Costas Christ’s Passion for Sustainable Tourism Burns as Hot as Ever
Every movement needs a spark – and a flame. Costas Christ has been both for sustainable tourism, and he’s not cooling down. An award-winning writer and longtime editor at large of National Geographic Traveler, he was a pioneer for the travel industry to be a catalyst to protect the environment while alleviating poverty and safeguarding the cultural heritage of local populations whose destinations host profit-hungry travel purveyors.
As sustainable tourism has drawn backing and action from travel companies, philanthropists, cultural and environmental groups, and governmental organizations around the world, Christ has remained on its leading edge, sharpening its focus and visiting more than 130 countries along the way. Now, with the recent acquisition of his sustainable tourism services and consulting firm Beyond Green Travel by Preferred Hotel Group, Inc., and the company’s impending consumer launch on April 14 of Beyond Green, a portfolio of iconic hotels, resorts, and lodges representing leadership in sustainable tourism best practices, Christ might be expected to rest on his laurels. But that’s not his style.
“I never set out to create and sell a sustainable tourism services company. For me this has always been about how we make travel a force for good,” says Christ, who remains President of Beyond Green Travel, and also serves as brand leader and advisor for Beyond Green, supporting the more than two-dozen properties that exemplify sustainable tourism leadership in action – including Three Camel Lodge of Nomadic Expeditions and select properties of Wilderness Safaris, both Hawkins International clients. “What has happened is that through a lot of effort the travel industry has begun to recognize that sustainability is not some trend that is going away. Those travel companies that understand this today will be the new leaders of tourism for tomorrow.”
Sustainable tourism has grown at a steady clip since Christ first conceived his early ideas around campfires back in the 1970s while working as a wildlife field researcher in Kenya for Harvard University. Under night skies, he contemplated the inequities he saw between safari companies, underfunded national parks, and impoverished local villagers, and imagined a new model for tourism in which the industry would help to protect endangered species, safeguard cultural heritage, and support community development. These ideas would help ignite a global movement.
Dial ahead to 1991 when Christ gathered with a dozen “like-minded thinkers” from around the globe to lay down the world’s first official definition of ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that protects nature and sustains the wellbeing of local people,” and embarked on a mission to introduce those principles into mainstream travel.
He has kept busy all the while, serving as a country director for the Peace Corps in Uganda and Belize around the turn of the millennium; senior director at Conservation International in the early ’00s; and founder of Beyond Green Travel in 2005 to make travel “a force for good” and spearhead sustainable tourism around the globe.
Christ recalls the United Nations first Global Ecotourism Summit, held in Quebec City in 2002, as a marquee moment for the emergence of sustainable tourism into the travel industry. “Where ecotourism is always about experiencing nature in a responsible way, sustainable tourism takes the same principle and expands it across the entire global travel industry, urban and rural, on land and sea,” he says.
Yet two decades later, the world remains in a precarious place. “Right now, our planet’s ecosystems are under assault,” he adds, noting climate change, the continuing impact of plastics on the oceans, and “more extinctions in the past 50 years than the previous 500 years.” The future of tourism, he continues, is dependent upon the travel industry understanding that it sells nature and cultural experiences as a business model – whether that is exploring the archeological wonders of Angkor Wat or going on a wildlife safari in Africa. In that sense, the travel industry has a greater responsibility to the people and places where it operates.
“My wish is that every CEO who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I need to grow my profit margin,’ has sustainable tourism in mind. We either get how to live sustainably, or there will be no future.”
Christ also notes the continuing popularity of the movement among travelers as an inspiring indicator of the need to grow investment in sustainable tourism. He points to a large survey done by Lonely Planet that found 68% of the travel guide’s readership stressed the importance of sustainability.
Back in 2008, when Christ was a keynote speaker at the World Travel and Tourism Summit in Brazil, Marriott International had just embarked on a project in partnership with the State of Amazonas to invest $2 million to protect an area of more than 2,500 square miles of the Amazon rainforest. “I eventually tracked down [Executive Chairman] Bill Marriott Jr. and asked why. I remember him saying that they had surveyed their global loyalty database, and around 20% said sustainability mattered in their travel decisions.’ My response was, ‘Great. But doesn’t that mean sustainability doesn’t matter to 80% of your clients?’ He answered to the effect that ‘A significant number of Marriott Loyalty guests told us sustainability is important, and we are not going to turn our backs on that.’”
The simple takeaway, says Christ, is that more and more people care about having a positive impact on the places they visit, and travel companies should too. “We can debate statistics about how many people care, but there’s no doubt travelers are increasingly aware of sustainable tourism, and that companies should be embracing it as a core value for how they operate. One of the most important lessons to come out of the pandemic is that we can never have personal wellbeing without planetary wellbeing. Sustainable tourism will help us to get there.”