Vicky Smith – hardly anyone in responsible tourism doesn’t know her. An entrepreneurial “doer” at heart, always keen to address challenges and innovate new solutions and approaches. In this interview Vicky shares her story, reflects on how her views have changed over the years and the lessons learned. Plus: get to know her start-up, Earth-Changers.com.
Vicky, reading your story, there seems hardly an organization or initiative devoted to sustainable tourism which you haven’t been involved with over the years. Do you remember what first brought you to the topic?
Oh there’s many! And many vivid penny-drop moments, along a constant gradual evolution. I worked in travel web development and marketing, in London, from the late 90s. The Internet was still new with few jobs, only really for big brands in the mass market. Around 2001, migrating analogue TV mass market media Teletext Holidays to digital, I got a work deal to Kenya, excited to go on safari.
I didn’t expect the horror of piles of plastic waste along roads and a British clientele only interested in tanning, eating and drinking as much as they could, with no desire for interaction outside the all-inclusive walls with people, places, culture or nature. Many I asked had booked last minute through my company. It wasn’t why I worked in tourism and I felt responsible.
Retrospectively, I realised the damage I had witnessed as a mountain lover in the mid-90s, working in ski and summer hiking holidays in the French Alps as a resort manager for a UK tour operator, seeing first signs of permafrost melting and dealing with drunken clients and impacts on mountain communities.
How have your views on responsible tourism changed since then, and through your many years of experience in strategy and at the coal face of tourism?
After my Kenya trip in 2001 I became aware of the huge disparity between the profit-focused industrial model of tourism and the attitude of responsible tourism I naturally had, defined in 2002 in The Cape Town Declaration by Harold Goodwin, later my Professor.
I moved to oversee ecommerce marketing for Virgin Holidays, being one of the few tour operators getting involved in sustainable tourism, but I had a calling to return to Africa. I did that in 2006, volunteering in lion conservation and community development and travelling through Southern Africa. I saw where tourism could help but didn’t.
In Botswana, I met a lady my exact age with multiple children, married to an abusive guy with multiple wives, all HIV positive. She couldn’t finance or access support, yet here she was next door to luxury tourism. I went on to work in positive impact charity challenges and volunteer tourism, for hosts and guests, saw what worked and what didn’t.
I combined on-the-ground, strategic and academic insights for my MSc thesis in 2012 on product, digital marketing and greenwashing (supervisor Xavier Font) that was published and since became a top 10 download of all time in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism.
I believe I was also the first student at Leeds Beckett ever to be threatened with litigation over the publication of a thesis! I’m proud of that, I put data to some big company exploitation that was damaging people and places. We had to jump through some legal hoops to publish (by anonymizing the companies) but it put onus on the principles and got a lot of international media attention.
There have been some big changes in the industry since, such as in many discontinuing orphanage tourism, not least because consumer awareness has grown and changed demand, so if I have helped contribute to that change, great.
Responsible tourism was a new concept when I started, and I’ve developed with it as we learn more how terrible tourism can be and how we can make it better. My sense of in/justice, responsibility, duty and resolve to change the sector has only strengthened.
Reflecting on your many jobs and responsibilities to date, which have you found the most rewarding? And which the most challenging?
Managing charity challenges has been incredibly rewarding but also tough, in all ways. Many guests have experienced a big loss and channeled all the energy of grief into raising money for charities at home which may have supported loved ones. They’re still vulnerable, often completely out of their comfort zones having never experienced a developing country, culture or nature, and they’re concerned about the physical challenge, such as hiking up Kili. But they come to realise the emotional challenge is greater. Having poured everything into this trip, they have a sudden realization of ‘what now?’. Most break down at some point. But that’s the breakthrough, to the rest of their lives, which brings them immense healing, strength and pride.
It’s a privilege to witness and support, and to see them connect with locals in destinations who enable and support that process and perspective. It’s truly life-changing transformative tourism all-round and amazing to work with. The role and responsibility of it is vastly undervalued.
Staff management of tour operator teams in ski resorts was probably the most challenging as a 23 year old manager! Of course staff mean well, just get into a LOT of personal scrapes while you try to keep them on track in customer-facing jobs. I’m proud of a zero staff turnover in all my seasons coupled with great customer reviews and profit centre reports.
In tourism, I’ve also worked with commercial organisations who didn’t care, and NGOs who didn’t get market requirements. I’m a do-er, with a start-up and creative mentality and drive, so bureaucratic approaches challenge me when I just want to get on with the job. I’m not interested in power egos, manipulation and Machiavellian politics.
As a female, hitting the glass ceiling is also a challenge I’ve experienced many times and is still prevalent in this sector, with majority male boards and female-strong lower echelons – I look forward to equality.
EarthChangers is your new initiative: What is it all about? Who does it address?
Earth-Changers.com is focused on positive impact tourism, promoting life-changing places with world-changing people for extraordinary experiences with purpose.
I’ve worked on it for around three years now, and it’s been live over two. We work with specialists in the sector who deliver incredible support to local communities and conservation through tourism, often feeding locally into the Sustainable Development Goals. It can be a beautiful and luxurious lodge in a private protected area, a really raw bush camp, ocean sailing conservation expedition, or a tour of local social enterprise, appealing to different budgets and demographics. The commonality is psychographic, the absolute commitment to and evidence of sustainability for local purpose, people and place.
Start-up is hard work, let alone in competitive tourism, especially when consumers haven’t hugely embraced sustainable tourism yet. I’m doing a lot of work to raise awareness and educate on sustainable tourism as a whole, to consumers and as a model to media and trade organisations who follow Earth Changers too. I felt it was missing in the market and it’s the right thing to do.
My appointment as a Defra Ambassador [UK Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs] was wonderful, unexpected recognition. I’m making in-roads, good for the sector as a whole, and aiming to scale-up Earth Changers with the right support.
It’s not always easy to align one’s ideals with one’s needs – such as earning enough to be able to pay a mortgage. Which values guide your work (and life)?
I follow my passion, work hard to get to where I want to be and develop expertise. Money follows. In 2006 I knew I wanted to create a sustainable tourism start-up, but it wasn’t the right time in the market, and I needed to be more free financially and better able to discern sustainability.
For a decade I trained as a ranger in Africa, did my MSc while working full-time in travel ecommerce, freelanced for NGOs and conservation… When knee injury and reconstruction incapacitated me in 2016, I felt it was the right time, and I was ready, probably like no one else in the world. Passion-driven doesn’t mean no consideration or knowledge of what I was getting into. Being able and open to side-project consultancy helps.
It’s not easy to follow passion, get out of comfort zone, go back to basics, not earn money whilst endlessly grafting and making enormous sacrifices, challenging your own mentality, getting back up from knock-backs. But status, material possessions, corporate ladder, power… ultimately don’t matter to me. What does is difficult to distill into just a few ‘values’ words for me and Earth Changers’ but…
Adventure: With ups, downs and unknowns, life’s one big adventure trip in life-long learning to master your own responses. I’m an optimistic realist and a queen of finding silver linings.
Connection – to my purpose, places, people and spirituality. Emotional connection can only be felt, not replicated inauthentically.
Integrity – honest and strong principles. You can’t fake it, it greenwashes out. I believe in an equal, respectful, fair and just world. Whether you’re the Queen or the bin man, everyone has the same right to be here and take up the same space in the Earth’s ecosystem. We belong to it, not it to us.
I’m intuitive so can be spontaneous – life’s too short for me. But risks are carefully calculated with security of years of grafting and savvy financial management.
Perhaps typical for sustainability, I plan for the long haul and work on delayed gratification with a relatively simple life based on need not want.
On your website you describe how difficult it was to find a job in “sustainable tourism”. Looking at the industry now, has this changed? What advice would you give to graduates of sustainable tourism programs?
I finished my MSc in 2012 and even in that short time, more so since starting research on Earth Changers just 3 years ago, I see many more opportunities. There are some awesome jobs now – if only I wasn’t committed already!
The market has grown, which brings many more opportunities, but also a downside: A decade ago responsible tourism consisted of less people more united by shared dreams in reaction to mass market negative impacts. Some may have called it cliquey. Now, it’s amazing to see sustainable tourism growing in scope and mainstreaming, so it’s bigger and more powerful collectively, but I feel it has inevitably diluted the connection of shared vision. It’s important for us to keep that.
Interest has possibly also grown disproportionately to consumer action, meaning there are more qualified people than number of actual jobs, so it’s more competitive and brings a greater need to stand out.
I would advise graduates get three things:
- Experience from the bottom up, coal face managing tourists in destinations, as there’s no better way to understand who wants what, why, when and how – key to product and marketing.
- Critical thinking in an objective, structured, academic approach – key to sustainability.
- Networking – and not just online! Talk to real people – relationships are key.
I would say, work hard – there are no short-cuts – and pay it forward. I have made huge sacrifices in my life by voluntarily working nights, weekends and holidays for years on end – whether organising meet-ups or tweet-ups, writing blogs, managing charity challenges, or pro bono helping non-profits with marketing. But this has all been valuable learning and experience gained. When the jobs come, you’re more rounded on your CV and capable.
Qualified peers appreciate the skills and knowledge, and, with the growth of responsible tourism and its value, so will clients.
Online tools and social media profiles have long become a key part of tourism marketing. To your mind, which are the do’s and don’ts in using those – which crucial factors should tourism businesses and destinations keep an eye on?
Do – have clear key values at the core of all communications. Get everyone in the organization to help define those, bottom up. As with all responsible tourism, involve all stakeholders – take them with you.
Do – have a clear strategy. Social media can be great, but if you’re not careful it’s just reactive and sucks time.
Do – raise awareness; engage conversation, and nurture relationships.
Don’t – expect direct returns. It’s not that it can’t or won’t sell, but it’s more indirect, nurturing through time, trust and consistent messaging.
Don’t – go purely for follower numbers.
Do – look at reach and engagement KPIs. It’s a more holistic approach like offline PR than online ROI. It takes time, but is often the first place people find out about you or look for you.
Don’t – expect someone with a lot of followers, not experienced and/or qualified in sustainable tourism, to talk with depth, compassion, honesty and diplomacy about challenging sustainable tourism issues.
Do – go for aligned values. You’ll get better engagement, which algorithms work to, and ultimately more sales. Quality over quantity, as we say in our Earth Changers Manifesto.
Having been involved with Africa for many years, which are the main opportunities there right now, with the potential to help businesses or destinations become more sustainable?
Yes, I think many in Africa should be teaching the rest of the world that, not vice versa!
Clearly, it’s a big continent and every country and region has its unique situation.
Threats are clear: Climate change, poverty, water shortages, food accessibility, malnutrition, health, education, human rights, sustainable communities, political injustice, corruption, conservation of species, poaching…. the list goes on. All the sustainable development goals and more.
Like anywhere in the world.
But those threats mean opportunities for creative solutions, and African people have amazing energy and are generally incredibly entrepreneurial, tenacious, creative, resourceful, and thus sustainable, to come up with those.
The Long Run, for whom I worked, is full of incredible pioneers and initiatives in private protected areas in Africa (and elsewhere) which act as models worldwide, including to me as inspiration and motivation for Earth Changers.
I’m also a Trustee for a sustainable development charity in the south east of Madagascar. It’s probably the most raw, least developed place for tourism I’ve been. Faced with utter battering by climate change and poverty, 5 days of relatively inaccessible overland from the capital, the population is so unsupported, yet so open. They have embraced sustainable lobster fishing and female empowerment embroidery projects which have revolutionized local livelihoods, family income, food, health and education. It’s great to witness.
How does your home country, United Kingdom, fare in terms of tourism sustainability?
From an Earth Changers standpoint, we have less supply of positive impact tourism. That’s not because, as people may expect, we’re a wealthy country without need – in fact nearly 33% of children and 22% of the public are in poverty (58% of those in “persistent poverty”).
As an island with bad reputation for weather and rail network, there’s much demand to go abroad.
But we have amazing traditional rural B&Bs and farm stays that I spent childhood holidays in, and pioneering home-grown organisations like Unseen Tours, with whom I’ve seen different areas of London, even where I’ve lived for years, through the eyes of the homeless, bringing me a whole new perspective and understanding of our political and social systems.
We have Green Tourism (for whom I have also worked!), one of the world’s original and largest green awards certification programmes, established in 1997 and now with a couple of thousand certified properties and venues.
And now we are seeing wonderful new concept hotels growing, like Good Hotel who have indeed been good enough to host our WTM Responsible Tourism Networking for the last 2 years, and hopefully will again this year. It’s got great aligned values and is perfectly located next door to Excel.
But with awareness of climate change growing exponentially here, there are various things afoot.
Our Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has a 25 Year Environment Plan, plus this year launched the #YearOfGreenAction – for which I was invited to be an Ambassador and am delighted to ensure sustainable tourism is represented.
In fact, tourism in the UK falls under the Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport which has a Green GB Week the same week as WTM this year, a good opportunity to bring aims together.
Now we have a Parliamentary Inquiry just launched into the impacts of tourism – both in the UK and of UK tourists abroad. I expect this will raise awareness of sustainable tourism in the general public.
You are very active in the sustainable tourism community – on conferences, with awards and managing online communities (#RTTC). How has this scene changed in recent years – where are we headed?
A lot more people are aware and paying attention: reading, listening, watching. Though like anything online, the level of passive following dwarfs active participation. But people are learning.
As sustainability consciousness grows, so sadly but almost inevitably does greenwashing. And that undermines those who are sustainable, because it encourages scepticism and judgement of greenwashing when you’re not, and this in turn promotes greenhushing in fear of sticking heads above the parapet and getting shot down.
But it also helps people to be confident asking questions to better discern. Earth Changers helps that – it’s influencing people by raising awareness, teaching them what to look for, and other suppliers how to improve, as well as promoting our pioneering partners.
Awards-wise, I’ve recently been a judge on the ITTAs for WTM and for TTG. There are some amazing initiatives, achieving great impacts and it’s very tough to judge between top contenders.
If there’s one thing I’d recommend awards entrants do, it’s read and address in answers the actual questions, not just pitch what you want in hope!
New initiatives are emerging all the time. Currently, I’m also helping (re)develop the European Ecotourism Network and connecting it with the Global Ecotourism Network hub. It’s early days for EEN and we’re keen to grow a knowledge sharing network, so anyone who can contribute to that European discussion is invited to join free here by answering 3 questions.
Tourism professionals sometimes avoid engaging with “sustainability”, since it is not something usually part of their KPIs. Reflecting on your own experience, which advice can you share in terms of how to deal with “selling” sustainability to supply chain, staff and clients?
I’d say people are people, talk to them in laymen’s terms, engage with them on a human basis. Start with the why – explain what the purpose is. People buy into a people, passion, a common vision and mission.
Passion combined with vision is powerful. Allow and enable stakeholders to contribute to the process, bottom-up. Provide the tools, structure, information and education for people to empower themselves.
Of course, sometimes as an experienced and/or qualified person you must step in to provide expertise and steer, but you don’t have to dictate from the front. On my charity challenges, I always walk at the back and let the local guides be with the Alpha guests at the front. That way, I come upon everything I need to, without missing important things otherwise happening behind me.
Sustainability is not a competition, it’s not about beating others, it’s about achieving the goal as a team and enjoying the journey.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
Thanks to all the suppliers on earth-changers.com for their support and constant source of awe and inspiration; to Anna Pollock whose spiritual philosophy is a vital contribution to this sector much missing elsewhere; and to friends and family for support on this uphill sustainable tourism and start-up journey!
Thank you, Vicky.
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