Travel changes everything: it supports communities, restructures economies, protects environments, and preserves our cultural heritage. In 2008, this has never been more certain. As they do every year, T+L’s Global Vision Awards celebrate the people and organizations that are transforming the places we go—the traveler’s terrain. In the past 12 months, the landscape of responsible tourism has changed significantly, making this year’s winners—from a hotel mega-brand and three sisters in Nepal to forward-thinking conservationists in Mexico’s Riviera Maya—the most remarkable group of travel visionaries yet. We applaud them. They’re shaping the world, and our future.
The Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop: Dimen, China
As other parts of China rush headlong into the 21st century, indigenous ethnic minorities such as the Dong, Miao, Yao, and Shui in the remote western province of Guizhou maintain traditional lifestyles that stretch back more than 800 years. But the area is not immune to change, and a recent influx of commercialism—in particular, cheap satellite television and accessible cellular service—has begun to erode these long-standing cultures. The Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop, a nonprofit based in Hong Kong, aims to both preserve Guizhou’s rich heritage and foster development—a rare, forward-looking approach that’s as focused on the past as it is on the present. In 2002, the workshop instituted a pilot project that visited many small townships, including the Dong village of Dimen, known for its beautiful polyphonic choral songs (with no written language, the Dong use song to record history) and ornately decorated bridges. The goal: create a detailed record of the music, festivals, and rituals of various ethnic groups throughout Guizhou, starting with the Dong. To date, researchers—who stay and work in the town’s newly constructed eco-lodge and research center—have collected close to 140 hours of video footage, archived thousands of photos, and produced two CD collections of music. At the same time, the workshop is helping the village develop a multigenerational mentoring program (pairing local students with skilled artisans and song masters) and an organic-farming initiative—efforts designed to improve the local economy and reinvigorate, rather than fossilize, the region’s traditions.
Green Travel Company
Enterprise Rent-a-Car: St. Louis, Missouri
U.S. automakers may not have been ready for the seismic shift in consumer car preferences this year, but the nation’s largest car-rental company was more than prepared. In 2006, spurred by a growing concern about climate change, CEO Andrew Taylor decided to reshape the family-owned company to improve its environmental sustainability. Today, Enterprise’s 1.1 million cars include 440,000 vehicles that average at least 28 mpg, and among this fuel-efficient fleet are 73,000 flex-fuel vehicles, which run on both gas and an ethanol blend, and 5,000 hybrids. Enterprise is also improving the energy efficiency of its rental offices and spending $50 million over the next 50 years to plant trees. But it’s about more than the bottom line: To help develop alternative energy sources, the Taylor family donated $25 million last year to create the Institute of Renewable Fuels at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, in St. Louis.
3 Sisters Adventure Trekking: Nepal
Throughout the 100-plus years that the Himalayas have lured Westerners, the trekkers and guides who are the region’s major players have predominantly been male. Which is why 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking, Nepal’s first all-female outfitter, has had such a profound impact on the country’s tourism industry. Founded by Dicky, Nicky, and Lucky Chhetri in 1994 after women staying in their guesthouse complained of poor treatment by male porters, the company trains local women to guide female travelers—a radical business model in a country where women have traditionally played a secondary role in the economy. As part of the program, 3 Sisters guides take classes in English conversation, leadership, health, and nutrition. Some graduates have used their seasonal wages to continue their education; others have started their own businesses. And as Nepal’s tourism numbers rise, 3 Sisters’ influence will only continue to grow.
U.S. Green Building Council: Washington, D.C.
Since its launch in 2000, the U.S. Green Building Council’s certification system, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), has pushed the hotel industry to think seriously about sustainability. The USGBC, a nonprofit, originally created LEED to help residential and commercial architects and developers meet eco-friendly standards for water efficiency, indoor air quality, construction materials, and energy use. But with the hospitality industry lacking any sort of third-party green-certification guidelines, LEED was quickly embraced by hoteliers eager for guidance as well. LEED has become the de facto industry standard: more than 400 hotels, from remote resorts to suburban conference centers and luxury city hotels, have adopted the USGBC’s building requirements and registered for certification. LEED’s influence has also spread internationally: Sri Lanka’s Kandalama Hotel applied for and received LEED Pilot Project certification in 2000, and the Indian government is now using LEED criteria to evaluate new properties. In 2004, the USGBC further expanded its reach by establishing a special set of standards for upgrading existing sites, opening the path to sustainability for tens of thousands of hotels. The nonprofit’s latest project: developing guidelines for chain-hotel prototypes, thereby greening dozens—even hundreds—of future properties. All told, the USGBC’s impact on hoteliers continues to grow: last year, applications to LEED by hotels were up by almost 400 percent from 2006.
Amigos de Sian Ka’an (ASK): Riviera Maya, Mexico
The beginning of this tale is familiar: a prime swath of beachfront, untouched and filled with rare species such as jaguars and Morelet’s crocodiles, catches the eye of developers, who begin erecting luxury resorts up and down the coast. But the story of Mexico’s Sian Ka’an Biosphere, along the Riviera Maya just 81 miles from Cancún, has a happier ending, thanks to the work of a group of forward-thinking locals, the Amigos de Sian Ka’an (ASK). With the guidance of the Nature Conservancy, the United Nations Foundation, Conservation International, and UNESCO, ASK has used tourism (as well as scientific research) to help protect the 1.3 million acres of tropical forests, mangroves, and coral reefs that form Sian Ka’an. Since 1986, the organization has helped to fund and support successful community-based tourism projects, such as snorkeling and birding tours, whose profits go back into local economies and conservation efforts. Most recently, ASK began collaborating with area hotels and cruise lines that dock in the Riviera Maya to find ways to lessen their impact on the region’s fragile ecosystems. As ASK widens its efforts throughout the province of Quintana Roo, it is sending a powerful message around the globe: development doesn’t have to come at the expense of the environment.
Andaman Discoveries: Thailand
After the 2004 tsunami, more than 50 NGO’s set up in Thailand. Today, Andaman Discoveries is one of only two that remain. Founded by Bodhi Garrett, an American who lost both his home and his job to the waves, Andaman Discoveries began as a disaster-relief organization intent on rebuilding Thailand’s Andaman coast. The organization has since evolved into a grassroots tour operator that leads travelers through the region—becoming an economic lifeline for its 12 coastal communities. Since 2006, Andaman’s tours, which include farmer-led boat excursions, visits to crafts cooperatives, and trips to fishing villages, have generated an additional $20,000 in income—a large sum in a place where the average annual income is about $2,000. In addition, Andaman’s English-language and vocational workshops for guides have made locals better equipped to manage their own tourism industry.
Green / Eco Hotel
Marriott International: Bethesda, Maryland
With 3,000 properties in 67 countries and territories, Marriott is the largest hotel company in the world—which means it can wield some serious environmental clout. And this year, in collaboration with Conservation International, it did just that, announcing a green strategy that commits to reducing fuel and water consumption by 25 percent during the next 10 years, installing solar panels at 40 hotels by 2017, and encouraging the adoption of LEED’s green standards in 2009. The company, which has a $10 billion supply chain, can also provide the economy of scale needed to encourage top suppliers to create inexpensive green products. (Already, Marriott has purchased 1 million gallons of low-VOC paint.) Most inspiring is the company’s decision to help offset its carbon emissions by spending $2 million to help protect the Juma Sustainable Development Reserve, a 1.4 million-acre swath of rain forest in Amazonas, Brazil.
The Leh Old Town Conservation Project: Tibet
In many Himalayan regions, historic cities are being razed in the name of modernization. Lhasa, the 1,300-year-old capital of Tibet, has fewer than 100 historic buildings left; other cities in the region have lost almost all of their traditional buildings. Working to counter this destruction is the Tibet Heritage Fund, an international nonprofit focused on sustainable development throughout the Tibetan cultural realm, which extends from India and China to Mongolia. One of its greatest successes has been its work in Leh, the capital of the former Tibetan kingdom of Ladakh (now part of India) and a rare example of an intact medieval-era Tibetan city. When the fund arrived in 2003, the city’s historic Old Town was essentially a slum of decrepit buildings, with little infrastructure. Since then, together with local government and community groups, the fund has restored public monuments, including mosques and Buddhist temples; built up infrastructure, such as adding covered drains in the alleyways; and, by offering cofinancing and free planning advice, helped residents rehabilitate their own houses. By training locals in all aspects of restoration work, from preserving murals to waterproofing roofs using indigenous materials, the fund has catalyzed a conservation and urban-rehabilitation movement, proving that upgrading historic quarters for modern living can be feasible, affordable, and sustainable.
President of the World Monuments Fund
“LEED has changed the way we think about the impact of development on the environment, and it has convinced hotels—big energy consumers—to come on board.”
Steve and Nicky Fitzgerald
CEO and Head of Marketing (respectively) for Luxury Safari Outfitter CC Africa
“It’s one thing to protect a threatened environment, but another to sustain it, as ASK has done.”
President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation
“The Dimen project makes it possible for the local Chinese community to build an economy without compromising their unique culture.”
Environmental correspondent for CNBC News; host and writer of The Green, on the Sundance Channel
“By working with local artisans to restore the Leh Old Town, the Tibet Heritage Fund ensures that regional art and architecture techniques are not lost.”
Dr. Joseph E. Stiglitz
Nobel Prize–winning economist, Columbia University professor, and chair of the Committee on Global Thought
“Corporations should play a critical role in solving environmental problems, and Marriott’s pledge is quite impressive.”
Vice president of Environmental Stewardship for Royal Caribbean Cruises
“In Nepal, training and empowering women is truly the foundation for a sustainable future.”
Founder and director of the Chez Panisse Foundation; James Beard Foundation Award winner for Outstanding Chef and Humanitarian of the Year
“Everyone benefits when visitors can experience the culture of a place while directly supporting the local economy.”
Global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S, a sustainability agency
“When it comes to cars, it’s all about efficiency, and Enterprise is leading the way with its hybrid fleet and offsetting program.”
Journeys By Design, Southern and Eastern Africa
Journeys by Design, a U.K.-based safari agency, offers sustainable, custom-designed tours to travelers in parts of southern and eastern Africa. Through its philanthropic work, JBD has raised the bar for giving back with its exceptional efforts to direct the wealth of upscale travelers to worthy causes, such as HIV/AIDS research.
(Will Jones, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Youth Career Initiative, Global
This global nonprofit, in partnership with the international hotel industry, arranges hospitality-industry training for disadvantaged youth, which gives graduates experience with a big-name employer and helps increase their chances of entering the professional sphere. The initiative currently works with 10 hotel groups in 10 countries, including Costa Rica and Mexico, and will be expanding its operations to Egypt, Kenya, and Vietnam over the next year.
(Alberto Canovas, alberto.canovas@.iblf.org)
Center of Khmer Studies, Cambodia
The Center for Khmer Studies works to promote teaching and public service in the social sciences, arts, and humanities as they relate to Cambodia. One of its most notable projects, the Khmer Dance Project, aims to archive all information pertaining to Khmer traditional dance and performing arts, helping to teach its young scholars and educators about the nation’s identity and also making the country’s cultural practices available to the public.
The Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, Poland’s Jewish renaissance
The Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture directs projects dedicated to the renewal of Jewish cultural life in Poland, a country where the Jewish community all but disappeared during World War II and the Communist era. The foundation is currently trying to raise $2.54 million to restore the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, the largest Jewish cemetery in the country.
The Crown of the Continent, Montana
The Montana chapter of the Nature Conservancy-in partnership with local communities and conservation organizations-is safeguarding the 10-million-acre Crown of the Continent ecosystem by using collaborative, on-the-ground efforts to preserve the rural landscape and the endangered species that roam the area. The group has kept private development at bay, preserving more than 500,000 acres of one of America’s last remaining wild corridors.
Papahunaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Hawaii
The Northwest Hawaiian Islands are relatively untouched by humans and make up one of the largest protected marine areas in the world. In the nearly 140,000 square miles of isolated waters, researchers are able to study remote ecosystems and the effects of climate change. Two years ago, these islands became a marine national monument, and its co-trustees have created an innovative management plan to preserve the area, thereby setting an example for marine management elsewhere in the United States and throughout the world.
Rainforest Expeditions, Peru
This eco-tour operator runs three eco-lodges in the Peruvian Amazon and has developed environmentally sustainable, community-based tourism in the Tambopata region where it operates. The organization is currently taking steps to counter the potentially destructive repercussions of the Interoceanic Highway, a road that will eventually stretch from the eastern coast of Brazil to Peru’s Pacific coast.
(Martin Schmidt, email@example.com)
Volcano Safaris Group, Uganda/Rwanda
This eco-tour operator and eco-lodge company specializes in gorilla safaris in Uganda and Rwanda. The company’s leading role in the development of conservation-minded tourism has aided the economic recovery of these post-conflict regions and laid the groundwork for poverty alleviation on a larger scale. The company has plans to expand eco-tourism options in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
(Praveen Moman, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Six Sense Resorts & Spas
Six Senses operates its 13 luxury resorts with sustainability in mind and, in the process, has introduced a generation of affluent travelers to the conservation issues affecting the local areas in which its resorts are situated, including small island nations like the Maldives. Six Senses plans to become carbon neutral through the purchase of carbon offsets (its goal is to make all its branded resorts carbon positive based on renewable energy by 2020), and will be opening six new eco-friendly hotels by 2009.
URBN Hotels & Resorts, China
In 2007, URBN debuted China’s first carbon neutral hotel, URBN Hotels Shanghai, which has raised the bar for green architecture in a country that is known for its destructive development. URBN Shanghai is the first of 20 green properties that the company plans to introduce to China over the next three years.
Abercrombie & Kent
Founded as an African safari outfitter, Abercrombie & Kent is dedicated to preserving the destinations it serves by giving guests the opportunity to get involved in conservation activities. Most recently, it has launched the Climate Change Challenge, which planted more than 30,000 trees in Kenya and conducts trips to document the impact of global warming on places at risk, like Mount Kilimanjaro and Antarctica.
Since its inception in the late 1950s, Lindblad Expeditions has been a trailblazer in the world of ecotourism. The company has recently announced its Climate Change Action Plan, which is aimed at reducing its carbon footprint by offsetting the voyages of its expedition ships and by offering educational opportunities onboard.
Lincoln’s Cottage, Washington, DC
Over the last eight years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has used principles of sustainable design to restore the cottage in which President Lincoln spent a quarter of his presidency. The Gothic Revival mansion opened to the public in February 2008, finally returned to its Civil War-era splendor.
Getty Conservation Center, Tunisia mosaic initiative
The Getty Conservation Institute works internationally to advance conservation practice in the visual arts. One of its projects includes developing innovative ways to protect and manage ancient mosaics in situ, and its work in Tunisia—a country with one of the world’s richest collections of ancient Roman mosaics—has been groundbreaking in part because of the implementation of training programs, which will build up a network of professionals throughout the country.
Hands Up Holidays, UK
This high-end tour operator combines upscale hotels and traditional sightseeing activities with light volunteer work in needy communities around the world, helping to broaden the appeal of voluntourism to a wide group of leisure travelers. Up next, the company will be adding trips to Zambia, New Zealand, and Costa Rica.
Conservation International and Responsible Travel, Community Based Tourism
ResponsibleTravel.com, an online travel agency and promoter of ethical tourism, in partnership with Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Conservation International, provides free marketing to 55 community-based tourism projects in 24 countries. Its user-friendly online database represents the most ambitious attempt to date to turn these endeavors into economically sustainable enterprises. CI’s next focus will be Madagascar, where it is working with the tourism board to prioritize community-based tourism.