As part of Virtuoso’s ongoing commitment to sustainable travel, we’re profiling the experts, trendsetters, and industry leaders making a difference in sustainable tourism today. Here, a conversation with Jessica Hall Upchurch, Virtuoso’s vice chair and sustainability ambassador.
Some may believe that sustainability and luxury travel couldn’t overlap – that sustainable travel has to involve an eco-lodge or a voluntourism trek somewhere. What would you say to them? There is a true way for luxury and sustainability to go hand in hand, especially when traveling with a Virtuoso partner that’s leading the way in the sustainable tourism space. Travelers can vacation sustainably while relaxing, having fun, and doing everything else they want to do. It’s about starting where you are: Take small steps in the right direction by choosing a hotel, cruise line, or tour operator that you know is doing well on the sustainability front, or select local experiences over inauthentic ones. It’s a simple change in mindset that will elevate how luxury and sustainability can overlap.
Your family has pledged to travel sustainably as much as possible – what have you learned from this? What’s your advice for travelers interested in doing the same?
I’ve learned that traveling sustainably is amazingly easy, super fun, and cool. You develop a special connection with a place, and travel feels more purposeful and caring. More people are engaged with us than we originally thought, which is exciting. Travelers want to hear about what we’re doing because it makes them feel like they can make a difference too. My advice: Just do it. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing deal – if everybody takes a step in the right direction, it will make a difference in the marketplace. And talk to your travel advisor: Ask them questions about how you can travel sustainably.
Anything else people can do to be more mindful when they travel?
Think about your footprint. Each of our travel choices makes a difference, down to the food we choose to eat. When you arrive in a new destination, seek out restaurants that promote locally sourced, sustainably raised, or responsibly grown and harvested ingredients. While we can travel to have fun and relax, at the same time, we can also help protect natural and cultural heritage and support the well-being of local people. That’s what is at the heart of sustainable tourism – it’s the vacation of a lifetime that also helps benefit the very places we visit, protecting them for future generations to come.
What about packing – any sustainable packing philosophies you can share?
Think about the brands you’re putting in your bag by supporting fashion companies with sustainable practices. I also always try to think about what’s light and easy to reuse. Lightening your packing by even just a few pounds make a difference. Carrying your own water bottle is another easy thing to do. For those who love to shop, save a little room in your suitcase and think ahead about how you can support the local economy while you’re on vacation, whether that’s via a local shoemaker or unique, artisan-made clothing.
How does Virtuoso shine a light on the three pillars of sustainable tourism – celebrate culture, support the economy, and protect the planet?
When Virtuoso decided to make sustainability a strategic anchor of our company, it set in motion a new way of doing business that we’re all excited about. We’re shining a light on sustainability by helping partners tell their stories in our magazines and digital outlets; by educating advisors on how they can help consumers make smart travel choices, which is a win-win conversation; and by inviting international sustainability thought leaders to educate and inspire our community of staff, advisors, and partners. Every chance he gets, [Virtuoso Chairman and CEO] Matthew Upchurch speaks about sustainable travel onstage at Virtuoso events and other outside engagements. It’s an exciting time!
What sustainability projects at Virtuoso are you currently excited about?
This year at Virtuoso Travel Week, we’ll host our first sustainability event, Under One Sky, inviting all travel advisors and partners to come and learn more about the importance of sustainability in travel. We hope they’ll share what they learn with travelers. This idea was born from our Sustainability Council, Virtuoso partners and advisors dedicated to guiding us in the sustainability space. This is the third year they’ve gathered, and their guidance and leadership has taken us to a whole new level.
What does the future of sustainable travel look like to you?
Sustainable travel is a transformation, and I really believe this is the way forward. When Virtuoso published its first white paper on sustainability two years ago, it became clear that there was a rapidly growing interest among travelers, partners, and advisors to learn more about sustainable travel. I believe we’re reaching a tipping point as more travel companies across the Virtuoso network embrace sustainability and focus on educating their guests on how to have a great vacation while also giving back to local people and the planet. We want to continue to educate our travel advisors on how they can help make sustainability a growing factor in consumer choice, and we want to continue to shine a light on our partners who are helping lead the way to a brighter travel future.