As the world emerges from lockdown, the Celtic tourism sector is searching for greater sustainability.
The last time Celtic Life International spoke to Genevieve Sheehan – founder and CEO of SheenCo Travel in Ireland – the COVID-19 pandemic and global lockdown had stalled not only her company’s plans to expand into the North American tourism marketplace, but – more personally – it prevented her from sating her wanderlust.
Recently, Sheehan has since been able to pick up where she left off, and satisfy both of those goals by travelling to the United States to begin the process of opening up franchises there.
“I flew out pretty much as soon as anything opened,” she recounts over a Zoom chat from her office in Goleen, Co. Cork. “I took eight flights in eight days, and I enjoyed every one of them.”
Sheehan has already been to New Orleans and Raleigh, North Carolina to attend franchise shows, and has trips planned to attend more in Texas, San Diego, New Jersey, and New York early next year.
Like herself, there are many people around the world itching to sojourn to interesting new places after nearly two years of restricted travel.
“Everyone is coming out of COVID-19, and the phrase ‘revenge travel’ has become a real buzzword. Revenge travel means ‘I just want to go and have a good time’ and sustainability might not be at the forefront.”
But the world didn’t sit around in a vacuum with us while we were barred from holidays abroad. The events of the pandemic – alongside concurrent events, such as the floods and wildfires that made clearer than ever that climate change is a real threat to the earth and our way of life on it – have made us more aware of the inequalities around us, about the fragility of our global supply chain, and how our actions impact the planet.
The question we must ask ourselves, then, is “should we go back to the way things were?”
Sustainable tourism, or “eco-tourism” is an idea the tourism sector has been noodling with for a while now. Since the onset of the pandemic, more people in the industry are realizing the importance – and the value – of adopting sustainability as a core operating philosophy.
Ireland.com recently boasted that the city of Belfast had been named one of the top 20 global sustainable destinations by the Global Destination Sustainability Index, using that acknowledgment to promote Titanic Belfast, the Game of Thrones walking tour, St. George’s Market, and the city’s plethora of museums and art galleries. More to the point, it was pointed out that this move towards sustainability was intentional.
“Earlier this year, Visit Belfast launched the largest-ever green tourism city partnership at a dedicated ‘Sustainable Belfast’ event,” reads the media release from Ireland.com. “This involves a new partnership with global sustainability experts Green Tourism and gives more traders in the city the opportunity to secure gold, silver, or bronze accreditation for their efforts to meet best-practice sustainability standards. With a choice of hotels that already have the green light for being green, acres of delightful parks and well-maintained gardens, plenty of green travel and shopping options, plus an array of eco-friendly eateries, it is easy to immerse yourself in one of the world’s most sustainable cities.”
It’s not just Ireland. Swansea University in Wales published a study in 2020 on sustainable tourism development in the country and identified numerous areas of potential growth in this sector. Meanwhile, VisitScotland.org offers “Net-Zero” bundles, offering tours of Scotland’s first net-zero distillery Nc’Nean, a night club that collects body heat produced by the guests dancing to run the power, and a trip to a Scottish wind farm.
“Ireland and Scotland particularly, but also Wales – they all rely very heavily on tourism to sustain the population,” says Sheehan. “It is the biggest industry in Ireland and Scotland, for sure.”
During the pandemic, Sheehan took to Eire’s great outdoors.
“Ireland has some of the best hiking trails you will find. I walked the Burren Way, for example, which is a hiking trail that goes all the way from the bottom of Co. Clare, and along the Cliffs of Moher which, of course, are famous for their beauty. There is one that is on my bucket list that looks amazing; it is a trail from Roscommon to Dublin, and it actually traces the route that a family walked to get to a port to emigrate around Famine times.
“Depending on your fitness level, you can do it over five or six days, staying in lovely little properties along the way,” she adds, noting that eco-tourism needn’t come at the expense of luxury. “When I do these walking tours, I like to stay in a nice luxury room, with a bath to soak the muscles at the end of the day.”
Nature and history are what captures the imagination of Lesley Choyce, who long-time Celtic Life International readers will recognize as this magazine’s premier travel correspondent. As he explains over Zoom from his home in Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, he might not be an eco-travel “purist” – however he tries to be cognizant of the size of his carbon footprint while traversing off-the-beaten-path places.
“As often as possible, get out of the car,” Choyce offers as advice. “If I am committing those particular crimes, driving my car down the road to get someplace, the more time I can spend off the road, on my feet, is going to be good for me and good for the environment.”
But sustainable tourism isn’t just about visiting places that are eco-friendly, or choosing a nature walk over a pub crawl.
Eco-tourism is just one aspect of sustainable tourism. With the level of calamity at risk from climate change, the travel industry is going to need to squeeze every drop of efficiency out of the travel stone if there is even a hope of leaving a viable world for our grandchildren to explore someday.
Luckily, according to Sheehan, the tourism industry is already on that path in many ways, and they got a lot of practice during the pandemic.
“It was interesting, because in some ways, you had less people flying around, but then we took a huge step backwards because we were wrapping everything individually in plastic. So, a lot of them were going away from the little individual, miniature shampoos and all of that, to try and be more sustainable.”
Sheehan thinks that it will be some time yet before the majority of travellers demand full eco-friendly tourism, but they will still contribute to promoting sustainability without even noticing it as destination providers work best eco-practices into the back end. And when tourists do notice those changes, they will feel positive for having chosen a globally conscious venue.
“I went on a fan trip in Scotland, and I know they are really working to promote sustainability at Visit Scotland. They gave me a car, and it was a hybrid. That is one of the ways we are seeing a movement towards better choices. And that is great – you can get a very comfortable hybrid – it had heated seats and everything. There is a car that you are feeling good about driving, because you are doing your bit, but you are still very comfortable, in a very ‘luxury’ surrounding.”
Sustainability also isn’t just about the natural environment. Economics and the social climate need to be sustainable, as well, for a tourist attraction to remain viable.
When Choyce travels, he is very conscious of the fact that while to him, this is a destination, to others, it is home.
“It is always to have as much respect for the people and for the land and keep your environmental footprint as small as possible. And while I like to pretend that I am not a mere tourist, I actually am. I can see that we have intruded – whether we intend to or not – on the lives of the people. And although those people, if they live in the middle of a high-tourist destination, accept that, I can also see why they might resent it.”
Tourism isn’t necessarily bad for a destination community, so long as there is balance. The way that Sheehan runs SheenCo internally, she feels like she is bringing economic opportunity to communities through tourism.
“The way we look at sustainable tourism is a little bit more focused on how we run as a business,” she says, touting that every SheenCo employee works from home by design. “We are not running additional buildings for offices. I live in a tiny little village out on the edge of the Wild Atlantic Way. There is no need for us to be located in urban centres – the ability for us, or anyone in the tourism sector, to be self-employed in rural locations is a huge step for sustainability.”
One destination in Norris Point, Newfoundland, exemplifies practically every aspect of the sustainable tourism initiative, The Old Cottage Hospital.
“It was built in 1939 as part of the cottage hospital system, to bring healthcare to rural and remote communities,” says Joan Cranston, coordinator for the Bonne Bay Cottage Hospital Heritage Corporation, the non-profit entity that preserves and utilizes the old hospital.
The facility was constructed to emulate the cottage hospital system that worked so well in the Scottish Highlands. “That hospital was built by the people. The government only paid for the foreman and the nails; all the labour and all the materials were donated. All of the seven communities that it served, the men would walk there, they would come by boat, they would stay there, and sleep in the foundations. They all gave their hours and materials – that way, they would be able to be patients at the hospital.”
Cranston worked at the hospital as a physiotherapist during its operational tenure, starting in 1988. When the Newfoundland government decided to regionalize the provincial healthcare system, the old building was closed and put on the chopping block. But members of the community banded together to take on ownership of the structure instead.
“It was still in excellent shape – it was one of the largest and best-built of the cottage hospital system,” explains Cranston, adding that only minor refurbishments were undertaken at the time – meaning the building is very much the same one the community erected in the 1930s.
“When you adaptively reuse a heritage structure, you have automatically reduced your carbon footprint by not tearing down and building new. Over time, it has since evolved to serve community needs.”
Files offices and medical wards were converted into a public library and a community radio station. Cranston continues practicing physiotherapy in their health and wellness centre. The kitchen is used to host classes to teach community members about healthy eating, and all the old medical equipment has been collected and curated as a medical tools museum.
Much of this has been funded in part by the converted upper floors, where the Old Cottage Hospital built a hostel for eco-conscious backpackers from across the globe.
“We will make our money from people who come from away, but the whole purpose is to provide,” shares Cranston. “We also offer affordable, low-cost rental to small start-up businesses, so they evolve over time.”
COVID-19 has forced the hospital to rethink how they approach tourism, with the hostel being out of commission since the pandemic hit. However, Cranston knows that maintaining the tourism aspect to the facility – and maybe even focusing the outreach to tourists besides just backpackers – is necessary to not just keeping the hospital sustainable, but the whole community also.
“I think that we can make tourism more targeted and more sustainable,” Cranston muses, looking back to the community members who first built the hospital. “How resourceful they were in building it? We need to be resourceful like that and use our resources more wisely. We can be an example.”
What are the rest of us to do, then? Abandon fun trips to big metropolitan areas, and resign ourselves to slogs through dreary country woods? No, of course not – not that you could convince folks like Sheehan even if that was the case.
“No, I am afraid not,” Sheehan laughs. “I like to travel!”
Sheehan feels that approaching the question of sustainable travel as an all-or-nothing question isn’t realistic, or helpful. She believes that the draws – and the necessity – of sustainable travel will emerge over time. Although being an outspoken proponent could speed up that process.
“There are people now – and those numbers will rise as awareness grows – who are going to go and look for companies and places that operate sustainably,” says Sheehan, admitting, “we are probably not leveraging that enough, to be honest with you. It is something that I probably need to do more of.”
She has since signed up with Sustainable Travel Ireland.
Choyce, who rarely goes on guided tours, also encourages trying your best to be conscientious when you wander abroad. There is much at stake
“We have to respect the fact that travel really is a privilege; if we can do it at least as well as we can, and we can urge the whole industry to move towards sustainability, it is going to be there for our kids and grandchildren. But we are awful selfish, I suppose. We are dying for COVID-19 to go away, if for nothing else, so we can go and travel the world again.
“And in some ways, it is never going to be quite the same as it was. It is never going to be quite as easy and it is never going to be quite as fun as it was, because of these big changes. It is not just going to be the pandemic – it is going to be the environmental changes, the global warming. These things keep changing, and we are part of the problem. Anything that we can do to reduce that can only be a good thing.”