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Tourism Offers Gateway for Youth-Focused Climate Action, Sustainability

Kids will care for the planet long after the adults in the boardroom are gone. Involving them in sustainability and climate initiatives through tourism now is a natural gateway to positively shaping the future.

For professionals reading the IPCC reports and drafting sustainability strategy plans around conference room tables, the global challenges can feel equal parts theoretical and overwhelming. What does all the data mean? What is the right way to move forward? Does it even matter?

But then, on a beach in Indonesia, a young girl tells her dad not to step on the reef or touch the coral because it’s not good for the fish. A couple of kids hiking through a US national park remind their parents not to step off the trail because it can damage the fragile flowers in the undergrowth. And a teenager in France suggests that the family take the train to Italy for Spring Break instead of flying.

It’s in these moments where what they say just might be true: The kids are alright.

This isn’t meant to simplify the severity of the climate crisis or collapse of biodiversity. But the honest truth is that kids are increasingly aware of the reality of the world in which they live. They know climate change isn’t isolated to a single corner of the world or to a single group of people; it’s omnipresent and everyone is responsible for addressing it — even on vacation.

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One of the most popular environmentally focused youth programs integrated into vacation experiences has its roots in Yosemite National Park in the 1930s. The US National Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program is designed for kids ages 5 to 13 to learn about and participate in nature-based and conservation activities across the Park Service’s 420+ units.

Similarly, at Six Senses properties, the Climate Warriors initiative invites kids to take climate action. The three-part program helps kids make the connection between people and the environment and leaves participants with hope by helping them see how they’re part of the solution. As the resort group says in a March 2023 article about the program: “We want kids to see and understand the positive role they can already play in their environments and communities.”

“I think that, as a society, we’ve lost our way a bit with the education of our young people. They don’t spend enough time outside,” said Adrian Ferraro, director of mission control with The Bioasis, which organizes UK-based student trips immersed in nature.

Without access to cell phones, students participating in the five- and 10-day outdoor learning experiences with The Bioasis have little choice but to lean into discomfort. The school group trips are centered around “missions” related to nature and the climate. Over the course of the experience, students apply classroom learning to hands-on, nature-based activities that unlock the next steps of group challenges.

On any given day, students might identify trees, monitor movement caught on wildlife cameras, chat with representatives of a nonprofit organization investigating local fungi, and participate in a beach cleanup. Evenings include time for organic reflection — where topics range from invasive species to handling adversity, depending on how the day unfolded.

“We’re bringing the kids closer to nature through activities as well as the wider learning of sustainability, conservation and biodiversity,” Ferraro said.

Importantly, these youth-focused travel experiences shouldn’t only be reserved for people of privilege or kids living in the Global North. After all — a regenerative, community-centric approach to tourism means education and opportunities are made available and accessible to local children, as well.

This intention sits at the cornerstone of Wild Adventures with Ping in Kenya, where Johnson Pingua “Ping” Nkukuu has found a creative way to use tourism funding to support immersive opportunities for local youth. “When I started the program, I wanted only to deal with local resident pupils; but because of the cost, which 80 percent of locals can’t afford, I had to market to the kids or students in international schools to cut even the cost,” said Nkukuu, a safari guide and director of Ping’s Bush School, as it’s known locally. The Wild Source Foundation, the philanthropic arm of mission-driven safari operator The Wild Source, provided a significant portion of funding.

The Bush School consists of three different programs, each of which involves trekking and learning about the local habitat, culture and wildlife.

“These programs offer kids an understanding that we are all dependent on our environment for our livelihood; and for local kids around the Mara, they get to understand the importance of wildlife at a young age and they can appreciate it,” Nkukuu said. “That message goes back to the villages — the importance of kids understanding fully about their surroundings.”

Kids are the future decision-makers and stewards of the land — those who will carry climate action and care for the planet forward long after the adults in the boardroom are gone. Using tourism as a vehicle to involve them in sustainability and climate initiatives now is a natural gateway to positively shaping the future.

“Getting kids engaged with nature is hugely important,” Ferraro said. For some kids, it’s highly transformational, too: “There have been kids who started crying when they get back on the bus because they had such an eye-opening, emotional experience.”