January 3, 2018

Many people have asked me why I started Off Season Adventures. The quick answer is that I love to travel and want to give others the opportunity to experience interesting places around the globe. However, there is another main reason why I formed the company. After studying the tourism industry, I began to notice, as I’m sure many people have, that there is often a gap between sustainability and travel. To explain this concept, I believe there needs to be a bit of an introduction. I’ll be using this new series of posts to discuss not only the beauty of the destinations where OSA travels, but also give some insight into the tourism industry in order to shed light on the reasons why I’ve structured the business as it is.

Just about everyone I know dreams of their next vacation. Regardless of income level, occupation, or taste for adventure, they eagerly talk about their next trip and how much better it will be than their last. Dipping their toes in the serene waters of the Caribbean, exploring the mysterious city of Kyoto, or screaming down a canopy zip line in the Amazon-- these are all fabulous activities one can enjoy beyond the chilly winters of the Northeastern US.

This desire to travel is only made easier by the simplicity of online bookings, the plethora of airports, and the hundreds of millions of people thumbing through social media (a study conducted by Chute, a marketing company, concluded that more than 98.5 million photos related to travel were shared on Instagram in 2016), watching with envy their twenty- and thirty-something friends on their incredible journeys across the globe.

People travel to locations for an experience, whether cultural, ecological, a happy combination of both, or something completely different. Travel occurs for so many reasons, it’s hard to nail down the exact motivations for each tourist, but at the heart of it, everyone is looking for an experience.

Whatever the reason, travel is happening. In 2016, “Leisure travel spending (inbound and domestic) generated 76.8% of direct Travel & Tourism GDP in 2016 compared with 23.2% for business travel spending” (WTTC Travel & Tourism Economic Impact Report, 2017). And, it’s increasing exponentially each year.  

According to the UNWTO, in 2015 there were 1.184 billion-- yes, with a “B”-- 1.184 billion international tourists. This was the 6th year in a row which exceeded worldwide expectation for growth in this industry. On average, tourism has been growing at a striking rate of 4% each year. This has created over $7.2 trillion (USD) in 2015 and generated 9.8% of the global GDP.   

I know that was a lot of numbers all at once. I intend on highlighting the sheer size of the industry. It is huge. I think that the size perhaps goes unrealized to Americans because for us, tourism is only 2.7% of our GDP, compared to a country like Aruba where tourism makes up 29.7% of the GDP. Of course, you can always see it in a place like Times Square in New York City, but perhaps not feel the effect in rural Mississippi   

We also think of travel and tourism as the same thing. While they are related, there are a few key differences. In fact, travel is only one part of the tourism industry. Tourism encompasses hotels and lodging (chains and small boutique), airlines and other means of travel, destinations and those who manage and operate them, tour operators (online, outbound, and inbound), travel agencies, and all of the connections and economic contributions in between. A tourist is someone who utilizes some or all of the items in the tourism supply chain to arrive at, enjoy, and return from a destination.  

For example, say you find that really amazing Groupon Getaways deal to Destination A. Groupon Getaways buys that package from Tour Operator B at a discount to sell to you (that’s how they can get the prices so low). Tour Operator B might be losing money (and subsequently, every other business on the supply chain), but they don’t care because they’ll make up the profit elsewhere, either in the short-term by other people booking fully-priced packages because of their now increased brand value, or in the long-term by taking the market share of another business who is not offering discounts. (Yes, this sentence alone is already a staggeringly huge can of worms). Tour Operator B has compiled an easily-digestible tour package/product for you to buy in one simple click. Now, let’s dive deeper.  

You have to get to Destination A, right? Chances are that you’ll fly there with at least one flight: Airline C. Then once you get there, you check into Hotel D by way of Car/Shuttle Service E. In Hotel D, which may or may not be a branded hotel, the operations of the hotel are subcontracted out to Company F, you eat at Hotel Restaurant G, which is supplied by Farm H-J (extremely low estimate-- most of the time, food is supplied by domestic and foreign suppliers-- tourists need a certain degree of recognizability with their food consumption), and the laundry service for sheets and towels is subcontracted out to Company K. Let’s say that’s all on day one.  

Once you’re at Destination A, you aren’t going to travel to the same place every day, you’re going to explore! Each day you visit a new location: Sub-Destination L-R. You have dinner at a different restaurant each night: Restaurant S-Y. You buy one souvenir at Shop Z.  

And…. we’re out of letters. You can breathe now.  

This is a very simplistic way of taking the tour package apart. Already, we can see that there are 26 businesses affected in the tourism supply chain by you traveling to a single destination. In reality, there may be hundreds (or more) businesses directly or indirectly affected by or affecting tourism in one location. “The number of vendors for even one world monument would easily be in the thousands” (Megan Epler Wood, 2017). Again, travel is part of tourism, but the tourism economy encompasses so much more than just the plane flight. Tourism supports 1 in 11 jobs worldwide.  

In order to be an informed traveler, it is important to answer one big question: How are these businesses in the tourism supply chain monitored? According to the book Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet, “At present, there is no established system for the industry to incorporate the cost of preserving valuable tourism assets into supply chains, and this will only become a more critical problem in the next 20-30 years.” With so many different intersections along the way, who ensures that the hundreds of millions of people working in or with the industry are really benefiting?  

Let’s start by realizing that tourism is not a tangible product. You can hold the boarding passes in your hand, but you cannot hold the destination in your hand (unless you’re Atlas-- and even in his case, it didn’t fit in his hand, it had to go on his back). Tourism is an intangible product that requires physical businesses and living beings to deliver an experience. That’s what you’re buying-- and experience. So, how do you measured an experience?

The real answer is that you really can’t measure an experience, but you can measure the effects and impacts of the experience. Unless you are one of the very few companies that owns everything in your tourism supply chain: airplanes, cars, destinations, hotels, activities, souvenir shops, etc., or if you are one of the few companies that heavily vets each of the vendors in your supply chain to ensure quality control, you will be unable to properly measure or monitor your tourism products.  

The vast majority of companies or destinations in tourism are horizontally arranged and exist for the purpose of selling only one point or product on the supply chain. This means that typically no single company owns everything a tourist will use to experience the destination. (A vertical organizational structure is one that owns everything in the supply chain-- think of your high school history class and Carnegie’s steel operations.) Going back to the Groupon Getaways example, you can see that Groupon does not own companies A-Z, even though they are ultimately selling it to the tourist.  

Rightly so, the tourism supply chain has been called a “spider web”-- an interconnected chasm of confusion. To study the effects of tourism is to study travel patterns, economic development, food production and security, hotel management, international relations, and everything in between. Tourism is no one thing or one product, it is the all-encompassing catch-all industry used for the connection and economic impacts associated with humans traveling from one place to another. For me, studying tourism is like sand slipping through your fingers-- some is retained in your palm, but you are constantly struggling to keep all of it together. Once you think you know something concrete, something else falls through the gap and is questioned.  

Surely, you may wonder, isn’t there some organization that is trying to quantify and manage this “spider web”? Yes, there are two major ones: the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) are two of the major entities trying to promote “good” travel through providing principles and research.  

The UNWTO’s mission is to promote responsible, sustainable, and universally accessible tourism as a “driver of economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability and offers leadership and support to the sector in advancing knowledge and tourism policies worldwide.” They provide us with knowledge dissemination and ethics, ultimately striving towards the realization of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which are 17 overarching goals set by the United Nations to transform the world in a positive way. 2017 was the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development and many businesses and governments from around the world participated to share information about their destinations and positive outcomes of tourism development.  

The WTTC’s mission, on the other hand, is focused on quantifying the economics of tourism and travel. They believe that it is the “right of people to cross international borders efficiently for leisure or business travel purposes, without compromising national security.” They make the argument that it is better for the global economy if there is free and open travel for everyone. If you are ever interested, the WTTC compiles fascinating data each year in their Travel and Tourism Economic Impact Reports for each participating country.  

Clearly there are people who are concerned about the future of tourism, including its economic and environmental sustainability. But, suggestions about ethical travel and proof that tourism is a large section of the global economy is one thing; taking action towards sustainability is another.

As with so many things, many companies and businesses are focused on the short term financial gains-- not on decades or centuries in the future. With the ever-present fear of issues like climate change, water security, and solid waste management, why is the tourism industry, which is 9.8% of the global economy, not taking a more consolidated and progressive stand to adjust, meld, and innovate like other industries? Sure, there are these overarching organizations like the UNWTO and WTTC, but the progress is slow and hard to come by in especially countries like the US.  

Travel will always be something people want to enjoy. People want to experience the next best destination. They want to enjoy unfettered relaxation or to converge with unique cultures or wildlife.  

Things will definitely change, but will it come soon enough? We have seen the pace of climate change regulation… and yes, we get little “wins” here and there, but a consolidated effort to reform the industry has not yet taken place.

Think of regulating the “spider web” that has been presented in this article-- it stretches over multiple sectors, countries, continents, currencies, and cultures. There are people talking about and moving forward with groundbreaking sustainable tourism projects, but none yet on the scale that it must be. I believe that tourism may be one of the last industries to fully adhere to sustainability practices because of the very spider web that makes it possible, at least when we’re talking about actual laws to regulate things like carbon emissions, water usage, and waste management. Reforming the industry from the inter-governmental level will ultimately be the way that positive change could/will happen, but it will take time.   

In the meantime, the other way requires you, as the traveler. This is where you come in...  

We all create the tourism complex by our demand for it. Businesses advertise specifically to us through many or all of our social media feeds-- they know what we like and they know that we are all about the “experience”.  

As humans with an insatiable yearning for perpetual wanderlust, we have the power to transform it into something better. This is what we do at Off Season Adventures. Grow with us as we expand sustainable travel around the world.