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The Tourism Cares Team

Reflections: Tourism Cares with Norway Meaningful Travel Summit

postedMay 2, 2023

I have a concern about travel becoming elitist—something available only to those with wealth. Yet, I do see travel as a privilege. It’s a privilege because I feel honored to visit the places, enjoy the experiences, and meet the people I encounter when I travel. I am humbled by the enrichment I receive from the land and the community. I have respect.

I felt all of this and more when I represented NTA at the Tourism Cares Meaningful Travel Summit for Norway in late April.

We were a group of 50—tour operators, destination representatives, journalists, and association execs. We journeyed from Tromso to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and its largest island of Spitsbergen. We were at 78 degrees north latitude, about 800 miles from the North Pole, in the world’s northernmost urban community of Longyearbyen—and we saw the world’s most northern DMO! We came together as friends and colleagues, and we left as enlightened ambassadors for Norway, sustainability, and meaningful travel. We left also with many questions … and a lot of work to do.

2023 is the 20th anniversary for Tourism Cares, and because it is NTA’s official nonprofit, I’ve had the privilege of participating in many of their events through the years, including the first in 2003 on Ellis Island. These many experiences have affected me like the rock, silt, minerals, and new-fallen snow have given character and texture to the shifting, surging glaciers of Svalbard. My thoughts, understanding, and knowledge have evolved, with character and texture added from each interaction, connection, and conversation over the years.

The future of these glaciers and the magical place we experienced is under constant threat, and like in many places around the world, there are struggles and conflict for the indigenous people who have lived on and cared for the lands for generations. Our group was there to come to a deeper understanding of tourism's impact on the environment, local communities, and indigenous people, and to explore how we can be a force for good.

We were moving from the why we needed to do this to the how we will do it.

Education session at Tourism Cares
Education session at Tourism Cares (Photo by Catherine Prather)

For this Tourism Care summit, that how involved educational sessions, small group discussions, rich content from local travel professionals and community leaders, experiencing the tourism product, and making commitments for the future.

From the get-go, everything was thought-provoking, and a few points stood out for me.

Aase Marthe Horrigmo, head of Visit Norway, welcomed the group with a concept often repeated throughout the summit. Speaking of the imperative for climate action, she referenced cathedral thinking: That what we are doing or building now related to sustainability, we may not see the results in our lifetime. However, future generations will reap the benefits, and therefore it’s a worthy cause. This analogy resonated with so many of us when contemplating the complexity of sustainability.

We had an untarnished sharing from the Sami, the indigenous people of Norway. Sandra Marja West with the Sami Council talked about generations of discrimination. She described the struggles of her people living true to their heritage and traditions when it intersects and conflicts with tourism and travel promotions. Sandra explained that cultural appropriation can portray a one-dimensional perspective of the Sami rather than a rich, multifaceted view of her people. The Sami have a culture of treasuring the land and leaving no trace when they've enjoyed or used it. Yet, do they present their own culture, or do they present what tourists expect from them? Does the economic benefit of tourism prevail over heritage?

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Indigenous people worldwide are asking these questions, and though there are no immediate answers, simply posing these questions to the tour operators and destination representatives in attendance is helpful with product development and emphasizing the importance of involving local communities and the indigenous when creating a tourism plan and itineraries.

There’s the Norwegian philosophy of friluftsliv. Literally translated to “free air life,” it’s the concept of living in nature without destroying or disturbing it. I sensed this in every conversation with a local, I saw it in the literature and in the marketing, and I felt it during our activities.

Ice cave in Svalbard
Ice cave in Svalbard (Photo by Patrick Preiano)

And speaking of our local experiences … we had a blast. We went dog sledding (vetted against the Tourism Cares animal welfare policy), we explored an ice cave, we toured a coal mine, and we drove snowmobiles. These are all activities currently offered (and very much enjoyed) by visitors. Yet, our enlightened group questioned the use of loud, gas-powered snowmobiles. We even questioned the carbon footprint of our getting to Norway and the far-off land of Svalbard. Was the good we were doing enough to offset the negative?

Thinking widely about sustainability and travel, how do we arrive at what is the right thing to do? And once we get to that answer, how do we move forward?

Perhaps the best lesson is to listen, ask questions, collaborate, share victories, and most certainly, tell about your mistakes so they aren’t repeated. And take action. Travel is a privilege, and to protect the people and the very places we visit, it will take all of us working together to answer the confounding questions of this very complex subject.


Now about those commitments. For NTA, I committed to working more closely with Tourism Cares to find resources and solutions for our tour operators to map their sustainability journey—the how to do it. I also committed to using our member network forums—DMOs in particular— to facilitate the sharing of sustainable practices and the use of the Meaningful Travel Map.           


Congrats to the Tourism Cares team for organizing and executing this important summit. (Thank you, on-site team: Greg Takehara, Paula Vlamings, Jessica Flores, Kati Hagedorn, and John Sutherland.) Thank you to Norway, Innovation Norway (Hege Barnes, David DiGregorio, and Ann Kristin Gjelsten), and your partners for making it possible. To Graham Miller with the University of Surrey, big gratitude for your daunting task of facilitating our complex discussions. A big thanks to the NTA Board of Directors for recognizing the importance of Tourism Cares and funding our association’s support—with additional thanks to NTA Board Secretary Monique van Dijk-Seppola for welcoming me to Norway in Oslo and journeying with me to Tromso for the Summit. Thank you, USTOA, for holding your Sustainability is Responsibility summit last year in Bodo … many thanks to our other association sponsors, ASTA, ATTA, and SYTA … and a big thanks to all summit sponsors.

Catherine Prather, Reagan Stulbaum, and Joanne Gardner in Norway
Catherine Prather, Reagan Stulbaum, and Joanne Gardner in Norway
(Photo by Reagan Stulbaum)

Congrats to Panama, which will serve as the 2024 international location for the Tourism Cares Meaningful Travel Summit. For this year, you can still get involved with Tourism Cares through membership, the Meaningful Travel Map, and the Power of the Partnership Stewardship Summit (Oct. 15–18 in Richmond, Virginia).

Catherine Prather, CTP, is president of NTA and serves on the Tourism Cares Board of Directors.

Top photo by Derek Hydon