Here are the top 10 sustainability themes in travel as revealed through a roundtable at 2017's PURE Life Experiences — the five-day fun-loving show in Marrakechfor the experiential travel industry. This year's show takes place 9—13 September 2018. PURE is a unique event which brings leading thinkers together, and through discussions with some of the biggest travel-media influencers, time at MATTER — the two-day "un-conference" of talks and workshops at PURE — is about inspiring deep thought and honest, in-depth conversations around conservation and sustainability. 

—Arnie Weissman, Editor-in-Chief, Travel Weekly (USA) — moderator
—Francisca Kellett, Travel Editor, Tatler magazine
—Seda Domaniç, Editor-in-Chief, Vogue Turkey
—David Prior, International Editor, Condé Nast Traveler (USA); Founder, By Prior
—Gema Monroy, Condé Nast Traveler (Spain)
—Farhad Heydari, International Executive Editor, Departures and Centurion (Europe)

For a discourse to have true value, it’s important that for every viewpoint there is a counter-argument. For this roundtable debate there were those who felt passionately that idealism and luxury can be bedfellows, with vocal cynicism and contrarianism that eco practices are just an excuse for hospitality business owners to save money. 

Moderator Arnie Weissman started this session around sustainability by referencing a study conducted at three universities in the UK, where the outcome was that 30 per cent of those surveyed didn’t care about sustainability, 10 per cent care passionately and everyone else — a whopping 70 per cent — is in-between. The recent survey conducted through Bouteco's network of boutique hotel enthusiasts — see — found that it’s the youngest and oldest among us that care most about sustainability most when planning a trip. While very few 30-to-44-year-olds ‘didn’t care at all’, sustainability isn’t as definitive an issue for this group and there are other priorities at play: this age group is most likely to be time and/or cash poor. 

According to a recent study by American travel marketing company MMGY Global, 13 per cent of US travellers have chosen a brand or business specifically for its environmental considerations. This is up a few per cent on a few years ago, with almost 40 per cent now happy to pay more for the assurance the travel-service provider is more eco.


Sustainability: as a word, most would agree, it isn’t the most inspiring. There’s a need “sex it up” says Francisca Kellett, to make the dialogue around sustainability more inspiring. “I don’t think ‘responsible’ is a particularly sexy word either — I’m sure there’s some phrase we can come up with, but we haven’t got there yet”. Its actual meaning is also up for debate. “I agree that ‘sustainability’ is a catchall word that doesn’t mean much to the clients or to customers who are tourists or visitors”, observes Seda Domaniç. “We need to make it sexy, right? I think the fashion world is good with that — making things sexy is our job. This consciousness and sustainability in fashion has become very important. We used to be all about bragging about our next bag and next shoes; it was a thing to have more and more. Now people are actually proud of not buying things, so that it has become a new trend in itself, and what’s important is that these style influencers are role models.”

What is agreed is that the narrative around sustainability should never be preachy in order for messages to resonate. Farhad Heydari feels that his readership — highest-tier American Express cardholders constituting a closed circulation of 1.6 million readers around the world in 170 countries — are all well-travelled and sophisticated. This means that their editorial mission is to provide information in a digestible way, not in a “you should do this, and this is why” way. 

The question is: how much does the wider world know already — and what do they want to know? “You can communicate the key messages without being preachy”, says Arnie Weissman, citing Micato Safaris’ initiatives with schools, orphanages and factories in Nairobi. “Micato invites guests to dedicate a day during their trip and, in return, they ask participants to fill a box with school supplies. Once guests are taken to see all the projects, they usually end up writing cheques for thousands. They go on holiday to see lions on safari and all they talk about at the cocktail party when they get home is helping the schoolchildren in Kenya’s slums. Gema sums it up simply: “Make them a part of the thing, right?” Bingo.


How easy is it to distinguish between greenwashing and hotels merely paying lip service from sincere corporate social responsibility policies based on integrity? Farhad Heydari cites the sentiments of Voltaire, referencing the French philosopher's thoughts on happiness. “As long as you put a label on something, or you associate yourselves with something, just as Voltaire believed, by latching on to something that’s bigger and better, then you can get their gold dust, by way of affiliation — and the consumer will buy into that ethos. I don’t agree.”

Domaniç provides a positive example around how an entire destination benefitted from supporting environmental initiatives through the WWF’s work in Cirali. “In Turkey, there are these endangered Caretta loggerhead sea turtles, and it’s the only reason why people were going to this special place. After the WWF stepped in and worked with the local community there [and their volunteers marked the nests, and protected the turtles], they literally saved the destination.” 

Ultimately, whatever travel service provider we choose to use, it’s down to the customers to be the ones who care. Kellett says she’s read in various surveys that around 70 per cent of consumers say they care about responsible and sustainable matters, but this isn’t backed up by their actions — only four per cent of flights are offset. “Consumers are ultimately driven by price so, while there's good intent, when it comes down to it, it’s just a holiday and we want to have a nice time and we don’t want to spend too much money.” Some argue that a growing percentage of consumers are willing to pay a little extra for something that’s better — “not only for themselves, but better for the environment and better for the culture that it serves”, says David Prior.

The challenge in luxury travel is toeing the line between encouraging indulgence and guilting guests into abstinence. Most of us are desensitised to the notices that invite us to leave our towels in the bath if we want them washed — Heydari is definitely unmoved by such options. “That’s why I go to a hotel, so that I can have a new set of towels and sheets every day, otherwise I’ll stay at home.”

Is appealing to consciences and compassion the solution? Kellett suggests that brands qualify how their actions pay it forward. For example, by spelling out exactly how much money is saved and how they’re going to give that money to a local charity. 


Ikigai is a Japanese term that describes finding your purpose — ‘iki’ means life and ‘gai’ means value. Fran Kellett expressed that when you go to a property that has ikigai, and they are actually doing good, it is palpable. For the Tatler travel editor, it’s old hat just to leave out that cute toy or label on your pillow to tell housekeeping not to change your sheets that day. The consequences need to be tangible. “What’s more meaningful is knowing that they’re supporting the orphanage next door and there’s recycling everywhere, or maybe there’s no air-conditioning because it’s been designed so that the air flows through naturally cooling the property.” Take the Brando in French Polynesia (pictured) where its innovative seawater-cooled air-con invention (SWAC) is powered by sun rays and coconut oil — its dazzling alumni of VIP guests no doubt enjoys experiencing an escape as glamorous as it gets, while considering it a privilege to support a hotel that has a big heart and is investing in scientific research to be part of the solution.

Heydari remains cynical in the face of such examples. “At the end of the day [as a hospitality or travel company] you’re trying to make money. We’re all in the business of trying to make money, if you think about it.” Zita Cobb, founder of Fogo Island Inn in Canada is an innkeeper who can make a strong case for developing a forward-thinking, purpose-driven business model that also allows for profit. This remote Canadian 29-suite inn demonstrates that award-winning design is appreciated all the more when served with authentic culture and nature and the knowledge that it has put a spotlight on a social business, which is reviving a once-fishing-reliant economy. Committed to securing a stable future for the island and its inhabitants, the hotel acts as an economic engine that channels income to its immediate community. 


‘Provenance’ has been a buzzword attached to the food and drink sector for a long time — and now the term bears significance across everything. It’s a word that denotes quality and trust, and represents transparent, simplified supply chains. But do consumers really care? “Talking about different regions in Spain, what is important — and what we are focussed on — is food”, posited Monroy. “So, when it comes to responsible eating, what to eat? Do you care where the food comes from? I think at that point, we’re kind of aware but if we’re talking about hotels, you have to wonder do people really, really care about the provenance of the ingredients?” 

Prior believes that the onus is still on the hotel industry to commit to improvements. “Even the small act of having locally sourced food makes a huge difference. In terms of the miles associated with the production and transportation of the fruits and vegetables and the livestock, implementing a small change actually has a big impact.”

For most of the roundtable thinkers, there was the notion that there’s a huge need for micro-changes. Prior credited Hyatt for changing from conventionally procured eggs to insisting a few years ago that they only use organic or cage-free eggs. “That’s big — it seems like that’s a tiny change, but for a gigantic group like that, it’s actually immense. They had realised that their customers demanded that. Imagine how many eggs they’re using in the United States — it’s an insane amount. That has a significant knock-on for the buying practices as well and then the farmers.”


As a counter to those who think hotels pocket the cash they've saved in the guise of being more eco, next-gen hotels are extending rebates, credits and points and other perks to their guests in return for forgoing housekeeping perks. And then there are those modifying how they supply amenities in order to cut down on plastic and waste. Aman only supplies its amenities through refillable dispensers, as referenced by Heydari, whose wife Anna Nash is Director of Public Relations for the group. “So there is no waste, they just re-fill them and also people aren’t going to throw them in their suitcase and take them with them.”


“Travellers need to see cause and effect”, declared Prior. “If there’s a particular project that a hotel is working with in the local community, guests are going to be invested in it, and very often it’s the highlight of their trip. The bigger, broader questions — such as those around climate change or environmental degradation — are very difficult if you’re at a micro-level talking about what’s happening in your room and the choices that you’re making every day.” Prior believes the most successful tourism operators are the ones that can show cause and effect. “They don’t need to be ramming it down your throats, but if it’s authentic — and that’s another loaded word — but if it is really there, and you can see it, then people get on board very quickly.”


Conservation, community, commerce and culture — these are the guiding principles of responsible ecotourism, as flagged by Kellett, who questioned whether it’s even responsible to open a luxury hotel in certain parts of the world. “The reason I have this question in mind is because you can change values for the people living in the community. When you work together with the villages I’ve seen warriors who are now waiters or making beds.” The Long Run is a membership alliance for hotels to conserve wilderness and nature for the future by leveraging the power of business. Accommodation providers that sign up for membership, whether barefoot luxury resorts (Soneva Fushi), eco-lodges surrounded by rainforest (Lapa Rios) or castles dedicated to art (Wanås), commit to these 4Cs.


A conversation with a hotelier from Cambodia inspired Monroy. He explained their project helps educate the children on holiday on how to act when they go back home. “He told me that when the guests go to visit the schools or to the hospitals they support, he doesn’t want them to give money. What he proposes is that the kids of the family do work at home — such as cleaning the car or helping around the home. For this, they receive a small salary, and then the kids save this money, and they can send it back to the resort so that it can be used to support the projects back in Cambodia.” By raising money themselves, it helps them learn the value of what they’re doing.


Venice was, unsurprisingly, the headline reference when conversation led to that of over-tourism. As Heydari pointed out, the Venetians are saying, enough is enough, and they don’t want any more cruise ships, and they’ve put a moratorium on hotels. Weissman asked if anyone had seen the 2013 documentary by anthropologist Pegi Vail ‘Gringo Trails’, which reports on the side of tourism that Weissman acknowledged PURE’s luxury-travel journalists write about less: budget travel. “It looks at gap years and how people feel they’re getting a much more authentic experience without a bubble of affluence around them and it documents how destructive budget travel is.” By following the route through Latin America and the dichotomy between host countries and locals needing financial security and travellers in Bolivia, Thailand, Mali and Bhutan, the movie portrays the catastrophic effect mass tourism can have.

This led Weissman to ask if anyone had been seeing a movement towards people wanting to visit endangered destinations. Domaniç confirmed so, particular places such as Cuba that are going to be changing a lot socially and politically. Monroy observed how it seemed crazy, for example, with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef that since it’s been highlighted that all that coral is dying, there's a rush to go see it before it disappears, just like everybody wants to experience Cuba before it changes dramatically.

Prior distinguished between this and discerning, sophisticated travellers who want to access cultures and environments that are perfectly preserved. “I went to Ladakh in the Himalaya a couple of years ago and it was unbelievable — it’s an exquisite luxury to be able to experience this before either the changes in climate destroy the entire culture or the culture gets changed by an influx in tourism.”

Heydari interpreted this as heading to places that are ruined. “What is our obligation now with Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean? Nobody’s going to want to go there if there’s no landscaping, and no village life. What is the obligation there?” Kellett feels that it’s the media’s duty to be encouraging its audience to go back as soon as possible if the infrastructure supports it. “But no one wants to go to a disaster zone”, countered Heydari. Domaniç raised the issue of Istanbul, which was booming “…and then the things started happening.” The style editor emphasised that Turkey really took note of the people internationally who cared and who supported. “It’s so important to be supported in those days.”

Weissman is on the board of Tourism Cares, a non-profit, philanthropic organisation where the focus is not on relief but on recovery. “We are very actively trying to raise money since it’s after the relief period and there are a lot of out-of-work tourism workers.” Their volunteer events, scholarships and grants help during downtime to train and restore. Weissman was inspired by a travel designer he met at PURE Life Experience who had clients keen to go to St Bart’s to contribute to the recovery rather than relief. “She said, ‘I think it’s part of my service to let them do that, and to connect them.’” Tourism Cares now hosts a series of white-labelled websites where travel groups can funnel contributions towards relief. “When clients have a connection to places they want to feel that they are participating in the recovery.”


Prior was resolute that it’s Generation Y affecting the future of travel. “Everyone’s talking about the experience economy and how we’re less concerned about possessions and less about saving for a house and more about enriching our lives via experiences. An immense and often quoted cliché — but it also happens to be true.” He put this down to millennials being much more active and values-driven. It’s morphing right now — I would never have believed that the people who, six months previously, were taking selfies of their abs on vacation are now the ones marching in the streets.” 

Weissman asked what the travel landscape will look like in five years — he felt not only concerned but that it’s our role to push it forward from the journalistic side. “I haven’t got anything to base it on but my gut feeling is that it is changing”, opines an optimistic Kellett. “There is massive change happening already within the industry. Just look at Six Senses in the Seychelles: they’re almost marketing themselves as the blueprint for how uber-luxury resorts could be run with the solar panels and be plastic-free. I think other brands are going to start copying that and I think it is about educating our readers. I think we do have that responsibility.”

Monroy added, “I think we will be more conscious. We are already, but how have things changed in the last five years? For me, there will be a point when there will be a shaming and those not pulling their weight will be called out.”

Prior feels that the big conflict is in the luxury space, where there will always be a percentage of people who aren’t engaged with what’s happening globally. “There will always be that, but I think that the globalists — a term that people don’t like but which we probably need to reclaim — will end up influencing the industry more due to the need to find a path that is about a virtuous kind of globalisation.”

It’s about the macro andthe micro — you have to tackle it from both ends.