Comment: A growing opportunity left untouched

Eco Companion founder Max Sinclair – a keynote speaker at the British Tourism & Travel Show – bangs the drum for volunteer tourism in the UK.

As the founder of an organisation focused entirely on ecotourism, I have a unique point of view on the demand for the various forms of ecotourism in different parts of the world.

From this vantage point, I see an opportunity in the UK that is so large I am almost confused about how we could have reached this point.

That opportunity, you may be surprised to hear, is volunteer tourism.

The global market for volunteer tourism – done properly via the principles of ecotourism – has continued to grow year-on-year.

One study, for example, suggests that 10% of families in the US have taken a volunteer trip and of those that have not yet done so, 22% planned to in the future.

This demand is being met around the world with volunteer tourism products becoming more widespread and diversified.

In the UK, however, we are left wanting, with only a small number of providers offering authentic, credible volunteer experiences.

Conservation projects

Eco Companion looks to collect the best examples available – for example, with Wild Days Conservation’s projects across the UK, where clients are able to help rebuild coastal paths, work with British wildlife or clean up the seaside.

We are now also starting to build relationships with charities such as the various wildlife trusts that already do such good work in conservation, to create entirely new volunteer tourism products to bring an entire new market and revenue stream.

However, compared to other parts of the world, the choices in the UK are extremely limited.

Is the demand lower, warranting the small offering available to consumers today?

The short answer is no.

Eco Companion has seen more demand for volunteer tourism for the UK than any other destination.

That’s not a mistype. We have had more requests for volunteer tourism than any other destination globally.

 Great initiatives

There are many reasons for this, ranging from great initiatives that are tackling damage to our oceans through to re-wilding projects across Wales by the various wildlife trusts.

One particular reason stands out to me though.

While I stand by the fact that the broad benefits from true ecotourism far outweigh the costs of the emissions produced from the journey to each destination, the average UK consumer still likes the idea of avoiding that negative impact all together by booking a staycation.

So a larger percentage of eco-travellers are choosing to avoid flights all together and are spending their summer in the UK.

These customers still have the same desire to have a positive impact on the natural world, though they may not venture as far. Yet these desires are not being met.

This is why I believe there is currently such a strong demand for more UK-based volunteer experiences which allow these eco-tourists to avoid the environmental costs of flights and also deliver a meaningful positive impact to the natural world.

Adding value

So the question is: Who will take up this demand and how?

A great first step is to look to the many charities and non-governmental organisations across the country that are already involved in conservation.

It’s a simple thing to have a quick search for what’s going on in your particular area and reach out to see if that might then become a part of your offering.

For a hotel owner, adding day trips out to a pine marten re-wilding project currently in development by the Vincent Wildlife Trust here in the UK can add a great deal of value to a holiday – and, of course, additional revenue stream to give you that much-needed space as margins get tighter.

• Max Sinclair is one of the keynote speakers at the British Tourism & Travel Show, taking place at the NEC in Birmingham (March 21-22).

His session will be at 3.15pm on March 21, looking at ecotourism in the UK.