In discussing ecotourism,
most discussions focus on the efforts in host countries necessary
for promoting environmental conservation. However, one of the
important forces within travel which draws less attention, is
the influence of travel agents. Travel agents book 80 percent
of air travel, 30 percent of hotel stays, and 95 percent of
cruise sales. They assist travelers in making critical decisions
in their travel arrangements. At times they are the main source
of information on the destination of travel.
The travel industry is facing an uncertain time. Trends are
changing rapidly. The web is allowing people to do their own
travel arrangements. Electronic ticketing is becoming more common.
The world is becoming more economically linked. Commission caps
and reductions in commissions continue to make it harder for
travel agents to make a living. Different organizations and
different destinations offer a growing number of travel products.
Travel agents are expected to know about more areas of the world,
more travel interests and more travel bargains.
The airlines are doing what they can to squeeze travel agents
out of the picture. For the average traveler it would seem that
this might be a good thing. One less middleman means fewer paychecks
which need to be satisfied. However, travel agents provide an
important check on the airlines' shifting patterns. They provide
an important point of reference for questions, as airlines continually
create a chaotic array of offers, arrangements and perks.
The increasing complexity of the travel industry is making
it more important to have a professional who can decrease the
confusion. Eventually agents may charge hourly consultation
fees. However at this time, most agencies strive for high volume
sales and are straining the capacity of travel agents to serve
as capable and well researched gatekeepers as they advise travelers.
A rule of thumb for agents is to share no more than two brochures
with a client. Too many choices make things overly complicated
for a client. Hopefully an agent is familiar with the possibilities
and presents choices which provide the most dependable products.
Rare is the agent who has had time to investigate tour operators
to find which presents thoughtful policies sensitive to ecological
and cultural resources.
Where can this issue be addressed? Some claim the demand of
the consumer will create the needed incentive for increased
awareness on the part of agents. Some organizations which could
providing training demonstrating personal and professional benefits
from ecotourism include Travel Schools, vendor marketing professionals
and ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents).
Until supporters of ecotourism can demonstrate immediate benefits,
travel schools and other industry training programs will give
little attention to the concept. Possibilities for increased
exposure may come from combining programs with other college
departments, which might also enhance the prestige of travel
agent education and widen the scope of training of travel consultants.
Another important factor that may increase agent awareness
is the web. Most travel professionals fear the web will take
business from the travel agencies. However, the web can provide
a useful means for reducing the costs of research and making
communication networks easier. As travel schools slowly become
comfortable with this new tool, they may be made more aware
of the issues of ecotourism.
Ecotourism projects will need to provide marketing assistance,
easy to read literature which can be shared with clients, and
competitive commissions. Interesting seminars can offer trips
at reduced rates to agents to introduce them to the products
and encourage them to share their experiences with other agents.
Until an agent can speak personally of a destination experience,
they hold little credibility with clients and sales are harder
to make. In order to gain the attention of over worked, underpaid
agents, who must be sales driven, suppliers and vendors will
need to use marketing efforts which consider their daily needs.
Among travel agents and consumers, ASTA is well regarded as
a proponent for professionalism in the travel industry. They
have developed a code, which although unmonitored, serves as
an important set of guidelines among travel professionals. Worldwide
seminars and conferences provide education and training services.
With over 25,000 members in 136 countries, it is the largest
and most influential travel trade association in the world.
Proponents of ecotourism, should consider joint efforts with
this important institution.
Efforts in ecotourism could be done with greater sensitivity
to the critical role played by travel agents. Among those who
talk of ecotourism, host countries are seen to be at the mercy
of the mighty dollar. The slim margin of profit in travel creates
similar day to day realities for many small travel agencies.
When proponents of ecotourism in developed countries suggest
that tourism needs to be curbed and controlled within a host
country, they should consider the means by which those efforts
can be recognized and encouraged by agents working in their