View all Travel in Issue N

AN INTERVIEW WITH Costas Christ on Sustainable Tourism

With travellers becoming increasingly conscious about their environmental footprint as they adventure across the globe, it is Virtuoso, a platform that connects travellers to advisors, that is making exciting moves towards advising environmentally-conscious travel. Leading the way is Sustainable Tourism Expert and Virtuoso Global Sustainability Strategist, Costas Christ, who we pinned down during his own journey to advise us on the best, the most sustainable destinations, hotels and resorts around the world. We wanted to find out how we can minimise our own effects on the planet as we plan our much needed summer break, as well as discovering the ultimate sustainable adventures, so that, we too, can leave a greener footprint in the sand.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be an expert on sustainable travel?
 I started down this career path as a wildlife researcher on a Harvard University project in Kenya, long before terms like ecotravel or sustainable tourism existed. I was in a remote area living out of a tent, and witnessed a growing conflict between local people struggling to survive; park rangers with few resources, yet tasked with protecting some of the most endangered wildlife on Earth; and rapidly growing safari tourism that was making business investors wealthy, with very little of that revenue going to protect the wildlife in Africa that tourists were coming to see. It became increasingly clear to me that this scenario was unsustainable - for tourism, for local people, and for nature.  I thought to myself that, if properly planned and managed, tourism could become an economic engine to help alleviate poverty and protect nature. It was this idea that led to my direct involvement in the birth of sustainable tourism more than two decades ago, based on three key pillars - environmentally-friendly practices, support for the protection of cultural and natural heritage, and social and economic benefits to local people -  as a way to harness one of the largest industries in the world, travel and tourism, to become a positive force for people and the planet. 

You have traveled the world extensively, reporting on natural disasters and consulting with countries to become more eco-conscious. In light of this, why do you think it is important to consider Sustainability when traveling?
People travel to experience the world's natural and cultural treasures, from the Galapagos Islands to the Pyramids of Egypt and beyond. So, it only makes sense that we - governments, travel companies and travelers - should all be committed to doing all we can to protect the very things we seek to experience, learn about and enjoy when we travel. After all, the success of any travel business is also dependent on protecting the places travelers love to visit. Have you ever heard someone return from a private island vacation and say how wonderful it was to be on a beach filled with plastic trash and to snorkel amid dead coral reefs? Or imagine what would happen to the growing safari tourism industry if lions, elephants and rhinos all went extinct. Sound far-fetched? Hardly - all three of these iconic African species are now fighting for their survival. The entire travel industry as well as individual travelers and countries have a major stake in supporting sustainable tourism to protect our planet for future generations. 

Most people travel for luxury or just to ‘get away’ but you promote ‘Intelligent travel.’  Would you say it is easy to remain sustainable when traveling or do these choices effect the ‘type’ of travel?
One of the biggest myths out there is the idea that you can either go on a great, fun, vacation, OR you can go on a sustainable tourism holiday. It seems kind of like your mother telling you to eat your broccoli because it is good for you, when really you want to have the cake instead. When it comes to sustainable travel, it is not a question of “can I also have a real vacation?” Let me put it this way -  if you had a chance to stay in a beautiful room with a view, enjoy great guest services, participate in meaningful, fun activities, and over a candlelight dinner have a lovely bottle of wine - then think to yourself, “this was a great day.”  And then, “you mean it also helped local people to have better lives and protect our planet, too? Well, sign me up. I will be back!" That is the magic and positive power of sustainable travel. It is not about giving something up, it is about gaining something more. And it crosses all sectors of travel today – from luxury to budget - driven by travelers seeking unique and purposeful holidays. More than just going to see a place, travelers want to experience it. This has given rise to the fast-growing travel market where authenticity is the new luxury. 

What would your ultimate sustainable adventure be? 
A week at The Brando in French Polynesia - one of the world's most spectacular and sustainable resorts - comes pretty close. So does staying at Wilderness Safaris’ Mombo Camp in Botswana's Okavango Delta, or taking a river cruise with Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, who helped to pioneer the standards for environmentally-friendly river cruising. The truth is that I do not have any ultimate sustainable adventure in mind. Travel for me is more about learning and experiencing the world's diversity of cultures, landscapes, foods, nature, history, archeological sites and meeting everyday people as they go about their lives, than about one ultimate trip.  I am on my way next to Colombia - the world's second most biodiverse country, where one out of 10 species on the planet is found, the people are friendly, and the local cuisine is great. I believe that travel is fundamental to life.  Which is also why I believe that when travel is done the right way - the sustainable way - then local people and visitors alike benefit from the power and promise of travel to alleviate poverty, protect nature, and safeguard cultural heritage for future generations. 

Can you give the average traveler 3 tips for sustainable travel?
When it comes to being a more sustainably-minded traveler, each of our travel choices can make a big difference. Before booking a tour or reserving a hotel room, a good start is to research online if that company or hotel supports sustainable tourism, and to make those companies your priority when spending your hard-earned vacation money.  One thing I also do when I plan a trip, is to ask three key questions before I book with a travel company:

-       What are your environmentally-friendly practices? 
-       How do you provide benefits to local people?
-       How does your travel company help protect nature and support culture?

Ten years ago, those might have seemed like odd questions to ask, but not anymore. And the truth is that many travel companies and hotels are eager to share what they are doing as part of their commitment to sustainable tourism practices. Today, more and more travel companies are raising the bar on sustainability. So if a hotel cannot say clearly what they are doing as a commitment to helping protect the environment (for example, using recycled glass bottles for drinking water instead of plastic water bottles), or a tour operator is not able to point to a project or initiative showing how they are benefiting local communities, or supporting the conservation of nature, find another company that does. In that way, as travelers, we are saying that we care, and will support those businesses that also care about the planet.

More Information on Costas:-

Costas Christ is not only a globally renowned sustainable travel expert, he also serves as the National Geographic Senior Advisor for Sustainable Tourism. Having been honoured by the likes of Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Sylvia Earle, and CNN founder Ted Turner, Christ has been dubbed a pioneer of the green travel movement. Christ’s written work has appeared in many world famous publications such as The New York Times, Boston Globe, and The Sunday Times and he has made extensive radio and television appearances, expertly advising on Good Morning America, BBC World, CNN International (to name a few).


Interview by Jade McSorley