Sustainable Travel Explained: Meet Huw from TravelLocal

Raja Ampat Indonesia as seen in Blue Planet II with green scenery and trees edged by sand and bright blue sea - a destination covered by TravelLocal

Huw Owen is the co-founder of TravelLocal, with nearly 15 years’ experience in the travel industry under his belt, including stints mentoring travel entrepreneurs for the UN. He was the perfect person to kick-start my new blog series on sustainable travel.

Do you know a sustainable travel pioneer I should talk to for this blog series? Shout about them in the comments, or by tagging me on Instagram (Instagram.com/pollyallen), and let’s help spread the word about travelling more sustainably and ethically.

I grilled Huw on the workings of an ethical travel business, his top tips for sustainable travel, and his holiday recommendations for 2018. Sustainable travel is particularly hot, as we come to the end of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s International Year of Sustainable Development.

Firstly, a bit about the company, in case it wasn’t on your radar: TravelLocal is based in Bristol. Its aim is to cut out the middleman that many travel companies use when arranging local tours for you. As Huw describes it, they ‘create and book your tailor-made holiday with a carefully selected local travel company in your destination.’

Sustainable travel business owners Huw and Tom in front of brick wall and screen
L-R: Huw Owen and Tom Stapleton, the founders of sustainable travel company TravelLocal.

Sustainable travel in the tour operator supply chain

When you book a long-haul holiday tour, there are loads of brands to choose from, and they all seem like experts bursting with local knowledge. However, the bulk of the profits from a trip sale will go to a large company, based far away from the travel destination. Meanwhile, the local economy in the destination gets virtually nothing back, especially if the big company has little to do with them and doesn’t encourage travellers to stray from the beaten path and the restaurants attached to hotels. If you don’t choose to explore local shops, cafes and galleries during your free time, you can inadvertently come away having given little to the communities you’ve visited.

TravelLocal’s business model changes this experience by providing you with independent tour operators from each country. You plan the bespoke ins and outs of your trip with people on the ground, by phone or email, and they are the ones to lend a hand when you get there.

So, how is this sustainable travel? Well, your tour operator can show you insider sights that you wouldn’t otherwise have seen, and tell you which sights are overrated. You spend time and money in the community, getting to do what you want, whether that means taking a village tour, visiting a museum, or tracking down a street food market. The local economy is boosted, and local people are employed by the tour operator (which is locally-owned, to boot); everyone’s a winner.

Gorilla in natural habitat of Ugandan National Park eating leaves
Fancy bumping into some Ugandan wildlife next year? Head to Mgahinga National Park.

Q&A: hot destinations for 2018, and tips for sustainable tourism, with TravelLocal

Hi, Huw! Firstly, which destinations do you think will be most popular with the public and in travel media in 2018?

There are some clear winners. My personal vote is for Uganda – one of the greatest wildlife destinations in the world, with a fraction of the visitors it deserves. It suits wildlife enthusiasts, hikers, photographers, birdwatchers and culture vultures. There’s also Argentina (a continent in miniature), Indonesia (after Blue Planet II, everyone wants to go to Raja Ampat), and Japan (our latest destination!).

Japan was a huge deal for us. We had to work incredibly hard to get it live on the website. There’s so much variety there, so many opportunities, but also we had to find the perfect local partner there. It all came together over the summer, and now we’re very proud to offer it.

What about travel media – where do you predict will be popular for travel newspapers, websites and magazines in 2018?

The press love something very different, so I wonder whether this is the year that Panama or Armenia gets to shine? Armenia is under-sung, culturally weighty, and has great cuisine. Panama has probably the most beautiful coastline in the Caribbean.

Which destinations will you cover next?

We’ll be listing the Falkand Islands shortly – niche, you might think, but world class for wildlife. Kenya and Tanzania will be live in the next few weeks: two massive big hitters for wildlife.

Flamingos in Kenya on lake surface in group
Tickled pink: flamingos in Kenya’s Lake Nakuru. Credit: Jimbo Chan.

Do you think sustainable and responsible travel has become more well known by travellers, and more interesting to them, in 2017 and, if so, why?

We certainly think so. 2017 has been a huge year for us in terms of growth, and our ethos is very clearly about responsible travel. To my mind, that means the message of what it means to travel responsibly is not a niche any more – it’s going mainstream.

The most obvious thing to consider when you’re booking a trip, almost before anything else, is where your money is going. We have brought a different angle to the responsible travel discussion: make a positive choice about where your money should be going, by buying locally.

What are your top tips for more ethical and sustainable travel? 

If you buy local, a greater proportion of your trip spend ends up in the destination, which is as it should be, but it’s all completely secure and ABTA-bonded (also exactly as it should be!).

That aside, I think a really critical and simple thing you can do is to eat local food in local restaurants. It puts money straight into the local economy where you’re travelling, and which employs a lot of local people, and also encourages local entrepreneurs.

The other thing I would add is to get out of the car and try to walk or use public transport. That seems so minor, but it massively enriches your experience and understanding of your destination.

Lastly, we’re working hard on our new charter, setting out our principles on travelling responsibly. A major focus is the treatment of wildlife. I think the general awareness of animal welfare is improving worldwide, but there’s still so much to do. Travellers feel much more strongly about this than even five years ago, and they’re right to do so.

[I’d agree with Huw’s comments here – back in 2013, I petted a tiger and rode an elephant during an organised group tour of Thailand. I didn’t really want to do it, but felt peer pressure from the rest of the group to join in. With hindsight, I can see the animals weren’t being treated responsibly. I wouldn’t encourage anyone else to do this kind of activity.]

Gate in the middle of lake in Japanese countryside with blue sky
The Torii Gate is a real icon for travellers visiting Japan.

Lastly, are there any countries in your portfolio that people have common misconceptions about, such as wrongly assuming a destination is too hot, noisy, busy, overdeveloped or weighed down by mass tourism?

Misconceptions are completely understandable, but widespread – we probably all have them. A common one would be thinking that, for example, Southeast Asia is over-touristed (not even close – much of it is still very quiet), or that Japan is only for the rich (far from it – if you buy local you’ll see what good value it can be). On the whole, though, our customers are savvy, discerning and well-travelled.

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