bookdifferent.com has recently had the honor of talking to the Asian-based Destination Management Company EXO Travel. After completing a carbon footprint travelscan for the organization, we were curious to know more about the intrinsically-sustainable company and all the amazing work they do to push the sustainable travel sector forward. Read on to know more about the importance of implementing responsible practices when traveling, the benefits of offsetting carbon for flights and accommodations and the ways EXO Travel communicates sustainability in their tour offers!
(1) Can you tell us a little bit about EXO Travel and the role that traveling sustainably plays in your offer?
EXO Travel is a Destination Management company based in Asia and creating tailor made tours for tour operators and travel agents worldwide. We have offices in 10 different destinations and around 900 people working in our company. Sustainability has always been in our DNA, it is one of our core values stating that “we aim to be responsible”. In 2016, we have started to take a step further by engaging with Travelife certification for our main offices, it has helped us to define our core guidelines and policies. In the frame of this certification, we have also started to assess the level of sustainability of our supply chain and to promote sustainability to our clients with several very tangible initiatives such as offering refillable bottles & water stations to guests instead of plastic bottles, offsetting domestic & regional flights, distributing responsible travel advice booklets upon arrival, offering welcome gifts sourced from social enterprises etc. We have also set up rating & classification systems, enabling our clients to choose our responsible hotels (either eco-friendly and/or socially aware) and excursions (carbon friendly/ social impact / local benefits / cultural interaction / make a difference). This classification is also giving very clear guidelines for our Product managers on how to create more responsible experiences. All the details of the rating for hotels and classification for our experiences are clearly explained on our website. With social impact experiences, we ensure that goods or services are purchased from social enterprises, make a difference experiences includes automatically a donation to a local non profit organization, for local benefits we ensure that at least 30% of the cost of the tour goes back to individuals or families etc. Moreover, we donate $1 from our profits to our EXO Foundation and the funds are 100% used to support projects in Asia benefiting local people, the environment and the sustainable development of countries we operate in.
(2) How important do you think it is for the tourism industry to implement sustainability?
Over the years, we have seen a real shift in the industry from a willingness to tackle the issue to a necessity, especially because the destinations we live in and we are promoting are greatly damaged and may no longer be. It is a very challenging time for our industry still growing very strongly and at the same time is threatened by the un-sustainable economic development of emerging countries. Our industry also realizes that tourism “can cook the meal or burn the house” that its negative effects are affecting local people and their way of living by for example increased pollution, constrained access to natural resources, overcrowding, destruction of natural habitat, etc.
(3) bookdifferent.com was happy to do a carbon footprint travelscan for EXO Travel. Where do you see the benefits of the analysis and the report and how can you use the information to improve your offer?
We are happy to have had the opportunity to work with bookdifferent.com and we really wish to continue working with you on this major topic. Since 3 years now, we are running sustainability inspections in our partner hotels but it is still challenging for us to really evaluate the impact that our guests have on the environment with a concrete measurement unit. The scan you have provided us based on our actual database of partner hotels enables us to estimate the carbon footprint of our average travelers, combined with their impact during the tour (linked to private car usage and boat trips mainly) we have been able to come with a “carbon neutral holidays” option that we offer to our clients. If they decide to offset their trip, we will simply add up this daily average and purchase the equivalent amount of carbon credits from a forest management project in Indonesia, on top of this we will also participate in a mangrove planting program and plant 7 trees per tonne of carbon offset per traveler. By offering this option, we hope to really leverage significant funds to support great reforestation and forest protection programs in Asia benefiting all.
(4) When hearing the term “carbon offsetting” most people only think about flights. Where do you see the importance in including accommodations in offsetting carbon?
In the travel industry, flights are definitely a major factor of greenhouse gas emissions. In our position, we offset our own flights related and we automatically offset the flights we book on behalf of our clients, which are only domestic & regional flights because our clients purchase their own international flights and it is a very strong limitation for us. Thus, we have set up a mechanism enabling us to offset the flight at the reservation stage based on the flight routing with a fixed price of $17/tonne, all the funds are used towards an Improved cookstoves program in Laos. So far, in a year it represent more than $100.000 which is very significant but we know it’s not the only impact travelers have. When we look at the components of our tours, we have basically local transport and accommodation. That is why being able to find out the carbon footprint per guest night of the hotels, we are contracting with, was just perfect because it gives us a much more precise idea of their environmental impact while traveling in Asia. Which is completely different from the impact they have at home!
(5) We are curious as to how you communicate the sustainability aspect in your offer. Meaning, how can customer see what’s the most sustainable offer or can they tell how much carbon they could offset by choosing a certain accommodation?
For now, we have decided to communicate only on the average amount per traveler to our clients and to start gaining momentum from this to support great projects. But what it is interesting for us now, is that we know the carbon footprint of our preferred hotels in each destination and we can work with them “behind the scenes” to help them find ways to reduce it. We have already released a dedicated “Eco-guide for hospitality schools and tourism businesses” targeting hotels with only examples adapted to the South East Asian context. We also work with other like minded companies and organize workshops and connections with specialized company that can provide them technical solutions.
We will also try to adapt our carbon offsetting program to our technologies and enabling our clients to offset only for room nights spent and not necessarily for touring because with our technological solutions, it is becoming more and more flexible and we offer to our clients the possibility to create their own tours online, so it will definitely be our next challenge!
(6) Do you consider having an accommodation supplier who is certified by an ecolabel to be important?
Yes definitely, it would save us a lot of time. It is the problem we are currently facing in our destinations, we have too little hotels that are certified with an eco-label and so it is very hard for us to know which property would deserve to be promoted as responsible. We know that many hotels are really trying to take actions but it can also rely on the good will of the manager and it’s not sustainable. A certification offers guarantees that there will be a follow up, monitoring and a continuous improvement process in place as well as regular audits by independent organizations.
(7) To conclude: where do you see the tourism industry in Asia heading in the future?
It’s hard to tell, we would like to see responsible tourism organically blooming and a growth of projects avoiding tourism leakage and really benefiting our beautiful Asian destinations, but they are still very limited in numbers. There is a rise in the civil society and more numerous non profit organizations engaged in the environmental crisis and helping to find the right solutions/innovations. However, we see a lot of regional and mass tourism growth in Asia and that is really shifting the demand of products and the industry itself. The only thing we know for sure is that things are changing really fast and better or worse can happen overnight, let’s hope that it will turn out to be the most sustainable solutions helping to preserve Asia!
Mrs. Alexandra Michat, EXO Foundation Manager & EXO Travel Director of Sustainability
Thank you to EXO Travel for this informative interview! If you want to know more about the organization, click here.