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.”

Suggested Topics
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - Investment Management

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - I...

Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pillar 1, 2 & 3) Insurance

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pilla...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home