Its timing was less than ideal, coming on the heels of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s private-jet holiday jaunts to Nice and Ibiza last August, for which they were criticized in the British press. (Sir Elton John felt compelled to come forward in their defense: The plane was his—costs not footed by British taxpayers—and he had offset the flights’ carbon emissions.) The flap unfairly gave Travalyst’s reveal the aura of, if not hypocrisy, then celebrity-addled lack of seriousness.
Too, there were murmurings that the announcement was thin on specifics—“pretty vague” is HuffPost put it. True.
Here is what we know for sure: The initiative has four big private-sector companies as its founding partners—Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Visa, and the Chinese travel company Ctrip and its subsidiary, Skyscanner. Sussex Royal Foundation, the new charity set up by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, will be teaming up with these heavy-hitters when it officially launches in 2020.
We also know Travalyst’s broad goals are: 1) to make the tourism industry more environmentally responsible, 2) to increase the economic benefits of tourism to local communities (and so give them real incentives to protect their cultures and environments), and 3) to educate people about how their own travel affects the planet, who is benefitting from their travel dollars, and therefore (importantly), and how to make socially and environmentally responsible travel-buying decisions.
A tall order. A statement from Buckingham Palace said further details will be available “in due course.”
To say that the industry—hotels, cruise lines, airlines, restaurants, tour operators—is vast is an understatement. One in 10 jobs worldwide is travel related and in 2018 alone tourism contributed $8.8 trillion to the global economy, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Tourism’s customers go not only to well-trod destinations (some already on the verge of being loved to death) but also to remote and fragile environments and societies unprepared for the influx. The industry relies on fossil fuels for transportation, for importing food, beverages, amenities, and so on to wherever travelers are or wish to be (and that, increasingly, is everywhere). Sushi in a luxurious tent in the Sahara? No longer improbable.
By 2030, 1.8 billion people will be traveling internationally—an almost 25% increase.
As the stats on Travalyst’s still modest website point out, the number of people around the world taking international trips has more than doubled since 2000 (per the World Bank), and sits today at 1.4 billion. If you bridle at tourism run amok now (been to Florence in the summer lately?), brace yourself: The UN World Tourism Organization projects that by 2030, 1.8 billion people will be traveling internationally—an almost 25% increase.
And yet there are no clear global standards to help the industry strive for environmental sustainability, and no easily accessible clearing house where travelers can check which companies adhere to best practices regarding water and sewage recycling, plastics use, alternative sources of energy, levels and methods of investment in local communities, conservation initiatives, etcetera.
If you’re buying a car, you can check on its emissions rating and much else besides. There is no counterpart in the travel industry. If you want your vacation to align with your values, there is no place to go for reliable information. (The best option thus far? Sorting through a truly bewildering array of “green certifiers” aimed at different audiences and with seemingly varying criteria—Earth Check, Green Globe, Sustainable Tourism Eco-Certification Program, Energy Star, Green Key, Green Seal, LEED, Great Green Deal, and so on—and on.)
Not that travel companies have not stepped up. For at least the last 15 years, members of the industry have debated what they should do, how they should do it, and how to make their customers aware of what they are doing. There are companies that have made sustainability central to their business model—The Brando in French Polynesia, comes readily to mind, and safari lodges from such companies as Wilderness Safaris, Beyond, Singita, and Great Plains Conservation have commendable programs and records (and recently partnered in a significant way with the NGO called Lion Recovery Fund to help stop the demise of the king of beasts). And there are others.
Still, the approach has been largely scattershot—understandably, given the industry’s global and varied nature. What works on an island in the Pacific will not work for a hotel in Paris or a guest ranch in Patagonia. There is often more talk than action; and more often than not, the talk comes from marketing and public relations folk, giving the appearance, rightly or wrongly, of green washing—when it is not downright comical.
At a recent global travel industry convocation in Marrakech, I learned from the spokesperson of a private island resort in Fiji about the property’s large organic garden, where guests can go and pick ingredients for their dinner; travelers foraging for their food—as if anyone paying $2,000 per night would want to, anyway—was being proffered as a marker of sustainability.
Elsewhere, it was the “opportunity” to plant a tree. A purveyor of high-end safaris in Africa was proud to provide local women with recycled glass beads to turn into necklaces and bracelets for sale as their effort at sustainability and helping empower locals economically.
What gives Prince Harry’s Travalyst heft—in addition to his celebrity bully pulpit, of course—is the fact that large travel businesses are involved. Visa has 3.3 billion customers worldwide. CTrip is the biggest tour operator in China, one of the world’s fastest growing markets for outbound tourism. Hence the potential for new industry-wide certification, even a “star” system with clear and demonstrable guidelines and achievements. Want to spend your travel dollars on a blow-out trip through India, a safari in Africa, or a cruise in Alaska? Here’s how the companies you might consider booking with stack up in terms of their environmental stewardship and community support.
That, I would like to believe, is the Duke of Sussex’s ultimate ambition.
“Everything else that works in the world has a regulatory system,” Prince Harry said as we talked in Malawi in 2016 about conservation. (He was participating in the translocation of 500 elephants organized by the NGO African Parks, of which he has since become president, and I was reporting on the effort.) “Standards need to be set.”
His idealism was fetching and contagious: “If you really cared about conservation, about the communities around you, you would sign yourself up and accept that inspectors would come and check you over. It would not be punitive. It would be a way to know who is doing the right thing. And there would be examples to follow. Wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t that be fantastic?”