Personal thoughts after visiting the Sydney Travel Expo

Note: this article cannot be used as a scientific reference. It is a personal post, through which I share my personal experience, my feelings and the opinions of a few other people. It aims to engage discussions, make us think about the different subjects mentioned, and hopefully lead to ideas and maybe actions :)

A few weeks ago, professional operators from the tourism industry and travellers met at Sydney Travel Expo, at the Sydney Olympic Park. For 2 days, the biggest Australian event in the industry has welcomed thousands of professionals and visitors. Among the 130 professional stalls, there were a majority of travel agencies and destination representative offices, but also airlines, cruise lines, hotel brands and administrative services. All of this for about 1000 visitors over the weekend. Of course, I was one of them.

In the 2 first hours of the Expo, before every agent got busy with their (real) clients, I had the chance to chat with travel agents, sales or marketing managers, but also city or state representatives of various companies, and one general manager. I took advantage of my position as a tourist to engage the conversation with a few tour-operators and destination representatives, to have a first feeling at their behaviour with the travellers, their selling strategy and their general offer. Again, there was nothing official in the survey. I started mentioning Hopineo, my experience in the tourism industry, my will to work in New-Zealand later in the year… before asking the same question to each of them: “what are your views on the responsible tourism?”

Despite having talked to only 12 people, the feedbacks are still various and show different levels of knowledge and commitment to the Responsible Tourism for professionals.

What are your views on Responsible Tourism

As a former student in the sustainable development of tourism, you can imagine how frustrated I first felt. To see that the questions that have been my main concern for years do not matter – or matter so little – for the professionals in the industry. Frustrated to see that the people who have the opportunity to directly raise the travellers’ awareness about a more responsible form of travel, barely know and care about it. Argh. It wasn’t pleasant.

But, as we say, it is always good to face reality once in a while, to keep track of what is happening right now, and to realise the work that needs to be done on the matter. If most of the discussions I’ve had sounded quite general, several elements have been mentioned by several of the professionals. Which made realise what are their key concerns, and made me think about how to approach them:

# The professionals know the travellers’ expectations have evolved towards a more responsible way of travelling. Seems ludicrous to say, but it is a basic point, and quite reassuring. Tourists want something different, something that makes THEIR travel special. For the professionals I have talked to, the difficulty is to see how far the customers are ready to go in the “different”. Do they want something “different and unique” because it’s trendy to say so, or are they really committed to travel differently, in a more responsible way? And what does “responsible travel” mean to them?

# The exploitation of animals as a tourist attraction has been one of the main concerns over the last years for the tour-operators: a massive work has been done particularly on the sector of elephant rides all around South East Asia. The agents mentioning it explain that the activity is banned from almost all the operators’ offer they work with. The difficulty on this matter is not so much for the travel agents to offer an alternative to the travellers, but for the local operators to allow the working population to switch to another sustainable lucrative activity. How to find the balance between making the travellers learn about the wildlife and protecting this wildlife from human disturbances? How to turn the skills and experience of the former workers into an asset on another sustainable activity?

# “The transition to a responsible tourism must be responsible as well”, says one manager. She explains how it is obviously a positive thing to treat the animals in a better way and take them back to the wildlife where they belong. The problem is that some of these animals have never lived in the wild, so left alone they wouldn’t be able to survive or long without human assistance. Also, these activities used to financially sustain entire communities. Shutting down the business means cutting their revenue, leaving entire families without a sustainable income, which cannot be part of a “responsible industry”. Can alternatives be found easily for the communities to find a new income?

# “The transition and inspiration must go from the top to the bottom” says a state representative from a tour-operator whose activity focuses on tailor-made local experiences in various countries of the world. Sure enough the tourists are looking for new ways of travelling the world, of (re)discovering their own country for example, feeling close to the locals and off the beaten tracks. But for this state representative, the innovation and the role model must come from the professionals of the tourism industry. They shape the offer, the general trend, deciding of the experiences to offer the travellers. From the tour-operators to the tourists, and from the managers to the bottom of the work hierarchy. Will the travellers adapt their own behaviour and expectations deeply enough to make it a real responsible form of tourism? Will the travel agents be personally committed enough to responsible tourism to make their clients aware?

I left the Sydney Travel Expo with a bitter feeling, with many questions popping in my mind about how to make people travel in a more responsible way, to make them look for better ways of travelling. But as I walked back to the train, I remembered the work has actually started, the change for a “better tourism” is in process. It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve still got a long way to go, but we have all the tools, the motivation and people ready to keep on working. So let’s do it! :)

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