In December 2015, OhThePeopleYouMeet were asked to oversee About.com’s Sustainable Travel site –some of the topics we are most passionate about. Each month, we curate some of the top experts in the space. The topics we cover range from sustainably supporting the communities in which you are visiting, the best eco-chic hotels, wildlife conservation and extremely hard hitting topics like human trafficking. While I’ve been committed to doing my research in advance of my trips and trying to make the most sustainable and responsible decisions as it relates to my travel, even I, a seasoned traveler operating within the travel and media industries, have made innocent mistakes along the way.
Back in 2014, my video production team and I were hired to film in Zimbabwe and Botswana to create some amazing editorial videos on the destinations, as well as two commercial pieces for a safari operator called African Bush Camps-their long form storytelling piece and their sizzle reel. Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know too many of the African BIG 5 by name, but on this particular trip, I was introduced to both Cecil the Lion and his mate, Jericho.
In April of 2015, a few months before the international news broke about Cecil being shot by a dentist from the USA, and less than a year from my getting to know the animal, I had been invited to walk with lions. As someone that has spent a lot of time on safaris in the past few years, this seemed like a contrived experience to me, but alas I was coaxed into visiting because it was a research center that apparently discovered the recessive gene of albino (white) lions.
As much as I hate to admit it, the first little lion cub that ran and jumped up on me was frickin cute. As were the two tiger cubs rolling around (please note tigers are form Asia, not Africa). I found the guy from the research center to be quite defensive but I ignored him and wrestled with the little cub. A bit later they took us to walk with the “teenage” lions. As we walked along I started to ask questions about how many there were and why they were in such a small cage. I mean these are big animals that cover some serious territory. And when I asked what happened once the lions were too big to walk with, I was met with some very vague answers and was told they were sent to farms for conservation. Hmmm...
Later that night, I posted a photo on social media of me playing with one of the baby lions. WOW! The response was polarizing. Half of the people LOVED the baby lion (c’mon, he’s adorable) and the other 50% basically told me I was an animal murderer. This seemed a little extreme, but I started to sniff around a little bit.
Despite my better judgment, trying to be a journalist and present both sides of the story, I launched our First Timer’s Guide to Southern Africa video showcasing how the research center presented their story and a differing opinion about how walking with lions led to canned hunting farms. Well let’s just say, I got some hate mail from Africa. Then a hunter (the dentist from the USA) shot Cecil. Now, while I am not necessarily a huge fan of hunting, especially of the BIG 5, I have to say, I felt a twinge of sympathy for the dentist. In his defense, he hired what he thought was a reputable hunting company to guide him and paid a handsome fee for their services.
These “guides” took the hunter into an illegal area, where Cecil, one of two lions I know by name, met his untimely death.
So if I got hate mail before, now I was getting pummeled. I had no choice but to acknowledge that even though walking with baby lions was cute, it was not a responsible nor sustainable thing to do. We quickly pulled our original video presenting both sides of walking with lions down from all our media outlets, we reformatted it and distributed without featuring this experience. And with the help of expert friends in the industry, being a media member of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, we issued an official lion statement.
I give this example as one of many pitfalls that even the very best intentioned travelers can walk right into. We all make mistakes, but it’s up to you, to do your homework in advance and ask the right questions. Personal accountability is paramount. Just because it’s an NGO doesn’t mean that it’s a sustainable operation. Think about it. Let’s say you are in Siem Reap, Cambodia, visiting the iconic temples and then you are invited by singing children to an orphanage. OMG they are adorable, they are holding my hand, and posing so sweetly for the photo!
Oh and look at the conditions they live in, of course you want to help. HIT THE PAUSE BUTTON. If these kids are living in an orphanage, why are they out roaming the streets and not in school in the middle of the day? Let’s even say that this is actually an operational orphanage, by giving money to these kids aren’t you contributing to the begging economy vs. promoting these children gain an education to help end the poverty cycle? While I am working on an informative video about how to be a responsible traveler in places like Cambodia, in the meantime, I suggest reading UNICEF’s report on the education situation in Cambodia as well as Elizabeth Becker’s thought provoking books on the destination.
I know, it’s hard, cute kids and baby lions. I’ve fallen for it too and I’ve realized the impact that my decisions had on the very people, places and animals I was hoping to help.
So I asked some experts in the field, who I consult regularly to share their definitions of what SustainableTravel means. First, Shannon Stowell, the President of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, who has helped coach me through many proverbial landmines, including the lion crisis of 2015. Amy Merrill, Co-Founder at Journey, who has provided great insight and introductions to some of the challenges facing Cambodia. Gilad Goren, who I’ve had the pleasure of working on Travel + Social Good with for the past four years. And Daniela Papi Thornton, who has not only shared many of the challenges facing third world destinations like Cambodia that I am working on video docu-series for, but who has a very informative video series of her own, helping educate travelers about how to be responsible. Please find these trusted experts' definitions of what Sustainable Travel means and doing your part to make a positive difference.
#1 Shannon Stowell: “Sustainable travel is about helping, not harming. It's about travel that focuses on protecting place and people that are connected to the destination.It's about reducing footprint but increasing handprint- giving back. There are no success stories in sustainable tourism- only succeeding stories! It is a process."
#2 Amy Merrill: “I define sustainable travel through the lens of a triple bottomline: people, planet, profit. When you can travel and do good by all three, your travel is net positive. At Journey we combine sustainable travel with crowdfunding social good projects and experiencing impact, to transform individuals into more empathetic, conscious human beings who approach social and environmental challenges as a global community.”
#3 Gilad Goren: “Sustainable travel is an act of travel that is planned and executed with all facets of impact taken into account. It is travel in which its environmental footprint is minimized and offset. Where the traveler's budget is spent on products and businesses that are locally owned and certified for their own social and environmental policy, in order to ensure that the destination visited truly benefits from tourism. It is travel that enhances the culture and society that serves as the traveler's destination. Last, sustainable tourism is where all parts of the travel equation: traveler, destination and world, directly and equally benefit.”
#4 Daniela Papi Thornton: "I believe that sustainable travel not only incorporates environmental sustainability (being responsible with our environmental impacts) and cultural sustainability (being mindful and respectful about local cultures) but also requires an education component. If we are not aware of cultural differences, we can't adhere to them. If we don't learn about socially responsible travel options, then we can't select them. Choosing to travel sustainably requires you to educate yourself before you depart! We have more thoughts on this, especially relating to service travel, and learningservice.info"