“Sometimes it’s best to take matters into your own hands, bringing a solution directly to a problem, under the radar and around the red tape.”
In this mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world, our problems are escalating at an unprecedented rate: from climate change to population growth to challenges to sustainability legislation. With our faith in traditional authorities and governments to do the right thing waning, maybe it’s time to take things into our own hands.
The smallest steps in the right direction can make a big difference – especially when 1.2 billion people are travelling every year. As a result of the context above, today’s luxury travellers crave guilt-free consumption, hold brands accountable for their actions and want to contribute to and be immersed by a destination – and they’re more likely to put their money where your mouth is if you’re talking about the greater good. Tourism has a lot to answer for regarding its impact on the environment and local economies, with hotels and travel brands holding the power to spark far-reaching improvements for many communities. However, scrutinise many so-called ‘sustainable brands’ and you’ll discover their policies are far from inspiring: so how can we truly be heroes?
Enter Jon Rose and his ‘guerilla humanitarianism’ concept. “Guerrilla humanitarianism is about taking a no-nonsense, stripped-down approach to determining the essentials needed to complete a task,” explains Rose, whose Waves For Water programme focuses on affecting global change by providing access to clean water for millions, while sidestepping the challenges faced by traditional philanthropic initiatives. “Sometimes it’s best to take matters into your own hands, bringing a solution directly to a problem, under the radar and around the red tape.”
It all began with a trip to Indonesia, where the former professional surfer thought to pack a few water filtration systems. While he was aboard a boat off the coast of Sumatra, an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale destroyed the nearby city of Padang, resulting in 1000 lives lost and 100,000 made homeless. “I managed to get water filters into the hands of rescue workers to help those who were most in need of clean water – that was really the start of Waves For Water,” says Rose.
Since then, Waves For Water has expanded into a specialised clean water task force known as the Clean Water Corps, which combines a “no-nonsense guerilla humanitarianism attitude” with the expertise of military veterans to apply and implement strategic humanitarian initiatives to the major global issue of water-borne disease. Headed up by former US Army Captain Robert McQueen, the idea is to take the training and skill sets acquired through many years of military service and redirect it towards a new purpose.
Although this military mindset might not be applicable to all destinations or brands, its philosophy of strategic, targeted initiatives that make innovative use of the resources available do resonate on a global scale. Gone are the days when tourists simply took a few sweets and pencils to hand out to begging kids in the developing world: Pack for a Purpose is a not-for-profit based in the US that reminds us that travellers can help by alerting us to who needs what and where, with hotels playing a key role in implementation. Since 2010, Pack for a Purpose has informed travellers how to take more than 77,000 kilograms of supplies to 60 countries, thanks to their website flagging up participating hotels and the goods they distribute. Song Saa in Cambodia invites guests to bring stationery supplies or dictionaries for a local school in Koh Rong; and Ulusaba Private Game Reserve in South Africa asks guests to leave paperbacks and holiday reads for their adult literacy programme.
However, tourism and activism don’t always cosy up so compatibly. ‘Voluntourism’ may seem like a smart idea, but these ‘working holiday’ attempts to eliminate poverty, conserve wildlife or provide aid after a humanitarian disaster can be fraught with complications. It’s necessary to examine whether situations are being exploited for commercial reasons and to wonder: is having parachuting foreigners in to tell locals how to do things is the best way to manage progress? There’s also the question of whether having tourists getting stuck into a project for a short burst represents a meaningful contribution in a context where it might be better for money to go towards empowering and supporting locals in the long term. Don’t be fazed by the complexity of using tourism as a force for good, however: deploying even the smallest number of genuine activists in the right way can have a huge positive impact.
Hands-on holiday activism worth saluting includes easy-to-action waste management schemes, such as beach cleans. Every year, a staggering eight-million tonnes of plastic enters our seas – 80 per cent of which comes from the land. Plastic waste filling our oceans has become such an issue it’s even led to a full-length feature film, A Plastic Ocean. Many luxury hotels task their staff with litter pick-ups, the obvious incentive being cleaner, more photogenic stretches of sand. Beachcleaner in Germany is a movement turning the tide on plastic waste with educational resources for kids, beach cleans and plastic alternatives; while Make Holidays Greener, run by Travelife and The Travel Foundation, has hosted ‘Make Holidays Greener’ weeks – in 2016, they inspired over 100 beach cleans in 20 different countries.
In Banyan Tree properties across Asia, close to 5000 associates, community members and guests picked up kilos and kilos of trash from riverbeds and beaches. Angsana Tengchong Hot Springs Village, situated in China’s Yunnan province, accounted for over half of that total with their weekly river pick-ups and twice-monthly road cleans. John Hardy, founder of the Green School in Indonesia, invites anyone to pitch up for a ‘trash walk’ leaving at 7am daily from his boutique hotel Bambu Indah, near Ubud. Participants can talk rubbish with him as they spear garbage mostly washed up from the river, whilst hearing his energetic, emphatic and eccentric vision during a purposeful stroll through Sayan in Bali’s forest-covered inland. Over in Belize, there’s an initiative to control lionfish populations that are damaging the coral reefs. Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn invites tourists to help cull the native species through hunting; co-operatives of local women then make jewellery from hunted lionfish to sell. Whilst these initiatives may be specific to their destination, their spirit of hands-on humanitarianism can be transplanted around the world.
Citizen science, when the public takes part in valuable field research, is another way of helping. Data collection can be the most time-consuming part of conservation, so this can be a great low-impact contribution from travellers. Steve Newman, Director of Conservation for Banyan Tree, explains how citizen science works for them: “As a global business with management or ownership interest in 40 resorts in 13 countries, we have the chance to gather informative data on multiple ecosystems: coral reef, rainforest, mangrove, desert. We can provide valuable insight on status, change, and biological processes, and how it varies across large spatial and temporal scales. This data is collected at various levels of expertise, involving guests as citizen scientists, and the findings are accessible and beneficial to all.” The Banyan Tree Maldives Marine Lab has recorded historical shark distributions through interviews of 34 former shark fishers, in addition to tracking current shark distributions through underwater video surveillance and guests’ citizen science observations during recreational snorkelling and diving excursions – guest observations have currently accounted for 436 sightings.
Divers and snorkellers can also get involved in conservation efforts by working with Earthdive. Through this organisation, which works in cahoots with the United Nations Environment Programme and WWF, marine scientists have figured out that key indicators in different marine eco-regions can tell a lot about the health of the world’s oceans. By recording these indicators, any scuba diver or snorkeller can contribute to Earthdive’s global snapshot of the state of our oceans. The world’s largest monitoring programme happens because of Ecocean’s study with WildMe in the US, which helps to develop The Wildbook for Whale Sharks. Information architect Jason Holmberg and NASA astrophysicist Zaven Arzoumanian created software that monitors the population and movement of the world’s largest fish through photos of their skin patterns. Anyone around the world can access and report any whale-shark sightings, and the library now holds tens-of-thousands of images. Meanwhile, Surfers Against Sewage is a campaign group that rallies their community to clear our oceans, asking surfers to report on water conditions and take action where needed.
Greenwashing won’t cut it in today’s world. Instead, hotels and travel brands will do well to have a philosophy of doing things more directly. TOMS, the oft-cited creator of shoes, bags and glasses, has won hearts for its ‘one-for-one’ initiatives; but dig more deeply, and you wonder how much good they’re actually doing. The brand allows the consumer to indulge their retail craving and get a feel-good boost of oxytocin from the sense they’re giving back. But are they really?
TOMS has been criticised for putting profits first and using their do-gooding for maximum spin while nurturing a culture of aid dependency. In an article for Vox, journalist Amanda Taub comments, “Buying TOMS shoes is a terrible way to help poor people.” In her opinion, the consumer purchases the product feeling that they have made a positive impact and helped the world’s impoverished many, while the real impact is negligible. Since sustainability is so complex, rather than allowing brands to gain a halo from their supposed initiatives, creating purposeful campaigns and turning travellers into activists may be our true best foot forward.
Boutique hotel expert Juliet Kinsman is a Louis Vuitton City Guides author for London and New York and the founding editor of Mr & Mrs Smith. Meeting philanthropic hoteliers and working with award-winning travel brands has inspired her and Holly Tuppen, former editor of Greener Hotelier, to share stories of sustainability from the world’s most remarkable hotels on Beouteco.co.