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Face to Face: Jon Bruno, The International Ecotourism Society

“The idea that one culture is ‘right’ has, I hope, played out…”

Jon Bruno, executive director at TIES – The International Ecotourism Society – speaks to Rob Spalding…

RS     You used to work in the world of high finance. Why did you make the leap to low tourism?

JB     I have always been passionate about sustainability. My first interest was photovoltaic cells and other forms of sustainable energy. After I began travelling, I realised the power of tourism, and the potential it has for good. As for leaving finance, I miss it a bit, but I was on the trading floor the day Lehman Bros collapsed. I decided then I wanted to do something that would last.

RS     What is the history of TIES and how did you first join?

JB     TIES was founded in 1990 by Megan Epler Wood, who left the organization in 2000.  For most of its early history, TIES was a small group of enthusiasts with great passion.  We hit a rough period in 2006, after the contentious departure of the then ED.  When I came in, in 2008, it was ostensibly to consider shutting the organization down. I believed strongly in our mission and fought to keep the lights on.  At the time we had around 600 members.  Now we have 15,000 and one of the largest social media presences of any sustainable tourism organization.

 

RS     What would you say is your major challenge, right now?

JB     Separating what we can do sustainably for our organization, and what we want to do.  We have a huge mandate, and our work is very needed.  We get many requests for complex specialized information every day, and we would love to be able to respond to every request, but we have to better support ourselves.

RS     Where is the society based and does it have plush offices?

JB     We’re based in New York, and our offices in the UN complex are decidedly not plush.  We have lots of mismatched posters, wood furniture, pens from every corner of the world, ancient filing cabinets, and one unpaid fern.

RS     Do you commute to work?

JB     In the sense that I work around the world, yes.  My commute is in the air, and my traffic jams are runways.  We’re very rarely in the office, and almost never at the same time.

RS     Presumably you travel abroad a lot. How do you fit in family, hobbies, pets, relaxation, vacations?

JB     I’m lucky because I like to hike, and my family likes to hike.  When we travel we hike, and that relaxes us.  When I travel for business I often get to walk, sometimes in unbelievable settings.  Even when I’m in a city, I walk a lot.  I also find that the people in the travel industry are a lot of fun, so even when I’m working I get to have a good time.

RS     What internal structural adjustment does TIES face at present?

JB     We could be ten times our size and not do everything our constituents need.  Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but I don’t think that will ever change.  I have small tour operators who want to focus on ecotourism reaching out to me every single day.  They need funds, support, marketing, help with regulations, and financial infrastructure.  They have passion, they have attractions, but they can’t bring their knowledge and experience to the world because they’re locked out of the global financial system.  This, if you can believe me, while booking.com, TIES, and many others have found that there is a massive lack of ecotourism capacity.  People want ecotourism, but they don’t know how to find it. Yet every day I see would-be operators who could bring revenue and respectful tourism to their communities, but I can’t help them. It keeps me up at night, I’ll tell you.  TIES has to address this challenge, and we’re working on partnering to try and overcome it.

RS     Is convention travel a major offender against ecotourism?

JB     It is sad to say, but right now, yes.  This is changing, and there are a lot of people in the meetings space working very hard to create positive outcomes.  ICCA has made sustainable meeting travel a top priority, which is important and gratifying.  Recognized experts like Guy Bigwood are working with destinations to implement sustainable practices.  But we are not, as an industry, focused enough on developing destinations.  They need the help of our industry most, and while it is nice to be able to point to G20 countries and note their progress, we can do a lot more.  There are some very bright spots, and I am encouraged that we’ll see the hard work necessary to celebrate and support the developing nations that are making ecotourism and sustainable meetings part of their core practice.

RS     Do you have a continual struggle between establishing limitations for tourism and educating destination communities about alternative sources of revenue?

JB     This is a real challenge.  First, destination communities are usually going from mining, forestry, agriculture, etc, toward a tourism economy.  Our focus is on advising for correct implementation that will produce a long lasting return without destroying resources and culture. The limitations on tourism are necessary to keep the revenue growing organically and locally.

RS     Does ecotourism apply to individuals as well as groups and do you practice what you preach?

JB     Actually it applies more to individuals.  Ecotourism is beautiful when it is small scale, and it is transformative when it is just a few eco-travelers or even one.  Sometimes being vulnerable, and removing the stifling wraps of expectation, and the crippling rules of the industrialized world, opens the mind to true experience.  With groups, the challenge is to allow group members to forge a real connection with a destination community’s people and nature.  All travellers crave this connection, even if they don’t realize it.  Group activities that allow people the time to process, without hurrying them to and fro, are best.

RS     Will you remain an ecotourism warrior, even if you shift jobs?

JB Absolutely.  There are so many beautiful things in the world, and so many people to admire.  The incorrect idea that one culture is “right” and others are “lesser” is, I hope, an idea that is about played out.  I’ve had people all over the world welcome me into their homes and communities.