Meet Patro Marco, sustainable travel expert at Nativa Selectta
1) When and why did you decide to set up a sustainable travel agency?
As a professional and, above all, as a traveller I have evolved in my fourteen-year career. And visiting more than 62 countries, seeing both the good and not so good things I saw, made me decide the path I wanted to take. Sustainability no longer seemed to me an option but a necessity.
2) What exactly is ‹sustainable tourism›?
I can only give my own particular point of view, which is therefore subjective but still mine, based on my own experience.
For me it’s the type of ethical tourism that has, above all, an awareness of local cultures and ethnic groups, while at the same time contributes to generating decent employment and income for these people and their families. All of this while, of course, trying to minimize its impact on the environment.
3) As a sustainable travel agency, how do you differ from a conventional one?
We always deal directly with the people or ethnic groups we want to visit, so the money that finally reaches these groups is not dwindled due to intermediaries.
We have removed almost all the non-recyclable plastic that we used to use, replacing it, for instance, with recycled cardboard in the folders we use for travel vouchers, itineraries, timetables and so on, though we always try to send everything via digital means.
In Costa Rica, for example, the water bottles we used were made of Oxo-biodegradable plastic, which is a little more expensive, but when the packaging degrades it does not harm the environment, as it returns to it without leaving any waste. These are just a few of many, everyday details that improve our sustainability on a daily basis. And like these, there are many more details that we may not see, but that surely make a difference.
A sustainable travel agency is not going to list in which ways it is sustainable, as that would probably look like they are trying to play the 'sustainability card'. Rather than that, what they do is gradually incorporate these actions into their programmes, trips and so on.
4) What are the main challenges you face when organizing a sustainable trip?
Firstly, we try to choose the shortest or most direct route possible to the destination, in order to reduce pollution. With this I am not saying we do not pollute, because air travel makes that impossible, but we try to keep it as low as possible.
Then, when travelling across the country we are visiting, we try to use cars as little as possible, with many of the visits even made on foot, and we always try to avoid air travel. One example is Myanmar, where many routes and visits can be done in wooden barges, carts, and even, as I mentioned before, on foot, even if it requires a little more effort.
Secondly, we try to ensure the money stays within the local families. In Uzbekistan, for instance, we always visit two large families who always welcome us as if we were their relatives, teaching us how to cook the typical Uzbek Plov and inviting us into their dining rooms to eat with them as if we were part of the family.
The money we spend, instead of going to restaurants and intermediaries, stays there, and as they often live in isolated areas, this extra income is more than welcome by these families with small children in their care, others who go to school, etc, so really it’s a win-win situation
5) On an environmental level, what worries you most when organizing a trip?
Choosing the adequate hotels, services, routes... And also, perhaps, trying to get people to understand the concept. Everybody likes the word sustainable, but do they really strive to become sustainable?
I for one often search for hotels that respect the environment and contribute to it. In Africa, for example, there are many. And from time to time I travel to faraway places where despite staying in a five-star hotel, lets say the generator occasionally goes off, so people start complaining, without realizing that, if they just turned round and looked out of the window, they could enjoy a priceless sunrise or sunset.
6) As for their social impact, why do you consider your trips have a positive impact?
There are several fundamental reasons. Firstly, the routes are supervised by a specialized technician from Spain and are then optimized.
Secondly, it’s very unlikely for us to change suppliers at the destination -even if we are offered a cheaper option- because our people, with whom we have been working for years, know what we want and what we do not want.
And finally, because after so much travelling -last year I spent about five and a half months travelling around the World with different groups- I know very well what I want and how I want it. And here many factors converge such as the choice of routes, guides, accommodation, and so on.
7) Do you think people understand what sustainable travel is, and are willing to pay a little more for it?
That’s a very good question. Do you know what the problem is? We all like to think we are sustainable, but it’s when you really see it when you understand what it means. For instance, one of the countries I know best is Ethiopia. Last year I lost sales on my trip because other similar options were cheaper. Why? Because I’m not going to haggle with an Ethiopian guide over his fee even though the lack of work in the country would make it easy. I want a good service from a good professional and to pay him what is fair.
I refuse to stay at hotels with no ethics or health standards. I've seen many hotels where people -even children- are paid to get on their knees and scrub the floors, and I am not going to promote them no matter how much cheaper their offer is. The places I visit, the restaurants I dine at and the hotels I stay at must be fair and ethical towards their staff; otherwise I don't want them on my trips and expeditions. Sure, it would save me a lot of money and I could offer the final customer a cheaper package, but would it really be sustainable? You need ethics to be sustainable.