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Travel

Wanderlust, with purpose

There’s never been a greater call for sustainable tourism models. But what will it take for the industry to take heed? 

We have proven that it’s possible to be commercially successful and offer a luxury travel experience in a remote location, while actively rehabilitating the local island environment and indigenous biodiversity. ~ Bruce Simpson

When you think of sustainable travel, trips such as orangutan trekking in Borneo, perhaps, or a sojourn in a remote biosphere reserve in Mexico, or even a luxurious stay on an island sanctuary, embraced by lush tropical palms and giant granite peaks in Seychelles spring to mind. 

While there aren’t definitive statistics on the percentage of the business protecting and investing in valuable areas, such as national parks and wilderness areas, there are indications that it is on the rise. Many recognise that although sustainable use of natural resources can sometimes be prohibitively difficult, protected areas can present a plethora of business opportunities, both intrinsic and in commercial value. 

“The majority of professionals in the travel industry now understand that the future of the tourism industry must be sustainability,” Bruce Simpson, managing director of North Island, a luxury private island resort in Seychelles’ conserving ecosystem, tells Debonair. “More than being environmentally green, it’s about social responsibility and helping maintain culture, heritage and people.”

A rapidly growing tourist base — 1.6 billion people by 2020, according to the World Tourism Organisation — accentuated the need for business, which has long been seen as a barrier to the sustainable use of natural resources, to explore investing in nature to protect the bottom line.

We have proven that it’s possible to be commercially successful and offer a luxury travel experience in a remote location, while actively rehabilitating the local island environment and indigenous biodiversity. ~ Bruce Simpson

In Bhutan, tourists are charged a minimum of $250 a day in order to restrict numbers and secure benefits for the local economy.

Assigning economic value to conservation, The Long Run, with 31 members in 21 countries, through its nature-based tourism businesses collectively protect 5.6 million acres of nature, more than 30,000 species — of which 276 are endangered or threatened. “Caring for nature makes business sense,” says director Delphine Malleret King.

“A simple example is that the less resources a business consumes — water, energy, waste — the less its environmental footprint, the lower its costs, and the better its profits. Similarly, there’s no healthy tourism profit in the long term without healthy wildlife, wilderness, engaged communities and diverse cultures.”

“The majority of professionals in the travel industry now understand that the future of the tourism industry must be sustainability.”

Bruce Simpson

The Long Run, whose members in 2016 invested more than $10 million in sustainable initiatives, plans to conserve 20 million acres of biodiversity and improve the lives of two million people by 2020. “Our members demonstrate that conserving nature can go hand-in-hand with healthy profits,” says King.

Adapting business practices that successfully protect natural areas, North Island won last year’s National Geographic World Legacy Award for conservation of indigenous and endangered species, such as the sunbird and white-eye bird.

“We have proven that it’s possible to be commercially successful and offer a luxury travel experience in a remote location, while actively rehabilitating the local island environment and indigenous biodiversity,” says Simpson.

Like North Island, many destinations use tourism to support conservation activities and enrich local livelihoods. These include Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of the Congo, home to the largest remaining group of mountain gorillas; Lapa Rios in Costa Rica, a 1,000-acre private reserve in Central America’s last remaining lowland tropical rainforests; Tahi in New Zealand’s North Island, 800 acres of estuaries, wetlands and native forest; the Campi ya Kanzi walking safaris in Kenya; and the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, India.

Tourism is a global economic driver. The industry brings in more than $7 trillion a year, and is expected to grow by an estimated 4 per cent on average annually over the next 10 years. Thus it leaves a big environmental footprint. By some measures, tourism accounts for half of all traffic movements, according to the UN Environment Programme. And as more destinations want a bigger piece of this pie, the tourism industry, which like most industries is growth-oriented and profit-driven, is becoming a victim of its own success, with overcrowding and over burdened infrastructure. Even local culture and ecosystem are strained.

Virunga National Park, DRC, is home to the largest remaining group of mountain gorillas in the world. 

Then, would a more sustainable future be based on, say, the Bhutan model, whereby tourists are charged a minimum of $250 a day in order to restrict numbers and secure benefits for the local economy? 

“Bhutan’s practice of high value, low volume has shaped the country’s tourism policy,” says Karma Tshering, a sustainability and resource management expert based in the Kingdom. “The daily minimum prevents mass tourism and includes accommodation, food, ground transport and local guides. To further curb revenue leakage, all tours are handled by only licensed local tour operators.” 

With more than 72 per cent of the total area of Bhutan under forest cover and more than 51 per cent of the country designated as protected areas, Tshering says, “Sustainable tourism is the only option to support people and conservation.”

Parambikulam is a 391sqkm protected area in Kerala, India

Simpson adds that tourism levies and funds can be used to promote sustainable forms of development, to educate and to inject funds into local communities and ventures.

But sustainable tourism is a term that has long been open to abuse and misrepresentation. It remains a self-certifying system, with no widely recognised recognition scheme to reassure the fast-rising number of tourists keen to reduce their impact when on holiday and ensure their money is being spent “sustainably”. A Booking.com study shows that 65 per cent of travellers intended to seek out green accommodation in 2017 — nearly double that of the preceding year.

“Sustainable tourism is the only option to support people and conservation.”

~Karma Tshering

Against this backdrop, it’s crucial to have a robust scheme with globally consistent high watermark ratings, just as we rely on the ratings and recommendations of the likes of Michelin, Les Routiers and Lonely Planet when we travel. “There are many schemes available. However, they need to be more aligned and recognised,” says Simpson. “Governments and the tourism industry need to stand behind these systems, with tax benefits. This will give business owners real value, with the long-term outlook of achieving environmental protection and sustainability, and encourage others to follow suit.” 

The demand for sustainable tourism has never been higher, and businesses engaging in these practices benefit from attracting tourists who care about issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and economic inequality, and align their spending with personal values. “If done right, tourism has a unique opportunity to drive positive change, and be the foundation for sustainable local economies,” says King. 

“But for that to happen, it requires a shift in attitude at scale where sustainability becomes mainstream.” 

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