Talking Sustainable Tourism with Megan Epler Wood

What is Sustainable Tourism?

According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” This definition became widely used in the 90s as TIES worked to influence travel lodges and tours to adopt sustainable methodologies. Over the last few years however, the definition of ecotourism has been twisted and abused to fit an assortment of standards. To counteract this overuse, individual groups have developed terms like responsible tourism, ethical tourism, geotourism, and sustainable tourism. While each of these new factions has a different focus, the overarching goal is the same: to develop a tourism model that protects biodiversity, preserves culture and cultivates healthy local economies.

Now, with so many terms being used in the travel industry, it has become confusing for national and corporate entities to follow the same set of universal standards. “Sustainable tourism needs a definition that speaks to the market, includes the best ideas from the different schools of thought, and is representative of the last 20 years of work,” said Megan Epler Wood, founder of TIES and EplerWood International, a consulting firm dedicated to helping entities establish sustainable practices. With this goal of creating a universal definition, Megan adapted the term Sustainable Tourism and incorporated primary elements into one clear and simple sentence:

“Sustainable tourism creates a better place for people to live, work and visit by providing long-term economic benefits to local people, protecting the environment and biodiversity, and preserving the cultural heritage, traditional values and character of destinations worldwide.”

This beautiful term encompasses everything that we at Immersion Travel Magazine believe travel should be. Along with meeting our environmental, cultural and economic standards, every destination and travel venue featured in our pages will reflect the standards set by this Sustainable Tourism definition.

A Few Minutes with Megan

Megan Epler Wood has been leading the sustainable tourism movement since before anyone knew there was a need for one. In 1990, Megan founded The International Ecotourism Society, which was the first NGO worldwide to dedicate itself to the sustainable development of tourism. She served as TIES’ president and CEO for 12 years before moving on to start her own consulting firm, EplerWood International. Since 2003, EplerWood International has developed market-based programs in biologically diverse locations such as El Salvador, Mexico and Sri Lanka and worked with USAID, International Finance Corporation, the World Bank, and others. Megan is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University. She has recently designed and taught new courses for Harvard, University Extension’s graduate school for Sustainability and Environmental Management.

Megan was kind enough to spare a few minutes to talk with us and answer a few burning questions about her universal definition of Sustainable Tourism and her views on travel.


How do you plan to globalize your definition of sustainable tourism?

I definitely put it out there as a trial balloon at first. I’m working on a book right now and one chapter is devoted to this topic. While I was developing the chapter, I was constantly asking myself: how do I explain this in clear terms without getting into charts and graphs as to why our field seems to be separated by such small differences. It made me look at the history of the definition of ecotourism, since I was there at the time when it happened, and it made me realize that the first thing I needed to do was get it out there and see what people say.

Of course the responses really varied depending on where people were from and what their backgrounds were. But I really just wanted to hear what people had to say. Then I decided to get in touch with some thought leaders, see what they had to say. They were all good with the idea; but then of course, they pointed out that achieving this goal would be something else entirely. So, I plan to take my time and continue to push forward and keep talking to people about it. That’s my current agenda; it’s not a grand plan, but more of an evolutionary process.

Do you have any other exciting projects you’ve been working on?

I’ve been in more of an academic mode lately. I just finished teaching a new course that I am really excited about, which focuses on international sustainable economic development. The course looked at the combination of tourism, fisheries, forestry, and agriculture and how those combined economies, especially if each adopts sustainable practices, can have a tremendous impact on developing world economies. I’ve been looking at building alliances with UNEP and other development agencies to expand the course and offer it to a wide array of students around the world. The reason why I want to do this is that the expansion of what we call “eco business” is going to have a huge impact on developing countries, which are already offering green products but are not necessarily up to speed on what to expect or how to implement sustainable designs. It’s enormous what’s happening and I have heard that ten percent of all corporate acquisitions in these areas are moving toward using green principles. People around the world have a lot to gain by learning about how to meet these standards and how to work with large corporate supply chains. So, I’m really in to this. It’s my big thing and I can’t stay away from the topic because I think it’s going to have a huge impact on the world.

Wow, that’s very exciting! You sound like you are very busy. If you could pause for a few days and travel anywhere, where would you go?

I’ve been wanting to go to southern Africa and especially South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Those are some of the few places I haven’t been to. I really love African wildlife and those countries are also doing great things with sustainable tourism. I’ve been closely following some of the companies out there like Wilderness Safaris and all the wonderful things they are doing and how much they contribute to the local economies and preserve wildlife. I’d love to have a vacation that was in that context. The governments are also doing a lot of forward-thinking planning and making sure people in the country are benefiting from tourism.

When you pack for a trip, is there something you always take with you?

I always take my camera, but when I travel for business, I make sure to pack a small duffel in my main suitcase. That way, I can leave the suitcase at the hotel and pull out the duffel for the days that I can get away from meetings and see the sights. I also often get last minute invitations to try out new eco resorts, so I try to be ready with flashlights and things that I might need in a more primitive setting.

Is there a favorite meal that has stood out throughout your travels?

When I was spending a lot of time in El Salvador, there was a place I used to take family and friends when they would visit. It was in a town called Izalco. It was in the mountains and was an easy drive from San Salvador. They served pupusas, which is the national dish of El Salvador. The really authentic pupusas are made on big hot griddles over wood fires. This place would cook one after another at an outdoor picnic area and they always served a special relish to go with them. Yeah, I think that was one of my fondest memories of food; sitting outside at night in Izalco with friends having some beer and pupusas.

Do you have advice for people looking to travel sustainably for the first time?

I’ve really come to a new set of principles around that because it used to be, when I was head of TIES, we would recommend the small scale tours with just a few people, and I, of course, still recommend going lightly and being careful about all the impacts you might have on the environment, but the surprising thing that I’ve discovered teaching at Harvard and really analyzing this is that the larger scale resorts are not always bad on the environment. In fact, research has shown that even all-inclusive resorts are not that bad on the environment and many of them have increasingly taken environmental responsibility seriously and they are reducing their impacts on the environment. Surprising research has also shown that economic benefits for local communities are greater than staying at a small lodge because more and more locals are being trained and hired for jobs. So, much to my surprise, but good news for the planet, is that even going on a larger scale all-inclusive resort trip isn’t going to harm the environment and may even be good for local people. So, if you don’t have the money to afford a trip to a certified eco lodge, you can still do the right thing and book a less expensive trip to a place that is serious about upholding sustainable principles.

Do you have advice for independent travelers?

I think we as independent travelers just have to be less sure that our way of having fun is the same way or is appropriate for the local people. That’s what I’ve noticed the most from independent travelers and backpackers. It’s kind of a party-hardy culture and it has always been touted as being low impact, but I don’t think it is. I think the mindsets that people bring with them and the influence they have on others is extremely impactful and can help to deteriorate culture. So I think people need to be a little more cautious.

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