By Nikki Goldstein
October 31, 2011

In our November issue, which just hit newsstands, you’ll find our seventh annual Global Vision Awards, which recognize the new leaders in responsible travel. This year, our winners included everything from Misool Eco Resort, a visionary property that’s responsible for setting up the first shark and ray sanctuary in Indonesia, to Rancho La Puerta, a luxury spa in Baja, Mexico that’s championing ecological restoration and education in the local community. In their own unique ways, these progressive thinkers represent the travel community’s best, most innovative solutions to some of the world’s most vexing problems: climate change, environmental degradation, cultural erosion, and economic inequality.

Last Friday, we invited our jurors and winners to New York City for our first-ever Global Vision Awards luncheon and round-table discussion, which took place at The Lambs Club in midtown’s Chatwal Hotel. Read on to see how the conversation unfolded.

“I very much believe in the power of travel,” said T+L editor-in-chief Nancy Novogrod as she opened the discussion. “But, travel can have a negative impact on the earth if we’re not careful. We need to maintain a sense of balance if we are to guarantee that the force and impact of travel is really a positive one.” And with travel accounting for nearly $6 trillion annually—about 9 percent of the global GDP—this matters more than ever.

Luckily, there are signs that sustainability is becoming the norm. Steve Pinetti, senior vice president of the Global Vision Award–winning Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, pointed out, “We’ve reached a tipping point where it’s no longer about who is doing what: it’s more noticeable when people aren’t doing anything.” And as juror and Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz noted, travelers are likely to bring home that eco-savvy lifestyle: “Even small changes like CFL light bulbs are evidence of how the travel industry helps set new standards. People see these installed in hotels and suddenly they become more acceptable for home and personal use.”

Often, there’s a business incentive to implementing these changes, too. Said Martin Riecken of Lufthansa (a winner for Sustainability), “When you’re trying to save fuel or save the world, you’re also saving on your balance sheet.” Others forecasted a new trend—adaptive reuse of old, often decrepit buildings—which has already hit the sweet spot between environmental and financial savings for several winners.

Even if it doesn’t directly help the balance sheets, social and environmental engagement keeps tourists coming—and not just the tree-hugging ones, as many pointed out. So where do we turn next?

Famed chef and juror José Andrés made an impassioned plea to bring non-toxic gas stoves to the Third World, which would change entire ecosystems and revolutionize health standards. His sentiment that education—which leads to awareness and, ultimately, change—should be our biggest priority was echoed by others, including Burnham and Kheel. And KC Hardin, from Panama City’s pioneering development group Conservatorio SA, made a case for women’s empowerment, citing women as the primary decision makers worldwide.

But our favorite takeaway, perhaps, came from winner Deborah Szekely, who has spent 70 years transforming the town of Tecate, Mexico, through her work at destination spa Rancho La Puerta. Her words: “Start small, scale up, and know that it doesn’t take a lot.”

Nikki Goldstein is an Editorial Assistant at Travel + Leisure.