With sustainable tourism fast climbing the travel and tourism agenda, we’re discussing the topic with travel industry leaders and change makers and asking them how they think we can #Traveltochangetheworld.
In our latest ‘Travel to change the world’ interview, Matt Masson, Managing Director of Buffalo Tours, shares his thoughts and ideas on how we can all do our bit to sustain the industry and leave a legacy of goodness.
What was it that inspired you to join the travel industry?
I was an avid traveller from a young age thanks to my father, who was filled with wanderlust. In 2001, I deferred my university degree and took to the road for 6 months backpacking through Europe and Thailand. Upon graduation in 2003, I stumbled upon a job as a tour leader in SE Asia which complemented my studies and was a great introduction to the industry. I loved meeting all the different people, from the tour guides I worked with to curious locals and travellers.
What concerns you about the industry today in terms of its long-term viability?
While I am optimistic about the future prospects, I am also aware that we have a long way to go. While travellers are becoming more environmentally and socially aware, leading to an increased demand for responsible travel, sustainability in travel also needs to be taken a lot more seriously by local governments, tour operators and other industry professionals. In certain countries in Asia, there is a short term approach in development of ‘tourism projects’ such as amusement parks or cable cars, often at the expense of the environment and local community interests.
If we do not take steps to protect the environment and help develop the economic sustainability of local communities, they will become less attractive to travellers. Respecting and supporting the preservation of local culture is also extremely important, as we need local populations to embrace tourism as a path towards economic development, while also maintaining the cultural authenticity that travellers are looking for.
Do you think travel can change the world?
Definitely. Travelling inevitably leads to cultural exchange, which in turn promotes understanding and cooperation between people and nations. Globalization and technological advances have led to a world in which we are increasingly connected between continents and more people have the opportunity and desire to travel than ever before, this in turn drives further development and brings us all closer together.
Travel and tourism can have a positive impact on not only economic development, but also environmental and cultural preservation. For many developing economies in the world, increased tourism is a comparatively desirable development option as opposed to say, heavy industry, which can potentially have a much more devastating effect on the local environment and communities.
Perhaps equally important, is the positive change that travel can have on individuals. Travelling increases the understanding and empathy that we have with people around the world. Also, I have often witnessed how contact with travellers in areas that are struggling, can be inspiring to the local youth and increase their drive to help develop their communities in a positive way.
Are you seeing positive change happening in the industry that you really admire?
The increased focus on sustainability issues among travellers and tourism professionals is truly admirable. It has led to several positive developments and initiatives in the fields of environmental protection, cultural awareness, and animal welfare. In recent years, the welfare of elephants in Asian tourism has been a particularly important issue that has brought many factions of the tourism industry together in an effort to find a solution.
Cultural awareness and how we choose to interact with local communities has also seen a lot of positive change. In Asia, governments have implemented initiatives to help educate travellers about the need to respect local etiquette, for example the Angkor Wat campaign advertised in Cambodia. We are also seeing many positive developments in the hospitality industry, with hotels and resorts becoming increasingly dedicated to supporting social enterprises and sustainability projects.
Technological advances have also had a positive effect on sustainability. With the implementation of electric cars and fuel efficient transportation, as well as more efficient water and energy conservation technology, I believe that we are heading in the right direction by lowering the environmental footprint of the individual traveller. However, it remains to be seen whether or not this positive development can keep up with the increased demand.
What projects are Buffalo Tours undertaking in this space?
Buffalo Tours, as a destination management company, directly influences local communities to achieve economic, cultural and environmental sustainability. Since 2007, our Educational Travel Asia brand has developed and overseen projects within targeted, at risk communities in four countries – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Ongoing support is provided by student and groups who visit projects such as Chan Sar village an hour from Siem Reap, where we have supported the local school with building a library and a teacher’s dormitory. We have encouraged our tour operator partners such as Topdeck to support with visits to Chan Sar to ensure their travellers have a real experience of rural Cambodia.
In 2016 we launched our Responsible Travel Awards, an internal competition that encouraged our staff to develop new initiatives to help promote responsible travel. This has led to the establishment of our own guide school in Indonesia that educates disadvantaged youth. I am really proud to see that our first round of guides pictured above has just graduated and will start working in March as guides in Bali, and we have enrolled another 11 new students including seven women (as we are also seeking to address the gender imbalance of guides in Indonesia).
One of the biggest projects we have undertaken in relation to environmental protection and animal welfare, is our Elephant Camp Audit. This initiative has had great success in improving the conditions of elephants in captivity across Asia. This has been made possible by providing economic incentives to elephant camps who promote responsible elephant interactions, while severing cooperation with camps who do not live up to the highest standards of animal welfare.
What do you think is the biggest challenge the industry faces in terms of the issue of ’sustaining’ itself?
The biggest challenge is to create demand for more sustainable experiences. Through raising awareness, education and cooperation between different sectors of the travel industry, we need to show that affordable and enjoyable travel experiences can also be sustainable.
As travel agents and tour operators, we need to show that our value not only lies in convenience, but also in innovative, effective and carefully thought-through solutions to the challenges of sustainability. We must strive to not only provide great travel experiences today, but also to safe-guard the future of travel for coming generations.
Do you have any questions for Matt?
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