T. Mullis is the co-founder and president of
Sustainable Travel International (STI), a non-profit organization with
offices in the US and EU. STI is dedicated to promoting responsible travel and
facilitate the travel and tourism industry's move toward sustainability by
providing programs that help travellers and travel companies protect the
environmental, socio-cultural and economic values of the places they visit.
Mullis has over 20 years of experience in the travel and tourism industry. He
began his career working in national parks in Wyoming, Montana and Utah. More
recently, Mullis was the president and owner of The World Outdoors, an
international travel company specializing in active holidays and ecotravel.
During his career, he has assisted numerous travel companies of all sizes in the
areas of sustainable and business development, sales, marketing, finance and
management. Mullis has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology with a focus on
Business from Auburn University and holds a Master's Degree in Recreation
Management from Springfield College. He spends his free time travelling abroad,
exploring the backcountry and enjoying quality time with friends and family.
Travel International (STI) is a global leader in sustainable tourism
development. The 501(c)(3) non-profit organization’s mission is to promote
sustainable development and responsible travel by providing programs that enable
consumers, businesses and travel-related organizations to contribute to the
environmental, socio-cultural and economic values of the places they visit, and
the planet at large. STI's current priorities include developing, adopting, and
marketing sustainable tourism standards and practices through Green.travel and
the Sustainable Tourism Eco-Certification Program™ (STEP);
providing educational resources to travellers and travel providers, and
assisting them in making positive contributions to environmental conservation,
cultural-heritage preservation, and local economic development; supporting the
implementation of greenhouse gas reduction strategies and the use of carbon
offsets, enabling travellers and travel providers to offset unavoidable
greenhouse gas emissions; facilitating donations of financial resources, time,
talent and economic patronage to help travellers and travel providers protect
and positively impact cultures and environments around the world.
(The Interview follows:)
the co-founder of a major international NGO promoting Sustainable
Tourism, how satisfied are you with its progress in recent years?
Brian Mullis: Peter D. Krahenbuhl and I co-founded Sustainable
Travel International (STI) in 2002. Since that time, STI has evolved from
a relatively unknown grassroots organization to a leading internationally
recognized non-profit dedicated to sustainable travel and tourism development.
This process has been both very rewarding and very challenging. Our primary
focus is on delivering and implementing result-oriented, market-driven
approaches that are designed to empower consumers, travel-related companies, and
destinations to support sustainability and generate tangible, measurable
results. We’ve also had a strong focus on collaborating with like-minded
organizations and becoming financially sustainable through our own programming.
Which country or
countries in your view has been more successful in implementing a sustainable
tourism policy framework and why?
Brian Mullis: I think it’s a bit too early to determine which
countries are going to be successful and which ones are not. Although
Costa Rica is often cited as exemplifying ecotourism, the country has become a
victim of its own success given the pressure for new development that isn’t
necessarily sustainable. It’s now focused on becoming the first carbon
neutral company, which would set a new precedent globally. Other countries
that are actively engaging in sustainable tourism at a national level include
Dominica, Bhutan, Ecuador, and Jordan, whereas the success of tourism
certification in the United Kingdom, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia is
You have extensive
experience of both for-profit and non-profit tourism organisations. Are there
any significant differences (advantages, disadvantages) or are the two types
gradually merging, through CSR, tax cuts, and an increasingly competitive NGO
horizon in relation to donor funds?
Having a background in the private sector - I was an international tour operator
for the better part of a decade - has given us a strong entrepreneurial focus.
We also understand what businesses in this sector and other sectors need.
For example, we ensure that we deliver a variety of benefits to our business
clients in an effort to provide them with a solid return on investment. A
significant part of our success stems from our ability to seamlessly integrate
the programs and solutions we’ve developed into a company’s operations.
Having a first hand understanding of how our client’s internal operations and
their sales and marketing systems work makes this process much easier and
increases the likelihood of success.
The public (non-profit) and private
sectors are similar in some respects and different in others. In my
opinion, there’s a great deal of competition for limited donor funding and not
enough collaboration in the public (non-profit) sector. This hinders the
ability of many non-profit organizations to actualize their full potential.
Another shortcoming is the lack of focus on becoming financially self-reliant –
too many non-profits are dependent on donors and foundations, though this is
starting to change as more for-profits are starting non-profits and vice versa.
Regardless, there is still a mindset of equating non-profits with wanting, if
not needing, “hand outs”, so some companies would prefer to work with other
One of the primary differences between
public and private companies is their bottom line focus. For-profit
companies inherently focus on making a profit, many without public financial
disclosure and some at the expense of the environment and human rights.
Non-profits, on the other hand, should focus on maintaining positive cash flow,
yet their financials are publicly disclosed so supporters can determine how much
is going to their actual projects versus their overhead. In addition,
non-profits don’t have much of an incentive to capture as much money as possible
to be distributed to owners or shareholders, since by law in the U.S. all the
money has to stay within the organization and dedicated to the organization’s
mission oriented activities.
Though there are strong
doubts and criticism from both mainstream and green commentators about the
ethics and effects of Carbon Offsetting, STI has enthusiastically embraced it.
Do you believe that it works in actually reducing carbon emissions, or is it a
convenient means of generating donations from travellers and channelling them to
I think that the perception of our enthusiastically embracing offsetting may
stem partly from our success and brand awareness in this arena. Globally there
is an awareness that addressing the challenge of global climate change will
require a sustained effort for many years to come. Supporting legislation that
requires mandatory greenhouse gas reductions is the first best solution; our
policies have to operate on the same timeframe even if our politics run on
election cycles. And, reducing CO2 emissions is the second best solution.
But, some emissions are unavoidable, and that’s when carbon offsets become part
of the solution and that is how we’ve always positioned the opportunity.
To address global climate change, we need access to energy sources that
are reliable and reasonably affordable, that can be deployed quickly and easily,
yet are also safe and politically and environmentally sustainable. We also
need to prime the economy for a surge in energy efficiency that will cut waste
and improve energy productivity. And, we need to put a price on greenhouse
gas emissions by implanting cap-and-trade programs or taxing carbon. In
other words, we need to take a more holistic approach. Carbon offsets are
part of this equation because ideally they help to fund renewable energy and
energy efficiency projects that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
There is also
a significant educational benefit to offsetting. Carbon footprint
calculators have enabled everyone from the average consumer to multi-national
corporations to internalize their personal climate impact through measurable
quantification, as well as through utilizing conceptual equivalents. For
example, measuring your carbon footprint and offsetting that amount can be
equated to taking a certain amount of vehicles off the road, whereas not
offsetting or eliminating those activities is related to being personally
responsible for putting that same amount of cars on the road. In addition,
the contentiousness of the topic has helped to catalyze other first best
Our position at STI is that we don’t want people to stop
travelling; we just want them to be aware. Companies engaged in
sustainable tourism economically benefit the destinations they visit – many of
which are dependent on tourism. If people stop travelling, many tourism
dependent country’s economies would collapse forcing many people to exploit
their environmental resources, which isn’t in anyone’s best interest. At the
same time, it is mandatory that negative impacts are not undervalued and
Is Sustainable Tourism a
one-size concept that fits all destinations, cultures and regimes, or is
"sustainability" a more or less "western" construct to counteract the effects of
other western models such as industrial capitalism? And, as such more suitable
to "western" countries?
No. We define “Sustainable Tourism” as a level of tourism activity that can be
maintained over the long term because it results in a net benefit for the
socio-cultural, economic, and natural environments of the area in which it takes
place. In order for this to happen, local stakeholders, particularly
community leaders, need to have some control over - or stake in - tourism
development. Travel providers need to actively support financial
sustainability in the destinations they serve and give back to them through the
donation of financial resources, time, talent and economic patronage with a
focus on the facilitation of self-reliance. And, politicians need to
implement legislation that favours sustainable development over short-sighted
development with little to no environmental regulation.
With the cooperation of
Universities, you have established distance-learning courses in sustainable
tourism. Have you observed, a genuine interest from hard-pressed small
sustainable tourism entrepreneurs in developing countries. Is online,
distance-learning, the future for such an applied and outdoor science/art such
I think distance-learning is one approach to help build capacity. The
challenge is to lower the financial barriers to entry and make it as accessible
as possible. Ideally, the model should be set up as a ‘low margin, high
volume’ model. But, currently there’s not enough demand to support a model
of this nature. As a result, most distance learning programs in the
tourism arena are prohibitively expensive for small entrepreneurs. There’s
also the issue of availability of and accessibility to internet connections and
computers, as well as a need to provide more introductory information on
customer service, administration, bookkeeping and the like. For these
reasons, STI is focused on taking a "train the trainer" approach whenever
possible. This is much more suitable for small to medium enterprises in
developing countries because the approach is hands-on and more personalized in
that courses are designed to meet the needs of specific audiences.
Tourism Certification limit itself to measuring environmental impact, or should
it also incorporate socio-political criteria? And what are the major obstacles
preventing demand and supply of tourism certification, which after all still
covers a tiny share of the tourism sector?
Sustainable Tourism Certification should take a triple bottom line approach,
since environmental, socio-cultural and economic impacts are interconnected.
The major obstacles preventing demand and supply for tourism certification
revolves around the fact that most tourism companies and consumers are defining
what “green” means to them because until recently there weren’t any global
baseline criteria for sustainable tourism. The industry has been searching
for practical applications of the definitions, and consumers, the industry and
media have become sceptical of green claims. Certifications through
programs such as our Sustainable Tourism Eco-certification Program address the
need for practical application through measurement, as well as credibility
through verified self assessment and possible third party audits. Yet,
with many programs out there, the launch of the (Global) Sustainable Tourism
Criteria initiative and global accreditation through the Sustainable Tourism
Stewardship Council (STSC) will help to harmonize all of this and increase
demand through brand awareness. This has been the case with other regional
and global labels such as Fair Trade products, Certified Organic food, etc. in
helping to catalyze industry shifts, and it will happen within the tourism as
Based on your
observations, as well as your studies in psychology, do we perhaps need to
recognise that voluntary certification has failed, and then proceed to
obligatory certification / environmental laws for all tourism businesses? Or is
it a question of a lack of both tax incentives and of real interest from
travellers when it comes to making travel decisions?
I think we have to acknowledge that the concept of certification in this
industry was well ahead of its time. The industry wasn’t ready for
sustainable tourism certification ten years ago. That has changed with
demand stemming from the private and public sector, as well as the consumer
marketplace. The issue of greenwashing isn’t going to go away, so there’s
clearly a need for third party verification and certification schemes.
That said certification isn’t going to be for everyone, which is why third-party
peer review (e.g., www.aito.co.uk/corporate_Responsible-Tourism.asp) and
sustainable tourism award programs are becoming increasingly popular. As I
alluded earlier, global accreditation through the STSC will change everything
and voluntary certification through international standards will prove itself
You will probably agree
that Sustainable Tourism, like all things eco, favours the small tourism guys &
gals, whom the Internet has empowered and allowed them to compete with giants
without intermediaries. How important is the Web in your work, and what do you
make of Web 2.0 - is there a danger that it will destroy independent websites
through trojan-horse fancy gadgets operated by the big players?
The internet certainly has levelled the playing field, making it easier for
local tourism providers to connect directly with the travel market. The
challenge is staying up-to-date on the technology and utilizing tools like Web
2.0, social marketing, etc. to grow a business. Fortunately, most search
engine optimization and e-marketing strategies are relatively inexpensive to
implement, so if a company has a strong value proposition and they’re utilizing
these strategies effectively, they will continue to remain competitive. You
will see an example of this with the impending launch of Green.travel, our new
consumer facing website. I should also note that Sustainable Travel
International was started on the web and was strictly a volunteer effort for the
first few years.
You have extensive
outdoors experience in the US, what would be your favourite US destination, and
why? And how could that destination be affected by the outcome of this years'
elections? Is there a meaningful sustainable tourism lobby?
Although I’ve spent time in more than 30 countries, it was my goal to know my
own country before travelling abroad. I’ve lived in 11 states and spent
time in all but one of the rest. And, I can honestly say that I don’t have
a favourite destination though I do have an affinity for the Pacific Northwest
where I currently live. Policies here and in the rest of the U.S. have an
impact. For example, the famous Salmon runs on the Columbia have all but
disappeared, forcing leaders in multiple states to place a moratorium on fishing
for certain species in the Pacific. Agricultural legislation will continue
to favour industrial producers unless changes are implemented to level the
playing field and encourage local processing. New renewable energy
development is going to slow down unless political leaders demand the extension
of federal tax credits and other incentives beyond 2008. Ethanol is
clearly not the answer; we need a real, comprehensive solution to the energy
crisis inside and outside of America.
Finally, what is your
My greatest aspiration is a first-hand understanding of the power of one – that
if we’re not part of the solution, we’re likely to be part of the problem.
We can all make changes in our behaviour and lighten our footprints, which in
turn can improve rather than diminish our quality of life. Millions of
people around the world are waking up to this simple fact. At the same
time, the environmental and social justice movements are merging into a single
movement that many characterize as the largest movement in the world. It’s
organic, self-organized and is made up of the millions of us who want to make
the world a better place. This is all very inspiring, is great cause for
optimism, and is reinforcing our efforts and strengthening our cause.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much!
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