Families and Ecotourism: A Natural Fit

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Just as the 100th birthday of the National Park Service is casting a spotlight on U.S. national parks in 2016, we can expect an enhanced emphasis on ecotourism throughout 2017—declared the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by the United Nations.

To be sure, the idea of ecotourism isn’t a new one—it’s already known as one of the fastest growing segments in the tourism industry. Put that together with family travel—another of the industry’s rapidly growing segments—and the time is ripe for family vacations that include ecotourism.

At its core, the concept of ecotourism is simple. According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

And, as with so many segments of tourism, the line blurs easily, with ecotourism overlapping with adventure travel, wellness travel and voluntourism, to name just a few other popular segments that often go hand-in-hand with ecotourism.

“Travel agents have a remarkable ability to influence where people go,” says Jon Bruno, executive director of TIES. “Ecotourism provides so many opportunities—and it doesn’t have to be 100 percent. It could be adding on a tour that has an ecotourism aspect to it, choosing accommodations that are a member of TIES, introducing the concept of asking about sustainability practices…”

“Many people automatically turn to big theme parks, giant cruise ships, all-inclusive resorts and those kinds of things when they think of family travel,” says Chris “Chez” Chesak, executive director of the Family Travel Association. “Those are all great products that are appropriate for families—but there’s also such a diversity of experiences that lie outside those products. We’re seeing an increasing interest in ecotourism and suppliers who consider children the next generation and stewards of the earth—they love to educate children about the impact on the land and local communities.”

A NATURAL ALLIANCE

For some, ecotourism means a group of millennials climbing Mount Everest; for others, it’s a month-long safari tour of South Africa—but for most, it’s a natural integration of the unique environmental and cultural aspects of any destination into a vacation experience.

“Kids and nature just go together—it’s such an easy match,” says Lauren Goldenberg, founder of the Family Traveler, an agency focused on family travel whose clients tend to be in the deluxe to luxury range. “It can fit into any style of vacation and almost anybody’s trip plan—from making time to kayak at the beach all the way up to going cruising around the Galapagos Islands to learn about Darwin.”

At the mid-range, Julia Slatcher, owner of Inspire World Travel, sees a similar interest in incorporating nature and learning into any vacation experience. Beyond the pure fun such activities can add to a vacation, she’s also seeing clients who start with the idea of “adding meaning to their travel,” she says. “A lot of parents today are interested in travel that helps their kids learn and care about the world. They want their children to be good citizens of the world, and they’re looking for ways to add that element to their travel—while bearing in mind that they have limited vacation time and also want to have a good time and relax.”

And sometimes it’s the kids themselves who seek meaning in their travel experiences. Lauren Maggard, a luxury travel consultant at Jet Set World Travel, recently planned a high-end trip to Africa for a family with two teenage daughters. “One of the daughters is vegan and very environmentally focused,” she explains. “They asked us to make sure that every accommodation option we chose had an opportunity for the family to engage in philanthropy or to give back to the community. Budget wasn’t an issue, but it was a challenge to find the right mix of upscale properties with an environmental focus, community outreach and vegan cuisine options.”

TEAM PLANNING

While Maggard’s challenges for that trip were very specific, other aspects of incorporating ecotourism into family travel are more common. Here’s a look at some of the elements that need to be factored in when planning a family ecotourism trip.

Decoding the Language 
It’s rare for a client, especially one with a family in tow, to specifically ask for “ecotourism” when they’re describing their needs and desires. “Look for the client who’s saying something like ‘We want something more; we don’t want to just lie by the pool; we’re looking for something rewarding,’ ” says Chesak. “That person might not even know it yet—but if they’re looking for something ‘more,’ the concept of ecotourism should certainly be introduced.”

The Environmental Cost of Travel

If the eco aspect is a major part of the trip, the accommodations and method of travel choices are key parts of setting the tone. For accommodations, look for those that are certified green (standards may be set by a statewide entity such as the Florida Society for Ethical Tourism, or at the national level, like LEED certification in the U.S.) as well as properties that are members of ecotourism associations.

The family aspect can add further complications to an accommodations choice. “Not all places have accommodations with connecting rooms, and even some that do won’t guarantee that the rooms will be connecting before the travelers arrive,” says Goldenberg. “In other situations, you have kids who won’t share a bed or a teenager who won’t sleep on a rollaway. We extract all the information we can from the parents to find out what will work best for their unique situation.”

Unless clients are literally just walking down their own street, there’s going to be some environmental impact from the mode of transportation. Train travel has less of a per-person impact on the environment, but its use is limited by destination choice. Air travel will leave the largest carbon footprint, although moves by the airline industry to make planes more fuel efficient (and more crowded) continue to bring down the impact. Bruno also points out that travelers can contribute to carbon offset programs and that TIES continues to urge airlines to make such programs more easily accessible.

Age Counts 

While there’s no age limit for ecotourism, some trips naturally lend themselves to older children. “If a family is considering a safari, I recommend waiting until the youngest child is about 10 so they can really participate in and remember the experience,” says Maggard as an example of a trip where age matters.

On the other hand, Bruno points out, “Children of all ages love animals—and almost any place in the world, you can find a unique animal experience, whether it’s watching baby sea turtles make their way to the sea, a bald eagle nest in a tree, a live moose wandering by. When children see these kinds of things up close, it can have a lifelong effect.”

And don’t forget multigen travel. Just as very young children add some constraints to the possibilities, so too might grandparents. But that’s certainly not always the case. Maggard cites a recent example where a grandmother was not only part of an ecotourism-focused trip, but the driving force. “She was hell-bent on showing her family that not everyone was as well off as they were,” says Maggard. And to that end, the eco-focused trip to Costa Rica, which included the grandmother, her son, his wife and the grandchildren, included a week of eco-opportunities, such as picking up garbage, recycling and hands-on community work, before a more leisurely stay at a high-end villa.

The Great Balancing Act
Almost any kind of travel requires balancing disparate needs to some extent—desire vs. budget, activities vs. relaxation, time required to do a trip “properly” vs. available vacation time and so on. Many of these factors become even more exacerbated when children are involved. Here are some specific areas to be sure to consider.

Know the children’s limitations: A 4-year-old can’t go ziplining and even a 7-year-old is not going to be able to do a full-day hike. Consider if all activities are physically possible, appropriate and desirable for the ages of the kids. “Sometimes we’ve had issues with families that have older children and one much younger child,” says Goldenberg. “In that case, we have to modify the activity or suggest splitting up for part of the day.” For example, can the older children and mom take to the zipline, while dad goes shelling with the younger children? Or can the little ones stay at a hotel kids center while the parents go deep-sea fishing? And if there’s really no good solution? “Sometimes we actually recommend holding off for a few years until the youngest are old enough to really enjoy and appreciate the trip,” says Goldenberg.

Don’t underestimate the kids: On the flip side, do plan activities that will give children the chance to explore outside their comfort zone and possibly learn that they like things they didn’t know about. “You never know what a child will find interesting,” says Slatcher. “Maybe it’s birding—with the right guide, kids might find they’re fascinated by something they never even thought about before.”

Prepare the kids ahead of time: Slatcher recommends a reading list for kids so they have some sense of where they’re going. There are kids’ books and movies that take place almost any place in the world, from the beach to the Grand Canyon to India. She also recommends taking cues from the kids in planning the specifics: “If a child has read a book or seen a movie that takes place in the destination and keeps talking about one aspect, we’ll do our best to include that aspect, whether they’ve become fixated on seeing a certain animal or want to go river rafting like their favorite heroine.”

Schedule—but don’t overschedule: As with any trip, if clients know they want to do something, it’s best to schedule it from the start to make sure it’s available and they’ve left the right time for it. But with kids along, scheduled free time becomes even more crucial. “We try to schedule one or two activities a day and then give options for downtime,” says Maggard. “Kids move at a slower pace and take in things more slowly than adults. They also need time to release energy—maybe there’s an organized bike tour in the morning, but free-time swimming in the afternoon—or even a nap.” Slatcher, too, recommends ensuring plenty of downtime. “With my own family, we like to take an hour or two before dinner to decompress,” she says. “It allows us to maximize the value of the day. Kids need to process what they’ve seen and experienced, even if they don’t know it.”

Carnival Corp reports strong forward bookings following record summer

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Overall forward bookings for Carnival Corporation cruise brands for the first half of 2017 are ahead of the same time last year at “considerably” higher prices.

The disclosure from the world’s largest cruise line conglomerate – which accounts for 10 lines including P&O Cruises and Cunard – came as it projected profit growth of almost 25% this year.

The group reported net income for the three peak summer months to August 31 up to $1.4 billion from $1.2 billion in the same period last year.

President and chief executive Arnold Donald said: “We delivered the strongest quarterly earnings in our company’s history affirming our ongoing efforts to expand consumer demand in excess of measured capacity increases and leverage our industry leading scale.

“Revenues during the peak summer season were bolstered by strong performances from both our North American and European brands and across all major deployments including the Caribbean, Alaska and Europe.”

Looking forward, the company said: “At this time, cumulative advance bookings for the first half of next year are ahead of the prior year at considerably higher prices.

“Since June, booking volumes for the first half of next year are lower than the prior year, as there is less inventory remaining for sale, at significantly higher prices.”

Donald added: “We are well on track to deliver nearly 25% earnings growth in 2016. With cash from operations expected to reach a record $5 billion this year, we continue to fund our growth and return cash to shareholders.

“Looking forward, we are well positioned for continued earnings growth given the current strength of our booking and pricing trends in 2017.”

MSC Cruises North America’s Roberto Fusaro

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MSC Meraviglia
MSC Cruises recently named Roberto Fusaro, long-time manager of its South America division, to be president of MSC Cruises North America after naming the current head, Rick Sasso, as chairman of the division. Fusaro spoke to senior editor Tom Stieghorst about his new position.

Q: Where were you born? Where did you go to school?A: I was born and raised in Argentina, in Buenos Aires. I majored in accounting and I worked on what in the U.S. would be a CPA. I worked at an accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, for a while. And then I transferred to Chicago with that firm and at the same time … I did my MBA at the University of Chicago.

Q: After Arthur Andersen, did you join the cruise industry?

A: Actually, after I left Chicago, I was working for a holding company in Milan. And Costa Crociere was looking for a CFO for a joint venture they were doing in South Florida [in 1993]. The company was called American Family Cruises. … This was my first experience with the cruise industry. I didn’t know about the industry then; I was just a finance guy. Unfortunately, the execution was very poor, so Costa decided to wind down the company after a few months, and they offered for me to go to Genoa [in Italy] to run the revenue-management department. So that’s the way I started my career in the cruise industry.

Q: When you went back to South America, what did you learn when you went to work for MSC?

A: In South America I learned a lot of things. The power of offering a good value to the market. The difficulty of dealing with some government bureaucracies. Perhaps the most instructive thing I learned in South America was the value of a private company. The difference in working for a company like MSC is having the cellphone [number] of the CEO and being able to call him at any time with a proposal, and after two or three questions he’ll give me the green light to go ahead. That was invaluable. I don’t think that MSC would have grown as it did in South America if we had to do a 10-page report to deploy more capacity. The decisions were made very quickly, and the company was very responsive to the needs of the market, and I think that’s what makes MSC different.

Q: What do you think is your strength as a manager?

A: I think my strength is in developing people and helping them to try to get to their full potential. I like to think of myself as a facilitator and company coach. One of my proudest achievements is that any time I left an executive position, my second-in-command took over.

Q: What will be the division of roles between you and Sasso as MSC grows?

A: There will be the usual division of chairman and president. Rick will look after government issues, and I will run the company on a day-to-day basis. I will have the luxury of having such a legend of the industry as a privileged adviser on major issues, but the decisions, good or bad, will be my responsibility.

Q: In the past, MSC has had some favorable terms for travel agents. What can they expect in this area?

A: We’re always going to do what’s best for the business, the company and the partners. We live by our travel agent partners and recognize that they are critical to our success. We won’t be able to get to 5 million passengers without their help. So we will continue to prioritize our partners and make it as easy as possible to work with us
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