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Marketing Ecotourism to Travel Agents
by Elizabeth Malek-Zadeh


Publication date: 1998

FLICKR ALBUM: Globalize Yourself

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 own country.


Elizabeth Malek-Zadeh is a travel agent offering consultation in trip planning. She organized the 1996 conference on ecotourism at Yale University and has worked as for TravelScope International and and Halintours in Austin, Texas.


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