Adventure travel has grown to become a $89 billion industry, fueled by tourists’ increasing desire for unique travel experiences that let them connect with local cultures and populations. More and more, tourists are choosing tour operators, destinations, lodging, and modes of transportation that are managed sustainably and in ways that contribute to local economic development and ecological and cultural preservation. Brian Mullis, who began his career working in the U.S. National Parks and now has 21 years’ experience in sustainable tourism development and destination stewardship, is the founder and CEO of Sustainable Travel International, a nonprofit organization with worldwide operations. Mullis has worked extensively with the tourism value chain and his work assisting hundreds of companies and destinations has taken him to more than 40 countries across five continents.
How did you decide on a career in sustainable tourism?
I grew up in a pretty rural area and got into adventure sports like mountain biking and whitewater kayaking. It was in pursuit of those sports that I learned about environmental challenges like polluted rivers. That really resonated with me as someone who grew up outdoors, having an environmental ethic that was self-built. Then I was studying industrial; organizational psychology among corporate executives as an undergrad and business as well, and I was trying to improve my GRE scores to get into graduate school. Learning about a Masters in Recreation Management led me to the adventure travel industry. When I became a tour operator, I tried to integrate the concepts of ecotourism into my business, using local lodges, trying to find locally produced food for our meals, looking at the economic and environmental impact.
I became the owner of The World Outdoors
in 1997. I then focused on growing and creating a profitable business, hiring good people and creating systems. Once the business was successful for a few years, I sought a new challenge, wanting to make more of a difference in the world.
I wanted to take the idea of sustainable travel to the next level and was looking for buyers for my business. The World Outdoors specialized in both domestic and international travel. After 9/11 less people traveled internationally, and we were perfectly positioned to benefit with specialization in western North America. One day, the perfect buyer just walked in our doors, and the proceeds from the sale helped to underwrite the costs to start STI.
While looking into whether anyone else was doing this, I reached out to Paul Hawken
, who’s pretty well renowned [as an expert] for sustainability and business and I was corresponding with him about what I should do. His advice was just to start. I had a one-year employment contract with the new owner of The World Outdoors, who I was helping to transition into a new role, business, and industry. I started a consulting company on the side to help pay the bills for STI. I brought in a colleague from The World Outdoors, Peter Krahenbuhl, to help me and together we got STI off the ground.
What does STI do to promote sustainable tourism?
We’re trying to develop innovative tools for their existing toolkit to help businesses and destinations implement stable management practices that can be applied on a year-to-year basis. Most companies have a hard time setting up systems that align with their existing practices, but our aim is that it becomes part of business as usual.
Ten years after starting STI, we’re working with big international corporations like Cathay Pacific, some of the largest cruise lines like Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corp., hotel chains like Four Seasons and Intercontinental and quite a few tour operators. We also work with hundreds of small and micro-sized tourism enterprises, and a number of governments like Ministers of Tourism, tourism directors and a handful of NGOs at both the international and the local level.
[STI helps destinations develop their own sustainable tourism standards for all types of tourism operations, with the private sector then adopting and implementing sustainability criteria in daily operations. STI also helps destinations develop financially self-sustaining carbon management strategies that provide incentives for the adoption of cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.]
Has it been hard to convince tourism ministries and other local stakeholders to buy into what you’re doing?
It’s gotten easier over time because the business case is getting stronger and stronger. More travelers are looking for authenticity, to connect with local people and learn about places they’re visiting. We’re helping local stakeholders determine those assets they have for tourism and what makes their destination unique
When you get buy-in at the top level, it creates a multiplier effect. Now more and more young people are expecting local business owners to engage in some environmental practices. The United States was one of the few countries that didn’t really have a sustainable travel strategy at the national level. Now leaders at the national level are looking at tourism as a cornerstone of the economy.
How do you measure the impact you have had on the industry?
One metric to look at is that 5 or 10 years ago you probably had around 1,000 businesses that had been certified by independent third party assessors that they’re engaging in sustainable business practices. Now that number in just the hotel sector alone is around 5,000. That’s a powerful benchmark. In the Netherlands, you have to go through a sustainable tourism certification process to be a certified tour operator.
What aspect of your work are you most passionate about?
I look at the quantitative and qualitative impacts my work has. I probably never would have never gotten into travel if I was motivated by money. It really is exciting to see the caliber of multinational companies we’re working with, the number and types of destinations we’re working with and the types of projects we’re working on.
Are you making efforts to mentor the next generation of tourism professionals?
We’re launching what we call a Certified Sustainable Tourism Professional Program that includes a curriculum we think tourism professionals need to know. It’s not focused on the nuts and bolts of marketing, but on helping projects at the destination level, asking questions like ‘”How do you develop a product appropriate to a destination?” We hope to launch it publically this fall. We want to make the price point accessible. We also work with a number of universities and students as interns on projects at the university level around the world. A board of regents we put together adapts the program and ensures the credibility of the program and constantly evolving curriculum.