Exclusive interview – Lynn Cutter – former EVP of Travel for National Geographic

Having recently left National Geographic Partners to pursue new horizons, Lynn Cutter is renowned for building innovative sustainable travel business. Given this year’s theme by the United Nations as the “year of sustainable tourism for development”, we felt it was the ripe time to obtain Lynn’s perspective on the topic.

I am optimistic about the future of sustainability in the travel industry. Businesses will increasingly take notice of the need to be sustainable as more customers demand it.

As millennials and the generation behind them get older, sustainability will become an increasingly important factor in travel decisions. In addition, if our government is not leading in this area, more and more people will be looking for leadership from the private sector, and sustainability will become more of a driver in customer purchase decisions. There is no industry better positioned to lead in this area than travel. I am convinced there are countless entrepreneurial opportunities to help businesses find creative solutions to becoming more sustainable.

Two areas that I think are most critical to address are:

1. Lack of government policy, oversight and business incentives that promote sustainable tourism development and address overcrowding issues. One example of how to address this is through business incentives to fast track approval for tourism investments that follow sustainable tourism practices, such as training and capacity building for local communities, environmentally friendly practices, etc.Or through restrictions on tourism levels such as those that have been implemented in pristine places like the Galapagos Islands. A fantastic example of one individual making a huge impact is the Pristine Seas project, led by marine biologist Enric Sala and funded by Nat Geo and others. Through the programme, Enric has identified more than a dozen of the planet’s most unspoiled marine ecosystems where there’s still an opportunity to preserve them. Enric and his team go to the place, study and document it, then make a case to the government and local community of the economic benefits from tourism and other activities that can accrue from protecting the area. To date, Pristine Seas project has resulted in protection of more than 3 million square kilometres of oceans, including the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument – the world’s largest marine protected area – and the Palau National Marine Sanctuary.


2. Lack of private sector investment in sustainable tourism best practices and programmes, and the need to better communicate commitment to and actions around sustainability to help customers better differentiate between providers. At National Geographic, we created National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World to help shine a spotlight on properties that were not only offering exceptional experiences and service, but also were innovators and leaders in sustainable development. These are lodge owners who recognised that doing good and doing well are not mutually exclusive. In working with our lodge partners, I have been struck by the level of innovation and creativity applied to finding sustainable solutions. For example, Fogo Island: Zita Cobb is a Newfoundlander who saw the culture of Fogo Island disappearing as the cod industry crashed and youth began to leave to seek employment elsewhere. By creating Fogo Island Inn, which is owned by a community trust and steeped in island traditions, she made the culture itself a draw, and placed an economic value on maintaining local heritage through sustainable tourism. Guests come to learn about traditional cod pot fishing, how to build boats, forage for wild food, make traditional dishes, see local art and architecture, and experience a way of life unique to the island. Lapa Rios, in Costa Rica, helped to establish the local school in its region, and now assists nearly a dozen other schools on the Osa Peninsula, working in partnership with local organizations, and often receiving donations from guests. At Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in South Africa, the owners spent years buying up degraded former agricultural land, restoring the natural habitat and reintroducing endemic species. At Pacuare Lodge in Costa Rica, one of the lead guides was once a top poacher in the area. He was recruited intentionally by the lodge owner, who knew that a poacher would understand the jungle better than most. Not only is that guide now paid to spread appreciation for the wildlife he once targeted, he also has recruited other poachers to work for the lodge. Other lodges have come up with truly cutting edge sustainable technology, such as carbon-free air-conditioning that uses deep seawater cooling and is powered by coconut oil at The Brando in French Polynesia.

What is your “message” to the world’s travel professionals and hoteliers in this respect?

Embrace this opportunity to lead with innovative sustainable solutions. Tap into the ideas and creativity of everyone in your organization. Do it now and you’ll be building a solid organisation for your company’s future. And do it now to protect our industry’s greatest asset – the places we explore.

Photos: Lynn Cutter, Former Executive Vice President of Travel – National Geographic Partners; he Brando Island