The world's largest charter company seeks a smaller footprint on destinations with fragile ecosystems
It's early November in Vienna, Austria, and the thermometer is hovering around 70 degrees - a record high for this time of the year. Sitting on the terrace in the sun, I'm browsing through a stash of old snapshots from family sailing vacations in Croatia way back when.
Images include those of yours truly as a straw-hat-wearing toddler riding on Inka, the infamous inflatable; as a grade-schooler posing with a stuffed moray eel; or as a teenager monkeying up a mast to cut down a torn chute. It's my story about coming of age with a backdrop of blissful solitude: no marinas, no boats, no crowds, no fuss.
We could go anywhere, anytime, pick a stunning spot, drop the hook, go ashore, have a picnic and, of course, swim in the buff. Life was good.
Today, armies of vacationers are chasing the same romantic sailing experience we practically had to ourselves in the 1960s and '70s. But it's a different ballgame now. Freeways, airports and hotels helped pave the way for mass tourism, the main source of revenue for the local economy.
This influx of people also helped establish and grow the charter operations, which provide the means for getting out on the water and to pristine, remote islands. There are approximately 15,000 marina berths and around 3,000 charterboats, estimates Luis Gazzari, editor of the Austrian magazine Yacht Revue. That's up from zero 40 years ago.
This pattern has been repeated in many other places around the world and the requisite condition to make it work is a healthy environment, which no longer can be taken for granted. It is a message that resonates - or should resonate - with charter companies that operate their fleets in fragile ecosystems that are ill-equipped to handle mass tourism and the associated challenges.
Innovation for conservation
"We've got to do something about the environment," says Lex Raas, CEO and president of TUI Marine, which is the world's largest charter company and owns brands such as The Moorings, Sunsail, Footloose and Le Boat. I met with Raas at this year's Annapolis sailboat show, where TUI Marine introduced the U.S. distribution of the Slovenian Greenline 33 Hybrid, a new power cruiser that uses solar panels and an electric drive to reportedly reduce emissions by 75 percent; and the 2011 debut of Le Boat 1500, a hybrid boat with solar power for canal cruising in Europe.
Environmental consciousness, he explains, is a corporate necessity and an area where TUI Marine claims industry leadership. The firm's "Sustainable Development Structure" describes initiatives that are focusing on education, innovation, conservation and communication.
But a company that operates nearly 100 charter bases worldwide with more than 2,400 boats is a big ship that doesn't change course easily.
"Whatever we do takes time," Raas says. "Phasing in the new canal boats is a 10-year process because we have to replace 1,000 units. Switching to a less-ablative antifouling bottom paint with less copper content won't happen overnight for the sheer size of our fleet." He also mentioned LED lighting on all new boats and new batteries that last longer. "Instead of changing batteries on our boats every year like we do now, replacing them only once during the charter life cycle will make a big difference," because old batteries are expensive and difficult, if not impossible, to recycle on most charter bases.
TUI Marine says it's spending an average of more than $4,600 per sailing yacht for upgrades to batteries, solar panels, holding tanks, solar flashlights, 4-stroke dinghy outboards and LED lighting. However, new technology, Raas notes, has to be chosen selectively and tested thoroughly to make sure it holds up in a charter operation and customers can learn to use it. "Stuff on our boats has to work; we can't make mistakes," he says.
I believe charter companies and other tourist businesses must take center stage with their environmental stewardship, operating as they do in areas with pretty scenery and fragile ecosystems. Bringing tourist and tax dollars to local economies is not enough. Minimizing degradation and damage from overuse requires continuous investment and collaboration with local authorities, especially when it comes to sticky issues like recycling, garbage disposal or sewage treatment.
Raas agrees: "We have to work with governments to improve infrastructure," he says. "In the Caribbean we paid for the drilling equipment to deploy mooring balls, but the project took a year and a half. We encourage our customers to use the holding tanks on our boats and go offshore before dumping the content. Is it perfect? No. But better than pumping it directly overboard in an anchorage."
Addressing the problem thoroughly, he says, requires more than pumpout stations. "There has to be treatment on land, otherwise it's only a costly detour before the sewage ends up in the water again."
The cost of going green
Talk is cheap, but sustainability is not. Credible leadership is established by actions, which is why TUI Marine is keen to highlight its own efforts to that end. Between the headquarters building in Clearwater, Fla., that attained a gold standard certification by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the charter base in the British Virgin Islands and a projected haulout and maintenance facility in Tortola, the company says it has invested more than $16 million in structural developments.
This includes closed-loop wastewater filtering and recycling, a seawater desalination plant, gray-water recycling facilities and measures to improve water circulation and quality in the marina. The mooring balls that were deployed in the Grenadines, in Belize and in the BVI to protect coral reefs from damage by anchors use the Manta Ray anchoring system that is drilled into the seabed.
But that's not the end of the story. Community outreach and education efforts include funding of the Marine Awareness Guide and the Reef Check training program for volunteer divers in the BVI, sponsoring the Expedition Biosphere Fakarava, a research and conservation initiative that studies whales and dolphins in French Polynesia, and charitable work with organizations that donate bicycles to Africa and mobility equipment to a special-need school in the BVI.
It is an impressive list of initiatives, but I hope TUI Marine won't rest on these laurels and continue to examine and improve its own practices, invest in responsible tourism and inspire the rest of the industry.
Peter Long, the CEO of TUI Travel, issued the strategic directive: "The impact of climate change on leisure travel will be dramatic, with wide implications for holiday destinations, consumer travel trends and the future of aviation."
Looking out over Vienna's rooftops on a 70-degree day in November when the record suggests it should be in the low 40s, Long's statement seems prescient. Considering that TUI Marine reported approximately 41,000 bookings last year, life in the charter biz is still good. But it'll take some doing to keep it that way.
This article originally appeared in the Home Waters sections of the January 2011 issue.