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.