Although KrisKras VZW is only a small actor in the Flemish tour operator sector, it is a successful organisation. Moreover, this year it is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. From CO2 offsetting to more responsible water consumption: coordinator Nele Decoodt tells us about the vision and values of this unique tour operator.
Nele welcomes us in a cosy mansion in the heart of Ghent. A room filled with camping equipment indicates that no luxury trips are sold here. The travel agency originated from the Belgian Youth Caravan, a national youth organisation.
“Our goal then – and still is – to teach people how to travel sustainably. Initially, we organised youth camps and bus trips to Paris, among other places. Gradually we evolved into a sustainable tour operator. The three Ps are the starting point: having respect for People, Planet and Profit. For ecological reasons, the main part of our trips consists of European destinations, but we also offer a few far-away trips in which the economic and social aspects play a more important role. For example, ten years after the tsunami, the Indonesian population is crying out for tourists so that the economy can be revitalised. Also in Sharm el Sheikh the locals feel it when tourists stay away”.
Based on the idea that what tourists spend on the spot should not drain away, KrisKras’ mission is to counterbalance and ensure that tourists’ spending benefits the local population. The tour guides have a great responsibility in this respect. While the permanent staff prepare the trip from the office as well as possible, it is the task of the tour guides to check whether the income is going well by communicating with the population. They do this on a voluntary basis, but receive training from KrisKras in which they learn how to provide people with tools related to sustainability, without pointing the finger. “We support the supervisors with training, look for publications and bring them into contact with each other.
“We realise that the ‘leakage rate’ is very high, but we therefore visit as many small guesthouses and local markets as possible instead of hotel and chain shops. Activities when travelling, such as visiting minority groups, are preferably community-based. The community generates income by offering a tourist product itself. Ideally, the income should be distributed fairly and invested in, for example, education and sanitation.
According to Nele, a much-heard criticism is that sustainable travel is a contradiction in itself. “KrisKras tries to offer as few air travel as possible. Our train and bicycle trips are on the rise again and you can also come to us for a sailing trip. Our golden rule: for travel distances of less than 1500 km we travel by minibus”.
For other destinations KrisKras has divided the world map into rings based on travel distance. They do not offer trips to the outer ring which includes Australia, New Zealand and Patagonia. Nele explains: “We calculate the length of stay based on the travel distance to the destination: the further you travel, the longer you have to stay. So we should stay too long in the outer circles. Every new journey is subjected to the sustainability meter. This takes into account any internal flight, the distance travelled per day, and so on. In this way we want to create opportunities for people to think about every step they take on a journey. It’s about making people reflect and change their attitude.
KrisKras assumes that sustainable tourism is only possible if people are informed. “Before each trip there is a meeting with the tour guides and the participants. In this way they not only get to know each other, but also the country they are visiting: what language is spoken, what you are confronted with, whether there is a chance of a cultural shock, and so on. We notice that the awareness is much greater than it used to be. Fair trade products have not been a marginal product for some time now and are sold in almost every supermarket. Not having a car is a status symbol in certain social circles’.
Nele juxtaposes these developments with developments in the tourism sector, which is apparently a completely different story. “It is the fastest growing business with a number of negative developments: people are travelling ever more, ever shorter and ever further. Travelling far and wide is still a status symbol. Compared to each other, the developments mentioned are not entirely consistent and are even perverse. It is often the ecologically aware people (who use green products, educate their children consciously, have solar panels, etc.) who travel the furthest. People from a lower social class who spend their holidays at a campsite on the Belgian coast are more sustainable in this sense”.
Water and air as precious goods
The KrisKras employees are committed to alternative forms of sustainability. “Thanks to the Gold Standard, we can calculate how we can offset the CO2 emissions we cause. Worldwide there are only three organisations dedicated to this, including CompenCO2, an initiative of the Belgian environmental and North-South movement. Although this organisation has not lasted long and we can therefore no longer forward any amounts to its operation, we still use its calculation method. For each KrisKras travel guide we transfer the calculated amount to a project of their choice, usually Vredeseilanden. Since a lot of money is involved, we let participants decide for themselves whether to compensate or not. To give you an idea: for a flight to Peru, we pay 167 euros for the tour guide. To compensate a trip to Provence by minibus, we count ‘only’ 12 euros. Vredeseilanden, for its part, invests in projects to reduce CO2 emissions”.
That water is a precious commodity needs no further explanation. All the more reason for KrisKras to make full use of it. “Few people are aware that Spain has a shortage of drinking water during the summer months, which means that it has to be supplied by ship. Over the next few decades this problem will only get worse. On average, a Fleming consumes 120 litres of water, which doubles when travelling. A huge difference compared to Ghana, where an average of 10 litres is consumed per person per day. As an individual traveller you can express your intention to handle water more consciously, but that’s just a drop in the ocean”, says Nele. Requiring participants to do so seems pointless to her, but charging each traveller five euros extra can mean something. At the end of the year, the tour operator doubles the amount raised and donates it to an NGO and partner Protos that is committed to responsible water consumption.
When asked how things stand at KrisKras, Nele is very optimistic. “We can achieve what we want and are increasingly focusing on the sustainability story. We have to do that, because those who call themselves pioneers have to try to stay that way. We have to be creative about it. 18-30 year olds still like to spend money on our travels. The fact that we are literally bursting at the seams and having to move to larger places says it all”.