The agent community must play its part in addressing tourism’s sustainablity issues, says Abta head of destination sustainability Nikki White

The past few weeks have highlighted very different issues of sustainable tourism on Abta’s agenda, from water scarcity to child protection.

On each of these matters, questions have been raised in various forums about customer demand and awareness.

Much to the dislike of one tourism minister, who asked whether customer demand should drive change, I firmly pushed back on any idea of waiting for customer demand before these issues should be addressed and managed by local and national governments.

While the customer shouldn’t be the starting point, they can play their part – as can you, the agent community.

Ask questions

Start by asking questions. Ask your business partners, suppliers and the authorities. As more questions are raised, awareness of these important issues should increase, as will the need for all parties to take responsibility for delivering more sustainable holidays.

For example, on a recent trip to Namibia, I was talking to a member of staff who worked in the hotel during the tourism high season, but his primary passion was his farm in the north of the country. The prospects of building his livelihood on the farm were increasingly challenging as there has been so little rain this year.

Back at the hotel where I was staying, there were signs all over the washrooms and bathrooms about saving water. Yet when I turned on a tap, the water flow was so forceful that I got soaked.

Hotels working with Travelife are taking responsibility and working on matters such as restricting water flow. Simple, cost-effective devices can manage the flow of water in hotels, with no impact on the service to guests, and help save this precious commodity. Customers can ask if their hotel choice is Travelife-certified. Agents can ask their operators too.

Protect children

On the challenging issue of safeguarding children, there are systems in place for customers and agents to raise concerns.

If something doesn’t appear right, it is OK to question it. There are authorities that are ready to sensitively help with any concerns.

Abta has worked closely with the charity Ecpat UK, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the police over the years, and they have stressed to us the incredibly important role that the travel industry can play in this area.

For example, if a customer wants to travel to a destination where the exploitation of children is an issue, trust your instincts. It is quite appropriate for you to raise your concerns.

Equally, if you or your customers see inappropriate behaviour overseas by UK nationals, this can be reported to police in the UK, who can investigate even though the issue occurred overseas.

The more these issues are raised and discussed, the greater chance the industry has of making positive change and managing and addressing the issues before they pose a bigger challenge.