3 -min. read

There is no one right answer to the conservation question – the enormous range of topics presented and discussed at the 2017 Conservation Lab alone was proof of the sheer breadth of the challenge we face. But we did notice some recurring themes throughout the SPARK talks, DISCUSS sessions and TEAMWORK challenges back in May: how to translate awareness into action, especially with regard to the role of the travel industry, was a topic on everyone’s lips. We caught up with Africa Geographic’s Simon Espley to get his take.

Simon Epsley at Conservation Lab 2017
Simon Epsley at Conservation Lab 2017

Is it the responsibility of travel brands to reflect the values of their consumers, or should they attempt to teach them new ones? Can travel create awareness where there is none, as well as fostering it when it already exists?

Consumer values have always been shaped by what is on offer – it’s up to us to offer responsible travel products and develop a sense of value in the world generally for African indigenous culture, ecosystems and wildlife species. For example, diamonds did not become a symbol of ‘forever’ because customers wanted that to happen: De Beers hired an advertising agency to help increase its sale of diamonds. The agency developed the extremely successful campaign linking diamonds and romantic love, which invented the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever”. We need to generate a similar sense of value and long-term commitment towards ecosystems and species that De Beers did for diamonds. This will not just happen on its own. We have to make it happen.

What does it mean to ‘give back’, both for travel operators and their guests? Are tourism levies really enough?

This will always be a personal process for each guest. I do believe that moderate tourism levies (as are charged by Sabi Sands) are a good thing, and beyond that should be left to the discretion and appetite of the guest.

Simon Epsley doing a SPARK talk at this year's Conservation Lab
Simon Epsley doing a SPARK talk at this year’s Conservation Lab – photo by Tim Snell

How can travel brands use their marketing platforms to go beyond raising awareness and translate this into action? Do they have a responsibility to reach beyond their target audience when it comes to conservation issues?

Travel brands should stick to their target market/audience. Trying to understand and communicate into other markets/audiences will probably end in tears, as those audiences might react badly to perceived cultural/societal differences/prejudices. Just a few badly chosen words might turn bad very quickly and create a viral social media storm.

Can the travel industry do more to create wildlife ambassadors by giving guests the opportunity to get hands-on (in a responsible manner) with conservation efforts? e.g. giraffe collaring and rhino tagging.

I do not believe that the supply is large enough to represent a genuine opportunity. Yes, guests can already engage in these activities, but only to the degree that these experiences are genuine, controlled and in the interests of research and conservation. Too much packaging of these close-up wildlife encounters will lead to what has happened in the big cat petting industry: crass commercialism at the expense of the safety, dignity and health of the animal concerned. Tagging/collaring/’treating’ and generally harassing animals in order to keep tourists happy is not the solution.

Simon with a buffalo at a visit to Lumei Primary School in Zambia's National Park
Simon with a buffalo at a visit to Lumei Primary School in Zambia’s National Park – photo courtesy of Simon Epsley

Say a traveller goes on safari and is deeply affected by their experience. How can they act upon this once they’re back home? As conservationists, how do we want consumers to help in their everyday lives?

The post-safari honeymoon period is often short-lived once travellers get back to their real lives. For those who are affected in a big way and want to make a difference, every agent/operator/lodge should have a list of ways for them to do so – from supporting charities and research projects, to sponsoring education bursaries etc.

How can travel brands – including suppliers, buyers and press – continually engage consumers with conservation issues and encourage action year-round?

Africa Geographic does this 24/7 – but that’s our business model. For travel brands it’s about tailoring their existing marketing collateral and communications to include a drip-feed of relevant content. And, of course, to put their words into action by removing non-sustainable suppliers and practices from their offerings.


Katie Palmer
Katie Palmer is Editorial & Content Manager at This is Beyond Ltd.

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