Offering a luxury cruise option implies that the rest are second rate; a healthy menu option suggests that the other dishes are not. But is the same true of sustainable tourism – that all other forms of tourism are unsustainable? Sustainability isn’t just a long-sighted mechanism for positive change in the industry – it can also be a powerful force in brand identity. Eilis Williams talks to some key operators that have built community based and sustainable tourism into the heart of their brands.
As sustainable tourism and responsible travel have grown in prominence, it’s easy to see these labels as mere tokens to bring in more sales. But this isn’t always the case. As tourism developed in Vietnam, the need for accommodation and food in more remote areas meant that an early form of community-based tourism (CBT) developed in the late 1990s.
Handspan Travel Indochina, which started as Handspan Adventure in 1997, is one such example. From the beginning, Handspan specialized in tours to lesser-known areas of the country, giving guests the opportunity to interact with the communities that live there.
Product manager for Handspan, Nguyen Thu Thao said: “The nature of Handspan’s products means we have a close relationship with people in very poor, remote areas in the Northeast and Northwest of Vietnam. We didn’t know much about responsible travel, but our aim was to bring foreign tourists to see far-flung corners of Vietnam – and so we had a lot of contact with local people.
“In the early days, there were no hotels or guest houses in these parts of the country so we brought guests directly to local houses and asked for accommodation and dinner. That’s how we gradually developed our community-based responsible travel – it happened naturally.”
Since this “natural” beginning, the message has become central to everything in Handspan’s brand. Not only do guests enjoy a more authentic experience, but the operator generates new business because of its perceived expertise. So much so that NGOs and CBT groups now approach Handspan for advice and partnerships, says Thao.
“Since the beginning, the message has become central to everything in Handspan’s brand. Not only do guests enjoy a more authentic experience, but the operator generates new business because of its perceived expertise.”
Nguyen Thu Thao, Product manager for Handspan
Photo credit: HandspanTravel Indochina
“Responsible travel is quite natural for us,” she adds. “People are searching for real local experiences so we tell them that we will take them to real people’s homes where they’ll cook and eat with the family as well as stay the night there. Clients go for that.”
Similarly, Buffalo Tours’ stance on sustainability grew organically from the beginning of the company in the late 1990s, when founder Tran Trong Kien was guiding trips to Mai Chau. Although it was not a formal part of the brand’s identity, they were always conscientious about helping communities and preserving culture.
As Buffalo grew from a family business to an international destination management company (DMC) it ran the risk of becoming generic among the competition. Mike Ellis, Marketing Manager said the obvious point of difference was sustainability.
“We are competing with a lot of other DMCs and at times it is our responsible travel angle that gives us the edge. That’s been repeated many times by senior management. We much prefer writing interesting content about issues that actually matter rather than ‘Top ten place to get Bun Cha in Hanoi’ so when we hear from the senior management that clients are engaged with sustainability, we know we’re doing it right.”
“We are competing with a lot of other DMCs and at times it is our responsible travel angle that gives us the edge.”
Mike Ellis, Buffalo’s Marketing Manager
Photo credit: Buffalo Tours
Jade House, Social Media and Marketing Leader at Buffalo, said sustainability is a big focus of its content marketing strategy. “Of all the content that we’re putting out there, the pieces that are responsible-travel focused are the most popular; that shows it’s something people are interested in and want to learn more about.
“The market that we serve wants an authentic experience and as a DMC it’s our job to provide it. The same with using socially responsible suppliers – it’s our job to know what is happening in the supply chain. So when we have clients asking for an authentic cultural experience we go find it and we work with those communities to ensure it remains authentic and sustainable.”
Jade said keeping sustainability at the core of the brand’s identity means it filters down to the products and suppliers as well as filtering upwards to clients who choose Buffalo because of this reputation.
The company has made connections with communities in Vietnam and Cambodia and take small tour groups to these areas to witness everyday rural life without encroaching on the traditional rituals in the villages. It also includes restaurants and businesses in its tours that share the same values of the social enterprise.
Bloom Microventures, based in Hanoi, approaches sustainability differently. It isn’t a tour operator but a non-profit organization supporting women farmers through access to microcredit while carrying out tour-related activities outside of Hanoi.
Ly Tran, Program Director at Bloom, said the organization has built sustainability into its brand reputation by forming close ties with the communities that it works with. Fundamental to Bloom’s approach is building a trusting relationship with the local community from the beginning. They encourage people to gain knowledge and skills to be a part of the process, and eventually to own it. “Each community is unique and has its own story. So almost effortlessly they make guest experiences unique and authentic,” Ly said.
To build CBT and sustainability into branding, companies need to invest time and money building lasting relationships with communities.
Photo credit: Bloom Microventures
People approach Bloom for tours and trips for many reasons and each must be catered to for the continued benefit of the brand.
“We have guests from a wide range of nationalities, ages, occupations and travel backgrounds, who visit our initiatives for different reasons. So we’ve tried our best to offer something for everyone. Some get excited over taking a tractor ride around the village or going on a boat ride in the lake. Some are keener on talking with locals and sharing a few jokes. Others prefer to have their own time reading a book or going on a leisure trek.”
Sustainability is clearly something a growing number of tourists are clamoring for and the rise in popularity of CBT reflects this demand. Operators must be wary that authenticity cannot be bought: it must be earned.
For Handspan, Buffalo Tours and Bloom sustainability is not a marketing angle, it is at the heart of everything they do, each decision they make and all the products they develop. Each company said sustainability worked naturally with the company ethos because it helps protects the products they sell.
To build CBT and sustainability into branding, companies need to invest time (and money) building lasting relationships with communities. These connections should benefit not just the tour operator but also the community for many years to come.
This content is also available in: Vietnamese