When Britain’s Prince Harry announced his new sustainable travel initiative this week, much of the coverage surrounded the recent flap over his private-jet use and the apparent incongruity of the two activities.
“I spend 99 percent of my life traveling the world by commercial,” said the Duke of Sussex, who said he took a commercial flight to Amsterdam for Tuesday’s launch event. “Occasionally there needs to be an opportunity, based on a unique circumstance, to ensure that my family are safe. And it’s generally as simple as that.”
But there was less news about what the new effort, called Travalyst, would actually do. That’s in large part because it is very hard to tell from its website and promotional material.
“They have a nice website that they created with some very lofty language, certainly,” says Gregory Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel. He acknowledged that the website “lacks specifics” and said he hopes the group will define its vision soon, adding that “the sense of urgency is now.”
The intentions sound ambitious: A couple years in the making, Travalyst is a “bold new global initiative” seeking to “change the impact of travel, for good.” The duke is leading a global partnership that includes Visa as well as travel companies Booking.com, Ctrip, Skyscanner and TripAdvisor.
“We want to be the driving force that paves a new way to travel,” the website says, “helping everyone explore our world in a way that protects both people and places, and secures a positive future for destinations and local communities for generations to come.”
What does that mean? We dug in to find answers ― and talked to experts in the field of sustainable tourism to get their input.
What are Travalyst’s goals?
We have a broad idea of some of the topics the initiative wants to tackle. They include improving conservation, protecting the environment, expanding economic development in communities, addressing climate change and easing overtourism. But measurable, concrete goals — not to mention specific solutions — are not spelled out.
“What I would suggest that they do is to really develop a more meaningful and measurable set of commitments with outcomes that are developed with independent scientific rigor,” Miller says. “I don’t see any of that right now.”
A news release announcing Travalyst promises that details will be released “in due course.”
How much money is going into the effort?
That is unclear. Participating companies are making financial contributions, according to a spokesman, but the amounts are not being disclosed. James Holt, a spokesman for the Royal Foundation, said in an email that a three-year partnership agreement is in place with internal milestones attached. “Each partner is putting resources into different projects, covering things like pilots, research, testing, events and more,” he said.
Will Travalyst recommend less traveling?
No. This is not a flight-shaming effort — and to be clear, the companies involved benefit when people travel.
During a panel discussion that he moderated, Harry even asked: “Is the answer to more sustainable aviation not just simply a case of encouraging everyone to fly less often?”
Skyscanner CEO Bryan Dove said that was not the answer, or at least not his answer: “I understand individuals’ motivation to look at that as a potential solution,” he said. “I prefer to really look at the other side, and look at the benefits that air travel brings.”
He praised travel for bringing cultures together and increasing compassion and understanding. Dove said the group’s obligation is to promote travel “in ways that can further protect the environment and protect the planet so we can preserve those opportunities for generations to come.”
Gillian Tans, chairwoman of Booking.com, said Travalyst will not be about telling people not to travel at all or not to travel to specific places.
“I think it’s much more about us basically delivering more clarity and options to consumers instead of saying, ‘Don’t travel,’” she said during the panel discussion in Amsterdam. “It’s more to really create the awareness for consumers as to what choices they can make.”
Are there examples of actions the group will take?
Not many, at least not yet.
The duke said the initiative wants to create “tools, incentives and other solutions that can work in African safari parks as much as they can work in overcrowded destinations.”
Dove said some of the opportunity lies in giving consumers alternative, more sustainable destinations or accommodations they can consider when they’re searching for a specific experience. A Skyscanner spokesman, Matt Bradford, also said the company will initially focus on creating a more user-friendly international standard for “sustainable aviation scores" that can be adopted across the industry.
Tans said Booking.com has been working to try to get standards for sustainability established to help customers better understand the choices that they’re making.
The Travalyst website also says that eliminating use of single-use plastics and “finding new and more impactful ways to reduce and offset carbon emissions associated with our trips” was a priority.
“In my mind, it’s the right thing to do and we need to make it cool,” said the duke, who said he always offsets his travel-related carbon emissions. “It can’t just be a ticking-the-box exercise. Somehow we have to connect people to where that little bit of extra money is actually going, and the moment that you have that connection, you feel you have a bigger purpose in life and you can actually see the difference you’re making.”
What are experts in the field saying?
Several who work in sustainable tourism say that the creation of Travalyst is a positive step. And they suggested approaches that they would like to see it take. Representatives of two of those groups, Sustainable Travel International and Harvard’s International Sustainable Tourism Initiative, said they had conversations with the Royal Foundation during preparations to launch the initiative.
“Because this initiative brings together some of the major players in travel and tourism, it has tremendous potential to create positive change at scale and influence the future direction of the industry,” Paloma Zapata, CEO of Sustainable Travel International, said in an email. “At this point in time, it is simply not enough to treat sustainable tourism as a niche sector — instead we should be working towards a future where ALL tourism is sustainable tourism.”
Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard University, said Travalyst “is looking at the intersection between ecotourism and sustainable tourism in refreshing ways.”
“While ecotourism is only about 5 percent of the total tourism economy, this responsible-tourism sector offers promising examples of how to carry out sustainable tourism more effectively in future,” she said in an email. “It is excellent to see that Prince Harry and this family will take an extensive trip to Africa to look at ecotourism examples shortly.”
Miller, of the Center for Responsible Travel, said he would like to see the initiative partner with known entities that are already doing work in green tourism.
“One of the things that would be very important for Travalyst would be that they start off with a pretty big dose of humility on what they know and what they don’t know,” he says. “I would highly recommend that they identify the kind of key set of strategic alliances with content leaders and thought leaders in the particular areas and not try to reinvent the wheel, but rather enhance or help leaders in particular fields scale up their work to the level that Travalyst would like to see.”