On an ongoing journey of listening and learning: travel, sustainability and relationships
When I speak with businesses and organizations that ask me about sustainability and in particular, about certification, I find myself referring to the “sustainability journey.” Reluctant as I am to use the cliché, I realized that I, too, am on my own journey.
I became interested in sustainable tourism before I knew it had a name. It began while backpacking around Europe one summer after completing a study abroad program. I was lost and looking for food in the calli of Venice and came across a restaurant that served pizza topped with french fries. This is so absurd, I thought.
How could this be an authentic Venetian food experience? It wasn’t, of course. It was a lightbulb moment – I uncovered a curiosity to dig deeper into tourism, the people and places touched by travel, and ultimately, sustainability.
The next semester I took a class on hospitality and tourism and discovered that it all clicked for me, and from there, decided to pursue a Masters in Tourism. In my graduate studies I became involved in researching destinations’ commitment to cultural heritage tourism, and did an internship at the Africa Travel Association, which lit my path in the tourism industry.
Upon graduating, I moved to Washington, DC, spent a few months interning at CREST while also performing tourism-related government relations work, gaining insights about politicking and having involvement in some of the movements at the time, such as the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act and the Travel Promotion Act, which lead to the creation of what is now Brand USA.
An opportunity then presented itself for me to travel to Cambodia, where I spent some time working with the Women’s Media Centre of Cambodia. Something about being in Cambodia made me feel very alive. Between working on a dual-language bi-weekly environmental radio show, writing grants, and putting together reports, I was learning as much as I could about 20th-century Cambodian history, playing volleyball with colleagues every day after work, trying Cambodian dishes, and taking Khmer lessons on my lunch break. Leaving was hard when it was time to go, but yet another opportunity arose that I knew I had to pursue.
I moved to Uganda to work under the USAID-STAR (Sustainable Tourism in the Albertine Rift) project, alongside the Uganda Community Tourism Association. Here I saw firsthand the challenges community tourism enterprises faced (inconsistent power supply, human-wildlife conflict, lack of know-how to attract overseas audiences, to name a few) when developing and marketing their products.
What I learned humbled and grounded me. These experiences truly allowed me to apply my studies and set the stage for my work in sustainable tourism. My time in both Cambodia and Uganda taught me to look critically at the world; it gave me a sense of purpose.
When the project in Uganda ended, I found myself back home in Vancouver. I was unsure of my next step and was going through serious reverse culture shock that had both mental as well as physical implications. I was a different person than I was when I first left Vancouver ten years prior, and I didn’t feel as if I belonged at all.
Not knowing what else to do, I bought myself a ticket to Hong Kong to see my dad and grandmother and started networking to keep busy. It was also at this point in my life when I really started to accept my multiculturalism, and in particular, my Asianness, being a Hong Konger raised in Canada as a Canadian.
I eventually met Andrew Jones through the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, who introduced me to Martin Craigs, then CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, who happened to be attending a conference in Hong Kong, and who was looking to recruit someone to support their CSR programming. I met with Martin, and at the end of the meeting, he said to me, “Give me one page on why you want to work for PATA. Have it on my desk by noon tomorrow.”
My stint at PATA became a career cornerstone. During my time there, I not only worked to benchmark and achieve sustainability certification for the PATA office, I presented on sustainability, led workshops, wrote articles and reports, educating myself, while raising awareness of issues such as community tourism, wildlife in tourism, environmental best practices, and so much more.
In this way, I participated on the global stage on behalf of the organization, even representing PATA on the Executive Committee as an Officer of the Board of Directors of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council for six years, and becoming the youngest member ever to serve on the Board. My last project at PATA was a report on the state of food waste in Asia, which won a Gourmand Award for Lifestyle & Sustainable Food in 2019.
By the time I left PATA, I had made lasting business relationships as well as friendships, which allowed me to launch the next phase of my career in consulting.
I have found consulting extremely enjoyable and have been grateful for the flexibility it has offered me through the COVID pandemic. Being in charge of my own time certainly has its pitfalls, but being set up for working from home and having the flexibility to support my two young children, especially during the spring of 2020, was very important.
The COVID era certainly helped me clarify my priorities and in doing so, it also helped me cut out the other noise in my life. It has given me room to focus on balancing my priorities - namely my family, my work, and myself.
For me, sustainability means finding an equitable path forward, lifting each other up, to make sure that our children’s children can experience the wondrous places that we have been so fortunate to see. Much of what sustainability is about is continuous improvement, and so, the adage of it being about the journey holds true – the listening and learning will be forever, just as I hope that we can travel forever.
Chi Lo (she/her) is a sustainable tourism expert and consultant with experience across four continents. She specializes in sustainability strategic planning and reporting, cross-sectoral and cross-cultural relationship building, with particular interest in community-based tourism, social justice, wildlife, (food) waste, and certification. Current engagements include Travel Unity, Travelife for Tour Operators, and Textile Exchange, alongside affiliations such as the GSTC Communications Working Group, Destination Stewardship Center, the World Tourism Association for Cultural Heritage, and others. Chi is based in Seattle and is happiest exploring the wide world with her husband and young children.