I share concerns that sustainable tourism becomes a trendy ‘thing’ to invest in, with investors expecting sustainable tourism business and returns working in the same way as mainstream, with the values of volume and profit not positive impacts, as if it’s just a product extension

Vicky Smith is the Founder & Director of the online community EarthChangers, and a Sustainable Tourism Consultant. She believes in the power of the Internet and tourism for connecting communities worldwide for positive impact and sustainable development. She has extensive experience of business operations, both on the ground in host communities and the UK market, having worked in a wide range of tourism sectors including the Ski industry, safari operations (qualified ranger), trekking, adventure & activities, Sustainable / responsible tourism, volunteer travel & conservation. She holds a BA in French and International Business from the University of Sheffield and an MSc in Responsible Tourism Management from Leeds Beckett University.

Ecoclub.com: Why did you choose to work in Tourism and what key assumptions about the sector did you have to revise over the years?Vicky Smith, tour escorting and supporting local guides at Machu Picchu, Peru.Vicky Smith, tour escorting and supporting local guides at Machu Picchu, Peru.

Vicky Smith: A love of the great outdoors led to a love of ski, then a love of travel, so I worked in it to do it.

I was a passionate skier from school years and loved the mountains. One holiday from university where I was studying French and International Business, skiing with my mother in France, she a bad leg injury, and the company rep was so helpful. I thought, I’d like to do that job sometime, I get to ski, be in mountains, speak French, help people and get paid for it! When my final exams came around, I went through a couple of blue chip graduate recruitment programmes but it felt uncomfortably corporate! So I decided to first concentrate on my studies, then aim to get a job in the Alps for 6 months, then travel for 6 months before getting a ‘proper’ (office) job… that was in the mid 90’s when a ‘year out’ was frowned upon: professors told me I would ruin my career – instead it made it!

My naïve assumptions were that you get to ski and socialise, speak French, help people, get paid and get months of shoulder season holidays. Not untrue for that job, but as a manager (of increasingly bigger resorts, staff, logistics, accounts, accidents, problems…), skiing gave way to 7 days a week long days’ work for little money, less of the fun aspects, but more problems. I realised I could ski more in a week’s holiday from a UK office job with a decent salary than I would in a whole season in the Alps, have a natural smile on my face, and be able to see family and friends and attend important events, so returned to the UK. That said, it was the best experience at the coalface of tourism that I wouldn’t change for the world.

In more recent years, I probably assumed that consumers would demand sustainable tourism if available. Historically it’s not been true. I’ve had to learn how much education is required.

Ecoclub.com: What prompted you to create Earth Changers and what are its key aims and milestones?

Vicky Smith: My love of travel turned to a love of the world’s people and places, and so responsible and sustainable tourism, and so Earth Changers. There were many prompts in an evolution which took my entire career of 20+ years.

I look back to my ski years and see I witnessed environmental degradation, permafrost melt, corporate exploitation and social and cultural disrespect, which had an unconscious impact at the time, but a key influence retrospectively over time.

Working back in UK head offices in the late 90s, I got involved in early days web development and ecommerce in the first dotcom bubble: at that point only large mainstream travel businesses had internet tech jobs so I worked for big brands. I experienced corporate culture I didn’t like: people weren’t valued and destinations were just commodity ‘products’ from which to profit (including by guests), not valued as unique communities with cultural and natural heritage. In 2002, in discovering an alternative in Responsible Tourism (so-named in the Cape Declaration that year), I knew I found my natural home and vocation, but early big brand involvement was equally values-washing. In 2006, I left for Africa for several months, volunteering and travelling, to understand where tourism could and should fit with supporting people and places. That was my real life-changing trip, and I vowed to only work in sustainable tourism from then on, and I wanted to create a website then.

But I realised I didn’t know enough people in the sector and how to discern sustainability, and I still needed to pay my mortgage. So I worked for cheap at tradeshows to get to know exhibitors to then get a job in charity challenges and volunteer tourism. But I needed to earn more to pay my bills, so went back to mainstream. A redundancy thanks to Lehman Brothers’ failure prompted me to train as a ranger in Africa to understand conservation standards, then to study a Masters in Responsible Tourism Management with Professor Harold Goodwin and Professor Xavier Font part-time, while working full-time back in ski, and organising responsible tourism meet ups and Twitter chats.

After qualifying, I worked freelance for commercial organisations and not-for-profits in sustainable tourism, but felt the former didn’t care about impacts, nor the latter about commercial marketing. A ski injury meant reconstruction surgery for my knee, and the best part of 11 months on crutches and inability to carry out my freelance work, much of which involved travel abroad.

So instead I developed Earth Changers, as the site I had wanted and intended to create for 10 years, with the benefit of a decade of academia, not-for profit, and various types of sustainable tourism work. So it was quite an organic creation, without a business plan – I was better just to work it out as I went along to see where it could go, which is my entrepreneurial style. Its key aim was to offer a platform of sustainable tourism with integrity, with not-for-profit understanding of impact, and commercial understanding of market requirements, for consumers and suppliers, as a social enterprise.

Key milestones have included being able to highlight sustainable tourism through:

  • 2017 - UN World Tourism Organisation authorised Earth Changers as a Partner Solution to Sustainable Tourism for development, for the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development (#IY2017).
  • 2018 - Finalist - UK Blog Awards – being the first commercial travel site to write about the intersection of travel and the SDGs
  • 2019 - Named an Ambassador for the #YearOfGreenAction by Defra, the UK’s Government Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
  • 2019 - Winner - Travelmole UK Web Awards - Best Responsible Travel & Tourism website
  • 2019 - NatWest SE100 Index + Finalist NatWest SE100 Awards for social enterprise.
  • 2019 - Selected for the Nat West / Pioneers Post WISE100 Women of Social Enterprise and Mission-Driven Business
  • 2020 - Included in Forbes: 100 UK Leading Environmentalists (Who Happen To Be Women)
  • 2020 - PEA Awards Shortlist Finalist: Green Pioneer
  • First inclusions in certain press eg. Conde Nast Traveller (2020), BBC Travel Show (2021),
  • Being interviewed eg. WTM Women (2018), Sustainable(ish) (2018), Sustainability Leaders (2019), Euromonitor (2020), Holiday Extras podcast (2021) and
  • Speaking at major trade shows eg. LATA (2018), WTM (2018), ITB + ITB Asia (2019).

Ecoclub.com: Has Sustainable Tourism (and other adjectival Tourisms) so far resulted in concrete changes and progress at the coal face of the industry or is it still mostly academic conference material? 

Vicky Smith: Yes, there’s been huge changes! At the coalface, I managed volunteer and charity challenge groups for years in iconic destinations like hiking Machu Picchu, Kilimanjaro, across the Sahara desert, kayaking the Zambezi – these trips weren’t mainstream, but they are fragile environments of which there was a huge consciousness by local suppliers and supply chains – responsible tourism very much grew from this grassroots, then made it into conference programmes, and specialist holidays. Concretely, you saw it in products offered, in marketing experiences, and in the sustainability programmes of big operators. A sticking point in more recent years has been getting middle ground mainstream response, regardless of consumer demand, to take responsibility and understand it’s not just an additional product, or a ‘nice to have’ but needs to be the absolute default of the sector in future. Covid has now created that wake-up call – from the consumer interest standpoint and destination resilience requirement. We see that in consumer survey responses, and from DMOs’ interest.

"As a group trip manager in a Borneo village, where we helped put in fresh water supply so the women didn't have to spend time away from the children walking 1km each way with buckets, while the village men were out fishing all day.""As a group trip manager in a Borneo village, where we helped put in fresh water supply so the women didn't have to spend time away from the children walking 1km each way with buckets, while the village men were out fishing all day."Ecoclub.com: Beyond environmental sustainability and climate adaptation, which are politically neutral, do you feel there is adequate focus in the Sustainable Tourism community on more politically-charged issues such as tourism employee rights, quality jobs, workplace democracy and the position of Women?

Vicky Smith: I don’t think environmental and climate sustainability is politically neutral, in the UK at least! Maybe more so in the EU where there is harmony and policy agreed.

Although the climate crisis is urgently existential and it’s taken years to get to this point, carbon is more tangible, measurable and quantifiable – and we see on the news daily its worldwide impacts.

Tourism employee rights, quality job creation, corporate culture and the position of women are rarely obvious to the public or in mainstream discourse. We have the opportunity however to highlight these with so many jobs being lost to 2 years of Covid, a market global trauma that isn’t going to return overnight without bumps. We can and should take the opportunity of ‘build back better’ and communicate the issues so awareness can lead to them being valued.
Ecoclub.com: You have an extensive experience of, African Tourism. With reference to Africa, a continent that truly suffered under European Colonialism, what is your view on ongoing calls to decolonise and socialise Tourism and Conservation in terms of more local ownership, decision-making and distribution chains?

Vicky Smith: Tourism, whether it occurs, to what extent, where and in what way, should be decided by local people. It’s their place, and not for anyone else to determine. That requires inclusive consultation processes for stakeholders, listening and empowerment. Local voices must be the decision-makers, to make better places for people to live in and better places to visit: it is for locals to decide what ‘better’ is for them; external advice can serve to facilitate and help plan if invited. But we also need to recognise it can be a challenge for local people to speak and step-up and take responsibility after centuries of colonisation-quashed personal empowerment and inferiority (all over the world). Mindset, enabling empowerment, is key (as it is in running your own business). People have to feel they can make a difference, be supported, lifted and believed-in to shine, not feel diminished, devalued or demeaned to lose dignity and self-esteem.
Ecoclub.com: Could online tourism consolidation and the dominance of a few large OTAs adversely impact the transition to Sustainable Tourism? For example, recently there was a sudden decision by a major OTA to introduce a type of instant ecolabel which some feel amounts to greenwashing.

Vicky Smith: Potentially. Large OTAs are database-driven ecommerce market places, the nature of which is often to not take responsibility if they don’t own the product and the contract is between the user and the supplier. ‘We are just the platform’ is an absolution we see in social media too (such as enabling hate speech); whereas the whole point of responsible tourism (and prerequisite of sustainable tourism) is to take responsibility for tourism, the choices made, consequences and impacts. 

On the other hand, if the large OTAs are simply and systematically taking data feeds from/on existing ecolabels, and not creating their own validations of what is or not sustainable, then greenwashing (or not) lies with those existing ecolabels’ certification too. From an awareness stand-point, large OTAs can create large impact because of their volume reach. If that means more consumers – and suppliers - pay more attention to what it takes to get an ecolabel, then maybe they are nudged in the right direction, and rather than see it as greenwashing it’s a ‘light-green’ introduction to sustainable tourism, encouraging more to get involved, educated and later demand higher standards. OTAs’ database scale means they won’t be sustainability information specialists, like being price-driven means they won’t be luxury specialists.

Now sustainability is mainstreaming, we need to understand a more nuanced approach: it’s not merely binary, black or white. As we know, it considers a highly complex mix of ingredients, some of which may be more sustainable or less, and some of which may be subjective (and so not surprising consumers find it overwhelming!). Even at the top sustainable level I work with at Earth Changers, some partners are more conservation-oriented, others more community-oriented; we weigh it all up holistically and humanistically: tech can’t make personal judgements, only follow rules.

On the banks of the Tsiribinha river in Madagascar, a semi-domesticated lemur from the pit stop shop behind decided to befriend me, giving me a big surprise!)On the banks of the Tsiribinha river in Madagascar, a semi-domesticated lemur from the pit stop shop behind decided to befriend me, giving me a big surprise!)Ecoclub.com: Do you feel there is adequate funding for the sustainable tourism transition? Who should pay and what checks and balances are needed to avoid Sustainable Tourism becoming the charitable/greenwashing arm of Big (Unsustainable) Tourism?

Vicky Smith: No, it’s a challenge. The traditional funding market and finance methods are at odds with the values of sustainable tourism, so it is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Finance and funding for business traditionally is based on a maximum Return On Investment quickly for investors to profit and exit, as a business with no interest in the purpose. But sustainable tourism, with integrity, is about purpose and impact and longevity. Plus, historically, as the consumer hasn’t put their money where their mouth is for sustainable tourism, the ROI hasn’t been the trajectory of mainstream tourism, hence why the big OTAs haven’t got involved previously, and it’s hard for anyone genuinely sustainable to get a foot on the ladder. But it’s changing.

Ultimately with grass-roots supply-side sustainability ahead of demand, what’s needed is funding to enable that gap to be bridged as the right and important thing to do which will pay long term returns, not because of short-term demand, with reasonable returns based on values of longer term and impact.

I share concerns that sustainable tourism becomes a trendy ‘thing’ to invest in, with investors expecting sustainable tourism business and returns working in the same way as mainstream, with the values of volume and profit not positive impacts, as if it’s just a product extension. Some may have intent to use that as greenwashing other (unsustainable) tourism, but I think a lot will just have capitalist heads on profit and just see it as an investment opportunity without understanding the core values difference and how that changes the whole business.

As for checks and balances, investor research and understanding should be part of the due diligence of accepting and agreeing finance. It’s a 2-way contract. It can be accepted unconditionally; on the understanding education of values is required; or declined because it’s clear the 2 parties don’t share values, vision and understanding of the purpose, mission and returns. No one is obliged to take the wrong investment.

It’s a pressure point because sustainable tourism needs funding, but if it’s on offer at the expense of the sustainability, then it’s just tourism funding masquerading. It depends what you want and are able and willing to hold out for – because it is changing and social enterprise support growing.

Ecoclub.com: In a time of Wars, Pandemics, Energy Crisis, is "Overtourism" over or will it come back with a vengeance? Have the dangers of tourism monoculture become clearer? Given that the labour-intensive tourism (& leisure) sectors offer temporary, entry-level and many poorly-paid jobs, is there anything that can replace Tourism in already tourism-dependent destinations and economies or is degrowth the only solution?

Vicky Smith: After 2 years, hosts and their destinations want and need tourism back, and many tourists are desperate to travel. We’ll see the numbers bounce back in no time.

But in the interim, hosts, destinations and tourists alike have questioned values and we’ll see the shift to sustainable tourism accelerate years, but probably not fast enough for climate, biodiversity and inequalities. Tourism’s not going away so decisions will need to be made supply-side with greater awareness of the danger of tourism monoculture and dependence, for greater diversification and more income streams. But we have to look outside of tourism to our wider lifestyles too. If we all change our (over-) consumption and emissions, and shift to sustainable consumption inevitably more local, thus produce more locally, there will be more opportunities locally – eg. alternative energies, land management, food. We need to change how we live to change how we work, and at core is a behaviour-changing values shift.
Ecoclub.com: Considering that Human Mobility is the broader framework of Tourism & Travel, and thanks to which, along with the right to leisure, they could also be considered as human rights, should the Hospitality industry by definition, be a lot more sensitive and responsive to the plight of war, climate and economic refugees?

Vicky Smith: Certainly. Peace is a pre-requisite for tourism so it’s in our whole sector’s shared interests to work for that sustainable development goal (16), through tolerance and understanding of each other’s behaviours and needs, so that people can visit other places and people.

Tourism can offer huge support to refugees, regardless of cause, with access to employment, income, training – offering important dignity. If we’re in the business of hospitality, we should be by nature hospitable. The word’s root is from hospes, the word for host, guest, stranger, or visitor. Are we not here to welcome and support guests and share our homes with pride?

Everyone has equal right to travel as much as the next person. That said, leisure travel through choice (rather than necessary refuge) in others’ home countries is a privilege – and the right to such travel should not be used by the most privileged as a frivolous claim against degrowth to enable continuation of unsustainable tourism.

We have to get back to what tourism’s really about, not just money, and that’s what responsible and sustainable tourism does.

Ecoclub.com: Thank you very much for sharing your insightful views and valid concerns about the present and future of sustainable and responsible travel & hospitality!