Himalayas group
Costas Christ with local villagers in Bhutan working on a sustainable tourism development plan for the Himalayan kingdom.

As one of the largest travel networks in the world, Virtuoso is guided by a philosophy of enriching lives through human connection, and the power of travel and tourism as a force for good. We believe that travel is a powerful catalyst to educate and protect natural and cultural heritage for future generations.

The United Nations has declared 2017 the Year of Sustainable Tourism, which inspired Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch and his family to rethink their vacation strategy. “We decided to focus our family vacations around destinations, hotels, and tour companies known for enlightened environmental practices and cultural preservation,” says Upchurch.

Read more about the Upchurch family’s first trip to The Brando resort.

Costas Christ, an award-winning travel writer and pioneer of sustainable travel practices, serves as Virtuoso’s director of sustainability. We asked him about the history of sustainability and what is being done to ensure future generations can travel to the places we love. He also told us six easy ways to travel sustainably.

Why is sustainability an important topic?

One of the most significant transformations underway in travel today is the idea that we can have the trip of a lifetime while also caring for the local people and places that we visit.  Sustainability is not a trend, in that sense, but rather an evolution of travel – and Virtuoso is committed to being on the cutting edge of innovation in the global travel community. Travelers have more places to go and more ways to get there than ever before, and with that comes an even greater responsibility to safeguard the world’s cultural and natural treasures for future generations. There were more than one billion international travelers last year – we believe that provides a billion opportunities to make the world a better place, and the way to get there is by embracing sustainable tourism best practices.

That is also why we launched the Virtuoso Sustainable Tourism Leadership Awards in 2011 to shine a spotlight on how the preferred tour companies, hotels, cruise lines, airlines, and other specialty partners in our network are changing travel in innovative and inspiring ways. In addition, a growing volume of recent research studies, including by the World Travel and Tourism Council, indicates that travelers prefer companies that are committed to social good and green practices. Virtuoso travel advisors can attest to this, as many report a rising interest in travel with meaning.

Western Mongolia
Costas Christ in Western Mongolia, with a Kazakh Eagle Hunter.

Whether it is watching a family of wild elephants gathered at a water hole on the plains of Africa or listening to the melodious chanting of monks in a mountain top monastery in Bhutan, when we travel the right way, the sustainable way, we are investing in a better and brighter future for the planet and our children. For Virtuoso clients, the idea that travel can deliver such a personally rewarding and enjoyable experience, while also giving back at the same time – well, that is the travel magic they are seeking.

What are the three pillars of sustainable tourism?

Environmentally-friendly operations: The fundamentals of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” that go with being a travel company that embraces green practices.

Support for the protection of natural and cultural heritage: For example, support for wildlife conservation organizations or collaborating with scientific research projects aimed at protecting nature.  Likewise, safeguarding cultural heritage, whether that means helping to protect archaeological treasures, supporting traditional handicrafts, or promoting authenticity and local character that celebrate cultural diversity.

Social and economic benefits to local communities: For example, hiring local staff as a priority, providing fair wages and benefits, and supporting locally-owned businesses as much as possible.

How does travel as a whole help push sustainability forward?

Twenty-six years ago, a dozen passionate travelers and conservationists gathered in a historic farm house outside of Washington DC. Our aim was to connect conservation and travel in a new and dynamic way. That meeting gave rise to the ecotourism movement of the 1990s – defined as “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Ecotourism’s nature-based roots led to the birth of sustainable tourism in 2002 – taking the same caring principles and applying them across all forms of tourism, from urban hotels to cruise lines and more. Combined, this has helped educate millions of international travelers about how we can live more sustainably on a finite planet. It is a growing and evolving movement to make the world a better place – and Virtuoso is proud to be a part of it.