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Indigenous tourism

How to make travel more meaningful

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postedJune 23, 2023
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An early-spring tour operator survey gauged what’s up and down in business this year, and a particular traveler interest made a steady appearance in responses: meaningful travel.

Ninety-five percent of NTA operators reported that clients are seeking more meaningful travel experiences, which include supporting and connecting with local communities and being mindful of the environmental, social, and economic impact a tour leaves on a destination. While the demand is there, operators may need a tip or two on simply starting to offer these kinds of experiences. Tourism Cares’ director of company impact, John Sutherland, helps design the organization’s programming to encourage travel companies to be a force for good for local communities. 

“We want companies to get activated toward meaningful and sustainable tourism development. So, it means everything to hear travel organizations acknowledging the demand for meaningful travel,” he says. “Travelers are looking for meaningful experiences because they are win-win: These are enriching, engaging, and authentic experiences, and they are positively impactful to local communities and environments, which feels good, creates memories, and leaves travel destinations in good shape.”

At the end of the day, he says, travelers care about their destinations and want the people to be friendly, the food to be fresh and authentic, the beaches and rivers to be clean, the resources (like water) to be available, the coral reefs to be healthy, and the snow to be on the mountains. When tour companies adopt meaningful travel, it protects these resources and enhances the client experience, creating ripples that affect today’s travelers and future generations.

We don’t just think that travel can be a force for good, but when all else is equal, travelers themselves will choose to have a positive impact,” Sutherland says. “When the industry is at its best, even travelers not typically engaged with sustainability can have experiences that are beneficial all the way around. That means that even though there is growing demand for meaningful experiences, the industry doesn’t have to wait for demand to start designing their product better.”

Tourism Cares gives points on what defines meaningful travel: 

  • Tourism Cares logoIs hosted and managed by local communities, generating sustainable economic benefits for host communities, especially those not already positively impacted by tourism
  • Values people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives and protects cultural assets
  • Includes nonprofits, social enterprises (businesses with social/environmental impact as their primary purpose), B Corporations (businesses with certified “benefits” to society), and other organizations related to the tourism industry that focus on impact
  • Protects environmental resources, has a low carbon footprint, and promotes sustainability and conservation
  • Impacts guests in a way that is experiential and immersive and engages them in a deeper understanding of people and place
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Here are ways Sutherland suggests operators get their start in meaningful travel, with the advice to start simple:

  1. Make it personal   Sustainability is a broad topic and means different things to different people and businesses. Start by finding your passion. What issues do you care about? What positive impacts would you love to share with guests? Check out the Good Life Goals for inspiration. Use that passion to drive you forward toward operationalizing meaningful travel.
  2. Learn    For those who want a solid base of information and a plan before starting, consider dedicating a few hours to learning about best practices. From there, you can evaluate your priorities, make a plan, and operationalize your work. Studying successful travel businesses is a great way to start.

    Tourism Cares’ educational resources include:

    A newsletter—sign up here!
     Meaningful Travel Platform    More in-depth learning modules and links to lots of resources can be found on this platform. You just need to register an email address for free access.
     An introduction to sustainable tourism    This is a lecture course (approximately one hour, broken up into shorter intervals) tailored for tour operators and created in partnership with NTA Corporate Partner WeTravel.
     Guide to Meaningful Travel Product    This is a more in-depth training on how to identify meaningful travel product.
  1. Collaborate    Leverage your NTA community to find a partner or two to work with. This could be a DMO or a fellow tour operator. Meet monthly to set goals together and keep each other accountable. You can troubleshoot and lean on each other for support.
  2. Add Meaningful Travel Experiences    Those looking for a turn-key approach to meaningful travel can start by simply adding meaningful suppliers to your tours. Visit the Tourism Cares Meaningful Travel Map, which highlights impactful businesses in North America, Colombia, Jordan, and more destinations on a list that’s growing. This is an easy way to find vetted, impactful suppliers. With practice, you can find and add your own as well!

Tourism Cares is NTA’s official nonprofit. Its mission is to be a catalyst of positive social, environmental, and economic impact for the people and places and travel. Go to tourismcares.org for more info.

Top photo: ©Ammit/Adobe Stock