John Roberts: On Sustainability and Tourism

John Roberts was born in Devon, in England, and trained as an engineer but has ended up in the jungles of SE Asia, working as a conservation and sustainability manger for the Anantara Hotel group. He says his vocation is a result of being in the right place at the right time - but there might be more to it than that. John was kind enough to spend some time with Gaia Discovery, to let us know what makes a sustainability manager tick. By Jeremy Torr


Cambodia, 25 February 2019. After finishing his engineering studies at university, John spent a year volunteering in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in the desert of West Texas. Then, instead of taking up a proper job, he moved to Northern Australia where he worked outdoors and, he says, enjoyed the peace and quiet. His next stop was at the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Chitwan National Park, Nepal where he worked for five years. Then he moved to the North of Thailand to look after animals and to manage the conservation policy for the Anantara group. It’s not a copybook career progression, but, says John, it suits him just fine

GAIA: How did you get into sustainability, and what you are doing now?

John: I’d always been aware of what we now call sustainability, but before I got into that seriously, I was working for the Anantara hotel group, and got interested in working on organic gardens and practical things like that. I suppose it started as a passion. But as the hotel group I was working for grew bigger, I started developing an interest in what you might call sustainable best practice – solar panels and things like that, and the awareness of the Green Growth 2050 certification.

The next step was to start looking at the sustainability thing on a broader scale, we started to think about the issues on a broader basis. We would look at certain projects that were being worked on and think, “Hang about, some of these new (projects) don’t have sustainability built in. Maybe they should have?”

“I get the most pleasure from being in wild places” - John Roberts

“I get the most pleasure from being in wild places” - John Roberts

We had by this time built up a bit of experience, so thought we might be able to do something, have something useful to add. Previously that kind of thinking had just been about what we might call Corporate Social Responsibility, but we helped bring (sustainability) into focus as a key area. And our managers were really supportive of this kind of organic approach. They said just go with it, and we will see how it works out.

I guess I was in the right place at the right time, and the company saw it as a need, just like I did. I didn’t have any qualifications, but I’m the kind of person that just gets things done. From there it just went on – and best of all I get to hang out in jungles as part of my job!

GAIA: Why did you opt to work for a commercial organisation, not an NGO?

John: It wasn’t a conscious decision to work for a business, for a company.  It was just that a company offered me a job (in sustainability) first.  I had experience with working with elephants and turtles before, and it just went from there. And the big advantage of working with a commercial business is that once a decision is made, I can get fundraising going and do stuff directly, not like in an NGO where there is so much process to go through to actually make something happen.

GAIA: What gives you the most pleasure in your work?

John: I get the most pleasure out of what I do, just by being in a wild place! For example the Cardamon mountains in southern Cambodia. It’s wonderful, and luckily most has been certified mine-free now. I love wild places, and their conservation. And being there feels even better if I have contributed in some way, if I have helped hold the line (against destruction or over development).

the main thing is not to leave your normal sustainable habits at home

There used to be lots of poaching there (in the Cardamons), but now we have persuaded the locals that that is not a good idea. We employ 12 local rangers there now, have done for the last 4-5 years, and it has really cut poaching back so far. It’s really working. The next thing we are looking at there is to set up the vacation camp, something that will give an alternative income option for the locals. 

GAIA: Are there any downsides to what you do?

John and his family are committed environmentalists

John and his family are committed environmentalists

John: As far as I can see, no. I tend to see my work as entirely positive. Working within a company (not a voluntary or NGO) can mean that persuasion for a project can take longer – but then again, maybe not! The only thing might be that the knowledge of the people you are dealing with might not be as broad as you would like, but once we get going on something there are usually no downsides. It’s certainly got plenty of upsides.

GAIA: What's your next big goal?

John: The company I work for (Anantara) is growing very quickly, so there are lots of things happening. The next things we are looking at are incremental steps, for example, we are currently working on moving completely away from straws and plastics. We have already dealt with most of the low hanging fruit and are looking to move on to the next things like carbon offsets. We are looking at the value we can put on room nights in terms of carbon dioxide, for example. 

"they said just go with it, and we will see how it works out.

And the way we will work on this for offsets is with conservation – not using industrial forestry but rather working on conserving existing forests. We think an existing, functioning ecosystems is a better thing to support with offsets.

GAIA: Is the average visitors’ sustainability viewpoint changing?

John: Not, yet, not enough. Visitors are not really looking for certified hotels to stay at. Sustainability is not really the top of anyone’s list yet, even though certification is hard to get and keep for the resort owners and companies. And so, really, there’s not much market advantage in being a sustainable operator. I suppose we have to convince more hotel owners first so they will start pushing it as a feature. But already, sustainable practices are saving operators money, even if guests are mostly looking for facilities, luxury, and price as their main selection issues. I think we just have to get better at marketing, at cross-industry visibility for sustainable issues.

GAIA: What, as visitors to places like where you work, can we do to help?

John: Simple things. Like take your own refillable water bottle when you go somewhere. I guess the main thing is not to leave your normal sustainable habits at home. Things like taking reusable bags, taking metal straws if you need to use them and using your own shampoo bars - they are an easy way to carry biodegradable shampoo without using single use plastic. And think about your energy use too – don’t rely on the hotel, even if it has good energy stars; switch things off and don’t shop at 7-Eleven for stuff that isn’t sustainable, just because you are on holiday.