Skift Take

As travel revives, industry leaders must address their sector's impact on the climate and on local communities. Otherwise, the sector risks attacks from the media and becoming a "poster child of something pretty negative," says the top boss of tour operator Intrepid.

The travel industry has been riveted by the pandemic. But it risks reputational damage if it reverts to practices that contribute to overtourism, social inequities, and carbon emissions.

“If we follow this line that growth and visitor numbers are the only metrics of success, we’re going to find the tourism industry attacked pretty strongly by the global media,” said James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Travel. “We definitely need more advocacy. If we don’t do something, tourism is going to become the poster child of something pretty negative.”

Thorton was speaking on Thursday at Design the Future, a Skift online summit. Intrepid, a Melbourne-based tour operator, recorded four years of record top and bottom-line growth through 2019.

“Intrepid doubled its revenues in the four years leading up to Covid,” Thornton said. “Some of that was because of the stance we took on the sustainability agenda, such as removing carbon from our trips.”

Intrepid is hoping to ride a wave of increased consumer interest in environmentally aware travel. In March, investor Genairgy took a minority stake in Intrepid to help the group become a $1 billion adventure travel company by 2025.

Thorton, in his talk with Global Tourism Reporter Lebawit Lily Girma, also said the travel sector needs to win back the trust of many communities. Locals need to be shown that the sector can be a positive ally.

Thornton cited Scotland as a positive role model.

“They’re taking a holistic approach, with measurement of the environmental impact of tourism,” Thornton said. “They’re trying to encourage tourism that has a lighter physical impact and more benefit and money running to local communities.”

Intrepid’s top boss acknowledged that adapting to the climate emergency isn’t easy. The company has shared lessons it has learned from attempting to de-carbonize.

Thornton cited recent steps Intrepid has been taking, such as swapping out flights of less than an hour’s duration with ground-based travel that’s less carbon-intensive. The company is also expanding regional offerings in its source markets, such as the U.S. and Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, because shorter and closer-to-home trips will increasingly gain favor because of climate change.

Engaging with communities is also an ongoing effort that requires humility and a willingness to listen and experiment.

Thornton noted how Intrepid had, in its early years, accidentally contributed to local inequities from time to time. It might find a local family to work with to provide services. But by funneling a relatively significant flow of business to one family, even it was only, say, 10 visitors a day, the company risked unintentionally distorting a village’s economy and social balance.

The company now tries to diversify its local partner base more often.

Vaccine equity remained top of mind with Thornton as the travel sector tries to emerge from the crisis.

“We can’t fully resume travel unless everyone has a vaccine,” Thornton said.

When asked about the lack of discussion or advocacy on the issue, Thornton blamed “a lack of leadership.” He cited examples of vague or inconsistent policies about vaccine mandates from Disney theme parks and other prominent businesses.

“You’ve got to make calls around things you believe are the right things to do,” Thornton said. He wasn’t just talking about the issues of vaccine mandates and vaccine equity.

“The decade ahead is going to be firmly centered around climate change,” Thornton said.

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Tags: climate, climate change, intrepid, intrepid group, intrepid travel, responsible tourism, skift live, skiftlive, sustainability, sustainable tourism, tour operators, tourism, vaccine equity

Photo credit: James Thornton, Intrepid CEO. Source: Intrepid Group.

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