What does sustainable travel mean in 2020?

by Mathilda de Villiers

The travel landscape has been evolving for decades, but suddenly in the last six months it is being critically re-evaluated on a large scale. While the world of travel post COVID-19 still remains unclear, there are countless discussions about how things might change moving forward. One of these important discussions involves the protection and conservation of the environment, and the communities that have been so deeply affected by tourism up until this point.

Jonny Bierman in Peru

A conversation with Jonny Bierman

Jonny Bierman’s passion for travel began directly after high school, when he planned to go on a four-month trip, and it ended up lasting for a year and a half. He decided to take that newly-found passion for travel and run with it. He headed to Vancouver Island University to study travel and tourism, but “The more I started to work and studied, the more I became quite fond of the environmental movement involved within it,” Jonny says. He has since worked in the travel/adventure marketing, content creation and communications world for companies such as GoPro, REI Co-Op, Lonely Planet, Banff Lake Louise Tourism and many more.

Eco Escape Travel

About three years ago Jonny founded Eco Escape Travel as the first community-based ecotourism content hub.

Described as “the home of all things ecotourism, sustainable travel and enticing adventure content”, their work is rooted deeply in their Four Pillars:

Environmental Stewardship‘Committing to the protection of the surroundings and environment for those who will come after you by using it responsibly and implementing conservation and sustainable practices.’  

Ecological Connection‘Being conscious of the impact that is being made, through immersion and engagement with land, water, flora or fauna.’

Community Empowerment ‘Having a direct socioeconomic impact on the community by employing locals, diversifying or donating. This pillar helps grow community leaders, is bold, change leading and entrepreneurial.’

Cross-Cultural Engagement‘Having a direct interaction with the culture that you are visiting. This means learning from them, about their history, textile skills, or staying with a local family in a homestay. This type of engagement with another culture will have a lasting impact after a long trip.’

“We are inspired by nature, and we grow through community,” Jonny says. The aim is to make sure that neither the  tourism-impacted communities, culture nor environment are left behind from an influx of tourism dollars.

A Sumatra success story and role model for Southeast Asia. Bordering Way Kambas National Park, are 7 ‘elephant respond units’ where elephants who have been rescued themselves from conflict, entertainment centres, injury etc. are then trained to communicate with wild elephants and help keep them out of trouble when they wander into villages or farmland. This program is funded by various zoos, NGO’s, and sustainable tourism like staying at Satwa Elephant Ecolodge.
The program is so successful, that it can be found all over Sumatra, now in Borneo, and is used as a role model for others like it in Southeast Asia.



The word ‘overtourism’ doesn’t appear in dictionaries yet, it’s such a new term. But we are very familiar with its meaning. In 1980, September 27 was declared World Tourism Day by the UN World Tourism Organization. They use their platform to discuss the impact that tourism has socially, environmentally, politically and economically. It highlights the importance of sustainable tourism; engaging the travel industry and its travellers to support proposals that include protecting the environment, minimizing plastic consumption, addressing climate change and expanding economic development in communities that are directly affected by tourism. It also includes hands-on protection of wildlife and natural resources when developing and managing tourism activities.

Jonny says one of the most important things you can do when you book a trip is to research the company you’re planning on booking with, whether it be a tour company or on your own. “You really just have to make sure that your money is going to the right place and is helping save and conserve those places for the next generation to want to come and see them, as well as for the people who live there [now],” he says. 

Jonny believes that sustainable travel has the potential to save the world’s remaining ecosystems and restore those that are broken by “using it as a non-extractive industry that works to educate and inspire people about what the world has to offer and what is worth protecting.” And according to him, that’s exactly what sustainable travel does.

Over-tourism is a hot topic in the travel industry these days and while there are a lot of issues with it, there’s also a lot of successful strategies that have been developed to protect places like this. Machu Picchu uses a permitted system to control visitor numbers and at this time of day, the sacred sites were nearly deserted. @ecoescapetourism

Success Stories

Listed here are two locations that have used the concept and strategies of sustainable tourism, successfully benefiting the respective communities, protected the environment and grown their story into something worth spreading and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

  • Misool Eco Resort, situated in Raja Ampat in Indonesia. According to Jonny, this resort offers one of the most important stories of our time in relation to sustainable travel. It was an area where shark populations were declining heavily due to shark finning. Within 10 years, they have turned it around into one of the only places in the world where biodiversity is actually increasing in their oceans.
  • South Africa’s Grootbos Lodge, based about an hour outside of Cape Town, launched a foundation in 2003, aiming to support the Masakhane Community Farm and Training Centre, where the local community is taught about food production and entrepreneurship. The locals who have completed the program have been given plots of land by the lodge, increasing their income and access to local, healthy food products. To date, the program has helped more than 138 community members. Every time someone stays at the lodge, they can walk away knowing that their stay has also made an impact on the program, and in turn the community that it serves as well.

“Most people don’t realize what the circle is of the trickle-down effects of tourism and conservation. When people are out on [a] game reserve, they might not even know that they’re funding the protection of the animals that they’re seeing,” Jonny says.

Social Media and Tourism

Over the years, social media has been playing a bigger role in many industries, travel being one of its top contenders. The power of a beautiful image on a platform such as Instagram has turned lesser-known locations into some of the most popular tourist attractions on the globe. With this, there have been many pros and cons attached. Bringing tourists into a location is highly beneficial for economic growth, but by tipping the numbers to the point where it becomes overvisited, a negative impact on the environment as well as community members can take hold.

Using an influencer’s platform to convey an important and powerful message as a movement in the travel industry, such as sustainable travel, would be a great place to start.


The future of sustainable travel might lie in the hands of influencers

“Someone who has the voice to empower and inspire a story or message, whatever their message might be,” is what an influencer is, according to Jonny. He has been working in the influencer marketing world since well before ‘influencer’ was even a term. Today, he says that he would like to see the landscape of the influencer switch gears in order to tell meaningful and impactful stories the way that it has always meant to be told. “Travel is largely a non-extracted industry. So where it was before COVID-19, was in my opinion, super unsustainable. It wasn’t talking about responsible travel, it wasn’t talking about where to spend your money so that you’re making a positive impact. It was just a very pay-to-play kind of space.”

Over the past decade, social media has changed the way that we live on a whole other level. The online world has taken the travel industry and turned it on its head. Often, many bloggers and travel photographers posting on platforms such as Instagram tell a one-sided story. This can contribute to the problem of overtourism instead of encouraging a more sustainable way of traveling to certain communities. Supporting these communities instead of exploiting them should always be the aim.  

“Obviously there are a lot of important conversations happening right now and this is still one of them that needs to continue,” Jonny says.

When COVID-19 brought the world to its knees earlier this year, countless jobs were affected, and those who work in the travel industry felt the effects instantly. Even though it has had a troubling effect on many lives, it has also given many people the opportunity to pause and reflect. For Jonny, it allowed him to recharge but also re-asses the industry and has inspired him to cover stories that will hopefully inspire change towards the path that leads to more people travelling in more sustainable ways.

“That carpet that I stood on and raised my voice from definitely got ripped out from under me but that was in no way reason to give up,” Jonny says.