The word ‘ecotourism’ didn’t exist three decades ago when a young would-be wildlife biologist arrived in Kenya as part of a Harvard University study of monkeys.
“What I found when I got there was a brewing conflict between the local Samburu tribe and the reserve named after them,” says Costas Christ, Virtuoso‘s new director of sustainability. “This was the heyday of mass tourism safaris, and while these companies were raking in millions of tourism dollars, the local Samburu people saw none of the benefit.”
To retaliate, the Samburu set the reserve on fire. Vegetation burned, animals fled, and ill-equipped park rangers fought the blaze. “That’s when the irony hit me – a multi-million dollar tourism industry reaping profits from wildlife viewing while the rangers tasked with protecting that wildlife did not even have shoes to wear,” Christ says.
Wildlife biology receded in importance as a career as Christ envisioned a new form of tourism: “tourism that could directly support the well-being of local people and make a real contribution to protecting nature. In short, it occurred to me that tourism, if done right, could be making places better-for humans and for nature.”
For more than two decades, Christ has worked to make this vision a reality as a global leader in the sustainable tourism movement. In 1991, he was part of a group that met in a farmhouse outside of Washington, DC and launched The International Ecotourism Society – the world’s first, and still the largest, ecotourism organization. He eventually served as the organization’s chairman before expanding his work into the realm of sustainable tourism.
Christ says, “While ecotourism focuses on nature travel, sustainable tourism takes the same principles and practices – of being environmentally friendly, supporting the protection of cultural and natural heritage, and direct benefits to local people – and moves them into the tourism mainstream, from urban hotels to cruise ships to air travel.”
Now he’s embarking on a new role to further that vision: being Virtuoso’s director of sustainability. Says Christ, “Virtuoso, in its spirit of “Return on Life” travel, can and should help chart the future for a travel industry that delivers exceptional experiences to the world’s finest destinations and places to stay. We should also help increase understanding within the global travel and tourism industry that by protecting the cultural and natural heritage of the places we visit – which is really the product we sell – that we are ensuring for future generations that same travel experience that truly does offer a ‘return on life’.”
Christ notes that many Virtuoso Members and Suppliers are already involved with sustainable tourism practices, and that the network needs to expand that even further. “My priority is to help Virtuoso become a global leader on the cutting edge of the sustainability paradigm shift now taking place – literally a transformative moment in the modern history of travel and tourism,” he says.
In addition to serving part-time as Virtuoso’s director of sustainability, Christ is also editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler and the Go Green Travel Columnist for VIRTUOSO LIFE. His travel articles and essays have appeared in other leading publications, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, International Herald Tribune and Sunday Times of London. His work and travels have taken him to more than 100 countries across six continents, including frequent keynote speeches at travel conferences and events such as National Geographic speaking tours.
Christ also serves as chairman of the World Travel and Tourism Council – Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, which recognize global leadership in sustainable practices and is a special advisor to World Travel Market Responsible Tourism Day. He is an advisor to several travel foundations, including serving as Ambassador-at-Large for the Spirit of Big Five Foundation, as an executive board member of The Bodhi Tree Foundation, and as a senior adviser to The Leading Travel Companies Conservation Foundation.
“Sustainable tourism practices are no longer an issue of whether or not a company should get involved simply because it is a good thing to do,” says Christ. “It has become a key business strategy for Members and Suppliers to realize the full potential in a new market shift that represents a more environmentally-aware economy. Those companies that understand this today will be the business leaders of tomorrow – and it is happening not only in travel and tourism, but in other business sectors as well.”
Christ says that we are at a global tipping point, where care for the people, places and the planet is becoming am increasing part of the tourism industry all around the world. It will be his job to ensure Virtuoso stays ahead of the curve in promoting and practicing sustainable tourism.