As the Director of Sustainability at Booking.com, Marianne Gybels uses her knowledge of social sciences to effect real change. In a conversation with Travel + Leisure, she talks about some model destinations around the world and how the pandemic has affected travellers’ choices. By Rashima Nagpal
Travel + Leisure India: What does it mean to be director of sustainability at Booking.com?
Marianne Gybels: As a leading global travel brand, we believe it is our responsibility to help preserve and build a world worth experiencing—now and long into the future. My team leads the company’s wider efforts on this front. This ranges from working with our partner-facing teams to find innovative and engaging ways to encourage our accommodation partners to adopt more sustainable practices, to collaborating with our product teams to experiment with new and better ways to surface our partners’ sustainability information. Ultimately, we want to make it easier for everyone to travel more sustainably. My team also engages with stakeholders across the travel industry. You see this with our ongoing commitment to Travalyst, as well as through our recent collaboration with Global Tourism Plastics Initiative (GTPI) led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) to educate our partners on reducing their usage of single-use plastics while still maintaining health and hygiene standards. My team is also responsible for driving the company’s efforts with regards to carbon neutrality.
Travel + Leisure India: What is the definition of sustainable travel according to you?
Marianne Gybels: It’s about keeping destinations happy and healthy, and leaving the places we visit better than how we found them. It’s not just about reducing impact; it’s about having a positive impact. At the end of the day, no one wants to go swimming on a beach covered in garbage. Also, fewer and fewer people feel comfortable spending their entire holiday behind the gates of a resort, locked away from the local community. There is a big and wonderful world out there to explore. And if done with respect for the local communities, environments, and biodiversity, travel can empower marginalised communities, broaden horizons, preserve cultural heritage, regenerate travel ecosystems, and ultimately, ensure there is always a world worth experiencing for generations to come.
Travel + Leisure India: How do you find a balance between mass tourism and responsible tourism?
Marianne Gybels: At its core, travel is really about exploring new destinations and enjoying new experiences. People are always going to want to visit Paris or the Taj Mahal. In my opinion, it’s not about telling people not to come. It’s about encouraging destinations to think more creatively about how they manage visitor flow and work with stakeholders throughout the local travel ecosystem. How can we encourage people to visit these popular places throughout the year and not only during one season? How do we combine this with inspiring people to connect with other communities and sample nearby destinations to better distribute the socio-economic benefits of tourism?
Travel + Leisure India: Some reports say people are more inclined towards sustainable travel after the pandemic. Do you see these thoughts translating into action?
Marianne Gybels: It does appear that travellers are paying more attention to the topic. Based on our most recent insights, travellers are more committed than ever to travel in a mindful way, with 88 per cent of Indian travellers stating that the pandemic has brought awareness about humans’ impact on the environment. In fact, 63 per cent admit they get annoyed if somewhere they are staying stops them from being sustainable in some way, for example, by not providing recycling facilities. While on vacation in the past 12 months, 47 per cent Indian travellers made a conscious decision to turn off their air conditioning/heating in their accommodation when they weren’t there; 48 per cent took their own reusable water bottle rather than buying bottled water; and 37 per cent did activities to support the local community.
Travel + Leisure India: How can sustainable travel be made more accessible?
Marianne Gybels: We are rolling out a programme that will support properties in taking the next steps to becoming more sustainable. This includes sharing guidance, insights, and best practices via educational opportunities. We are also displaying over 30 certifications approved by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), Green Tourism, and the EU Ecolabel, as well as multiple hotel chain sustainability programmes on our platform to help travellers make sustainable choices. To complement this, we are encouraging our accommodation partners to update their sustainability information, which includes 32 practices across five categories: waste, energy and greenhouse gases, water, supporting local communities, and protecting nature.
Travel + Leisure India: Which are some of the most sustainable destinations to travel to?
Marianne Gybels: There is a lot of inspiration to be taken from what some urban destinations like Copenhagen or Helsinki are doing in Europe, where investments and commitments to sustainable energy and transportation solutions are advanced. You’ve also got Costa Rica, where conservation and ecotourism efforts are incredibly mature and the government is on track to be one of the first countries to become carbon-neutral.
Travel + Leisure India: Which are your personal favourite destinations?
Marianne Gybels: If I’m pushed to make a choice, I would have to say that South Africa is my all-time favourite—from the friendly people and incredible diversity of culture to mountains to savannah to rugged coasts and sandy beaches… it’s an amazing place to be. Another memorable travel experience was spending what felt like an eternity—although, in reality, it was just a week—on a ‘deserted’ island off the coast of Cambodia. I didn’t have any phone, and the electricity was on for a few hours a day, but at the same time, I have never felt like I was truly experiencing a destination more deeply and authentically than in those moments.
Travel + Leisure India: Which destinations are on your bucket list?
Marianne Gybels: New Zealand and Australia. I’m a huge fan of experiencing mother nature at her finest, and both these countries have amazing natural beauty to explore.
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