In Conversation: Costas Christ - The Balance of Sustainability & Tourism
For our fourth "In Conversation" interview our Managing Director, Jenny Graham speaks with Costas Christ founder of Beyond Green Travel and ecotourism pioneer, sustainable visionary and award-winning writer about the balance of sustainability & tourism and how we can travel well by doing good.
Your path to pioneering the ecotourism movement started in Kenya, why did this experience set you on the journey you have taken?
I was working as an assistant on a Harvard wildlife study in northern Kenya when I found myself witness to a booming safari industry that was making faraway investors wealthy, while locals living closest to the wildlife that tourism depended upon were left struggling in poverty. Things reached a boiling point when angry villagers tried to burn down the safari lodge near my research camp. That was more than 30 years ago and the experience convinced me that a new model for tourism was needed. I thought to myself that if local villagers' lives were directly improved by tourism then they would become partners in protecting endangered species. My interest shifted from being a wildlife biologist to creating a blueprint for a new vision of tourism as a catalyst to help save nature and alleviate poverty. That vision crystallized when a small group of about a dozen of us gathered from around the world with similar ideals and officially defined ecotourism for the first time in 1991 as, "Responsible travel to natural areas that protects nature and sustains the well being of local people." With that, the global ecotourism movement was born.
"Unless the people who live closest to what you want to protect become your partners, then conservation will forever be an uphill battle."
What are some of the most important conservation lessons to emerge in the past 20 years?
The single most important lesson to emerge in conservation over the past two decades is this: Unless the people who live closest to what you want to protect become your partners, then conservation will forever be an uphill battle. But when local communities see conservation of nature as directly connected to improving their own livelihoods, such as through ecotourism jobs, they become the most important allies in saving wildlife and protecting natural areas on land and sea.
Who are your conservation heroes?
Jane Goodall is a true conservation icon - both in the pragmatic sense of what needs to be done to save our planet and through inspiration on how we can each make a positive difference. The last time I was with Jane, she had just turned 80 years old and she suggested we grab a drink at the bar during an event. I asked her what she would like and she went for a whiskey straight up. That's Jane. Never underestimate her. She is as tough as nails and yet full of compassion. My other conservation hero is Dr. Sylvia Earle. Conservationists refer to Sylvia as "Her Deepness" for all of the time she has spent beneath the surface of the ocean. She is a tireless crusader for protecting marine life. To be in the presence of either of these two amazing women is to be humbled and inspired.
"If I can make a contribution to help heal and protect our planet, provide help to someone in need, and inspire others to travel in a responsible way to support these goals, then that is what matters the most to me."
Your company, Beyond Green Travel is founded on transforming travel to make it a more powerful force for good, how can we achieve this?
The first thing we can all do is to understand that each of our travel choices makes a huge difference. I also believe that as we come through the coronavirus crisis, we will find more and more people seeking to travel in a responsible and caring way. Before booking with a travel company or a hotel, I like to ask three key questions: Can you provide me with an example of how your company is working to address climate change? I look for responses like eliminating single use plastics, which use a huge amount of fossil fuels, or sourcing supplies locally to reduce the carbon footprint, among other actions; How is your company helping to protect nature and support cultural heritage? (examples might include partnering with conservation groups to protect endangered species or promoting the sale of indigenous handicrafts in hotel gift shops); How does your company benefit local communities in the destinations where you operate? I look for a strong commitment to hiring locally, based on fair wages and benefits, especially for women, or funding for community development initiatives such as clean drinking water and primary health care. A decade ago, companies would struggle to answer these questions. Not any more. Today, the world is filled with travel companies committed to doing well by doing good. If a company cannot answer the three questions above in a convincing way, then move on to a travel company or hotel that can.
You have talked about ‘flying green class’ as an important goal, what else should we be focusing on?
Never buy wildlife products as souvenirs anywhere when traveling, whether they are being legally sold or not. Just say no, period. The trade in wildlife products is decimating species around the world. When the buying stops, the killing will stop.
Which of your many titles – Ecotourism Pioneer, Sustainable Visionary, Award-Winning Writer – are you most proud of?
If I can make a contribution to help heal and protect our planet, provide help to someone in need, and inspire others to travel in a responsible way to support these goals, then that is what matters the most to me.
Re-connecting through travel has become an important experience driver, where are your top must go-to destinations to achieve this?
Colombia ranks high on my list - 1 out of every 10 species on the planet is found in Colombia, making it a biodiversity bonanza of life, from snow capped peaks to white sand beaches. It is also a country of great cultural diversity and the Colombian people are a fun loving crowd who like to wine and dine late into the night. Another go to place for me is the tiny country of Belize - home to the second largest barrier reef in the world - a marine Serengeti of colorful corals, rainbows of fish and tropical islands surrounded by blue sky waters. Just writing this makes me want to go!
"I have always found solace in nature - whether a stroll in a city park or a hike in the hills - nature provides healing energy"
You love to discover the world through travel, who would you most like to take on a journey and where would you go?
When I was 19 years old, I met a fellow traveler named Sally. We were both heading to Central America to learn Spanish. We became friends, then traveling companions and eventually a romantic couple. We got married with a shared passion to explore the world. Sally continues to be the person I would most like to take on a journey. In this instance, I would pick two places to go - Ashford Castle nestled in the lush countryside of Ireland is nothing short of spectacular and Red Carnation Hotels who operate it are passionate believers in travel as a force for good. My other choice would be Three Camel Lodge in Mongolia - an authentic ecolodge in a country filled with wide open spaces and rich cultural heritage. Nearly a third of Mongolians still travel by horseback as their primary way to get around.
You have talked with Harrison Ford, Francis Ford Coppola and many others; is there anyone you would love to interview?
Leonardo DiCaprio. I would love to talk with him about how to create true ecotourism at the resort he is building in Belize and about his ongoing work to address climate change. He is a great actor but many people do not know that he is also a great conservationist.
Who or what inspires you?
The Dalai Lama inspires me with his rigorous intellect and his deep sense of concern for others. And in terms of what inspires me, I have always found solace in nature - whether a stroll in a city park or a hike in the hills - nature provides healing energy.
Do you have a favourite place to stay or somewhere you go to recharge?
When not traveling, I live on an organic farm in New England and that is my refuge. I would not want to be anywhere else in the world during the summer growing season. Farming brings harmony to my life, connects me with the Earth and surrounds me with the magic of creation - from a tiny seed tucked into the soil an abundance unfolds in a bounty of fruits and vegetables.
Where is next on your travel list?
I would like to go to Chad to visit Zakouma National Park. A friend of mine who has been a safari guide in Africa for some 25 years told me it is one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles he has ever witnessed, with elephant herds almost too numerous to count. And I am always ready to go to Greece - the northern mountains around Zagori are other-worldly and the Greek islands...swimming, hiking, olives and ouzo. Well, you get the idea. Opa!
About Costas Christ
Costas Christ is one of the world’s top sustainable travel experts, whose work has taken him to more than 130 countries across six continents. As the Founder and CEO of Beyond Green Travel, Costas was honored together with Conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall, Oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, and CNN Founder Ted Turner for his lifelong work to save the planet. The International Hotel and Restaurant Awards recognized him as a Global Travel Visionary and NBC News said: "For the past 30 years, Costas Christ been at the leading edge of the green travel movement, since way before it was ever called green or even a movement." Costas is the lead author of Tourism and Biodiversity (UNEP 2003), and a contributing author to Wilderness: Earth's Last Wild Places (CI 2004), Transboundary Conservation (CEMEX 2005) and Echoes of Bhutan (Schaffer, 2017). An award-winning travel writer for National Geographic, his stories and essays have also appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Sunday Times of London. His television and radio appearances include Travel Channel, Good Morning America, BBC World, CNN International, National Geographic Channel, and National Public Radio.