Sustainable travel trailblazer Costas Christ on why we should care.

Interview by Marika Cain.

I started down this career path as a wildlife researcher on a Harvard University project in Kenya, long before terms like “ecotravel” or “sustainable tourism” existed. I was in a remote area, living out of a tent, and I witnessed a growing conflict between local people struggling to survive, park rangers with few resources who were tasked with protecting some of the most endangered wildlife on earth, and a rapidly growing safari-tourism industry that was making business investors wealthy, with very little of that income going to protect the wildlife in Africa that tourists were coming to see.

On a lot of quiet nights around a campfire, I began thinking, “What if there’s a different model here?” I thought that, if properly planned, tourism could become an economic engine in remote places to help alleviate poverty and protect nature. I began trying to talk with businesses and make the case for the rise of a new kind of traveler – the environmental tourist.

Costas Christ, Virtuoso’s global strategist for sustainability, has been a key player in the sustainable travel movement for nearly four decades.

At its core, travel is about experiencing the world’s natural and cultural treasures. So it only makes sense that those of us who love to travel should also be committed to doing everything we can to protect the very places we go on holiday. Traveling sustainably is vital so that future generations will be able to experience the enjoyment, wonder, and fascination of our planet. When we know our trip is helping protect the planet and helping local people to improve their lives, it makes any vacation that much better.

Sustainable travel crosses all sectors today, from luxury to budget. A common misconception is the notion that either you can go on a great, fun vacation or you can go on a sustainable holiday to help the world. But here’s the truth: Sustainable travel is not about giving something up; it’s about gaining something more – a deeper, more meaningful experience, and, yes, a great vacation.

I see a million opportunities to teach kids. For example, if you’re walking on a beach and a plastic water bottle washes up, use it as a teachable moment. Ask the child, “Where do you think that comes from?” and talk about how we should keep the oceans clean because they’re home to sea turtles. We don’t have to scare kids with horrible stories. We can also teach them about cross-cultural understanding and how the world is a better place because there is so much diversity and beauty in it.

This is not a trend. It’s a transformation of travel as we know it, just as there was a transformation that led us from horse and buggy to the Model T. I believe we’re headed for a future where the companies that are doing it right are not the exceptions to the rule.

The future of tourism will be that we won’t need to put the word “sustainable” anywhere. We won’t need to celebrate hotels for going green and giving back because it will be as common for a hotel to embrace sustainability as it is for it to embrace good guest service. Likewise, it will be normal for a tour operator to support conservation and protect cultural heritage because nature and culture are at the foundation of having a wonderful travel experience. The very notion of travel will imply that we safeguard our planet and support the well-being of local people. That’s the day I’m working toward.

Plus: 20 Ways to Travel for Good.

Top photo courtesy of Song Saa resort.