We speak with the Founder of Earth Changers, Vicky Smith, for an exclusive interview
IN CONVERSATION WITH VICKY SMITH
Sustainable tourism visionary and Founder of Earth Changers speaks to Wanderlust with a Purpose
Based in London, England, Vicky Smith is a sustainable tourism visionary and the Founder of Earth Changers; an internationally recognised sustainable tourism advisory platform and aggregator website that launched in 2017. Through Earth Changers, Vicky’s mission is to promote the people and places that offer sustainable tourism experiences to travellers, whilst contributing to environmental regeneration and improving the cross-cultural exchange between visitors and the local community in each destination.
Vicky is a long-standing changemaker and an activist in the tourism industry. Her entire career and academic background have revolved around the travel sector. For more than 15 years, Vicky has been advocating for sustainable and regenerative tourism all over the world, having spent a decade working in mainstream tourism before that.
Our Founder and Editor, Keeley Warren, speaks with Vicky to discuss all things travel and sustainability.
How did you come up with the Earth Changers concept? Was there one thing that specifically inspired you?
It was a really long process of working in tourism for over 20 years. Initially, I started working in the French Alps after university. It was nature that drew me to work in tourism. I quickly learnt that I loved working in tourism. I loved the people and the environment I was in. This experience also brought me to live in small communities. Retrospectively, that probably led me to other experiences and my thinking about responsible tourism.
Retrospectively, I saw Permafrost Melt spewing a black grey mess into the snow. At that point, I recognized it as odd, but didn’t know it as climate change in the mid-90s.
My future jobs in marketing were in mainstream tourism organisations and this made me realise the negative impacts that tourism has. I saw how corporate culture is obsessed with profit margins and uncaring about their staff. It was just numbers to them – it wasn’t really about travel or the experience. No one particularly cared about customers or what the impacts were for the people in the destinations these trips were to.
The All-Inclusive in Kenya where Vicky had her first penny-drop moment
What was your earliest memory of the negative impacts that tourism can have on a destination?
My earliest memory of considering the impacts of tourism was in Kenya in about 2001. The company I was working for was offering two-week all-inclusive holidays to people that didn’t care where they were. They just wanted to sit in a resort that could have been anywhere. That wasn’t travel to me.
At that time, the industry had become a juggernaut of shifting people to somewhere cheap. In Australia for example, it’s still Bali.
Back then – and still now in a lot of places – many destinations didn’t have recycling facilities and people were told not to go outside and talk to the local people. Outside those walls was immense poverty and health issues. It wasn’t the pretty side of tourism, but it was the reality for local people.
There was a dichotomy between the luxury of an all-inclusive and the local people’s reality. Even though the locals welcomed guests and staffed the hotels, they didn’t benefit from local tourism. What they got was the spoils of tourism.
From that point on I knew I wanted to work in responsible tourism. That was a big mindset shift for me and it was working in the mass tourism market that prompted it.
After that, I wanted to understand where conservation and community development fit in. I wanted to understand where tourism could help and how tourists can learn from the local people. I also wanted to learn where there could be the cross-cultural exchange that everyone is looking for. I spent months in Southern Africa in 2006 volunteering, years working as a voluntary charity challenge and volunteer tourism trip manager, and qualified as a ranger in Africa.
We need to be smart enough to question ourselves and ask ourselves if we are doing the right thing. That critical thinking led me to do my masters in Responsible Tourism Management.
Do you think that it was the organisations that were doing things in a sustainable or smarter way that inspired you, or was it exposure to the organisations that went about things in a harmful way?
Then, it was the organisations doing the wrong thing that motivated me. There weren’t many people doing the right thing back then.
With that in mind, we mustn’t judge people or ourselves for doing the wrong thing in the past because we have learnt how to do things better. Now, I focus on the positive.
How can you tell if an organisation is truly responsible, based on their website?
A lot of people ask me that. Ultimately, it’s transparency, evidence and data. That is difficult because not everyone is measuring and monitoring. A lot of people come out and say that they are sustainable but they don’t have any evidence to back this up.
For everyone I list on my site, Earth Changers, I have to see that evidence first.
If there wasn’t another sustainable travel advisory website on the market at the time, is that how you came up with the Earth Changers concept?
That really fed into my thinking, yes. I knew I wanted my own sustainable tourism website when I came back from Africa in 2006, but at the time, I didn’t know how to discern between true sustainability and those that are not. That’s why I did my masters in Responsible Tourism Management.
I spent the decade from 2006 to 2016 trying to understand sustainable tourism inside and out – social and environmental. For example, I really wanted to understand conservation standards and what makes one reserve better than another.
Do you think that your first-hand experiences make you different compared with other travel agencies and service providers who may be trying to create a similar concept?
Yes, it’s both different in my commitment, experience at the coalface managing tour operations, work for commercial organisations and not-for-profits, and my passion for it, along with how my mindset is different. It’s not just about running a business and selling. For me it’s about changing the world and the industry – it’s the big picture too. Earth Changers is the vehicle I choose to do it through.
My passion comes across in my writing because sustainable tourism is more emotional for me. Before I started Earth Changers, one of the things I noticed when booking travel experiences online is that we’ve become funnelled into booking travel on huge booking websites with big databases that have to remove emotion from the travel booking process so the website works nicely and looks good.
For me, travel is an emotional service, product and experience but other websites have separated booking from emotion. This leaves a very unemotional, algorithm-driven experience for travellers that removes the reality of what actually happens in the destination. That isn’t good for responsible tourism because responsible tourism is about taking responsibility for the impact of tourism in those destinations.
That’s the difference, I know the end-to-end process and the impact.
Are there any other businesses or websites that are doing something similar to what you are doing now?
Of course, it would be silly for me to say that there aren’t other similar organisations now, but as far as I’m aware I was the first commercial site to write about travel and its interaction with each of the sustainable development goals. I would say that I’m much more real purpose and impact-driven than others.
In what ways do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the travel industry in general?
In the COVID-19 period, the big online platforms that aren’t driven on purpose don’t have a lot to talk about if they can’t sell. Because I’m driven by impact, I still have lots of things to say!
For me, it’s about marketing in a different way, based on purpose.
Since COVID-19 started, people are really starting to understand the importance of sustainability for destinations. This is happening both within the industry for resilience but it’s also an awakening for consumers. People have come to connect with communities and with nature more through COVID-19. They’ve come to value their travels more because they’ve not been able to do it. They’ve seen the impact of COVID-19 on the travel industry which has been horrific worldwide:. I think that people have reconnected with their human selves a bit more.
Most people were working like crazy before COVID-19. They were burnt out and exhausted and constantly in a rush. COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to stop and think ‘maybe I can change my lifestyle a little bit?’. ‘Maybe I don’t want to be running at a million miles an hour all the time – I want to connect more with people and nature.’
I think we will see an increase in demand for sustainable tourism because of that. We will also see an increased interest in sustainable tourism from the industry. For many years, sustainable tourism was seen as a nice-to-have or a bolt-on PR activity. Now its necessity is understood for resilience.
From my perspective, sustainable tourism has to be the default! If not, we have the most suicidal industry and it will destroy itself.
Why do you think regenerative tourism is so important?
Well, I think we have big issues in the world. We have COVID-19, climate change and biodiversity breakdown. In tourism, we have greenwashing. Regenerative tourism, ultimately, addresses all those things. It also addresses the profit question. Tourism and the impacts on communities aren’t just about profit. It shouldn’t just be volume over value or quantity over quality. Destinations have to understand when they market themselves, it’s not just about getting more and more people. It’s about getting the right quality of visitors and about optimising.
Ultimately, nowhere should be overdependent on tourism. Tourism should be a complementary activity to the other livelihoods and cultural things happening locally like agriculture or whatever the community has in that destination.
How would you define regenerative tourism?
Regenerative tourism isn’t just sustainable tourism plus one. It’s a different way of looking at tourism. Anything regenerative takes its inspiration from nature and from ecosystems.
In some ways, where sustainable tourism helps us to look at the sustainable development goals and breaks things down into compartments (eg. poverty, inequalities, conservation, water, climate) in order to be able to manage different aspects that all inter-relate, regenerative tourism says that this is all one big ecosystem and we have to look at this holistically because all aspects affect each other.
As a tourism organisation, we are in an ecosystem. We have suppliers, partners and clients. The tourism industry as a whole interacts with other sectors – be it construction, design or food. We are all part of this ecosystem and like in nature, an impact on one thing has a ripple effect and an impact on others.
We have to take that holistic view and look at how these things interplay. As tourism industry professionals, we need to ask ourselves ‘what is the optimum situation rather than the biggest volume or profit?’.
I also think that tourism shouldn’t just be about GDP or tourist numbers. In some countries, they are moving to different ways of measuring instead of GDP, such as Bhutan who famously has its Gross National Happiness. Costa Rica has a Social Progress Index and New Zealand has a Living Standards approach. Amsterdam is working on Doughnut Economics.
Nowadays, it’s about saying that quality of life is important and so is how we manage the planet and its resources. We need to look at doing things differently and that’s what regenerative tourism can do. It looks at how we can regenerate our spaces through tourism so that they are good for everybody – this way our communities thrive, not just fat cats at the top that take the profit margins.
What are some problems that you see within the tourism sector today?
COVID-19 had a huge impact on livelihoods, poverty and dignity. Losing your job in tourism or any other industry is a big mental health challenge.
Another important thing to note is that the lack of travel and lockdown has meant that money hasn’t gone into conservation and anti-poaching operations have been challenged.
Climate change is also a huge issue – tourism is one of the industries under the spotlight. When it comes to climate change, we have to take responsibility and say that aviation fuel is an issue. We need to look at it for what it really is and acknowledge that it equates to 2.5% of global emissions. We need to work on R&D to have alternative fuels asap. Personally, I wish the aviation industry would work together to make this process quicker.
Tourism as a whole is responsible for 8% of emissions. 2.5% of that is due to aviation. So that means that 5.5% of emissions in tourism isn’t aviation and that includes staycations, accommodation, activities and land-based transport. We need to significantly decarbonize because although tourism is responsible for 8% of global emissions, the problem with tourism is that it’s growing and it will continue to increase post-COVID-19 if we don’t change anything.
Where other industries can decarbonize, aviation isn’t yet able to, so the tourism sector will have a larger piece of the emissions pie if we aren’t careful. The tourism industry needs to acknowledge that and take responsibility for it.
Outside of that, the big issue is biodiversity breakdown. We have over a million species that might become extinct in the next few decades – tourism funds and supports their conservation. If we don’t have tourism, we don’t have conservation of endangered species.
It’s important to maintain a balance. As much as we want to reduce emissions from flights, we don’t want to cut off flights, particularly to the developing world, because communities rely on tourism income and so does conservation.
We need to think about what situations enable us to support tourism and balance it with the emissions that are created so that we create a net positive rather than a negative.
As a result of all these issues, we are going to get a load more greenwashing. This is where it’s going to be a challenge for the consumer. You have an increase in the supply of people saying that they are more sustainable because they want to appear so, you have an increase in demand of wanting the world to be more sustainable and resilient so you have a lot of people that are going to say they are offering sustainable options when they are not.
What are you doing to contribute to a more positive future for the tourism sector?
I’m part of the Sun X climate council and I’m a signatory for Tourism Declares Climate Emergency, the Future of Tourism Coalition and the new Glasgow Declaration launched at COP26. These are organisations bringing together players from within the tourism industry to ask what we can do about it, how can we help each other to decarbonize and how can we share knowledge?
As you grow as a business, inevitably you increase emissions. The challenge is to do that in a more carbon efficient way. Unless you are measuring and monitoring you’re not going to know what that is. It’s important to measure, monitor and put plans in place to be able to address it.
That’s what Earth Changers is all about as a website. We say ‘here are the issues’, ‘what can we do about it,’ and ‘who’s doing it and how.’ We promote the good guys.
What is one of the biggest myths about sustainable tourism?
Sustainable tourism is not necessarily more expensive. There are a high number of cost efficiencies that come from being more sustainable. Better water, energy and waste management issues save money in the long term.
Sometimes more costs are incurred by paying staff a fair wage instead of screwing them down on wages. What that means is you have happy staff that love where they work and have respect for their organisation. That will come across in how they deliver to customers and the customer experience as a result will be so much better.
Ultimately, sustainable tourism is better value. I always say ‘remember to vote with your wallet for the type of world that you want.’
What advice do you have for people that are looking to travel more sustainably? Are there any recommendations or tips that would be a good starting point for people to make smarter travel choices?
First, if someone is claiming sustainability in any way, look for the data evidence.
If you go onto a website that says, ‘we support our local community’ you need to find out how. Ask yourself ‘what do they do?’. ‘Is it just money or is it interacting in some way. Is it involving children?’.
It’s always good to turn things around and ask yourself, how would I feel about this if it was happening in my local community? For example, would you be happy with large groups of tourist strangers coming to your child’s school to play with them?
When we go on holiday, it’s all new and exciting, but is it really authentic? Is it real for the people and are the host communities a priority? It’s their place, it’s not for us as outsiders to determine what happens there. We shouldn’t force our behaviour on them.
Responsible tourism is all about making sure that the local people are happy first and foremost. If they are happy, as travellers we will have a much better time and there will be more value in it for us.
Take responsibility and research before you go. Really simply, book with local people (we help customers that want to do that at Earth Changers), eat locally and shop locally – but please make sure you avoid buying any endangered species products.
To travel better, it’s about being wise and researching. You can’t make assumptions that what someone tells you is true. You need to see evidence that supports that.
Is there any parting advice you would like to share with our travel community at Wanderlust with a Purpose?
For anyone interested in the tourism issues that impact destinations, people and the environment, read up about them on the Earth Changers website. There is a lot of information there. The purpose of Earth Changers is our interest in purpose and impact.
When you book through Earth Changers, you can rest assured that host communities are in charge of the process of tourism rather than outsiders determining it. We have been through a discerning process to ensure that every organisation we work with is sustainable in what they do. We are transparent about that and we write it all up so that consumers know – it also keeps our partners accountable.
Ultimately, Earth Changers can connect travellers with the best form of positive impact sustainable tourism on the market.
Connect with Vicky at Earth Changers
Learn more about sustainable tourism and discover sustainable destinations, accommodation venues and experiences that you can enjoy on your next adventure by listening to Vicky’s interview with Travel Writers Radio show host, Keeley Warren.
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