men ran­sack­ing its wa­ters search­ing for prized Ahi tuna. As they fished, they de­stroyed 95 per cent of ev­ery­thing else they caught. To com­bat this, Palau de­clared the en­tire marine re­gion sur­round­ing its is­lands as a pro­tected area.

Au­thor­i­ties knew the de­ci­sion would re­sult in a rev­enue drop for the coun­try, but were hope­ful that sus­tain­able tourists, at­tracted by the coun­try’s con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, would bal­ance the short­fall. The move worked too well. Over­fish­ing de­clined dra­mat­i­cally, but soon af­ter, one of the world’s small­est coun­tries was over­run with vis­i­tors.

“The worry then was that Palau was sim­ply sub­sti­tut­ing one egre­gious prac­tice, over­fish­ing, for an­other, over­tourism,” ex­plains Klassen. “Un­in­formed trav­ellers were stand­ing on the sen­si­tive reefs, ex­tract­ing coral for sou­venirs, spend­ing lit­tle money in lo­cal shops, and largely ig­nor­ing their own im­pact on the frag­ile lo­cal cul­ture and en­vi­ron­ment.”

See­ing what was hap­pen­ing, four women liv­ing in the coun­try be­gan to lay the foun­da­tions for what would lead to the developmen­t of the Palau Pledge.

“If a tiny is­land na­tion could achieve this, imag­ine what other na­tions could ac­com­plish by hold­ing their vis­i­tors to ac­count un­der a trav­eller so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity com­mit­ment,” says Klassen.

Soon af­ter, he of­fi­cially coined the term Trav­eller So­cial Re­spon­si­bil­ity, which he be­lieves is crit­i­cal to the fu­ture of travel. “We’ve all heard of Cor­po­rate So­cial Re­spon­si­bil­ity (CSR) or the idea that cor­po­ra­tions need to step up to the so­cial, en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic chal­lenges fac­ing our world,” ex­plains Klassen. “Trav­eller So­cial Re­spon­si­bil­ity (TSR) is sim­i­lar, but places re­spon­si­bil­ity on the trav­eller to com­mit to tread lightly on the land, and truly re­spect the peo­ple and cul­ture they are vis­it­ing.”

Fol­low­ing a TSR-led way of travel would mean plan­ning and travelling sus­tain­ably. Rather than tak­ing a trip some­where be­cause it’s a pop­u­lar spot or be­cause there are cheap deals avail­able, TSR would see trav­ellers book desti­na­tions based on a place’s sus­tain­abil­ity ef­forts. “Choos­ing to work with busi­nesses that have a so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity, whether that’s by in­clud­ing lo­cal ex­pe­ri­ences, em­ploy­ing more peo­ple from the com­mu­nity or sell­ing lo­cal hand­i­crafts, is one way to im­ple­ment TSR,” he ex­plains.

“TSR would also see trav­ellers book trips through tourism cor­po­ra­tions like In­trepid Travel or Jetwing Ho­tels, who sup­port the em­pow­er­ment of women in the com­mu­ni­ties they op­er­ate in, or with one of the many op­er­a­tors that run full car­bon­neu­tral op­er­a­tions.”

For too many years, the onus of travelling re­spon­si­bly has been left to the cor­po­rate world. As is often the case when prof­its are in­volved, many com­pa­nies have paid only lipser­vice to their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. And when it comes to trav­ellers, the only real de­ci­sion to date has been de­cid­ing whether to re-use hotel tow­els or leave them ly­ing in the bath­tub to be re­placed. In today’s in­formed world, trav­ellers are thirsty for more op­tions.

Swedish teenage cli­mate ac­tivist Greta Thun­berg and her army of mil­lions are mak­ing their voices heard about pro­tect­ing the planet. She has spear­headed ac­tion against cli­mate change and peo­ple, es­pe­cially young­sters, are mak­ing it clear that they pas­sion­ately agree with what she says. Thun­berg has also been re­spon­si­ble for the rise of fly­gskam. The flight-sham­ing move­ment be­gan in Scan­di­navia and is slowly pick­ing up pace around the world. Yet while not ev­ery­one can af­ford to jour­ney by pri­vate zero-carbon yacht as Thun­berg re­cently did, many trav­ellers are seek­ing new ways to off­set their en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print.

While travel does have the po­ten­tial to do dam­age when car­ried out ir­re­spon­si­bly, for Klassen it’s si­mul­ta­ne­ously the ul­ti­mate ed­u­ca­tor. “Travel changes prej­u­dices and per­cep­tions and, im­por­tantly, al­lows us to have our own ex­pe­ri­ences and judg­ments. We need first­hand ex­pe­ri­ences and those of our peers to tell us that the world is, in fact, a pretty awe­some place.”

The Re­spon­si­ble Tourism In­sti­tute also ac­knowl­edges the im­por­tance of travel. “Never be­fore have peo­ple trav­elled so widely, nor en­coun­tered such a wide va­ri­ety of cul­tures. These con­nec­tions spur di­a­logue and ex­change, break down cul­tural bar­ri­ers and pro­mote the val­ues of tol­er­ance, mu­tual un­der­stand­ing and re­spect,” states the non-profit NGO.

Tourism can be an ef­fec­tive tool for pro­mot­ing cul­tural di­ver­sity, peace and sus­tain­able

developmen­t. It also of­fers eco­nomic yields, often for desti­na­tions that have no other ma­jor means of rev­enue. “The tourism in­dus­try is an em­ployer of one in 11 peo­ple in the world and is the top for­eign ex­change earner for many coun­tries. Travel is one of the hard­est work­ing in­dus­tries in the world with an op­por­tu­nity to reach all parts of a com­mu­nity,” ex­plains Klassen.

Of­fi­cial tourism statis­tics pre­dict that by next year an es­ti­mated 1.5 bil­lion peo­ple will travel an­nu­ally. That num­ber draws at­ten­tion to the im­pact that trav­ellers could have if ev­ery­one com­mit­ted to do­ing so more re­spon­si­bly. And while tourism can never be en­tirely green, the mind­sets of today’s trav­ellers are cer­tainly more re­spon­si­bly fo­cused. “Much of the tourism in­dus­try we know today has been built by baby boomers for baby boomers – coach tours, 10 cities in 10-day vis­its, cruis­ing etc” says Klassen. “Mil­len­ni­als and gen­er­a­tion Z trav­ellers seek a vastly dif­fer­ent travel ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The World Tourism Or­ga­ni­za­tion con­curs, stat­ing that: “More than any other mar­ket seg­ment, youth and student trav­ellers are paving the way for re­spon­si­ble tourism.” This change of mind­set is fun­da­men­tal to the suc­cess of TSR, which needs con­scious trav­ellers to em­brace their re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Tourists fol­low­ing this ap­proach to travel will do so un­der the di­rec­tion of var­i­ous sus­tain­able pil­lars – from sup­port­ing the developmen­t of a desti­na­tion by con­sum­ing lo­cal prod­ucts and ser­vices, to learn­ing about the cul­tural as­pects of any place vis­ited to learn more about cus­toms, di­alects, tra­di­tions and so­cial norms. Re­spect­ing di­ver­sity, min­imis­ing im­pact, avoid­ing ex­ces­sive con­sump­tion or waste of wa­ter and pay­ing at­ten­tion to how spa­ces ex­ist in a desti­na­tion to en­sure trav­ellers don’t al­ter lo­cal life, also play a ma­jor role in the phi­los­o­phy.

A TSR ap­proach to travel also means con­tri­bu­tion to con­ser­va­tion and com­mit­ting to the pro­tec­tion of ecosys­tems, a prin­ci­pal Klassen em­braced when work­ing with au­thor­i­ties at Par­que das Aves in Brazil’s Iguazu Falls. “Iguazu Falls is a haven for thou­sands of the world’s an­i­mal species, in­clud­ing hun­dreds of birds, but there are dozens of those species at crit­i­cal risk of ex­tinc­tion due to the loss of rain­for­est habi­tat,” he ex­plains. The bird park had al­ways had a con­ser­va­tion fo­cus, but it was orig­i­nally built as a tourist at­trac­tion. Klassen and his team sought to change that, repo­si­tion­ing the park as a con­ser­va­tion project first, with tourism as an add on.

“From sig­nage to ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing of the staff, to vol­un­teers, plat­forms for ad­vo­cacy and a brand that summed it all up, Par­que das Aves is now the most suc­cess­ful or­gan­i­sa­tion ded­i­cated to the preser­va­tion of the At­lantic Rain­for­est in Brazil.”

As lesser-vis­ited desti­na­tions be­come the new tourism must­sees, TSR has an im­por­tant role to play and Klassen is pos­i­tive that the new gen­er­a­tion are ready to step up to the en­vi­ron­men­tal mark. “The fu­ture of travel will in­volve trav­ellers who are will­ing to take ac­count­abil­ity for their own travel foot­print, whether that be en­vi­ron­men­tally or so­cially,” says Klassen.

It’s fit­ting, then, that the con­clud­ing words of the Palau Pledge, which so inspired Klassens work, read: “The only foot­prints I shall leave are those that will wash away.”

Greg Klassen, part­ner at in­ter­na­tional man­age­ment con­sul­tancy Twenty31

Ru­pert Shanks

Klassen worked with tourism au­thor­i­ties in Jor­dan to help po­si­tion the coun­try as an ac­ces­si­ble ad­ven­ture desti­na­tion

Par­que das Aves has gone from a tourist at­trac­tion to the world’s only in­sti­tu­tion fo­cused on the con­ser­va­tion of the birds of the At­lantic Rain­for­est in South Amer­ica

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