Interview: Jeremy Sampson, CEO, The Travel Foundation

Interview: Jeremy Sampson, CEO, The Travel Foundation

“Tourism can either be something that is "done" to a destination by outside forces – a colonial and extractive industry. Or it can be something driven by the destination: stimulating investment, entrepreneurship and small business development”

Jeremy Sampson is the new Chief Executive Officer of the Travel Foundation. Before taking the helm at the international tourism charity, he was already well-known and respected within tourism and conservation networks with a wealth of experience in Sustainable Tourism, having worked across the spectrum of destinations, industry, NGOs, and academia. He has held leadership positions for a range of organisations, including as President of international tour operator GreenSpot Travel and Vice President at Sustainable Travel International. More recently, Mr Sampson has led large-scale sustainable tourism initiatives for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Mediterranean Cooperation Centre, working across Southern Europe and North Africa. He holds a BA in Mass Communications from University of California, Berkeleay and was an Adjunct Professor at the International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University. His motto is "do good work with great people"!

The Travel Foundation (Web: is a charity that works in partnership with leading tourism organizations to improve the impacts of tourism and shape a positive future for destinations. Since it was set up in 2003, with seed-funding from the UK Foreign Office and major tourism industry players, it has worked in 28 popular holiday destinations around the world. Its head office is in Bristol, UK and it has a global network of project managers.

Ecoclub: Congratulations on assuming your new, important position as the CEO of the Travel Foundation! What attracted you to this organisation and this role and what real difference do you aim to bring? 

Jeremy Sampson: I’ve worked with the Travel Foundation in the past and I’ve always been impressed by the way it seeks to tackle the root causes of issues and take a commercially savvy approach. It has a great reputation for the quality of its work and its credibility as a partner organisation. Over the last 16 years it’s grown from a UK-based collaborator to become a leading global organisation and during that time it’s tested many methodologies and developed its approaches. The sustainable tourism movement is gaining momentum and I hope to capitalise on that with the Travel Foundation. We have a lot of experience and talent in the team and we aim to build on that and become even more innovative and collaborative in our approach. We understand that we’re a small team and we can’t work alone - so we’re actively and strategically finding new partners to work with. Our Invisible Burden report [how destinations must uncover and account for tourism’s hidden costs] is part of our strategy to help the industry address systemic change across the private and public sector. Tourism can’t continue to be managed in the way it currently is. 

Ecoclub: The world is in the middle of various existential crises, including the Climate Crisis and a non-stop Refugee/Humanitarian Crisis that sees people from the global south risking their lives to move north in search of a better future, this better future often taking the form of a low-paid tourism job with endless working hours. What role can the Tourism industry in tackling this twin and interconnected crisis it is both participating in and affecting, and what sort of new initiatives will the Travel Foundation undertake under your leadership?

Jeremy Sampson: We certainly can’t ignore tourism’s contribution to climate change and as an industry we need to work aggressively towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We want tourism to deliver on its promise of supporting sustainable development, but for that to happen it must be managed well at a local level. Tourism can either be something that is “done” to a destination by outside forces – a colonial and extractive industry. Or it can be something driven by the destination: stimulating investment, entrepreneurship and small business development which can form an essential part of the visitor economy. Part of our role is to help keep this conversation going, but it needs political will and honest conversations across the industry in order to really drive the sustainable tourism agenda forward. There’s little doubt that the tourism industry must address the climate emergency, most obviously the environmental impact of flights but also to begin accounting for the environmental cost and large ecological footprint of tourism in destinations. Us human beings are unlikely to stop travelling and exploring, and it would be a terrible thing if we did, but we must urgently change how we go about doing it.

Ecoclub: In some popular tourism destinations, vocal minorities, seconded by big hospitality player that suffer from the competition, is protesting against the sharing economy which it blames for the evil of ‘Overtourism’. Is that fair in your view? Would limiting short holiday rentals in cities really stop ‘Overtourism’? Is this a real problem, or is there perhaps some overlap between the anti-tourism and the xenophobic/racism elements in some cities? 

Jeremy Sampson: The sharing economy can certainly take its portion of the blame and needs to be a big part of the solutions, but the underlying issues behind overtourism are many and varied. The short-term holiday market has been shown to increase the cost of housing and it has other impacts that are associated with symptoms of overtourism. If your neighbours are changing every week and the nature of your locality is shifting towards serving tourists more than residents, there’s a huge social cost (as outlined in the Invisible Burden report). Equally, there are positive aspects to the short-term market such as livelihood diversification. Clearly the explosive growth of the short-term market has accelerated the challenge in a way that destinations were entirely unprepared for, creating real challenges with capacity management that did not exist at the same scale before. This has laid bare one of the sector’s primary weaknesses, the fragmentation of responsibility, which illustrates the need for a real shared agenda across sectors and agencies that supports planning, innovation and funding. So clearly the key to all of this is more meaningful collaboration. Destinations should caution against labelling any segment of tourists as ‘undesirable’ and rather optimise the benefits their own tourism mix vis-à-vis their identity and values and learn how to serve and manage different tourists in the most appropriate and efficient way. There are lots of emerging thinking on how to better manage crowds during peak times and improve the flow of visitor attractions to help disperse people. In this area technology can be a huge driver for change.

Ecoclub: In the past few years you have developed a first-hand experience of the Mediterranean tourism industry which will come handy as we note that the Travel Foundation is active in Cyprus and Turkey among others. What are the key challenges facing Med Tourism in your view and, in particular, how willing and able is the tourism private sector in your view to play a constructive, humanitarian role in the refugee crisis (apart from complaining about ‘image’ harm) which is all too evident in an increasing number of Mediterranean islands where desperate immigrants disembark next to holiday makers working on their tan and sprawling refugee camps pop up next to sprawling tourism resorts?

Jeremy Sampson: The Mediterranean faces some big challenges as it’s at the epicentre of tourism - it continues to have massive projected growth for both tourists and residents. It’s largely been developed as a series of sand, sea and sun destinations but in recent years there has been a real push to diversify. However, there is not yet a policy framework in place, nor the skills and capacity to manage and deliver high quality experiences. Tourism is clearly putting pressure on the precious ecosystems in what is one of the world’s most critical biodiversity hotspots, and the fragile coastline communities of the Mediterranean are in jeopardy unless action is taken to mitigate negative environmental impact, such as waste management, and implement improved marine tourism practices. (see Blue Wave and Cyprus plastics projects).

Jeremy SampsonEcoclub: Among the UN SDG goals which one do you think is imperative for the Tourism sector to attain fully and how are we doing so far? 

Jeremy Sampson: Tourism has the potential to contribute to all of the SDGs and thanks to work of the sector, tourism is seen increasingly as a means to drive sustainable growth. We still have some ways to go but strides are being made, particularly towards goals 8, 12 and 14: inclusive and sustainable economic growth; sustainable consumption and production; sustainable use of oceans and marine resources. But the truth is we don’t really know how well the tourism industry is doing, because measurement of tourism’s costs and benefits remains inadequate at all levels.

Ecoclub: As sustainability has become mainstream in Tourism, there is a proliferation of organisations and networks working in and for Sustainable Tourism. Do we need more cooperation or perhaps more competition between these actors to get things moving faster in a progressive, green direction?

Jeremy Sampson: Cooperation is a major priority and there is a new generation of committed leadership interested in practical action, not theory. But this requires honesty and humility across the industry about our role and contribution to fixing the problems and sharing of common goals. I believe it’s better to work towards the same shared goal and build the momentum together. The Travel Foundation has a dual role to play: to help push the industry and the global agenda outlined in our Invisible Burden report and deal directly with partners in businesses, destinations, and associations, as well as other NGOs.  Truth is, there’s plenty of investment in tourism already, billions put toward marketing per annum, so it would be nice to see some of these funds reallocated to ensure better protection of destination assets.

Ecoclub: What are the key ways in which the Travel Foundation helps destinations, and what do you consider your greatest achievement in this respect? As they say charity begins at home, so does the Travel Foundation also have plans for Bristol where it is based?

Jeremy Sampson: We offer practical solutions in destinations through our overseas projects and partner with local organisations to effect change, for example our ongoing relationship with TPDCo (the local agency for tourism development) in Jamaica or our central role in setting up a multi-stakeholder destination council in Cabo Verde. I’d like to think our greatest achievement is yet to come as we push the agenda on accounting for the real costs of tourism in destinations, highlighted in our report ‘The Invisible Burden’. Research is also part of our contribution to raise awareness and inform the industry, and we continue to push the envelope in supporting destinations to measure and manage tourism’s impact, understand risks and design related interventions, and re-engineer market segmentation analyses to include a holistic view of costs and benefits across various dimensions. Ultimately, we think the key is unlocking more and varied sources of financing so that destinations can implement more effective and innovative solutions. Traditionally we’ve not worked in the UK, but we’d be very keen to do so, and with interesting new sustainable tourism strategies from Scotland and Wales this is a real possibility, in addition to some emerging conversations with the National Trust. The UK is certainly not immune to the problems destinations around the globe are facing.

Ecoclub: Based on your 360-degree professional experience in tourism, in industry, NGOs and Academia are you satisfied with the level of synchronization and cooperation between these three? Is it a real problem if they have different agendas and priorities?

Jeremy Sampson: There is a lot of great work happening across of each of these sectors, but a lot of fragmentation and replication exists and this certainly needs to improve. The Travel Foundation seeks to bridge the gap between government and industry, and between academia and industry. In fact, our Invisible Burden report is an example of how we are widening the debate in this regard, but the academic principals outlined in the report need to be applied and that requires systemic change and practical solutions. Our priorities are to ensure that we’re moving the conversation forward and that we compliment the activities of other organisations across the industry rather than replicating work or competing unnecessarily. We’re currently looking into developing Invisible Burden-inspired ‘Innovation Labs’ - working with actors in the private and public sector to foster joined-up thinking, so we’re not constantly reinventing the wheel. I’ve seen some great examples of cooperation in action during my time working in Med, but the private sector absolutely needs to take more responsibility when it comes to collaboration and agreeing to a shared responsibility for protecting destination assets.