With misinformation and greenwashing rife in tourism, ‘Behind The Green’ interviews take it back to basics. Back to storytelling and human connection. Hear from the visionaries behind the world’s leading sustainable travel experiences, as well as the inspiring experts who help us to REIMAGINE, RESET, and REINVENT travel.
Interview by Rebecca Woolford
Biodiversity is slipping away
“We already know the score. This is not new information. We are watching our biodiversity slip away before our eyes, and time is no longer an ally.”Lizzie Daly
Climate change and biodiversity loss are closely interconnected. In fact, they feed into one another. Climate change impacts biodiversity because species have evolved over time under specific and predictable conditions that enabled them to thrive. With global temperatures rising this is throwing everything off kilter and although animals can adapt, they are unable to do so fast enough.
Let’s take a recent example from Planet Earth 3 with Sir David Attenborough, in which 99% of the green turtles born on Raine Island are now female!
Turtles have been coming to Raine Island in the Great Barrier Reef for at least 1,000 years. The temperature of the sand encasing the developing turtle eggs determines whether the offspring will be male or female. High temperatures, caused by global warming mean a potential population crash.
Raine Island plays host to the world’s LARGEST nesting site for green turtles, and with 99% now being born female, it’s easy to see how climate change is a main driver of biodiversity loss.
Tourism and Biodiversity Loss
When talking about ‘sustainable travel’ and the solutions, we must acknowledge and address climate change in parallel to biodiversity loss. Tourism – of the right kind – is a vehicle for biodiversity conservation and restoration.
So, when I heard about a UK-based travel company that is not only talking about biodiversity loss but is interweaving solutions into their trips, I couldn’t contain my excitement to learn more. In this episode of Behind the Green, I chat with Rochelle, the Head of Sustainability at Exodus Adventure Travels, who is partnering with scientists to restore biodiversity.
Rochelle Turner has spent her career conducting insightful research within the tourism sector and has taken on senior roles including the VP of Research & Sustainability at the World Travel & Tourism Council. Today she co-chairs the UK group Travel by B Corp.
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did…
Rochelle, Head of Sustainability at Exodus Adventure Travel
Thank you so much for taking the time to be here Rochelle. I’m interested to know, is being head of sustainability of Exodus Adventure Travels as cool as it sounds? And what path led you to such a role?
“You know, I love this job. It’s my dream job. It’s not always easy working in the sustainability space, but it’s really fun. It’s all about changing opinions, it’s about finding ways to change mindsets, questioning the way things have always been done, and it’s about getting people excited about making changes.
It all started with my career in travel and research. My very first job was standing on street corners asking people from overseas what their impressions of London were and my role was to get them to fill in a questionnaire. Over the years I’ve conducted consumer research, economic research, policy research, and market research.
I also worked at one of the major tour operators for a number of years and used to get frustrated and say: ‘Well, why are all of these hotels looking exactly the same in the brochure? And where is the story about the local people? And what are we doing to better support these destinations where we’re taking thousands of people to go and visit?’
In tourism, we’ve got to deal with and find solutions for issues such as overcrowding. The exploitation of nature. Building awareness around women’s role in society and within the tourism industry. And many more.
Everyone has a part to play, even those who don’t work within the industry itself, but those who travel, the consumers. By choosing to purchase one way or another, we have a choice, to make the right choices and make our trips count. As an industry, we must make the right choice the obvious one, the first one, rather than make it difficult for people.”
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Overcrowding or ‘unbalanced’ is not only happening in cities but on hiking paths and nature reserves
We’re starting to see more and more travel companies get on board and begin their sustainability journey which is great. So often the topic of discussion is largely focused on climate change, but beyond this is biodiversity collapse. Exodus Adventure Travels is talking about both. What can you tell us about your Nature Positive Plan?
“I’m really fortunate that the person that I inherited this role from was also incredibly passionate about nature and just an incredible person. And so she was the one that instigated all of this.
Exodus has been going for 50 years now and we’ve always taken people off the beaten track and looked to connect people with nature, wildlife, and local culture. Our nature-positive plan in Exodus looks at many different elements.
From a carbon perspective, we ask questions like: How can we measure carbon? How can we reduce carbon? What is our target for carbon reduction? How can we make sure that our trips cut carbon? We have committed to cut our trip’s carbon emissions by 50% by 2035.
On the pollution side, it is about waste. So, we consider food waste and plastic waste. It just drives me insane to see plastic pollution. You’ll be walking in the middle of nowhere and all of a sudden, oh, look, there’s a plastic bottle. Anyway, don’t get me started on that.
From a biodiversity perspective, for every Exodus trip, we rewild 100 square meters per passenger. We have a big project in the Apennine region of Italy, which I’ve just come back from, where we are supporting efforts to REWILD heaps of land alongside the community.
We’ve also partnered with scientists who are working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), to build an important database of biodiversity, the eBioAtlas.
Some of our Exodus trips enable clients to take part in the collection of environmental DNA samples on their adventures, collecting freshwater samples for instance which then go back to the lab, to help support conservation action and inform world biodiversity policy. This data helps to build up the ‘red list’, in the e-bio Atlas of species in freshwater systems.”
I love this. Instead of just talking about carbon offsetting, which can be positive if done right, you guys are empowering people to be part of the solutions. Can you tell us how it works? And how many of Exodus’s trips have this exciting element?
“It is all very exciting. The nature tech company we partner with didn’t exist about five or six years ago so it’s all relatively new. We only started incorporating it into trips around March 2023.
It starts with a big syringe, and within this syringe, there is a little filter that screws in on the top. And so once you draw water up into the syringe and then push the water through the filter, and do that a number of times, what essentially happens is that the DNA from various species, which is present within these freshwater systems is detected. It’s a really easy way of understanding what species live in a particular environment, what should be there, what isn’t there that you’d expect to see, but also any invasive species. Once we get the report back the people who were on the trip get notified.
Lizzie Daly working with Exodus Adventure Travels taking water samples from the Amazon
Organisations like WWF have been using it for quite some time. And we thought it’s so simple that our guests on some of our trips might like to give it a go. And so we’ve given the opportunity to our clients for 16 trips around the world. From Botswana to Costa Rica and Italy.
In one of our Costa Rican trips for example the water sample detected a black-handed spider monkey, which is a critically endangered species. The data goes into the eBioAtlas which allows scientists and policy-makers to make better decisions about greater funding for the protection of endangered species or the eradication of invasive species.
Without these insights, scientists have to be reliant on camera traps or visual identification which isn’t always possible. And this work really helps to add to the richness of data that they’re able to collect, because it’s just from a water sample, you don’t have to change the batteries on a camera, or you don’t have to have people sitting around in a field waiting.
Our guests seem to like it. As I mentioned it’s not on every trip. We’ve done about 300 trips like this.
Exodus Adventure Travels offer both cycling and walking holidays, but what we found was that cyclists tend to be those kind of people who just want to get on their bicycles and go. So, collecting water samples on cycling trips hasn’t been as successful as we would have hoped. There are also challenges with getting samples across borders.
We are aiming to have about 17 different itineraries around the world. One of the trips that we’re introducing for this year is where we can take the samples up on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
Anyone who is privileged enough to be able to travel can ask the same question: How can we give back in some way? To nature, and to the host communities we visit.”
Brilliant. What an exciting aspect of any trip, I look forward to seeing this evolve and grow. Could we talk about your recent trip to Italy? And the rewilding project Exodus Adventure Travels is supporting over there.
“I absolutely love this project. It’s all made possible through our partnership with Rewilding Apennines. which is part of the umbrella organisation Rewilding Europe.
Rewilding ecosystems involves planting native trees, but it is all about removing invasive species. It’s about removing obstacles that might be preventing wild animals from migrating, such as fences, and instead creating wildlife corridors so animals can move more freely.
Interestingly, there is no equivalent word for ‘Rewilding’ in Italian or French for that matter.
In Italy, two days before we arrived we got news that one of the endangered bears from this area of the National Park was shot by a farmer. I witnessed the visceral anger and upset that came from the people who have been trying their utmost to conserve the area and protect these bears.
It was a striking example of human-wildlife conflict. As we were walking with our guide, we overheard some older ladies all dressed in black who were talking about the bear that had been shot.
There is a community of people in this area who know the value of the bears and how their presence positively impacts the local economy and is an important part of a healthy ecosystem. The hotels, restaurants, and guided trips are all connected to the presence of the bears.
And then a little further away from the tourism hot spots, you also have communities who live amongst the bears. Those who probably don’t see the financial benefit of tourism, or the jobs it creates, and so the bears are a pest. I could feel the tension among the communities whilst there.
During my time there we got rid of the barbed wire that we found in the woods. And we had some really interesting discussions with the team about some of the challenges that they face with rewilding.
What’s really important moving forward is that we find ways and create space to co-exist alongside nature.”
Source: Exodus Adventure Travels in the Apennines, Italy
Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. It’s a never-ending pursuit of growth and evolution. With that in mind, where do you see the opportunities for improvement in Exodus Adventure Travel’s sustainability approach and the biggest challenges?
“That’s a really good question. You’re absolutely right that things are always changing and always evolving. And I think we’re really fortunate because we’ve got a real community of customers who believe in the kinds of trips that we’re doing.
Places that used to be seen as ‘off the beaten track’ a long time ago have since become more mainstream. It’s a challenge because we don’t want to be part of contributing to places being overcrowded, overburdened, or losing their integrity.
This summer, with the extreme heat in parts of the Mediterranean, companies like ours and others, all have a responsibility to consider questions like… What do we do when you’re a trekking company and it’s 45 degrees outside? How do we address that?
We are also going through setting science-based targets at the moment. We have a team that we call our ‘low carbon lab’. Who answers questions like: How do we remove flights? Particularly internal flights on some of our itineraries? How can we ensure that when we’re eating meals, those meals are plant-based rather than heavy meat-based? Especially if it’s produce that is imported.
We also work closely with Byway for no-flight itineraries. I love Byway, they’re a great company.
I’ve done a lot of consumer research over the years, and I absolutely believe that these choices should not be consumer-driven because they won’t happen that way. People are worried about the cost of things, and it’s very difficult for a lot of people to even consider a holiday, never mind expensive train travel. And we’ve got to understand that these price pressures are very real. And so the changes that we need to see are not going to be driven by consumers. These changes need to be driven by companies doing the right thing and by making the sustainable choice the default one.”
Exodus Adventure Travel trip in Finland, where travellers are taking water samples for the eBioAtlas.
Talking next about something quite different. I wanted to make sure that we put time aside to talk about and pay respects to the people affected by the earthquake in Morocco. What can you tell us about your outreach work there and involvement?
“Exodus Adventure Travel has been operating for 50 years and we’ve been running trips in Morocco for pretty much that same amount of time. We’ve hiked different parts of the desert and the Atlas Mountains for years. Naturally, you get to know the people and the communities.
Tourism is a really big driver of the economy in Morroco and in some of the rural villages. When the earthquake happened, we had six groups in the country at the time, and all of them fortunately are safe and well, and everybody has now returned to the UK.
We have a foundation, called the Exodus Travels Foundation, and through that foundation we have been raising money for campaigns which focus on both conservation and community empowerment, but also on disaster relief. We partner with React, which is run by ex-military people who know logistics and are able to go into places that very few people would otherwise go. They’re a fantastic organisation.
What I’ve been absolutely overwhelmed with is the support from our customer base. And, you know, it’s not just the amount of money that’s coming in. But what I think is really special is the messages that are coming in from people saying, ‘Oh yes, I trekked there and the hospitality of the people in Morocco is something that has stayed with me forever.’ People who go to visit places like the Atlas mountains get to know these people, they can come back transformed and that’s what travel is all about.”
The natural beauty that awaits hikers in Morroco
Can you tell us about a personal trip, or holiday you went on – whether that was last year or 10 years ago – a trip that profoundly changed you in some way. Where was it? And why was it an example of transformative travel?
“When I was in university, I went to the Dominican Republic and built an aqueduct with a group of students. We were staying in shacks and eating with the local families in the village. At the end of the month of working really hard, we were able to turn on the tap and feel proud that we’d managed to bring water to a village that otherwise had to get it from the river, up a steep hill every day.
This was probably one that will always stay with me because it was a real experience. It probably wouldn’t be allowed to exist today because of health and safety, insurance and other regulations, etc. But at the time, it was wonderful to be a part of.”
I always end ‘Behind the Green’ with the same question: What’s next?
“There will be continued investment into our sustainability efforts here at Exodus Adventure Travels, particularly in how we work with our supply chain. As well as how we support our employees, build culture and approach those bigger issues I mentioned earlier on restoring biodiversity and reducing the carbon footprint of the business.
The standards and regulations keep changing, and we live in a dynamic, turmoil world. And therefore we need to constantly evolve, and focus on the solutions.”