5 minutes with James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Travel

James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Travel, discusses the relationship between sustainability and the travel sector, addressing the greatest challenges ahead

James Thornton began his career in asset management before making a career change to join Intrepid Travel’s UK office as Sales & Marketing Coordinator. 

Over the past 16 years, James has held a variety of senior roles including EMEA Regional Director, General Manager of Global Sales, and Managing Director of Intrepid Group. Appointed as CEO in March 2017, James has been instrumental in the growth of Intrepid, focusing on the dual objectives of growing market for sustainable experience-rich travel and operating a company that balances purpose and profit. 

Under his leadership, Intrepid achieved B Corporation certification and recorded four consecutive years of record top and bottom-line growth between 2015 and 2019. In 2018 James was named Hospitality and Tourism Executive of the Year in the CEO Magazine Awards. 

We sat down with James to gain a deeper understanding of how and why the travel sector should become more sustainable. 

What does sustainability currently look like in the travel industry?  

When it comes to responsible ways to travel, some sectors of tourism are turning to innovative solutions that cut carbon emissions and consider the environment first. This includes a combination of increased fuel efficiency, alternative fuels, new technologies carbon capture and carbon offsets. 

But sustainability is not just carbon output. It’s about investing in people and the planet, including working to protect and restore ecosystems and supporting the well-being of local communities.

Intrepid Travel has an evolving relationship with the term “sustainability”. All tourism activity has impacts that go far beyond the present sustainability indicators, so we look at the term as an aspiration, not a reality.

The thing we need to change is how we travel. Our approach to adventure. Fewer, longer trips are better than shorter and more frequent ones. Ferries and trains are better than flights. Slow, immersive, travel is better than fast-paced country hopping. Public transport is better than private. Eating local food is better (and generally more delicious) than eating imported. Step off the worn path, reconnect with nature, and protect the planet.

Intrepid operates in 120 countries around the world, and the frequency of climate-related events is escalating. As a global business, you simply can’t escape it. This is impacting how we run trips, how we get insurance, where and when we travel, and health procedures. It’s changing everything. Climate change has arrived, faster and harder than we ever expected. And now we, as a society, must figure it out.

What is Intrepid Travel doing in 2023 to ensure its business is functioning at the highest level of carbon consciousness? 

The travel and tourism sector generates between 8 and 11%of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Intrepid is committed to shifting our focus to rapid decarbonisation as we pursue less carbon-intensive operations across our entire company and the wider value chain. We need this structural change to ensure we halve our emissions by 2030 and reach net zero as early as possible.

Although we have been carbon neutral since 2010, we recognised that carbon offsetting alone wasn’t enough to mitigate the climate crisis. This is why in September 2020, Intrepid became the first global tour operator with approved science-based targets, verified by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) and we were one of the first signatories and launch partners to the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism in November 2021.

Since August 2022, Intrepid has committed to a net zero target as part of SBTi’s Net Zero Standard and Business Ambition for 1.5°C future initiative. 

This is the world’s first corporate standard for emissions reduction, designed to give companies the clarity they need to work further and faster towards a net zero carbon future. By adopting the Standard, Intrepid also became part of Race to Zero, the UN-backed carbon recovery campaign.

In 2022 we cut non-essential flights out of our tours and innovated with different forms of transportation on trips. Intrepid partnered with a flight-free travel company and fellow B Corp Byway to offer our UK-based customers options to book their travel (via train) to and from their destination. In Sri Lanka, we innovated with electric vehicle (EV) use, which addresses two business problems: first, emissions produced by vehicles and secondly, the fuel shortage experienced in the country due to political and economic instability.

What do you see ahead as the greatest sustainability challenges for the travel industry?

Travel is reliant on transport. The fact is that parts of the transport system, including flights and cruise ships, will take longer to decarbonise than other sectors. There is investment and new technology but realistically, there is a long way to go. For Intrepid, as a tour operator, our tours are made up of thousands of individual elements and businesses, so we need to support all of our suppliers to decarbonise as quickly as they can. 

The other challenge is one around consumers’ perceptions of climate-conscious travel – people believe travelling more responsibly means it must be more expensive, but we know this is totally not true – in fact, the opposite applies. 

Intrepid also knows that operating in a more responsible way – like using small, family-owned hotels, opting for public transport where possible and eating at local restaurants is better for communities and is good for business, too. So, it’s about getting that message out there, so travellers can make informed choices about who they travel with. 

What are some of the lesser-known effects of climate change?

There are so many – as a planet, we’re all interconnected and as the climate warms, everything is impacted. Three examples are: 

1) Biodiversity loss – worldwide, we're at risk of losing 50% of all the land-based species on Earth in this century, on our watch. Already we've seen almost half of all marine vertebrates decline just in the last half-century. In Australia, where I live, we’ve already lost many species and many more are at risk. In the 2019 summer bushfires alone, more than one billion animals were lost in Australia.

2) Climate change also impacts water availability – water scarcity already affects more than 40% of the world's population and that will continue to grow. We’re seeing glacier melting impacting water supply in many countries and other impacts like glaciers becoming unstable. 

3) There is also an impact of warming climates on food systems – as changing temperatures make crops more sensitive and can impact supply. 

Unfortunately, with the layoffs happening across industries, DEI is one of the first areas businesses are cutting costs. 

Why is DEI so important for the travel industry?

Now past the three-year mark of the pandemic and global tourism on the upswing, it is essential for our future growth and success to elevate the importance of DEI and ensure it is woven throughout all sectors of the industry. 

Many travellers are paying close attention to whether companies are creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce at their own organisations as well as partnering with more BIPOC-owned-and-operated businesses.

By its very nature, you would think that the travel industry would naturally be more diverse – appealing to people who seek out diversity and want to experience new activities, discover new cultures, expand their minds to new ideas, and meet new people. However, leadership within the travel industry needs to reflect the same diversity that travellers are expecting to find at their next destination. 

The job of travel tour operators is to make sure their businesses represent the communities they serve—and that starts with travel leaders recognising diversity weaknesses within the industry and taking action to close the gap.


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