Just last week, Responsible Travel celebrated twenty years of Responsible Travel, a company I co-founded with Justin Francis. I sold my shares and ceased to be a director well over a decade ago, recognising that this financial interest conflicted with my academic and consultancy work. From the outset, it was an activist company wanting to demonstrate that there was a market for Responsible Travel. It was, and is, a simple concept: better holidays for consumers, better for communities in destinations and better for the environment and nature.
Responsible Travel was one of the first travel companies to offer carbon offsetting in 2001 and then again one of the first to abandon offsetting in 2009. They were one of the first companies to stop selling orphanage volunteering in 2013. They launched Trip for a Trip, a pioneering programme to enable a disadvantaged child or young person to have an inspiring day trip experience – the kind of experience wealthy tourists have, but one they would never have. In 2013 they launched their first ‘honest and easy-to-read two minute guide’, and in 2015 an accessible travel guide. In 2014 Responsible Travel launched a say NO to orca circuses campaign with the World Cetacean Alliance to stop whales and dolphins from being kept in captivity. In 2017, they dropped zoos from all the holidays they sell.
In January 2004, Responsible Travel conducted research with 1000 mainstream tourists and found that 67% didn’t like the way mass tourism damages the culture and environment in resorts and launched a campaign to get the large operators to adopt more responsible practices and deliver better holidays. 88% felt that tour operators had a responsibility to preserve the environment & cultures and benefit local people. Responsible Travel’s guides are more than advertorial. Many contain a ‘what we rate and what we don’t’ section revealing the underrated and overrated. In 2018 they released Crowded out: a documentary about over-tourism and its impacts on travellers and local communities.
From the outset, Responsible Travel has screened the holidays they offer to ensure that they meet minimum responsible criteria; many achieve far more. Every business with holidays featured on the site has to have a company-wide policy, actively solicit feedback and be committed to transparency. Trips are removed if they do not live up to the commitments they have made on the site to consumers. As Responsible Travel points out, tourism is unusual because the customer, not just the product, is part of the impact. The choices holidaymakers and travellers make have direct sustainability impacts.
At the heart of Responsible Travel and Responsible Tourism is the principle that better places to live are better places to visit – in that order. Back in 2001, when we launched the company, many were sceptical and expected the company to fail. It didn’t. It has grown and has generated profits. Responsible Travel has proven that it was possible, in travel and tourism, to be responsible and to be profitable. Others have followed. There are many claims as we ‘build back better’, with recognition of the climate emergency, regenerative tourism and ideas about placing destination needs at the centre of tourism. I am reminded of the title of an adult education class I used to be responsible for – the tutor nailed it.
“Current Affairs, never mind the patter watch the hands.” Transparent reporting of outcomes and impacts is at the heart of Responsible Tourism, never mind the patter.
These ideas are not new; they have been around for half a century and presented coherently by Krippendorf in The Holiday Makers in the ‘eighties. Krippendorf called for rebellious tourists and rebellious locals – we now have both, but we need more.
Justin and I believe that tourism could be a force for good, that marketed and delivered well, it could make a significant contribution to livelihoods and the conservation of natural and cultural heritage. That with support of travellers and holidaymakers tourism could be better.
In 2004 we launched the Responsible Tourism Awards, presented annually at WTM London. They have grown globally and are now a family of World Responsible Tourism Awards. This year, growing again with the addition of the Global Responsible Tourism Awards selected from the regional winners, designed to give recognition to those taking responsibility and to encourage others to replicate them.
Justin Francis has publsihed his reflections on the first two decades.
Responsible Travel: How sustainable tourism has changed over the past 20 years