Discussing innovative approaches to safari and overtourism with Tanner Knorr from Off Season Adventures

Discussing innovative approaches to safari and overtourism with Tanner Knorr from Off Season Adventures

Founded in 2017, Off Season Adventures specialises in off season safari travel to Tanzania. Jeremy Smith spoke with the company’s founder Tanner Knorr about his motivations for focussing his company’s development in this way.

JEREMY: Why did you decide to focus on off season safaris?

TANNER: I decided to focus on off season safaris for a few different reasons. The first time I traveled to Tanzania was in the off season. The people and the wildlife were so beautiful that I wanted to create a business that could send people during this time of the year. As I began diving even further into researching the country, offerings, and tourism market, I began to realize that traveling in the off season, specifically in Tanzania, could have many benefits for not only the traveler, but also the local communities.

For the traveler, it provides a unique opportunity to see the country in lush greenery, without the high costs or crowded parks of the high season. All of the animals you would want to see on safari are in Tanzania in the off season. Some are even more likely to see, like the rhino in the Ngorongoro Crater or hippos coming out of their ponds because of the cooler temperatures. I believe that people are looking for unique destinations and different ways to travel through them.

While we are focused on creating a great experience for our clients, our goal at Off Season Adventures is to have a positive impact for the local communities, as well. Tourism in the country is currently very seasonal, not unlike many other destinations around the world. We would like to change this. By booking tours during the off season, capital is infused into the economy during this much-needed time– people can remain employed and accommodations can remain open.

“By booking tours during the off season, capital is infused into the economy during this much-needed time– people can remain employed and accommodations can remain open”

Tanzania and safaris are just the first step though. Seasonality goes far beyond just one country and one type of adventure. We hope to expand soon and bring the idea of unique, off season experiences into different countries. I believe every country has wonderful things to see during their non-peak tourist times. Our goal at OSA is to show people these types of activities and help local communities at the same time.

I’ve tried to find companies that focus on off season tours, but haven’t found one yet. Have you heard of anything like us?

Discussing innovative approaches to safari and overtourism with Tanner Knorr from Off Season AdventuresJEREMY: Lots of companies offer trips throughout the year, and of course varying your pricing at low, mid and high season is fairly standard. But I haven’t seen another company make it the central focus of their business.  How do you look to tell your story, to share what makes you unique, other than just focussing on it maybe being cheaper and less crowded?

TANNER: For OSA, our promotion techniques can definitely be a balance between focusing on the sustainability aspect of the business model and the consumer benefits. It is often difficult to convey these two different points, especially in a single tweet or Facebook post. You have struck on one of the central challenges in getting this business off the ground. As we begin to grow more, I think the strategy will become clearer though.

Currently, any promotions that we do are mainly though social media and word of mouth. The posts center around the awesome things that travelers can see and do on the off season in Tanzania. Eventually, these posts will transition into showing the positive impacts we have in the country, however we will have to wait until hopefully 2018 when we begin to sponsor projects.  I hope to get the word out to more people in the future by doing interviews like this, by podcasts, or features in magazines. Once I can explain the company in more detail, people seem to really come around because they know I’m researched in the Tanzanian tourism market and sustainability, thus know what I’m talking about, and like the fact that they’re traveling to the country in a better way.

For example, when I’m speaking to a new client, first I talk about the cost differences of the off season and the decrease of crowds, but then pivot to the uniqueness and sustainability of the off season, especially when going with our company. They can see special events with the wildlife, like the birthing of the wildebeest calves, stunning natural settings with billowing clouds, and the vibrant greenery. And, all the while, they are doing it with less crowds. This leads to a more personal and intimate interaction with the wildlife and local communities which cannot be found during the high season. During this time, resources like water and electricity are spread among fewer people, which leads to a more sustainable traveling experience. We also carbon offset the emissions from our clients’ flights, accommodations, and safari vehicles; and retain 5% of each tour package to sponsor projects in the communities surrounding the parks.

So, while the mission of our company is to create sustainable safaris, and I’d love to sell just that, I have found that there is not much of a demand for it at the moment or at least on the surface level of consumer behaviors. People seem to care more about the price and lack of other travelers. And, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’d love to be on the cutting edge of a cultural shift, of course, but I don’t believe that it has quite happened yet. I am hopeful, though, that it will come.

JEREMY: I agree, and suspect we always will see people – or at least the majority – focus on cost and convenience. One thing we can try to do is to shift the focus on cost to one on value, to actually helping people appreciate what they are getting for the money they spend, rather than simply looking at it from a purely numerical – least number of dollars – approach. To try to get people to see such things qualitatively as much as quantitatively, in other words. And this is about communication, be it through transparency or storytelling.

TANNER: I believe I’m able to communicate the value once I get prospective clients on the phone. The challenge for me right now is communicating the value before they call. I am though, working with a few people now to get the messaging down and hope to re-start the blog to convey these concepts more clearly in a longer writing format. We should find more success with these methods.

Discussing innovative approaches to safari and overtourism with Tanner Knorr from Off Season Adventures

JEREMY: You have also committed to quite a significant level of carbon offsetting. Can you explain what your approach is, why you have adopted it, and how you feel about the arguments for and against carbon offsetting as regards promoting more sustainable ways of travelling?

TANNER: Carbon emissions are the paradox of sustainable tourism. When we speak of sustainable tourism, we must include the three basic pillars of People, Economics, and Environment. Many companies that deem themselves “sustainable” (or any of the various synonyms), to their credit, touch on aspects of these three categories. For people, they may sponsor some great projects for the local communities, give incentives or ownership to these communities, and/or have great options for their own employees to own part of the company. Similarly, for Economics, they may only use locally-owned accommodations, donate to the local communities, and/or make sure their own company is doing well financially so they can continue the business. However, to a lesser degree, companies and travelers consider the Environment piece of the tripod.

Even though travelers or businesses can limit their environmental impact while at a destination by water management solutions, solar panels, and/or walking tours, they don’t often consider how they arrived at the destination or how they move around at the destination. Travelers, for the most part, don’t consider that their long haul flight (more than 1000 miles) to get to that wonderful ecolodge just emitted 1000s of pounds of carbon dioxide (in addition to other emissions) into the stratosphere. And, that inefficiently gas-burning truck they drove in for 2 hours to get to that wonderful ecolodge tacked on some more.  This is why it is a paradox — how can sustainable tourism be sustainable if to do the sustainable activity, the vast majority of travelers use unsustainable means of transportation? In my opinion, this reverses or is worse than the sustainable activities while traveling, and should be in the forefront of everyone’s mind.

How can sustainable tourism be sustainable if to do the sustainable activity, the vast majority of travelers use unsustainable means of transportation?

Now, I am not saying that we must all give up our long haul flights to become truly sustainable, although that is an option. The ease, convenience, and speed of flying connects us to places we would or could not get to without it. And because of this, the economic benefits to especially remote destinations could be great because the destinations are all of a sudden connected to the rest of the world. But, I am suggesting that we need to think of how we get to these or any destination. The answer for me and Off Season Adventures is minimizing impacts where possible and offsetting where it is not.

While there are other market-based mechanisms and schemes to reduce the amount of carbon emissions in the aviation sector, I do not believe that these methods will actually bring us to sustainability, or in this case, neutrality or net-positive. There is the method of buying carbon credits if a company goes over their certain ton-of-carbon ration; there is the method of limiting the percent increase of the amount of carbon emitted; there is also the method of placing caps on the carbon emitted within a certain time frame. But, all of these methods still allow for carbon emitting and have cost implications for travelers, because you know the airlines are not going to take the hit. And separately, what power do these international organizations even have? What if a country decides they are not going to participate? Are there actual ramifications or just a slap on the wrist? And, what are these methods actually doing for environmental sustainability?

Then the argument is, “These mechanisms promote technological advances”. I think people say this because they believe that huge companies care about the environment so much (or will be taxed so much) that they will actually develop technology to not emit carbon because an international organization with limited power said it is the right thing to do. I think companies have proven time and time again that when stockholders are involved, environmental justice is not a priority. And besides, I have my doubts about things like solar flight and alternative fuels. Until the oil is completely gone from the earth, I don’t believe there will truly be an incentive or a possibility for the aviation industry to become carbon neutral. (As an aside, I should also mention that in this passage, we are not really discussing aircraft efficiency, air traffic control, or the other emissions from aircraft like NO, NO2, SOx, etc.)

All this to say, in my opinion, carbon offsetting is the only option for us to become carbon neutral in the near term.

So, what can be done about all of this? I think three options are reasonable:

1) International organizations obtain more power to hold companies and countries accountable for their emissions with real ramifications. This will take time and is not something that I foresee happening in the near future. Although, regulations set by these organizations will ultimately be the most effective way to curb and neutralize global emissions. The regulations must come from the top (international organizations) if we are really serious about carbon neutrality or net-positivity.

2) Travelers become responsible for their own emissions and focus on limiting where possible and offsetting the rest. Besides you, Jeremy, me, and a very small percentage of travelers, I don’t believe this is happening. For those of us that are doing this, good for us, but I would warn us to research the companies we use to offset. How are they accomplishing it and are their carbon calculators accurate? A huge ecological mindset shift would need to occur for this to become a widespread reality.

3) Tour operators get more involved and take ownership of the carbon emissions from their travelers. This is the option that Off Season Adventures has chosen.

We understand that it takes a long haul flight to get to Tanzania, and probably most of the countries where we will bring our clients in the future. We understand that Tanzania is spread out and half the time travelers are in the country, they are in a safari vehicle. We also understand that some of the lodges where our clients stay are hours from a farm or independent water source so food and water must be driven to the lodge. All three of these activities emit carbon. So, we offset the carbon emissions from all flights, safari vehicles, and accommodations for each of our clients. We do this by using a company in Tanzania called Carbon Tanzania that combats deforestation in the country. When we branch out into other countries, I hope to find companies and use a similar model as Carbon Tanzania.

This specific type of carbon offsetting is sustainable for two main reasons:

1) Environmentally, of course, because we are reversing the emissions.

2) Because of the way that Carbon Tanzania operates, there are benefits to the local community, as well. They protect the traditional lands of the Hadzabe tribe, one of the last hunter-gatherers. This tribe needs the natural environment to maintain their livelihood. So, by utilizing Carbon Tanzania, we are giving back to the community and benefiting the environment.

We hope that our model of offsetting carbon emissions for our clients’ total impact will be adopted by other tour operators. For now, I believe this is the best method and perhaps it will lead to a paradigm shift with both travelers and tour operators.

Discussing innovative approaches to safari and overtourism with Tanner Knorr from Off Season Adventures

JEREMY: I agree with you that carbon offsetting has a role, and that so long as the right scheme is used, it is possible to fund genuine carbon emission reductions. This can come from products that actively reduce the amount of carbon being emitted – for example by funding replacement, solar powered cookstoves for people using inefficient and polluting coal powered stoves. The moment you do this, the very next time people cook emissions are reduced. Or it can be from schemes that actively absorb carbon dioxide from the area – for example through tree planting or other afforestation projects. And I really think that anyone who is creating carbon emissions – especially from a non essential behaviour like going on holiday – should be doing everything to neutralise them. Ideally don’t create them in the first place. But when you do – I can’t see any justification for not then paying for a reputable offset. The argument used by many in the responsible tourism sector is that carbon emissions provide us with a licence to continue polluting without changing our behaviour. I disagree with this analysis, but even if it was correct – what do we do after we have changed our behaviour if we are still responsible for some emissions?

As I see it – and it is implicit in the analysis that offsetting provides a licence – is that the problem is not so much with the efficacy of the schemes or not, but with the communication of them. Beceause it is certainly true that they are oversold, misrepresented or communicated as making one’s flight green. How do you go about ensuring that you communicate carbon offsets transparently?

TANNER: It is interesting that you brought up products that actively reduce the amount of carbon like cookstoves. We have thought about funding things like this and they would come out of our community projects budget (5% of the tour package). The goal for OSA is to give benefits to local populations in different ways, but there are so many needs, it’s hard to know exactly where to start. We are in the process, with my partner in Tanzania, to decide where we can begin to make the most impact for the local communities. Who knows, maybe we will start with cookstoves!

When communicating the need for carbon offsetting, I have to remember that most travelers understand a general importance, but may not have a full understanding. So, I try and keep it simple in the beginning. Starting with the baseline of, “At Off Season Adventures, we offset the emissions from the total carbon impact of your tour, from your flight to Tanzania to your arrival back in the US.” To be honest, this is sufficient for most of our clients, so it allows me to then pivot to educating them on limiting their impacts while in the country, from limiting water and electricity usage to buying locally-made souvenirs. For our purposes here, I would explain it as such:

At Off Season Adventures, we offset the emissions from the total carbon impact of your tour, from your flight to Tanzania to your arrival back in the US. We do this by using a company in Tanzania called Carbon Tanzania that calculates the carbon emissions from each activity of your tour. We specifically use this company because they are actively sponsoring forest conservation projects in Tanzania, so you know your offset dollars are going to directly affect the local community you visit. They have researched several of the accommodations in the country to determine their impact for a single night stay. This information is added to the emissions of your international flight, any domestic flights, and the distance of your safari vehicle. Once everything is calculated, you will receive a certificate from Carbon Tanzania congratulating you on your offsets.

In the future, I would like to create a graph of total offsets from our travelers on our website. I think that this will be really important to show the collective commitment of our clients.

Discussing innovative approaches to safari and overtourism with Tanner Knorr from Off Season Adventures

JEREMY: You’ve done a lot of work/study with Megan Epler Wood, the director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health. What have you learned most from her that has influenced the way you design/operate your business?

TANNER: Yes, I have worked with Megan Epler Wood both through her company, EplerWood International, and as a teaching assistant for her class at Harvard Extension School. I have learned so much about the tourism industry from her, not only academic but practical knowledge, as well. I have grown a deep appreciation for her and her work, as I believe her research will push the industry in a new and sustainable way. For the Harvard class, we used her recently-published book, “Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet“, which dives into specifically the environmental management of each of the main sectors of the tourism industry– tour operators, aviation, cruise, etc. From this class, I gained a more technical knowledge of the tourism industry and brought it into my business. Understanding the details of the environmental impact is particularly why I feel so strongly about offsetting. This is what has influenced me most when starting the business and this book, among others, will also be a guide for me as I expand and grow.

JEREMY: What in particular of her thinking / writing has affected you most?

TANNER: I would say that the main concept that influenced me the most is the focus on management rather than marketing for sustainable tourism and travel, not just specific sub-sectors of the industry like ecotourism, adventure tourism, cultural tourism, etc. When the focus turns from the short term to the long term, all tourism should be thought of and managed as sustainable. The process of creating sustainable tourism should be managed by public-private partnerships to allow for stakeholder analysis before constructing or altering destinations. While there are specifics within her writing, I believe that the most important thing to remember is sustainability comes from always keeping the long term in mind when considering any business decision. How will my actions affect the local communities, environment, wildlife, and natural resources?  How can the common pool resources (tourism resources that can be accessed by anyone– monument, beach, rainforest, etc.) that we are utilizing for tourism be properly managed so that future generations may still enjoy them? How can I ensure that the tourism supply chain we utilize to obtain a profit remains sustainable? Eventually, Off Season Adventures will be able to measure our impact more precisely so that we may clearly understand and possibly even alter our actions in certain ways.

Discussing innovative approaches to safari and overtourism with Tanner Knorr from Off Season Adventures

JEREMY: What are your work plans for 2018? Any particular focus, connections you are looking to make etc?

TANNER: For 2018, I hope to grow the business in a couple ways. First, I would love to gain new inbound tour operator partners in different countries so that I can begin to learn more about the countries, the offerings, and create timelines for when to begin to send clients. I would, of course, go to the countries to experience the activities, meet members of the local communities, and get to know my potential partners. I believe I could complete one or two of these trips for 2018.

Second, my partner in Tanzania and I should be able to break ground on our first community investment project this year. This will be an exciting endeavor and I’m so pleased that my partner is on the same page as me when it comes to giving back to the community. Whichever project(s) we choose to go with, I’ll be sure to update you.

Finally, I am looking forward to sending more people on OSA experiences! I’m always striving to increase the amount of adventurers we have each year because without them, none of the other items are possible. To do this, word of mouth, interviews like this, and other PR initiatives will be one of the main focuses in 2018.

Find out more about Off Season Adventures at https://offseasonadventures.com/

Jeremy Smithhttp://www.jmcsmith.com
Jeremy Smith is the editor and co-founder of Travindy. He is a writer and communications consultant working for a more responsible and sustainable tourism industry. He is the author of two books, writes a fortnightly blog on responsible tourism for World Travel Market, and provides consultancy to a wide range of companies and organisations, ranging from National Parks to individual hotels and tour operators.

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