Positive Voices in Travel - Ethan Gelber, The Travel Word
When I first realized that the kind of travelling I was interested in had a name it felt like a revelation. Throwing myself headlong into the world of responsible, sustainable, local, eco and conscious travel I found that although I had instinctively journeyed in this way for years, I still had a lot to learn.
Getting my head around all the different labels was a start but whereas there are of course some differences in approach, the overall theme is the same: To empower travel that is kind to the planet and the creatures that inhabit it.
This is the first in a series of profiles of people I believe are positive voices in travel. I will be talking to people from all sorts of areas and backgrounds and the labels that we choose to call this sort of travel are, when used, intended to be interchangeable.
First up is Ethan Gelber from The Travel Word
Spoken like a true traveller, Ethan describes his journey into tourism as “wayward and undirected”. Falling in love with Paris after studying there in the mid 80s he decided to stick around and needed a job for the summer. It just so happened that he was a self-taught bike mechanic and ended up working for a bike tour operator.
When that company folded, Ethan joined forces with the director and together they started Blue Marble Travel. Ethan was in charge of designing and guiding the tours, and without knowing it he was already running things according to positive tourism principles.
“Back then I had no idea about the travel landscape, I was just enjoying leading the tours. There would be no vehicles involved with all the bikes moved around on trains”. Not happy until he found the perfect local partners to work with and support, Ethan would keep searching until he found that “magical match”. His tours were aptly named Discovery Tours and they did what it said on the tin – allowed visitors to discover a destination up close and personal.
Describing what he was trying to create, he talks of “the third lens” through which travellers can experience a place. He explains: “Imagine two coloured lenses: The blue lens is the world view people arrive with and the destination is yellow.” By layering the two, people can see through that elusive green lens where they get under the skin of a place.
After a few years, Ethan returned to his native New York City to do a Masters in International Education and Cross-Cultural Communication, a field that has always been close to his heart. He’s also enthusiastic about technology and was quick to discover the nascent internet back in the mid-90s. Unfortunately, not everyone was as keen as he was.
“I spent a year as a high school teacher and was dismayed at how afraid some teachers were of computers.” He decided to combine his personal passion for bicycles and cross-cultural communication with the possibilities presented by the brand new world-wide-web. Out of this came the BikeAbout project.
In a pre-blogging, pre-social media world, BikeAbout's goals were bold: For its inaugural and most ambitious project, it planned to travel around the circumference of the Mediterranean on bikes to teach kids about different places, people and cultures, spreading the message through the internet. Think clunky laptop computers, dialup internet connections and low-res first-generation digital cameras. This was the ultimate peace-seeking, forward-thinking, sustainable-travel idea and it took 18 months to organize. The trip itself – a pedal from Morocco to Gibraltar the long way around – lasted nine months.
Ethan remembers: “Some people we encountered on the way knew about the internet and for them having us on hand was magical. For others, it was new and frightening to see us turning up like aliens on bikes with a load of equipment.” The chronicles from that journey are still online, probably one of the very first web-logs, back then, before they became blogs.
This project put him in a great position for taking up a writing career. He spent a couple of years before the Internet bubble burst as an editor at GORP.com, and since 2001 he has been contributing to Lonely Planet and many other outlets. He also spent time working within or for a few destination-marketing organizations. Perhaps through his love of riding bikes, he accidentally fell into the outdoor-adventure and nature field.
In 2008 he joined Len Cordiner at whl.travel, a pioneer in off-the-beaten-track, developing-world booking portals for hotels, tours and activities. Originally backed by the World Bank Group, the company became private in 2006 and Ethan worked his way up through the ranks until he eventually became Chief Communications Officer. By this point he was explicitly aware that we was operating in the sphere of sustainable tourism.
During this time Ethan created The Travel Word. “I don’t like calling it a blog. It was started as a quasi-corporate site to showcase local voices and get people excited about local travel”. To reflect this goal, a large proportion of the content on the site is written by contributing partners.
Whl.travel did well, grew, diversified and was folded into the WHL-Group.com, the largest local-travel company in the world. Today, one of the group's most active subsidiaries is Hotel Link Solutions, a technology company providing digital-marketing solutions to the accommodation industry with a goal to allowing tiny local operators access to a global market that can seem out of reach and expensive.
Ethan decided to step back from his job at the WHL Group early in 2013 to concentrate on other projects. He continues to run The Travel Word in a more personal capacity and has hopes of bringing the Local Travel Movement, a platform for people passionate about local travel, back to life after a period of quietness. “This started as a forum for initiatives and partners that didn’t really fit into the WHL Group structure, but with whom we wanted to maintain a dialogue”.
One of his latest projects is EcoAdventure Media, a collaboration with a group of content creators, photographers and social media experts. “This started with a multi-voice piece envisaged by Bret Love from Green Global Travel, a very active player in the eco-tourism space. Contributors wrote 150 words each, one thing led to another and they joined forces to offer support to brands with an eco-adventure focus.”
I asked Ethan his opinion on the hot topic of certification
“I don’t think there is a perfect system. There are simply too many variables and you can’t pigeonhole process. I am however interested to see how the new Responsible Travel part of TripAdvisor works out. Perhaps people will respond well to that as TripAdvisor has so much clout and no real competitors.”
“In terms of the work done by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council it will be interesting to see what happens once it is fully integrated into the UNWTO. Will it lose its teeth? Holding everyone to the same standards is an impressive goal in principle, but in practice it could be very different.”
Ethan’s advice to positive travellers
Keep your wits about you when booking and read what people write about their experiences in places. If the policy seems genuine, don’t hesitate to ask questions of the booking company, hotels, operators etc. And why not ask to speak to a former client for a direct testimonial? You’ll be surprised how honest people are. And finally, always follow the money – who benefits and where?
For 20 years, Ethan Gelber has wandered the planet as a responsible/local/eco/slow traveler. More importantly, as a professional communications strategist and freelance writer, including as a Lonely Planet author, Huffington Post blogger, AFAR Ambassador, Open Places eco-columnist and staff writer for the now-defunct Travelllll.com, he has agitated for responsible/sustainable travel practices, a focus on keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing.
Among many other things, Ethan is a co-founder of EcoAdventure Media (a platform for supporting eco-conscious brands), Outbounding (a community-driven platform to identify and celebrate excellent travel content), Destination Accelerator (education and networking opportunities for destination marketers) and the Local Travel Movement (a platform for people passionate about local travel). For five years, Ethan has been chief communications officer of the WHL Group, the largest local-travel company in the world, for which he founded and edits The Travel Word, a website that showcases responsible, sustainable and local travel.