Justin Francis: 'I want to be a challenger'

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Justin Francis launched Responsibletravel.com a decade ago to bring an ethical dimension to tourism. Simon Calder catches up with a man on a mission

Is your journey really necessary? For most of us, the answer is a resounding "yes", which is why – despite slumping economic fortunes and rising taxes – the British continue to travel far and wide. But 10 years ago today, when the internet was barely out of short trousers – and long before the prefix "eco-" began to be applied liberally to all manner of tourism ventures – Justin Francis took a leap into the travel unknown. The social entrepreneur from Sussex launched a website that offered options for holidays designed to maximise the benefit and minimise the harm involved in tourism.

Since then, Responsibletravel.com has grown to offer 4,000-plus "holiday experiences" that tick the right boxes: tourism with a low impact on cultures and the environment, but which produces high yields for the host community.

"I was told I wouldn't get this far," says Francis. "I was told an ethical dot com was bound to fail – that anything with the word 'ethical' in it was bound to fail. But I've always wanted us to be a challenger."

He contacted businesses that demonstrated real concern for the way people travel, and invited them – at no cost – to appear on his website. A marketing godsend for some: "They are typically smaller, specialist businesses, run by passionate – often slightly crazy – people who lack marketing clout," he says. "They can feel quite alone. Basically, we provide them with inquiries that they turn into business."

The range of options is immense: from a B&B in Suffolk built from local materials in a marshy area that attracts a wealth of birdlife, and where the breakfast is impeccably sourced, to South Pacific hideaways that offer intricate systems for recycling rainwater, and encourage encounters with host communities.

Idyllic Pacific islands are the kinds of locations that highlight the difficult tensions between the undoubted benefits that sensitive tourism can confer and the damage done to the planet by long-haul air travel. However sound the environmental credentials of a yoga retreat in Fiji or Tahiti, reaching it burdens the traveller with a Goliath-sized carbon footprint.

"I suspect I've been asked about this much more because of the name ResponsibleTravel than if I'd called it IrresponsibleTravel. But there is a demand for far-flung holidays, and there is a need for tourism in many developing countries. So there will always be an international tourism industry. I would rather that the infinitesimal corner of the market that is responsible tourism has was bigger. When people do fly, it's important that they make the right choice. We seek to give them the best choice."

ResponsibleTravel's biggest-selling destination is now the UK, and Francis is helping to build a rural-tourism initiative in south-east England. He lives on the fringes of Britain's newest National Park, the South Downs – a location he loves. "We often ask what landscapes can do for us. We rarely ask what landscapes do to us. It fascinates me how man interacts with the environment, from the South Downs outside my window to the Maasai Mara in Kenya."

Philosophy is all very well, but even the best-intentioned enterprise has to pay the rent. The ResponsibleTravel business model overturned conventional travel thinking. Instead of intervening between the travel enterprise and the tourist, as most agents do, Francis urges them to talk directly.

"If you're interested in a yoga holiday, you don't want to talk to me. I'm not a yoga specialist. You want to talk to the person who's running the trip. And if you want to find out if a B&B in Scotland is going to be suitable for your family, speak to the owner, not me."

His income for supplying leads is based on an honesty system, with each enterprise declaring the sales that are generated from Responsibletravel.com

"When someone finds a holiday they like, they book direct. They get the same price as they would ordinarily. We get a commission back from the tourism business. We use an honesty-based system. We trust people. And we tell them that if they play the system fairly, we'll give them more visibility."

The other half of the equation, of course, is the client. The typical ResponsibleTravel customer does not start out thinking "I want a composting toilet," says Francis. "They simply want a different, more authentic experience that puts a little bit back."

He adds: "We ask people to rate holidays from 5 – roughly, 'the best holiday ever, I am reborn' – to 1, 'pretty disappointing'. The average is about 4.5, which helps lay one of the myths, that responsible tourism means you should give up any sense of fun and enjoyment."

Francis says he likes to think of his clients as travellers, not tourists. "In a sense we're all tourists. We are always from 'the other'. But I do think there's a different mindset between someone seeking fulfilment rather than just ticking off lists of things to see and do."

His own travel preferences now drive him to places "where amazing landscapes meet interesting cultures. I'm fascinated with how communities shape the landscapes and vice versa. I love East Africa, and recently I visited the Arctic for the first time, and it had a far bigger impact than I imagined."

ResponsibleTravel has just passed a significant milestone, at least for an industry that counts a lot of its cash in US currency: "We've just reached our first $100m [£66m] of sales as a business, which proves there is interest. Tourists want the kind of experience we offer. Who would have thought TUI [Britain's biggest holiday company] would have a department devoted to sustainability? That would have been unthought-of a decade ago."

Both travel and the internet are brittle industries, and both attract imitators at the first sign of success. "We were three or four years ahead of demand. Quite pleasingly, there are a few 'me-toos' now. I am a businessman but it shows the scope for sustainability to spread. I get requests every month about how to aggregate responsible tourism, from Norway, Australia, Holland, Canada ..."

And the future? "I've got big plans. We've created a niche, which isn't a bad place to start. To make the world a better place, we've got to break out of the niche. I want to support a far greater diversity. When I travel I see one-man bands – a fantastic diversity of people showing their passion. We've never really been able to market those. I'm going to change the business model to allow them to build their own pages. And I hope we'll go from a business with 4,000 holidays to one with 50,000."

A hair-shirted, muesli-eating environmental zealot: does that sound like you? Probably not, but since you care about the world and its people, you could do worse than consult Justin Francis's website.

"With every booking we make, tourists are getting a good holiday, someone's getting a job, someone's getting fed," he says.

Justin Francis on carbon offsetting

As concern about carbon footprints increased, ResponsibleTravel was one of the first businesses to offer offsets. Yet two years ago Francis very publicly dropped the concept – and even made the front page of The New York Times.

"I surprised a lot of people in the responsible tourism sector. But it seemed to me that carbon offsets were being used as an excuse to pollute more."

His philosophical concern was that the schemes provided no obligation, nor even an inducement, for businesses to reduce their emissions.

"As a hotelier you could open up a swimming pool, install air-conditioning ... carbon-offsetting was like a medieval pardon, or a get-out-of-jail-free card that distracts from the main intention to reduce emissions. I'm still very suspicious of it."

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