Development Crossing

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability

With a strong focus on sustainable tourism, Len Cordiner, CEO of World Hotel Link (WHL), was kind enough to share some of his thoughts with us recently on sustainable tourism. A big thank you to Len for taking the time out of his busy schedule...

1. Can you provide a brief overview of WHL and how it came to be?

In a nutshell, WHL is a network of grassroots (locally owned) accommodation and tour booking sites (franchises) in emerging economies. We started life as a project of the World Bank Group and spun off as a private company about 2 ½ years ago. As of today we’ve sold franchises in 230 destinations in over 80 countries (see http://sales.whl.travel/ ) of which some 200 + destinations (representing around 6500-7000 accommodations) should be live by end March 2009.

Unlike many new ventures in travel in the past 4-5 years we have been building our business out with a focus on the supply side ...... using a unique business model to allow us to aggregate bookable content from destinations where some or all of the content requires “intermediation” of the supply chain to bring it to market. The “intermediation” by our local franchisee is needed to bridge many needs ....e.g. poor business skills of accommodation owners; lack of Internet access; lack of foreign language skills; absentee landlords for villas and houses etc where our franchisee hold the keys / does the maintenance and airport transfers etc. The result is that we are able to bring online many properties others simply can’t because they typically rely on the owners/managers to do the content loading and inventory management etc.

The business started with a pro-poor focus to move the benefits of tourism down to smaller operators in the developing world and retain as much of the income as possible in the local destinations. Having done this we have started to place an increased focus on sustainable tourism.

2. What are the top three challenges you face as an ecotourism executive over the next 12 to 18 months?

Given how WHL operates (with local franchisees in the destinations we service around the world as our front line in identifying and growing tourism product), our first challenge is to continue to try and find partners who have a commitment to sustainable tourism.

Second is to work closely with these partners to build their skills and knowledge. We need to help them first to identify existing initiatives to feature on their sites and subsequently to help then to work with local accommodation, tour and transport providers to create more sustainable tourism product we can feature on our sites.

Finally we need to find more ways to distribute this product to an audience looking for it. We need to drive sales to those doing good so that we can show that doing good is good business. For example we have been working on building enough content around the world that we can launch a new portal devoted exclusively to sustainable tourism product. We are also in discussions with some affiliate partners who are interested in distributing this product. Ecotourism product will feature prominently, however the product we distribute will also feature initiatives which do good in other ways such as social and cultural initiatives.

3. Do you expect the current downturn in the global economy to hurt or strengthen the shift towards sustainable tourism?

To the extent that people may be forced to re-think how they “consume” because of the economic situation ……there is some hope of an increased toward sustainable everything and tourism should be a beneficiary. I am personally hoping that the advent of a new leader on the global scene like Barack Obama will lift the game across the world and start to create more interest in preserving our environment for future generations.

4. What advice do you have for individuals looking to be more responsible in their travels, but feel overwhelmed by the increased “noise” in the ecotourism industry? (i.e. With the growing number of “sustainable” claims by tour operators and regions, it has become increasingly difficult to separate the good from the bad)

Frankly noise will always be there. I am a big fan of the Internet and the tools the Internet affords like traveller feedback which can be used to filter the noise and seek out experiences which are real and allow people to connect. A prescriptive top down approach (i.e. trying to set standards which travel providers must meet to prove they are “genuine” or “good” providers ) will struggle to gain traction in my view with travellers and is likely to simply end up being part of the noise.
My advice therefore would be to do your research and read what others have to say about the places you want to visit and the service providers you want to use.

5. Are there any best practice examples that you could share from around the world where tourism is not only having a positive impact on the environment, but also alleviating poverty and providing other benefits to local communities?

I have just come back recently from Cape Town where we had our regional Africa meeting. One day was devoted to field trips and we visited two sites which in my view are each good examples of what can be done. The first is the top end The Spier Hotel in Stellenbosch (see http://www.spier.co.za/sustainability/spier.php ). We spent 3 hours here with their sustainability manager and simply ran out of time visiting all the things they were doing. Truly amazing. The second example is at the other end of the spectrum at Kopanong Guesthouse in Kayelisha http://www.cape-town-hotels.travel/Kopanong which has a real focus on addressing social issues. I was also privileged last year to be a judge on the National Geographic / Ashoka Geotourism Challenge which elicited 319 entries from 83 countries (see http://changemakers.net/en-us/competition/geotourism ) . Many of these, and certainly all the finalists, were excellent examples of sustainable operators.

6. Any additional thoughts?

I would like to see everyone in the industry get behind a new “brand” which replaces the multitude of competing brands in eco and sustainable tourism……and a brand which equates being eco friendly with having a good time when you travel. I suspect that many of the travelling public are either confused or intimidated by the various organizations claiming to be the legitimate voice of sustainable tourism. Many also equate an eco friendly experience with going without……hard beds, tasteless food and hair shirts. We need Saatchi & Saatchi or someone to come up with a new exciting image.

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As one of Len Cordiner's franchisees, my business in Vanuatu (www.vanuatu-hotels.vu) is much more than a finantial model to us. From day one in 2005, our motivation and our business philosophy has been generated by a deep attachment and respect for the people of our destination and a commitment to the protection of our country's natural heritage. In World Hotels (www.whl.travel) we found a ideal partner that shared the same passion, the sensitive long term approach to the development of tourism in such pristine ecologically sensitive locations as ours.

They are just as commited today as they were the day we became a partner on their jouney back in '05, but now whl has a global franchisee inventory that is growing at a phenomenal rate. This organisation's unique and defining advantage over all its peers is its people power working on the ground and providing the personnal service on the net. It has given back the On line travel business meaning, travellers have not lost the travel agent, he is now On Line but now also represents all the little guys that you could never find before.

Developing a sustainable tourism industry is not going to happen by itself, it will take time to reach critical mass community engagement. It is an ongoing process that will continue way beyond our generation but I will use all means possible to make a lot of "noise" as for a great number of our local operators, the root of the problem is elsewhere.

It is our mission to promote Sustainable Tourism as a profit oriented business model in order to encourage the adoption of its principles by our local operators. Changing Sustainable Tourism from an idealism to a positive, active, and permanent community mindset is not easy, there is a long road ahead but with World Hotel we can do it. In addition to Len's examples of excelent ecotourism leaders here is the winner of Vanuatu Hotels Green award for 2009: http://www.vanuatu-hotels.vu/Epi_Island_Guesthouse__Epi_Island.

As demand drives supply, we must continue to create awareness in the travelling public, the operators will follow.

Tropical regards,
John Nicholls
whl.travel franchisee.
In June 2008 Wild Side Tours was asked to apply as a franchisee with WHL.travel as part of a World Bank initiative to develop independent travel and sustainable tourism in the Southern Zambian Region of Livingstone - Kazungula and Kafue National Park, with the help of WHL.consulting

Wild Side Tours had since 1997 marketed Livingstone and Zambia as a destination and has also been involved in Socio Tourism by promoting local small guest houses and tour operations, villages and local arts and crafts.

As an executive member of The Livingstone Tourism Association for a number of years, I was involved in building bridges with the public sector. Sustainability had always been high on the agenda.

It has not always been very easy to stay focused as there is so much work to be done. Since Wild Side Tours joined WHL this has become a lot easier. Within WHL there is a team of experts, all in their own field to guide you along into achieving the goals you have set for a destination that will be worth living in and visiting for generations to come.

I am very proud of Len Cordinor's passion for sustaiabilty and drive and the commitment of his team. I am proud to be part of the WHL family.

Karien Kermer
Wild Side Tours
Livingstone Zambia
www.victoriafallszambia.travel
Uno Tours & Travels was established in 1998. Our association with Mr Len Cordiner and World Hotel Link in 2005 and the Sustainable Tourism Workshop hosted by MPDF in February 2006 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam helped formulate the thought process for sustainable tourism. A second Workshop in Cambodia in March 2007 further cemented the process that has now become a passion.

We decided that the uniqueness of Kerala can only be preserved for posterity by ensuring sustainability initiatives. Hence we went about identifying stake holders in the industry who care for nature, environment and the social / cultural / historic fabric of Kerala. Through our marketing initiatives, we promote only those properties / service providers who have a strong commitment for sustainability initiatives. These are adequately highlighted (www.kerala-hotels.co.in) to enable the travelers to decide on who they desire to go with while planning their holiday in Kerala.

We now have a range hotels / resorts and other service providers that have actively adopted sustainable practices in their day-to-day operations, homestays at different locations offering the best of local experience, forest guides who are reformed and rehabilitated poachers, driver-cum-guides who drive their own vehicles for their livelihood and artists who promote traditional art and dance forms and practitioners of the ancient health science of Ayurveda. The income generated by these stake holders gets ploughed back into the local community for their enhancement.

Born and brought up in Kerala, we know Kerala well enough to guide you with the best personalized itineraries, identifying great locations for you to visit, taking part in interesting activities and providing only the highest service levels – always aware of the sustainability of the activity.

When we set out to offer you a holiday package, we go by the one principle that guides us – 'You want it your way', and we offer you just that, come what may. So go ahead and customize your itinerary - the sustainable way.

And all credit to Mr Len Cordiner for setting the ball rolling

Col John Abraham
Kerala
India
Start with Kerala, India.

Intimate your dates for arrival and departure and your preferences of locations - beaches / backwaters / hills / forests / spices plantations / backwater homestay / plantation homestay / Houseboat on the backwaters / tree house / cave. And preferred activities - trekking / rock climbing / rappelling / jungle safari / river rafting / camp in the jungle / ayurveda therapy / fishing / catamaran ride with local fishermen into the sea / "A Day with an elephant" / yoga / "A Day with the masters" to explore the realm of local culture, art and dance forms / Put your legs up and relax

Warm Regards

Col John Abraham
The "Certificação Ambiental ISO 14001" working as Ambient Passport Certificate in Portugal has been granted to the 1st hotel 3* Vila Park located in the Alentejo province on Feb.2008 after a long task of 16 months. This is good news and I hope that many hotels will go after this certificate in a near future.
Mpo Lisbon, Portugal, Virginie Grimault
Hi Marcus, my knowledge is also limited but things here are usually handled very slowly because of administration managment which is heavy, complicated, need hours of meeting, thinking, papers to fill-in etc.etc. and these ISO certificates are issued after long auditing process.
We're also proud to be a part of this network and everyday we enjoy strengthening our relationship with accommodation and tour providers in Swaziland. In some ways the advent of online bookings has been a frightening spectacle for the traditional tour operator, given that many establishments can now be booked directly and our role as a intermediary appeared to be under threat. However, with the tools and direction offered by Len and the WHL network we have found ourselves playing a new role in our destination that is strengthening our relationship with suppliers. This role has included spreading the concepts driving sustainable tourism, encouraging product differentiation and mastering internet marketing such that we are regularly consulted by accommodation owners on these topics. Knowing an establishment's management, challenges and interests more intimately is given us a definite competitive advantage as we are now able to very effectively match buyers and sellers like never before. Here's a big vote of appreciation to the WHL approach. Darron [www.swazi.travel]
I love the consistent feel of all the destination websites, nice to see all the options!
Thanks Roger. Just need to keep pushing the word out now so that we can build a loyal community of travellers to support all these local operators.

Cheers........... Len
Just a heads up, we'll be relaunching the interview series in the coming weeks!

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