How Impact Travel Alliance Shapes Sustainable Tourism

impact travel alliance

In today’s Culture with Travel interview, we talk to Kelley Louise, the executive director of Impact Travel Alliance

Why was Impact Travel Alliance (formerly Travel+SocialGood) founded?

Impact Travel Alliance was founded on the belief that the travel industry has the potential to help solve some of the world’s most pressing issues.

It’s a powerful thought – imagine changing the world through something so universally appealing as travel. Our goal is to reshape the narrative around sustainable tourism, and help average travelers understand that they can make a high impact through something like a business trip to Los Angeles or a vacation in Mexico.

impact travel alliance Tell us more about different events (and the 20 Hubs) you organize to increase transparency in the travel industry and create more awareness for sustainable tourism?

Hubs are local chapters of our organization, and are really the foundation of our organization. They host events focused on education and advocacy around sustainable tourism – ultimately helping businesses understand how to implement a holistic model to sustainability, as well as teaching travelers that sustainable tourism can be applied to any type of travel. 

Whether it’s something like a scavenger hunt of a city or events focused on food tourism, our goal is to bridge the gap between immersive, authentic and memorable experiences – and helping travelers understand how these experiences can empower destinations visited.

How do you think the travel industry can help shape the future of sustainable tourism? In which ways do you think the industry as a whole could do more?

Most consumers think of tourism as being a huge economic driver for destinations – but the reality is that we are severely lagging behind on the amount of impact we can make.

On average, less than $10 of every $100 you spend on vacation actually stays in the destination we’re visiting, which means $90 or more doesn’t directly benefit the community.

When someone hears “sustainable tourism,” most consumers think that it sounds nice, but like a far-off or unattainable type of travel. As long as it remains a niche within the industry, we’re limited in the amount of impact we can achieve. Sustainable tourism can be applied to any type of travel, and it should be easy-access for every type of traveler to experience.

As an industry, we are tasked with two goals: 1) empower the destinations we’re visiting so that they are protected for future generations, and 2) teach consumers about how and why sustainable tourism options are more valuable experiences.

The second part is so crucial – because I think there’s so many companies, both large and small, who are achieving great things – but we often neglect to educate travelers on what sets these experiences apart. If a traveler doesn’t know the difference between a sustainable travel experience and an ordinary one, we cannot expect them to choose the more impactful option.

At the end of 2017, you organized a huge Summit. Share a bit about it, your partners, and why you were excited to work with them to raise awareness.

We partnered with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, Tourism Cares, CREST and Sustainable Travel International for our Global Summit. It was the first time we worked together, and was incredibly important that we did.

Each of these organizations are achieving fantastic things within the industry, and each with a unique approach. In order to push the industry forward, it’s crucial to collaborate, and I am very grateful that each of these organizations worked with us to help shape not only our vision for the Summit, but also provided insight and expertise for our roadmap for the future.

What role do travelers play in traveling sustainably – leaving a positive impact on the environment, connecting with locals, supporting the local economy?
We vote with our dollars. Where we spend our money has a huge impact on the destinations we visit. The fact of the matter is that at the end of the day, implementing impact into a business model is first and foremost, often a business decision (especially for big companies). If we do not demand that companies invest in sustainability, they don’t have a bottom-line reason to do so.

The great thing about this is that sustainable experiences are often the most memorable. When I think about some of my favorite memories from traveling – whether it’s exploring Val Paraiso with a local to find the best hidden gems or a renegade tour of a museum – it’s reaffirming to know that these are not only the coolest ways to explore a city, but they’re also impactful for the communities I visited. If we want to build a better world through tourism, it starts with our own personal purchase habits.

Travelers may want to travel sustainably, but maybe they’re not sure how to begin that process. What advice would you share with them, and what resources does ITA offer to help?

The first step to traveling more sustainably is to educate yourself about what sustainability actually looks like. For someone completely new to the space, I always try to break it down into the simplest definition: Sustainable tourism is travel that positively impacts the environment, community and economy of the destination you’re visiting. Once you start to look at the long-term effects of your purchase decisions in relation to this holistic definition for sustainability, you can start to understand the nuances in the space.

Sustainable tourism is travel that positively impacts the environment, community and economy of the destination you’re visiting Click To Tweet

I always say that sustainability is a lifestyle that starts at home. These habits become easy over time, and eventually, secondhand nature. For a traveler looking to learn more, I have a couple of resources available on my personal blog post, Change the Way You Travel, Change the World.

If you want to get more involved, I would definitely encourage you to attend one of our events! Some of our long-term plans include building out a more robust platform for online educational resources – so stay tuned for what we have in store for 2018!

Why do you personally love to travel? Share a story with us of a trip that left an impact.

I was raised traveling – it was something my parents always prioritized, and some of my earliest memories are of camping in the Grand Canyon or on road trips across the States. I also grew up living in six different states, so this sense of movement and exploration just feels like a core part of who I am.

In my opening talk at our Summit, I shared a story about my time in Uganda, so it seems timely to share it here as well. After I graduated from college, my first job abroad was working with a sustainable tourism company in Uganda, and these experiences really shaped my goals for my career. During this time, one of the opportunities I was given was the experience to go gorilla trekking. If you haven’t been, definitely add this to the top of your bucketlist because it’s absolutely one of the most phenomenal experiences I’ve ever had. I ended up in the middle of the rainforest, where our guide helped us to find the most beautiful family of gorillas. One of them was a new mother, and she walked right up and sat about 10 feet away from me, and we just looked at each other while time stood still.

After my experience, I was in the local village and met an artist who hand carved little statues of the gorillas. He asked me if I had been gorilla trekking, and when I said yes and described my experience, he knew exactly which family (and which mama gorilla) I had met. He told me that unfortunately, he did not have a carved statue of that gorilla, but that he would carve one for me before I left the next morning (which, needless to say, was a very quick turnaround).

After I came back the next day, he started apologizing profusely and told me that he had been unable to finish my gorilla. Instead, he presented to me an unpainted, but otherwise finished, perfect wooden gorilla with a baby on her back. I probably have one of the only unpainted gorillas he’s made, but to this day, this little gorilla is still one of my most cherished items.

As a travel entrepreneur as part of ITA and a traveler, what mark are you hoping to leave on the world?

I’ve always known that I wanted to work in the travel industry and improve the world in some way. My path to get to where I am today has been anything but linear, but I’m so grateful for where I’m at. Our community has grown in such an organic way, stretching across more than 20 cities worldwide and with more than 15,000 members. Through Impact Travel Alliance, I’ve always felt like I was building my own home, and this space for myself within the industry, but especially after this Summit, I’m coming to realize that what we’re building is this inclusive space that so many travel professionals are in need of.

There are so many incredible individuals and organizations around the world who are doing the most beautiful things, but it can often feel alienating when you’re up against the rest of the industry. My hope is that our community offers the support, resources and hope that these individuals need to know that they’re not alone, and together, we can build a more impactful industry for every type of traveler.

Learn more about Impact Travel Alliance, check out their worldwide Hubs and events, and follow ITA on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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