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Working with Fire

Takeaways from the Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference in Nairobi, Kenya

Tourism is like fire. Out of control, it will burn your house down. Taken care of, it will keep you warm and even cook your food.” – Costas Christ, editor and columnist for National Geographic Traveler and 2012 nominee for the Heinz Award.

It has been two weeks and two days since my plane touched down on Los Angeles tarmac from Kenya. I had spent the week before in Nairobi rubbing elbows with fellow travelers, praying for the individuals who were affected by the terrorist attack at Westgate Mall, learning from professionals in the sustainable tourism industry, eating Kenyan and Korean cuisine, and investigating the Safari Park Hotel, where the Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference (ESTC) was held. 

Even though my one week in Kenya was packed to the brim with exciting things to do, the time between my return and now has been even busier. I have been connecting with passionate travelers and business owners around the world learning about their adventures, trials and tribulations. I have been excitedly working on the next stage of development for Immersion Travel. And I have successfully moved into a new home in Southern California. Needless to say, my writing time has been hard to come by. Now, with a cup of tea steaming at my side and the sunshine warming my ankles, I have a moment to reflect. The estimated headcount for the ESTC 2013 was 350. People from all over the world and myriad walks of life came to meet others, be inspired and share their own stories.

The conference spanned three and a half days and included three keynote presentations by Costas Christ, Jochen Zeitz and Dr. Munir Virani, 19 breakout sessions, four plenary sessions, technical field classes for professionals, multiple opportunities for networking, and three impressive cultural celebrations where everyone was encouraged to come together and learn from each other’s communities. By the end of the week, I was feeling refreshed and motivated to keep moving forward. I think it is safe to say that everyone was able to take something constructive from the conference.

There were two themes that continued to pop up throughout the conference:

doing well by doing good and how to commercialize nature.

Doing Well by Doing Good

This theme began with a keynote presentation given by Costas Christ, an avid traveler and all-around impressive individual who works tirelessly to improve conditions around the world. In his presentation, Costas talked about the importance of sustainability in the business realm and how businesses that put conservation and well-being before profit wound up being quite financially successful. This idea spread throughout the conference as others gave presentations and shared stories about travel lodges and tour companies that have been successful by doing good things.

What a novel concept, right? More tourism-based businesses are catching on to the idea of prioritizing conservation and community development. If you spray pesticides all over your golf courses, the birds that eat those insects will become sick and their chicks won’t live to see adulthood and all the plants and animals that depend on those insects and birds will also perish and suddenly you’ve lost the beautiful landscape your visitors once enjoyed and they will choose a new travel destination next time. Instead, businesses are finding that the more sustainable they become the more desirable they are to the evolving travel market and the more their profits increase. This change in perspective is very exciting and it means that there will be more destinations striving to be more sustainable and responsible than their competitors.

Travelers need to know that they are agents of change.” – Dr. Manal Kelig, Executive Director for the Middle Eastern and North African branches of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA).

Commercializing Nature

The theme of branding responsible travel and commercializing nature was also popular throughout the conference. Many conservancies and businesses have had trouble enticing travelers to visit simply because they don’t have white sand beaches and cocktail bars. “How do we make conservation sexy?” asked Jochen Zeitz during his keynote presentation on branding ecotourism.

How indeed? The topic of how to commercialize nature was broached by several professionals in the field, but few ideas were actually discussed. It is a solution that many have decided needs to be acted on but no one seems to know how to do it. Do you get a skinny girl in a bikini to pose provocatively in front of a bunch of trees? Do you hire a strapping young local, who just happens to speak English, to take viewers on a tour of his town? Do you mention that the shopping is out of this world when the real reason you want people to shop is to help support struggling communities? For some travelers the promise of seeing a beautiful landscape and helping out local kids is enough to book a ticket, but for many travelers, that isn’t enough to justify spending money to fly across the world.

Travelers are traveling less but expecting more.” – Damian Cook, CEO and Founder of E-Tourism Frontiers.

I understand wanting to create a sexy brand to get people’s attention, but I couldn’t help but hesitate every time the subject came up during the conference. One thing that makes these destinations unforgettable is their uniqueness. From tree houses to underground shelters to surfing lessons and jewelry-making classes to private treks through the wilderness to hot air balloon tours, every sustainable travel business has something incredible to offer. If you put a brand over all of these destinations then you are covering up the element that makes them stand out from everything else: their individuality.

Attending the ESTC was worthwhile. Learning about responsible travel from a variety of perspectives was humbling. Discovering brand new destinations that haven’t even opened their doors yet sent butterflies loose in my stomach. And exploring new ways of taming the tourism fire led to ideas on how we can be more innovative and sustainable at Immersion Travel. I can’t wait for Immersion to investigate these unforgettable destinations and for travelers around the world to experience them first hand. 

October 16, 2013

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