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How the independent tourism sector will cater for the rising demand for eco-travel

The niche firms will leave the holiday giants in the shade

Smaller businesses may be hard pressed to compete profitably in the mainstream “fly and flop” travel market, but, for the growing number of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) dipping a toe in sustainable tourism, the onset of the holiday season could offer rich pickings.

“It’s taken more than a decade for the independent tourism sector to wake up to the fact that the M&S shopper who seeks out organic food, and the clothes buyer who only buys fair-trade fashion, are also demanding more sensitive holidays,” says Justin Francis, co-founder of the responsibletravel.com website.

“Despite coming late to eco-awareness, though, it’s the smaller, niche firms that will leave the holiday giants in the shade when it comes to supplying the more thoughtful domestic and foreign tourism products that a growing number of us demand.”

Responsibletravel.com acts as a central marketing operation for more than 300 small tour operators offering everything from orangutan-spotting in Borneo to yurting “staycations” on the Isle of Wight.

Back in 2000, when the company opened for business, Francis says there were only a handful of independents offering holidays with a green twist. Today, according to industry estimates, there are as many as 2,000 SMEs operating in what could loosely be described as the green travel market – with more coming on stream every month.

“Our members aren’t faceless managers representing vast multinational holiday firms, they tend to be owner-operators who have visited the places they market and have come to love them and their people,” says Roger Diski, chairman of the Sustainable Tourism Committee at the Association of Independent Tour Operators.

“When consumers ask awkward questions about the negative impact that tourism can have on poorer parts of the world, it’s these smaller, more entrepreneurial firms who actually know the local hoteliers and tour guides personally, and understand the problems that foreign visitors can bring.”

As recently as a decade ago, eco-holidays tended to focus on clean beaches and wildlife conservation, while the human beings in the vicinity barely rated a second glance. Today’s eco-traveller is more sensitive to communities, adds Diski.

“There’s a growing awareness that you can’t look after the local wildlife while ignoring the indigenous people. If we ignore the local community’s economic survival, they’ll poach literally anything they can find, whatever its protected status.”

However its advocates choose to define the eco-travel trend – and with whale-watching alone worth more than $2bn (£1.3bn) a year there can be little doubt it is a lucrative one – the tension between how we travel to a destination and where we choose to stay is unavoidable. Purists argue that simply to set foot on an aeroplane is to shatter green credentials, with booking into a large Western-owned hotel chain nearly as bad. But Francis sees a compromise.

“There’s no question that your flight does more damage than any other single thing in terms of your personal carbon footprint, and I have no doubt demand for flight-based holidays will fall in the long term for ecological and economic reasons. But having taken your flight to China, or to Africa, there is much you can do to make sure that the remainder of your trip gives something back to the local community and supports its tiny and often fragile businesses,” he says.

“Simply by opting to use local food suppliers and local guides rather than lining the pockets of Western multinationals, we would argue that the damage caused to the environment by air travel may in some way be reduced by the benefits to a local economy.”

While the greentraveller.co.uk website reports mounting interest in long-haul train travel – to Istanbul or Moscow, for example – Ralph Foulds, environmental scientist-turned-operations director of the West Yorkshire-based uncovertheworld.travel, says all shades of green must be catered for.

“Egypt, Nepal and Thailand are three of our biggest destinations, and we have found that, in terms of their eco-footprint, the big hotel chains in these countries are not always the baddies.

“If you focus your business entirely on no-frills lodges, where the official policy may be to chuck all rubbish out of the window, for example, your clients’ impact on the local environment may be far more profound than if they had stayed at a luxury hotel taking steps to control its waste, power and water for cost reasons.”

He adds: “As an SME, our solution is to offer a balance of no-frills and luxury tourism, and recognise that green tourism is a long-term trend that has room for all of us.”

In terms of the variety of experience it offers, eco-travel can’t be faulted. But for every traveller who yearns for a hiking holiday in the Australian outback or a spate of bear-tracking in Finland, there is another who simply wants to enjoy the beauty of the UK countryside.

Started five years ago by the Dutch entrepreneur Luite Moraal – who brought Center Parcs to Britain – Feather Down Farm Days offers a back-to-nature holiday for townie families looking to reduce their stress levels and their carbon footprint in comfort.

Based around the offer of a luxury gaslit tent big enough to sleep six, a traditional wood-burning stove and acres and acres of the great outdoors, the firm believes it has taken “glamping”, or glamorous camping, to a new level via its 24 working farm sites.

Each holiday includes the optional rental of a chicken coop plus hen-keeping classes, an optional pet bunny to keep the children amused and a plentiful supply of local produce on offer from the resident farmer/smallholder.

While the tents may be very small on modern conveniences – no electricity, a cool box for food storage and you pump your own water – in terms of authenticity, says spokesperson Yasmin Sethna, they are second to none.

“Staying on a beautiful farm, eating local produce and slowing down with your family is an unforgettable experience and one which thousands of UK families will enjoy with Feather Down this year.”

“Sustainability runs right through these holidays, and many of our clients will come back year after year for what is a totally authentic experience.”