SHOREDITCH HOUSE, London, Wednesday 11 May, 2017 | Thanks to all the Soho House members who came to our lively discussion about travelling consciously and to the panel for sharing so many inspired ideas and enlightening advice.

Where should we travel to if we want to be more responsible? Where should we stay and what are the hot new hotels and restaurants with a sustainable ethos? How should we travel and what should we be mindful of?

Cape Town, Slovenia, Jordan, Bilbao and Mexico were recommended enthusiastically; everyone had an appetite for sustainable foodie experiences, and we were steered to extraordinary eco-lodges in the wilderness as well as lesser-known Europe—what was great was discovering many inspiring adventures away for palatable prices. 

Hotels we talked about:

·      Hotel Viu, situated next to the ‘vertical forest’ in Milan.

·      Feynan Ecolodge, sustainable travel pioneer in Jordan.

·      Papaya Playa Project, close to the eco-minded Noma pop-up in Tulum.

·      Wanas, newly opened hotel on an estate championing the arts in Sweden.

·      La Granja, offering a boutique farm experience in Ibiza.

·      11 Howard, making eco credentials stylish in NYC.

It’s clear we no longer have to compromise when it comes to sustainable luxury (and there is an admirable attitude we should all compromise more for the sake of progress), that cities and city hotels can be as green as tropical islands and that responsible travel can encompass multiple things — from celebrating local culture to deciding where needs your money most.

The panel

Hosted by Holly Tuppen, co-founder Bouteco Hotels.

Jodie Tice, PR Manager at Design Hotels, which celebrates design and architecture and throws a lot of much-needed hotel-porn photography into the travel industry. Their latest book of lust-worthy lodgings includes 283 unique properties around the world. 

Tom Hunt is the UK’s leading eco chef, writer and campaigner ‘for a fairer global food system’. This year he’s just been trekking in Nepal, helped run a pop-up in Selfridges and kept his Poco restaurant as busy as ever.  

Alicia Long from The Long Run, an organisation championing nature-inspired accommodation and helping their owners improve sustainability.  They now have 100 members, nine of which are founding members and pioneers in the eco-travel world. Alicia lives in Kenya for half of the year.

Will Hide spent 12 years on The Times travel desk before going freelance. According to his Instagram pics, he swans around the world having rather lovely experiences before returning to North London for the odd day on the sofa or run. We’re sure there’s lots of hard work in between…  

See the slides that accompanied the talk here

Destinations—where should travellers eager to be responsible, looking for something different and off the beaten track go?

Will: With a struggling pound after Brexit, a lot of people ask where they can go for the cheapest price. For me, it’s not so much about searching for a bargain, as this doesn’t equate with sustainability. But good value is important, and somewhere you can get that is Cape Town.

Search out smaller companies via social media, the ones who don’t have the large marketing budgets. I found sustainable travel to be a widespread concept in South Africa. While it’s easy to stay in a California-type bubble in Cape Town, you can get out to visit projects in townships very easily with organisations like Uthando or Coffeebeans Routes, which offer a jazz safari.

Poland is great for a long weekend. Lots of people visit Kraków but there is also Wrocław in the west. You can get a great guide on which covers lots of Eastern Europe. Târgu Mureș in Romania is another, with fantastic Saxon churches, cycling opportunities and authentic village life. Prince Charles makes a private painting trip every year for the wild flowers.

Jodie: Milan, and specifically the Hotel Viu which is newly opened in the Porta Volta district, following the twin towers of Vertical Forest, which opened in 2014. With 900 trees and 1,100 shrubs and plants, it’s enough greenery to fill a hectare of forest. Termed as ‘biological architecture’, it’s meant to have positive physical and psychological effects. The plants pick up dust and clean up the air.                                                                                                                      

Holly: This is a perfect example against the misnomer that sustainable hotels have to be away from cities on a tropical island or something.

Jodie: My other tip is Slovenia, billed as the world’s first “green country”. What they’ve done is amazing. Ljubljana the capital has a free bike scheme and the government is running their green campaign nationally, incorporating the preservation of traditional architecture, food and general culture. It’s great to see this come under the definition of sustainable.

Alicia: I would choose Jordan, for the Feynan Ecolodge, a perfect base for desert adventures and entirely self-sustainable, in its water management, its eco garden, its hiring of staff solely within a 100-mile radius. It’s very trek-based, you have to arrive by 4x4 and then trek to the door and you can go on sunrise and sunset treks. This is a country which needs our tourism more than ever. In fact, Feynan is essentially running as a not-for-profit right now, as it just wants to keep doing what it’s doing and keep putting money into local hands.  

In Jordan’s largest nature reserve, Feynan Ecolodge is a solar-powered lodge where employment and the economic initiatives benefits scores of local families.

Tom: Mexico is where I am planning a trip partly because of the incredible local food scene in Mexico City and because of the René Redzepi Noma residency in Tulum. The team advocates biodiversity; foraging for ingredients in the Yucatán in keeping with the sustainable food movement. They’re unearthing ingredients that haven’t been cooked with in centuries and are utilising indigenous methods as well as employing them to the team.

Holly: What is meant by food biodiversity?

Tom: Eating plentiful rather than rare ingredients and knowing the history of the food and its local story—much like you should with your hotel.

Holly: It’s also worth visiting the Papaya Playa Project treehouses in Tulum, which I was impressed to read preserved a staggering 93% of the jungle (most hotels end up preserving about 5%).

On the point about visiting places that need tourist £ more than ever, Tom, you went to Nepal recently?

Tom: Yes, I went on a hike with Action Against Hunger. The Nepalese were the friendliest of people and the country is very tourism reliant. I saw women still rebuilding one of the main temples in Kathmandu by hand, and it’s two years since the quake.

Holly: It’s important to help—but to help in the right way. There’s lots about ‘Voluntourism’ to make you nervous. The fear of not reaching the people in need and knowing how to spot the cons. What are all your views on this?

Will: You have to do your research. You hear of volunteers paying to work somewhere and building a fence, then the next group arriving and taking down the fence. Or of people volunteering at a lion orphanage—which it turns out is breeding them for big game hunts.

Alicia: People should ask directly what they can do to help when staying in a place, it can happen more organically if you’re active about it. They won’t always publicise or even know what they need online, but if you offer to do things like a game consensus you can really contribute.

What about inspiring new hotels or restaurants that are responsible and sustainable, but also offer an unrivalled experience?

Jodie: Shall we head to Ibiza? La Granja on the north of the island, close to the airport though you’d never know it from the expansive pine forests surrounding it. It works on a membership scheme and captures the forgotten Ibiza, working closely with Ibiza Preservation Fund and local communities. Last year Habitas of Burning Man festival fame ran workshops. And of course, there’s Coco the pig.

Another is 11 Howard, it’s in the heart of SoHo, opened a year ago and gives so much back to the community through its concept of ‘conscious hospitality’. They worked with artist Jeff Koons on a giant mural and donate money to the Global Poverty Project as well as support schemes for vulnerable people in the local community. Personalised minibars are run in collaboration with Thrive Market who offer free memberships to vulnerable families. It’s an example of giving back without compromising on luxuries. Oh and you can rent skateboards from the hotel rather than taking a taxi!

Alicia: Wanås in Sweden. A 17th-century estate which was a functional farm until the 1960s, but every generation of the family have inherited financial difficulties and have been forced to come up with creative initiatives to keep it running. The family developed the site into a cultural arts centre, inviting artists from all over the world to come and create installations on the ground. It’s so random, there’ll be a painted train lying on the forest grounds. Over the last ten years, they have been developing it into a 12-bed boutique hotel, and it opened literally last week on May 1st.

All the food comes directly from the farm and is presented in a fun way, so there’s a 99 Flake ice-cream machine where the milk comes straight from the cows. It’s a great example of a family business and of succession planning, which I think is a really important feature of sustainability and is something The Long Run encourages thinking about. We ask owners ‘what’s going to happen when you’re no longer around?’.

Tom: Azurmendi near Bilbao is a hilltop restaurant with sustainability in the core of their business model, from gender equality to a “seed bank” preserving the native seeds of Spain.

Holly: And Bilbao will host next year’s The World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards.

Tom: Another one to mention is Relæ in Copenhagen. They’ve won the 50 Best’s sustainable restaurant award two years running.

And, finally, how can we all be a bit kinder to places we travel to — and enrich our experiences at the same time?

Will: People can travel more sustainably by shifting their holiday types. The average traveller makes three trips a year—they could swap this for two more sustainable trips. For example, with The Slow Cyclists, who run immersive cycling holidays in Transylvania and Rwanda.

Holly: The trips look incredible, eating on old wooden tables by candlelight with the locals.

Will: And doing something active like cycling helps you to switch off, makes way for new experiences. 

Holly: Tom did you have some thoughts about food when on holiday?

Tom: It's great to support the local economy by choosing local restaurants and even eating from street stalls when we feel brave enough. Give up your cornflakes and imported continental breakfast for local specialities. Battery farming and animal cruelty is prevalent all over the world so being aware of where your meat comes from is particularly important. If you are worried about the origin of the meat you are eating then eating less or no meat will help reduce your impact.

Alicia: It’s also often easier than we think to get involved. On safari or in conservation areas accommodation owners always need help surveying the land. Guests can help with this. Sometimes it’s just a case of asking.

How would you sum up sustainability?

Will: Thinking more about how you travel.

Jodie: Thinking about the culture, community and context as a whole.

Alicia: Remembering these businesses still have to make money to turn the wheels, it’s not all an airy-fairy concept.

Tom: A holistic system which places people and our planet at its centre.

Audience Questions

Will, you mentioned searching for smaller companies via Twitter and Instagram. How do you literally go about doing this? Is it via hashtags?

Will: Follow people you like and look at who they follow. Friends of friends will be dotted around the world in interesting places. I recently found Argyle Cruises in Scotland, which convert fishing boats into 8 people cruises, through a tour guide friend of a mate in Glasgow.

You also mentioned cycling holidays. Are there possibilities to do this without all the off-putting gear and Lycra?

Holly and Will: Definitely!

Holly: There’s Inn Travel and Headwater.

Will: Swimming holidays are also something that split people down the middle—love or hate. I love Wild Swimming Cornwall—you never know where you’re going to be taken until the day.

There’s not been much mention of here in the UK. Where are the green places to go in London?

Holly: Oh, there are lots. We were going to discuss Scotland, which is breath-taking — Will’s just been to the Outer Hebrides. In London, there’s The Zetter and Good Hotel, both exemplary in their commitment to community and being green.