Sustainable tourism expert Megan Epler Wood

Megan Epler Wood in this interview reflects on the many initiatives and programmes that have evolved under her leadership – including The International Ecotourism Society, and more recently, the very promising International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard.

Megan Epler Wood is also a senior fellow at Cornell University and just about to launch an exciting programme there.

Learn about:

  • What brought Megan Epler Wood to sustainable tourism, and what motivated her to found The International Ecotourism Society;
  • Which issues ecotourism and community leaders struggle most with;
  • Why Ecotourism has to be a successful form of commerce first, before it can be a conservation tool;
  • The role entrepreneurship and women play regarding the advancement of sustainable tourism;
  • The best way to measure sustainability in travel and tourism;
  • The main challenges public and private organizations encounter on the sustainable tourism front;
  • Her (career) advice to professional and academic newcomers to sustainable tourism;
  • Megan’s favorite books on tourism, travel and sustainability.

Megan, when did you discover your passion for sustainable tourism?

In 1986-7. I received a Fulbright Scholarship together with my husband to film for six months in a remote private reserve in the Andean cloud forest with extraordinarily high biodiversity in Southern Colombia. We made a documentary for a television special in Colombia broadcast on Earth Day and distributed it to non-profits throughout the region as a result of the funding we received.

Our task was to communicate why and how local biodiversity could be preserved. The reserve, La Planada, where we filmed had been funded by WWF-US, via donations in the U.S, but there were many limits to funds for maintaining essential reserves like this throughout the region.

During our six months immersed in this remote wildlife refuge, we were able to reflect on the challenge of preserving this extraordinary biological treasure. Threats of logging and extensive slash and burn farms were all around us.

I travelled with the native Awa through their well conserved adjacent territory and saw the deep connection between traditional indigenous livelihoods and the stewardship of the land.

Ultimately I went to Ecuador, where there were many early community run ecotourism projects already starting to blossom. I realized that local people, especially indigenous people, were already the stewards of these amazing ecosystems, and yet they were struggling with funds and little understanding of what steps to take to protect their lands from encroachment.

I became highly motivated to find the best source of revenue to help local people to conserve their land, and decided that tourism was the obvious choice. It hit me like a lightning bolt and I have never gone back.

Why did you found the International Ecotourism Society (TIES) back in 1990?

I returned from Colombia in 1988 and began to talk with major conservation organizations about making a documentary on “ecotourism.” I pitched it as the very first global investigation of how tourism could contribute to conservation of natural resources and local well-being.

At the time, the National Audubon Society had a series called World of Audubon, funded by Ted Turner. I got a contract to do a global documentary on ecotourism. We filmed in Kenya, Belize and Glacier National Park in Montana, in the U.S.

The Coors beer company had been the sponsor and there was a protest against their environmental practices. They dropped out and I temporarily lost funds for the documentary. I had already assembled hundreds of contacts in my advance research for producing the film.

It was actually in frustration that I decided to start TIES!

I began calling all of my contacts to suggest there should be an organization dedicated solely to the question of tourism as a tool for conservation and sustainable development. Once the filming resumed, I travelled the world promoting the idea and we picked up many supporters and founded the organization.

From your 12 years as president of TIES, which initiative or accomplishment are you particularly proud of?

Creating a global membership of over 1000, developing the first text books in the field, and fostering dynamic locally based conferences in Asia, Africa and Latin America, which were highly inclusive of indigenous people and local communities.

The question of how local people could remain stewards of their vast biodiverse land, retain their culture, and benefit from ecotourism was our focus and we made those dialogs extremely deep and profound in Kenya, Ecuador and Malaysia.

I am also very proud of the early sustainable business models we fostered, in particular the whole concept of ecolodges.

We were the first organization in the world to hold an ecolodge conference and develop guidelines for them.

How has your view of sustainable tourism changed over time and now as Director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment?

I have always been inspired by the question of how ecotourism can contribute to local well-being. This became my passion, and has been the core of my work in the past 15 years.

While I began as a conservationist and a biologist, I have evolved into a sustainable business and economic development expert.

What I learned from years working in the field in developing countries is that ecotourism has to be a successful form of commerce first and foremost before it can be a conservation tool.

Ecotourism is a pipe dream unless it can deliver profits, not massive profits, but profits to small and micro enterprises that need to be connected to either global or regional supply chains.

I have stepped up my capacity to foster enterprise and have had to learn about sustainable tourism supply chains on a global scale to deliver on this part of my work.

This led to my work at Planeterra and ultimately now at Harvard and also at the Cornell Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise where I am a Senior Fellow and soon to become an associate on their team.

Why this new initiative at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T. H. Chan Shool of Public Health?

I have been teaching Environmental Management of International Tourism Development at Harvard Extension School since 2010. It is an open-enrolment, on-line class, which attracts students from all over the world to discuss how global tourism operates as a business, its supply chains, and specific technical challenges for managing its footprint.

We have been able to attract extraordinary speakers, who come to us on-line from throughout the world from mainstream corporations such as Wyndham and Hilton, TUI Travel, Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise, and also we have looked at the management of airports, with lectures from both Chicago and San Francisco, and destinations such as Belize, Mexico and South Africa.

The students have undertaken invaluable research on environmental management of specific sectors of the industry, looking at questions of managing tourism’s impacts on air, water, biodiversity, and how to ensure there is management of waste, waste water, and proper land-use.

This expanded my base of information in an exponential way. It inspired me to write a book, which is in progress. And it inspired me to go to the leadership of my department at Harvard and ask them if there could be a research program that looks at the global impacts of tourism, convenes major tourism leaders, and develops more robust data analysis on tourism impacts, while offering innovative shared solutions on the management of the growth of tourism.

My timing was good, and the program was approved by Dr. Jack Spengler who directs the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It is called the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative.

The Center is an extraordinary institution, which has provided global leadership on questions of how the loss of biodiversity will affect public health, how climate change will impact local populations, and how nature and biodiversity deliver extraordinarily important benefits to human health. It is a fascinating place to be, that fosters new ideas and asks us all to think of solutions on a very large scale.

Screenshot International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard University
Website screenshot – International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard University

What is the best way to measure sustainability in travel and tourism?

A set of benchmarks must be established with social, environmental and economic indicators. They must be measured over time and have a long term data trajectory. Independent analysis is essential.

What our field needs is more field studies to measure environmental and social impacts on the ground consistently over time. This can be facilitated using new user friendly geodesign tools, which allow for benchmarking and regular study check-ins through geo tagging, and can result in visualized projections of how tourism will impact social and environmental systems over time.

With climate change ramping up, the need to establish benchmarking and visualized projections is urgent. I am calling for regional projects to undertake geodesign measurement systems in advance of large scale development that are paid for with public private funds.

This will give local decisions makers the data they need to understand how ecosystems and social systems are faring during the next phase of rapid tourism growth.

With tourism reaching 9% of global GDP, and 6 billion air travellers expected to travel annually in the next decade, the time is now to define new systems for the travel and tourism industry to grow while also benefitting human health and the environment.

Your main insights as consultant at Epler Wood International, and as teacher at Harvard’s Sustainability and Environmental Management Program?

As a consultant, I have largely worked to help set a structure for regional and national ecotourism projects that can preserve ecosystems and support local well-being. I went to the Angkor Watt region of Cambodia in 2005, where 95% of all food stuffs were imported into Cambodia from Vietnam and Thailand according to international hotel groups.

All businesses agreed that buying more local products and services would be an important contribution to the economic development of communities in Cambodia. But the difficulty of linking the agricultural supply chain to local hotels was much higher than I expected.

Local rice producers were not growing rice for hotels, but rather for themselves. I reached out to every relevant agency, and there was total agreement that we need to connect the growing hotel food and beverage supply chain to tourism, but there was no funding to make that happen.

I have never forgotten that experience, and continued to seek funds for linking food supply chains to hotels. I am still working on it with a project at Harvard that we hope to foster.

Linkages to food supply chain for tourism could do more for poor households than any other action taken to support the economic development impacts of tourism. These opportunities appear to be waiting to be captured.

Judging by your extensive experience, which are the main challenges public and private organizations tackle on the sustainable tourism front?

Existing NGOs and research around the world has established the importance of the tourism economy as a tool for both sustainable development and conservation. Work to develop criteria for sustainability has been a primary focus for years.

The next step is to deliver on the promise of sustainability from tourism. This will require

  1. independent measurements and benchmarking,
  2. policy analysis and review of how to move from intentions to regulations and legislation with funding to support the cost of managing a sustainable destination,
  3. a global effort to ensure tourism supports protected areas, and
  4. public private solutions to ensure tourism development does not overwhelm local systems for water, waste, and waste water which at present are not in place to support the global growth of tourism.

Sustainable tourism being such a diverse field, which area do you think is the most crucial to focus on right now?

Sustainable infrastructure, based on all of my student work at Harvard.

We will have a crisis on our hands if there is not national and donor recognition that sustainable waste water treatment, energy, and solid waste management is required to accommodate the next generation of tourism development.

The provision of clean water for hotels is often in conflict with local use, and this situation promises to become more grave with global climate change and population growth.

Tourism planning can take all of these issues into account and incorporate solutions for tourism and local economies, a tremendous opportunity.

Where are the main opportunities?

The fact that the tourism economy is growing and is profitable is an enormous opportunity. If the tourism economy was declining and corporations were not profitable, there would be no chance to get better systems in place.

The stakes are high now. Recognition of the growth of tourism in emerging economies and the essential nature of tourism for economic development is only beginning to dawn on top policy makers.

Local people can have access to a better livelihoods through tourism, we have already proved this with our work with ecotourism, but strategic policies to make this happen on a grand scale must be on the table and soon.

In which region(s) of the world do you see most interest and momentum for sustainability in tourism?

Europe where there are stronger government policies and EU cooperation on managing tourism throughout the region.

Megan on a field trip in Sierra Leone
Megan on a field trip in Sierra Leone, 2005

What role does entrepreneurship play regarding a tourism business or destination’s abilities to successfully implement sustainability?

Entrepreneurship is at the heart of how sustainable tourism can benefit local people. Women are incredibly important potential beneficiaries.

Women in tourism generally earn about 80% of a male’s wage. Notwithstanding these disadvantages to women, there has been a broad increase in the participation of women in the tourism industry worldwide. Women want these jobs and they want to enter the work force.

Despite the many barriers they face, tourism offers a better chance than many industries to move ahead. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women are 10% more likely to be the “boss” in food and beverage operations than in other industries.

Helping men and women to develop businesses that connect to regional and global supply chains is the most effective means of ensuring local well-being.

We are seeing a lot of movement and mergers within sustainable and ecotourism – do you think this is a sign for sustainability moving mainstream?

My deepest concern is actually the fracturing of our field, the many definitions, and approaches that are so similar. We need as much cooperation as possible.

Which part of 1) the tourism value chain and 2) operational unit in a hotel is the most challenging in terms of sustainability?

Food! It may not be as challenging as all that, but it is so significant. Not enough work has been done on how to improve global supply chains to offer hotel food and beverage departments more sources of locally grown, healthy food. We hope to pursue this much more at Harvard.

For the Planeterra Foundation you worked on market access for small, community tourism enterprises in Latin America, and how to connect them with tour operators like G Adventures. Why is this an issue – what exactly are the challenges?

There has been a lack of support from the global donor community for connecting successful tourism operators to local community enterprises. While I was at Planeterra, we were able to help the IDB come to the realization that connecting a working tour operator to local enterprise is a key to success for local enterprise. They have gone on to be highly successful with this approach.

Your (career) advice to professional and academic newcomers to sustainable tourism?

Come to an understanding of business and business supply chains first! I strongly recommend taking classes that review tourism business models and approaches to profitability, margins, and all aspects of business operations within the sector of tourism you are interested in. Then study how to manage the environmental, social and economic development side second.

Your favorite 2015 tourism, travel or sustainability book?

Well it is actually not a book but a paper. A bit wonky, but I was thrilled to just find UNCTAD’s paper on sustainable tourism from 2013. Sustainable tourism: Contribution to economic growth and sustainable development. I really like it and think it is correct, based on all of the research I have done.

Thank you, Megan.

Learn more about Epler Wood Consulting or connect with Megan on LinkedIn.

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Megan Epler Wood, Gran Maestra of Sustainable Tourism
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