Sustainable Travel: Holidays that don’t cost the earth

Focus is a crucial first step to making a true impact, with successful initiatives starting from within before engaging with suppliers.

Sonia Davies describes joining Scott Dunn as CEO in January 2018 as “an interesting role in an industry [she] has an innate interest in”. And it was growing fast. Backed by Inflexion since 2014, the firm entered the US in 2016 through an acquisition, marking Scott Dunn’s first non-UK sales office. Later in 2016 it tested the Asian waters with a small Singaporean office, ultimately paving the way for an acquisition there with the strong support from Inflexion’s East Asian expert.

In addition to this global growth, Sonia was also drawn to the firm’s “ability to try and give back”. Indeed the firm exuded a positive charitable aura by having a dozen organisations it supported. But this breadth was to the detriment of depth. “When you have too many things on the go at once, you don’t make real progress,” according to Sonia.

She set to work canvassing the opinions of her new colleagues to gauge sentiment, revealing 48 different areas the group wanted to work on. Women, ethnicity and the LGBTQ+ community were high on many lists, and so 12 charities were whittled down to a more focused two.

This laser focus extends to the firm’s sustainability efforts, which ramped up in early 2021. Scott Dunn places high value on its customers – in fact it was awarded the 2021 Top Travel Specialists in the World by the Condé Nast Traveller Readers’ Choice Awards, its ninth year receiving the recognition – and so surveyed its guest base to understand how important this issue was. “There’s so much in the press about sustainability becoming a primary driver for booking holidays, so we wanted to understand how important it truly is, particularly since COVID,” Sonia explains. “Nearly half of our customers said it was very important and 45% said somewhat important, so it is truly a factor. But, it is not yet the driving factor for the majority of our guest base.”

Sustainable travel isn’t just about the environment but also community: protecting and empowering people as well as the environment and wildlife. “Often in travel people focus on the E, but we try and focus on all aspects, so we’re sustainable as well as supporting the communities we operate in with a diverse customer and employee base,” explains Sonia.

Mixing business with leisure

To make it easier for guests to find sustainable options, Scott Dunn have set out to curate their holiday offering, from eco hotels to women-run hotels. “We’re trying to build awareness for more responsible ways of curating our product range. We offer thousands of lodges in hundreds of countries, and it can be difficult for our guests to discern among them so we are trying to make it easier,” Sonia says.

Scott Dunn is also increasingly engaging with its hotel operators to encourage a higher level of responsible practice across businesses, for example reducing single-use plastics.

The firm has launched an Eco Hotel range for those looking to minimise their travel impact. The screening process uses 30 criteria to assign partners a sustainable and ethical tourism score. The assessment looks at overuse of imported products, engagement with local community, how well they provide training to local communities, how the supplier or property makes efforts to engage with minority groups (whether gender, race or sexuality) and more. This framework is used for new partners as well as for existing ones looking to work more closely with Scott Dunn.

“A big joy of travelling is meeting the local communities, as it changes how you feel about those destinations. If you can do that and support that community at the same time, it’s a very positive experience for all,” Sonia enthuses.

ESG as a journey

Having gone through a pandemic which wasn’t travel-friendly, Scott Dunn bootstrapped its early ESG efforts. An example is blind screening its recruitment process: before any CVs were passed on, candidates were asked to complete a questionnaire about their professional experiences. These were submitted with no names, educational or employer background to remove any biases. Only after this stage were CVs shared.

Once people join the Scott Dunn team, policies around diversity, inclusion and belonging are clear, according to Sonia: “We’ve recently rolled out policies to include the needs of carers (whether for children or parents), those experiencing menopause, fertility issues, miscarriage and more. We’re now looking at the next chapter for carbon reduction, namely carbon sequestering – buying trees to offset impact at 4x the standard rate. Applying this to customers’ trips is next on the list.”

Key to making the ESG efforts a success is buy-in – across all levels of the business. This means it’s a communal effort, with one member of the senior team leading on the ‘S’ side as the pioneers for the D, I and Belonging initiative, and another the effective lead for LBGTQ+ initiatives. Sonia is spearheading the KPIs tracking them against the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Touring ethically


Scott Dunn offers guests the opportunity to make their travels more ethical, with a number of partners on the ground offering enlightening experiences:

  •  In the UAE, one hotel is playing a leading role in protecting nearby mangroves – which cover more than 150 square kilometres of the Emirates’ coastline – with golf course guests able to appreciate and learn about this crucial part of the ecosystem.
  • In Morocco, the Kasbah Tamadot hotel employs 100% of their staff from the local community to enhance living standards in some of the most impoverished communities surrounding the property. The Eve Branson Foundation (EBF), spearheaded by Richard Branson’s late mother, works closely with the property to create opportunities for local people in the High Atlas Mountains to make a meaningful difference to their families and community. As a non-profit organisation, the EBF relies on funding from individual donors and guest visits.
  • In Rwanda, the Virunga Lodge works to support the local community, offering guests the opportunity to get directly involved during their stay. Since 2014 the “One Sheep per Family” project has provided roughly 300 sheep to local families, one sheep to each of the families in three nearby villages. The manure provides natural fertiliser for growing crops, while selling lambs provide income for the family. Guests can donate money to support this and walk the sheep to the villages. Since 2016, Virunga Lodge has also been providing plastic water tanks to the local community with the support of Virunga guests, and has donated 140 tanks to all households in Sunzu village. As at November 2021, 53 tanks have also been donated to families in Bugeyo village, with a further 122 families to go to ensure each home has a water tank.