As the world continues to face damaging environmental challenges, a new wave of traveller is on a mission to give back to our planet by embarking on sustainable journeys that really make a difference
When you picture your dream holiday, what do you see? Perhaps you’re lazing on the pristine white sands of a remote Maldivian island with a good book in hand. Maybe you’re driving across Italy in a convertible vintage Ferrari having just made a pitstop for some of the best carbonara of your life. Or, in fact, are you dreaming of something a little more meaningful?
Following an (unsurprising) dip in 2020, the tourism industry is back with a bang, expected to reach US$17 trillion (Dhs62 trillion) in size by 2027. Yet while it might well have found its feet again, intrepid travellers are wearing brand new shoes in the form of a stronger appetite for more sustainable tourism, which is being driven by a number of the world’s biggest luxury names who are offering increasingly impactful travel experiences that venture far beyond the confines of a five-star hotel. Not just that, they are also helping to make a difference to either, or both, the surrounding environment and the lives of locals through education and an extra pair of hands, encouraging tourists to quite literally get their hands dirty in the name of conservation.
While volunteer travel has traditionally been associated with low-budget accommodation and backpackers, a handful of world-class brands are now getting in on the act, all while providing five-star creature comforts with the extras you would expect from a holiday abroad. The Banyan Tree Group, for example, recently launched its Stay For Good programme, aiming to provide travellers with authentic and immersive experiences that not only deepen their connection with each destination, but also contribute to local communities and honour their heritage and traditions. Curating remarkable journeys to some of the world’s most unique and lesser-known cities, travellers can explore everything from the thousand-year-old traditions and crafts of Kyoto, Japan to the cultural richness of Puebla, Mexico, where you’ll head to the nearby rural village of San Jerónimo Tecuanipan to visit Casita de Barro, an establishment that explores simple, sustainable living and shares traditional farming methods with the local community.
Aman Group is another company upping its green credentials with a slew of impressive initiatives throughout its global properties. Nurturing a love for nature and neighbours in Philippine waters, it has implemented a weekly reef monitoring system, recording sightings and maintaining a healthy starfish population, with volunteers able to dive and collect them from surrounding reefs before relocating them to avoid future harm. Then you have the One&Only Group and its Cape Town outpost where, in partnership with Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation, which actively rescues, rehabilitates and releases stranded and distressed sea turtles as part of their conservation mission, guests can participate and assist with turtle care tasks such as feeding and cleaning hatchlings in the turtle hospital as well as meeting the sub-adults under rehabilitation. “These days people tend to travel with their eyes wide open and are fully aware of the impact that this travel can have on communities and the environment,” Aurelia van Lynden, head of travel at luxury travel company Pelorus, tells MOJEH. “They tend to be dedicated to making their impact as positive as it can be. The narrative surrounding luxury travel now is fully focused on getting to understand the destination and the culture, and this shouldn’t be done at the expense of those who are living there.”
As to be expected, one of the most popular destinations for sustainable travel is Africa, with safaris becoming more and more immersive as the years go on. One of Pelorus’s most popular trips, for example, involves joining a conservation team on a mission to assist with rhino and pangolin conservation experiences in South Africa followed by a stop in Mozambique to help support marine research at Bazaruto Center for Scientific Studies. The trip ends at the uber-luxe Kisawa Sanctuary, a 300-hectare haven of forest, beach and sand dunes, where the minimum plot size of your secluded suite is one acre of private tropical paradise complete with picturesque beaches, a swish spa, world-class cuisine and plenty of opportunities for diving, sailing, surfing and stand-up paddle boarding.
Alternatively spend the night under the stars at Phinda Game Reserve, which boasts über-luxe accommodation in the form of six magnificent lodges complete with infinity pools, state-of-the-art restaurants and divine settings for alfresco dinners. Six lucky guests headed there in September alongside legendary conservationist Les Carlisle, who was on hand to guide guests through the array of activities dedicated to protecting the precious ecosystems and communities of this unique area. As so many of the conservation projects that Pelorus guests get involved in are bespoke, no trip is ever the same, but alongside spectacular safari adventures guests can also become ‘Citizen Scientists’ by spending time with marine biologists in French Polynesia studying coral reefs, monitoring the breeding habits of tiger sharks and logging the nesting sites of sea turtles among other exciting adventures. “In many cases, without the funds provided by travellers, this research will just not happen,” adds Aurelia.
“Social media and a 24-hour news cycle mean travellers are more informed than ever on the challenges facing the world, from climate change to plastic waste,” agrees Nick Davies, managing director of Cookson Adventures which, at the forefront of conservation itself, has worked with travellers to support tribal communities, rehome giant tortoises via helicopter and even discover a new species. “Naturally many travellers don’t want to ignore these issues, but rather try to engage and make a positive impact on the communities they visit. The development of our digital world has also left many of us feelingless connected in our daily lives, and so we now appreciate making deeper connections with people when travelling.” Nick and his team also have an ultra-personalised approach to travel, engaging guests in experiences they have a strong interest in, accompanied by experts who are driving positive change. Specialising in the polar regions, for example, as part of a recent adventure to the Antarctic Peninsula, guests were able to support research into an incredibly rare new species of killer whale, with the expedition team discovering the Type D sub-species, likely to be one of the largest undescribed marine mammals left on the planet. “The impact of bringing passion and knowledge together on an adventure can be huge,” he adds.
While our desire to go abroad and do something meaningful is most often a noble one, there are risks associated with this booming business of sustainable practices and some institutions could actually be doing more harm than good. So, in the first instance, be sure to always do your due diligence to opt for a reliable hotel or company and ensure trips are run responsibly and the local community is not exploited.
“When it comes to any of these sorts of holidays, we seethe most worth coming from travellers who start to plan the conservation elements of their trip right from the off, making meaningful decisions as part of the planning,” urges Aurelia.“Guests will need to do their homework and make sure the company or hotel has the best interest of the communities at heart. Do ask questions to make sure you know where your money is going, as if experiences are added on as a bolt-on at the end, there is a risk of it becoming simply tokenistic.” That said, with a recent Booking.com survey showing that 61 percent of people want to travel more sustainably in the future— a number that is rising by the day — this growing trend of travellers hoping to lessen their environmental impact looks set to stay. And that can only be a good thing.