Data will drive ethical and sustainable travel as more of us prepare to get out there

Everything I do in business, I do in pursuit of my passion for protecting the environment.
    - Mike Welling, CEO Hemisphere Digital

As surprising as this might be to hear, this is why I’m in the business of data. Particularly as it applies to supporting sustainable travel. Data is a powerful tool for making it happen.

The data business can too often carry a bad wrap, especially given some of the high profile privacy breaches that have occurred in recent memory as well as continued and justified concerns regarding how our data is being used.

But data, when used ethically and responsibly, also offers a massive opportunity to provide insights for transforming tourism experiences and ensuring such experiences can be explored in a way that’s sustainable and preserves the natural environment they exist in and around.

In short, data will help us get more people enjoying nature in a sustainable and ethical way.

Wagirra Trail and Yindyamarra Sculpture Walk, West Albury
Wagirra Trail and Yindyamarra Sculpture Walk, West Albury Photo: Destination NSW

Some context here. My passion for where data intersects with environmental protection comes from my own experiences learning from nature. At the age of 21, fresh out of uni I embarked on my first big adventure in one of the most remote parts of Brazil. I arrived, a little naive, as an enthusiastic newly graduated biologist. A couple of years later I left the jungle with a deep passion for preserving and protecting the world and the Indigenous custodians, as well as a desire to support more people in exploring the world in a sustainable way.

Later moving into data and technology, I now run Hemisphere Digital, an Australian technology company providing valuable data-based insights into how and what we explore. We know these insights can not only help in supporting the recovery of the tourism sector, but also provide the information we need to help preserve and protect our natural environment.

Indeed, we see a massive opportunity to leverage data for enabling ethical, sustainable travel and recreation, as well as for getting more people outdoors.

How? Mobility analytics provide essential and intelligent information regarding how and where we’re travelling, and how such patterns are changing according to marketing campaigns, lockdowns, natural disasters or something else.

This data can help predict the impacts of rising or falling movements on the natural environment, giving us the opportunity to address such impacts before they occur or are too late to mitigate. These insights can also aid the work of local tourism operators, particularly Indigenous operators, who can gain key data to support sustainable business growth.

Data can highlight the most at-risk tourism spots and areas. Prior to COVID-19, some such locations were being trashed by disturbing numbers of unaware travellers. Across social media, you’ll find travellers happy to share photos taken by cameras pointing out at the magnificent view, or ocean, or cultural artifact. But what’s occurring behind the cameras? So often these sites are trampled, littered with rubbish or something else. Data can help pinpoint these surging numbers to gain a better understanding of why, and what can be done to prevent it.

Off screen and outdoors

Nura Diya Aboriginal Discovery Tour, Taronga Zoo
Nura Diya Aboriginal Discovery Tour, Taronga Zoo Photo: Destination NSW

These insights can also help drive responsible campaigns to get people outdoors and into nature, something many people — and particularly children — have had an opportunity to do during lockdowns, albeit depending on what they had access to within their local radius or local government areas, given travel restrictions.

Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, we’d reached a point where more people live in cities, than rural areas. We’d seen a rise in kids and adults spending more and more time on screens. We’d also seen a rise in obesity rates in children and adults in Australia.

Yet, during these past few months, many of us living in lockdown areas have directly witnessed and participated in a desire to explore the outside world. We are exploring our neighborhoods, as well as the beaches, local bushlands and parks. Anecdotally, you only need to look at your local park to see kids spending more time on bikes and scooters. Where permitted, they’re swimming and surfing in greater numbers.

As lockdowns have eased, many of us will take this localised exploring activities further. We’ll carry these habits well into the future as we access that desperate need and desire to travel and explore.

But even just a quick glance in your local area may give you some indication of the impact on the natural environment that surging numbers of people using parks for exercise and recreation can have. You may have noticed the kids, carrying shovels on bikes, to dig up local bushlands for creating jumps and their own mini mountain bike paths.

It’s wonderful to see kids out on bikes, and of course we need to acknowledge they’re making the most of a difficult situation in lockdown, but if there is a rising interest in kids wanting mountain bike and BMX tracks and opportunities, we need to know about it so we can create such opportunities in safe and sustainable ways. Data can help us better understand how different areas are being used, and highlight needs for additional public facilities.

Supporting the Ethically-aware traveller

Insights especially will be invaluable for resetting the tourism economy in line with managing COVID-19 and considering life and travel following the pandemic.

It’s estimated that one in ten people worldwide are employed by the travel industry both directly and indirectly. Travel is also responsible for bringing so much joy and meaning to our lives. COVID-19 has been absolutely dire to this sector, not only in Australia but also internationally. We must throw everything possible at reviving and ultimately sustaining this sector. Data can help make this happen. And help make it happen in an ethically responsible way unlike anything we’ve previously seen.

Data also provides an opportunity for travellers to take more control over their tourism decisions they make and access clear data-based reassurance to know that sustainability is being considered by policymakers.

Visitors increasingly want to consider the personal impact of their travel, and to know that the local economy is being supported and enhanced by their travel choices. They want to know that Indigenous operators, as well as local staff, are benefitting. The rise of the conscious traveller was occurring well before COVID-19, but this rise is expected to continue as travellers consider climate change, Indigenous communities, human rights, vaccine equity, a desire to participate in the COVID recovery and more.

No matter where you travel and what you do at the locations you visit, you have a responsibility to help preserve the natural environment as best as you can. We should leave such places as we found them, enabling the natural environment to continue to thrive and sustain itself in spite of us being there.

Policymakers carry an additional responsibility here: to consider how their decisions may ultimately impact travel and movement, and what kind of pressures such movements will have on different locations.

The Hemisphere Digital approach

Our team — made up of innovators, developers, analysts, marketers and visionaries all share a passion for sustainability, the natural world, equal opportunities for Indigenous peoples and the opportunity for all to access data to be able to make the right choices. It’s at the heart of everything we do. We live and breathe it in our work, and we live and breathe it outside of work, during our leisure time and during the travel and adventure we’re able to pursue. It’s also why we’ve had a longstanding partnership and alignment with Leave No Trace, the national not-for-profit that promotes and inspires responsible travel and recreation through their seven principles.

We want to open more opportunities for kids and adults to explore the natural world, while also resetting tourism and recreation for a new era that positions ethics and sustainability first. It is absolutely possible, with the use of ethical and accessible data we believe we can help drive this change.

If you'd like to learn more, please get in touch.