Everyone talks about it, but now an alliance has set some thoughtful and reasonable standards for the industry



The notion of being a more responsible and eco-friendly traveler has been a popular, and contentious, subject for a while now, ever since the notion of over tourism got people’s attention and made some do some navel gazing on what a tourist’s impact is.


Well, of course, if you cross the street you’re going to have some environmental impact, and if you cross the planet you’re going to have a significant one. Air and sea travel burns a lot of fuel and creates a lot of waste — although is nowhere near as meaningful a contributor to global warming than cow flatulence, which is another story for another day. 


Nonetheless, invariably, traveling to and temporarily inhabiting foreign and exotic destinations imposes a burden on those places. This might have particular resonance in adventure travel, where people go somewhere to pursue outdoor activities, often extreme and in very wild, mostly heretofore pristine environments. 


So it’s not surprising, but hugely commendable, that the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) has consistently led the way in trying to raise awareness of how to travel better and lessen one’s impact on the society visited. And, importantly, this goes beyond not leaving your trash behind (although that’s a big one). Recently ATTA collaborated with Travelife, a global organization that specializes in sustainability training for the travel industry, to come up with 38 “activity sustainability standards” for tour operators.


These range from best practices in immersive vacationing (like hanging out with a Bedouin tribe, learning Italian in, er, Italy, or visiting the Jordanian Women’s collective Iraq al-Amir), safaris or wildlife watching tours, mountain biking (on serious mountains, not the hills of your HOA), trekking, and even fishing including places like this.



Namibia ATTA conference
It’s a bird, it’s a plane! It’s Stowell arriving grandly at an ATTA conference in Namibia Photo provided by Wonderlust



To Shannon Stowell, CEO of ATTA, “sustainability is no longer optional. It is our responsibility to make it happen, to change behaviors and practices.” 


Here’s a link to the 38 standards:


I interviewed Shannon to see if these guidelines can make the world a better place, at least a little.





You have come up with a lot of environmentally friendly practices for adventure and experiential travel — how many do you realistically expect people to follow?


We expect operators and service providers that offer the activities to use the ones most appropriate to them. A single tour operator will use the standards of the activities they offer.  In the universe of adventure/eco/nature travel we think a lot will engage, but that remains to be seen.  In the world of mass tourism, probably much less interest.



What are the three most essential good practices for a traveler in the wild (since we’re not talking about visiting Paris here)?


1) Plan ahead.


2) Respect the place where you find yourself: the people, the nature, the wildlife, the people (saying that twice in hopes that people remember this. 


3) Leave what you find, take back waste that you bring or dispose of it properly.



Shannon Stowell in Namibia
Yes, Namibia! The sort of marvelous place everyone wants to keep marvelous Photo provided by Wonderlust



This is a dumb question, and I think I know the answer, but does every little bit really make a difference? 


Yes! Every little bit makes a difference since, at least pre-pandemic, there were billions of travelers. If we change our behavior individually, collectively it makes a big difference. Avoiding single-use plastic, not buying souvenirs like turtle shell jewelry, walking on the right trails, respecting the places you are and spreading a culture of peace and understanding. This is what travel looks like as a force for good.



You’re working with sustainability minded tour operators, which is a relatively new and positive phenomenon. What is the main difference a traveler is going to feel on one of those tours, what sacrifices will they make?


It doesn’t necessarily mean many sacrifices but learning a new mindset. Eating food locally sourced, being more mindful about the use of water, how to manage waste and residues, working more closely with local guides and having more authentic experiences. 


For example, I was once at a remote luxury lodge in Bhutan and on their menu was not one local dish. There was Chilean sea bass, Argentine beef, etc.  We asked if the cook was Bhutanese. He was, so we asked if he could just make us something he would eat. We got lucky and he did. That’s a low carbon footprint and a more authentic experience.  So if it’s considered a sacrifice to not eat food flown in from 1000’s of miles away, perhaps the traveler needs a mindset adjustment.



Who are the worst travelers from an ecological standpoint?


Ones not looking to travel to learn, etc., but to exploit a place without respect.



ATTA CEO Shannon Stowell, who gets out more than you do Photo provided by Wonderlust



I have to believe that cyclists and surfers can’t be hurting the environment that much to begin with…


It really depends on the behavior of those cyclists and surfers. Do they manage waste properly, do they walk on durable surfaces, do they take trails in proper places and respect protected areas and wild animals. I’ve seen a picture of ‘rafters’ in a river in China where you couldn’t see the water there were so many rafts. Overtourism can occur in adventure based tourism as well. That said, 4x4ing can be done right and camping can be done wrong.  It’s about values.


Ultimately it is about respecting the places we go. It is honoring the people and the nature of the places. These two different mindsets have a huge impact on how a traveler sees and treats people and the world around them!