WHL.travel Caring for the Destination program

Worldhotel-link.com Limited (WHL) is owned and operated by a team from Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Hong Kong, India, South Africa, Switzerland, the USA and Vietnam, working with local partners who do all the things best done locally (e.g. working directly with the local accommodation providers and with travelers), and WHL does all the things best done centrally (e.g. technology, web marketing).

Generally, we seek out experienced local tour operators as our local partners, although occasionally we also work with local industry associations or NGOs. In every case they are people with an intimate knowledge of tourism in their destination and people we are proud to be working with. We offer you, the traveler, access to these erstwhile little heard-of hotels, guesthouses and hostels plus local tours and activities via one e-marketplace network.

For example, in the Solomon Islands many of the properties listed on the WHL member site are on the outer islands and have no Internet access or even telephone access. Instead, our local partner contacts them via HF radio to pass on bookings, update allotment etc. To the traveler, it looks like seamless online booking such as you would make on any other travel site, but in fact there is much different process at play with us – what we call our digital to bicycle interface.

WHL Caring for the Destination Program

In doing the work of collecting and posting online information about small accommodation providers, WHL identified many small SMEs that are actively engaged in projects which, in their own way, are positive steps towards improving sustainable outcomes for the destination. None of the initiatives are “certifiable” to existing standards, but they address specific local needs, and are meaningful to the businesses involved.

WHL then started to write up some of these initiatives and highlighting them for travelers as “brand differentiators” for the respective accommodation providers. These initiatives were grouped under a “Caring for the Destination” banner, helping encourage the local businesses to deliver and sell unique experiences.

Initially, we thought the logic of what we were doing was compelling and that both our local partners and their suppliers would be happy to get on board – it was free after all and intended to help their businesses. Sadly, however, this wasn’t the case, which led us to re-evaluating the role of each of the key stakeholders: the local partners, the accommodation providers and the travelers, in order to work out what we needed to do better.

Part of the problem was that we didn’t recruit well enough in the beginning. We also underestimated the difficulty many of our local partners would have getting small accommodation providers to open up about what they were doing. It was a little bit of the blind leading the blind – one party not being too sure what they were looking for and the other party not knowing if they had it. The information they did collect in many cases was dry and uninteresting, and in other cases of very doubtful value.

To address this problem, the first thing we did was to improve our recruiting and induction of all new partners in the network. We now spend a lot of time screening new applicants and also training them in both why sustainable tourism is important for their business as well as how to source the information needed from suppliers. We have also worked with Dr Xavier Font and his colleagues at ICRT (Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK) to try and turn the information we do collect from accommodation providers into a story which sells the benefits for the traveler.

As Xavier has often told out network partners, “this hotel is saving water by not washing sheets and towels daily,” for example, is not necessarily a good story for the traveler. Initiatives like this are better translated into benefits the traveler can relate to: things that will make their stay more enjoyable in some way or help them save money. It may simply be a guilt alleviation benefit that is being offered, but even then a story about the impact of the particular water saving initiatives may provide a stronger message.

The next big challenge is engaging travelers. They need to drive the signals to the accommodation and tour suppliers that doing good is good business, i.e. accommodation providers doing positive work in sustainability need to be getting more bookings so that their compatriots in the destination will start to follow their lead.

We have had two problems here. First is that whl.travel being a relatively new player and a small player on the global stage, travelers don’t know us for the most part and the volumes of bookings we generate are still small by comparison with the big online booking platforms like Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, etc. In other words, even if we drive proportionately more bookings to those suppliers that are ‘caring for the destination,’ the volumes we generate is still small – too small to be significant. Solving this is not easy, but we are trying to reach out to other online booking companies, in the hopes that if many others joined this effort, the impact could start to be felt.

The second challenge has been a bit of a brand conflict within whl.travel. We started life with a mission to help extend the benefits of tourism to the little guys in the developing world. In other words, we were more about pro-poor tourism than sustainable tourism. The whl.travel business model of having local partners in each destination was implemented to connect product from the developing world to the global market. Our brand, therefore, does not speak explicitly to sustainable travel, and those booking on the whl.travel sites will see listings without the “caring for the destination” rating, as well as those with the “caring” scores.

This means travelers with a real interest in sustainable travel may overlook whl.travel and opt for sites that mainly focus on responsible/sustainable tourism. To address this problem, we are also working on a new portal to be launched later this year, which will sell only “caring for the destination” product, alongside other travel product supplied from outside the whl.travel network.

“A Natural Experiment in the Caribbean” – Corporate environmental & social responsibility practices by hotels in Cuba & Dominican Republic

Excerpts from “SUN, SAND, AND SUSTAINABILITY: Corporate Environmental and Social Practice in Caribbean Coastal Tourism” (2006) by Emma Stewart, Ph.D., Research Manager at Business for Social Responsibility

…Together, the island nations of the Caribbean constitute the region most heavily affected by tourism in the world*. As islands, they are especially vulnerable to environmental impacts, such as coastal erosion, fresh water shortages, marine pollution and habitat loss**. And as developing countries, they have become increasingly reliant on international tourism to bring much needed hard currency.

…the Caribbean is an important region in which to examine the patterns of corporate environmental and social practice in the tourism sector. And in fact, it also provides a sort of ‘natural experiment’, comparing two Caribbean island nations, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, that have similar tourism markets but greatly different approaches towards managing them. Both countries’ tourism markets are quite similar in terms of arrival numbers, target markets, prices, and revenue. And in both of these countries, the growth and success of tourism has been a significant story throughout the region.

…The similarity of these two countries’ tourism sectors is in contrast to their strikingly different approaches to its development. While the Cuban government has welcomed foreign investors to build and manage many of its resorts, it continues to play an active role, owning, running, and regulating much of the tourism industry, including resort hotels. A number of laws also protect the Cuban economy from the economic “leakage”*** so common in neighboring tourist destinations, and retain tight control over the process of tourism development.

…The study selected two comparable regions in both Cuba and the Dominican Republic, all of which are dominated by four- and five-star all-inclusive resorts: Varadero, Cayos Coco & Guillermo, Puerto Plata and Punta Cana. Six months of fieldwork permitted site visits to a randomized sample of 60 such resorts, including tours of the property and facilities, and extensive interviews with managers at multiple levels.

…Each resort was assessed based upon 50 indicators relating to different categories of environmental and social management: energy, water, land use, transport, materials, awareness raising, environmental policy and systems, relations with guests and employees, and the input of local populations.

Findings at the National Level

Prediction: High environmental and social performance will be associated with each of the following characteristics: location, cost of utilities, and siting and land use.

Of these characteristics predicted to be related to environmental and social performance, two proved to be particularly significant: the cost of utilities, and siting and land use. Predictably, in both countries, when water prices were higher, wasteful consumption was lower. High costs of water tended to be associated with more sustainable land use management practices, such as using native plantings and drip irrigation. Interestingly, this was not the case for another utility, electricity, whose price was not related to the level of wasteful consumption. This implies that water, at least in the Caribbean, is a more important motivator when it comes to choices about how to manage resort properties.

Findings at the Local Operations Level

Prediction: High environmental and social performance will be associated with each of the following characteristics: the resort’s star category, its age, and the General Manager’s experience.

Interestingly, a resort’s star category (in this study, either 4 or 5), did not show any significant relationship with environmental and social performance. It was predicted that five-star resorts would be more likely than four-star resorts to exhibit high environmental and social performance, possibly due to stronger management capacity, better-educated clientele demanding high performance in all areas, or more financial flexibility. However, there were only two very slight differences: five-star hotels have marginally better water management, perhaps due to stronger management capacity, while four-star hotels were slightly better on transport, probably because they are more likely to offer more efficient communal transport options, as compared to the exclusive options at five-star resorts.


* World Travel & Tourism Commission (2004) “Cuba; Travel and Tourism Forging Ahead” and “Dominican Republic; Travel and Tourism Forging Ahead”, The 2004 Travel and Tourism Economic Research, London; World Travel and Tourism Council

**Mieczkowski, Z. (1995) Environmental Issues of Tourism and Recreation, University Press of America

***Lindeman, K. C., Tripp, J. T. B., Whittle, D.J., Moulaert-Quiros, A. & E. Stewart (2003) “Sustainable Coastal Tourism in Cuba: Roles of Environmental Assessments, Certification Programs, and Protection Fees”, Tulane Environmental Law Journal, 16:591-618

About this report:

This report summarizes research conducted by Emma Stewart while at Stanford University, with the support of Environmental Defense and The International Ecotourism Society (TIES).