Do you understand what it takes to grow your daily cup of coffee?

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Each region of the world is wholly unique. So too are the innovative businesses coming from the international tourism industry. Last month’s piece on responsible tourism examined Travel & Tourism’s impact on Sub-Saharan Africa. Online connectedness has increased the ability of small businesses to self-promote to international travellers. This connectedness has shifted the growth of global tourism. It has empowered local communities, and it’s shifting the experience for travellers. These small businesses offer travellers unique, niche experiences that challenge their perceptions and grow their understanding of our interconnected world.

One such company is Akha Ama, a coffee collective in Northern Thailand. Akha Ama is shortening the supply chain between travellers and fair-trade products. Tackling the buzz-ish words related to marketing responsible products is an intriguing start to a traveller’s journey. When I first found Akha Ama in 2011, the company was in its infancy. So too was my knowledge of the fair-trade industry. Over the course of the coming years — and across multiple visits to Thailand — I would come to understand more deeply what these catch phrases mean to the people affected by the “fair” part of “fair trade.”

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Coffee beans.

Akha Ama Coffee hits on several levels of responsible tourism. A community collective of 14 families built every aspect of the company. The Akha are an ethnic minority group scattered across the northern parts of Southeast Asia. The families of Akha Ama Coffee live in a remote hillside village, Maejantai, in the far north of Thailand. Traditionally, the families subsisted on a closed economy of locally grown rice, vegetables, and beans. As modernization crept in, many struggled to switch to the cash economy they would need to pay for school fees, cellphones, and electricity. With one of their sons studying in the popular tourist city of Chiang Mai, they saw great potential to create a business that would guarantee a better life for the villagers. Over several years, the families fine-tuned the process of growing, roasting, and marketing their own organic coffee beans. And their farm-to-cup approach meant they kept the lion’s share of the profits too.

The first shop’s success paved the way for a second shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Both coffee shops operate in beautiful spaces that welcome locals and tourists alike. With each cup of coffee, these patrons directly infuse cash into a remote village hundreds of miles away. Even better, the structure of the Akha collective preserves their culture while still leveraging the mainstream tourism industry.

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Akha woman packing up beans.

Travelling friends over the years have lamented that perhaps they are not doing enough to leave a positive impact on the places they visit. They have a vague guilt that they should volunteer or donate money. And while both of these activities have merit, so too does embracing the principles of responsible tourism. Infusing money into local businesses is a powerful way to address wealth disparities and lift local economies.

In their report on the Comparative Economic Impact of Travel & Tourism, WTTC research found that “Travel & Tourism-based businesses create jobs, bring new money into the region, and also help diversify the local economic base. Economic diversity is critical to the success of most rural areas in both the developed and developing world.”

Each traveller’s choices have huge potential to support and nurture the micro-economies in each new town they visit. Estimations show the number of international tourists growing at a clipped pace of 3.3% each year through 2030. That’s an incredible 1.8 billion people spending money on holiday each year. What a force, particularly if the funds are used as a force for good. There is potential for profound results if even a fraction of those tourists engage in responsible, local-level tourism.

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Akha Ama coffee.

Travel has the deep potential to humanize the world. I have stood in awe at Thailand’s gilded temple Doi Suthep, the towering golden tips of the stupa pointing heavenward. I have sat on tiny plastic chairs slurping soup from a street-food stall in Bangkok. And among those myriad memories, the clearest ones illuminate a village of coffee farmers living on a mountainside outside of Chiang Rai. It’s that experience that not only impacted my own perceptions, but that also left the deepest ripple effect among the people who showed me hospitality, humor, and kindness.

Considering a Visit to Akha Ama Coffee?

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Akha Ama coffee shop.

What: Akha Ama is a full-service coffee shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand that supports a village collective in the country’s northern mountains. They serve coffee, teas, cakes, and strong wifi. (And their coffee beans make an excellent souvenir for those back home!). They also run an annual weekend Coffee Journey to the Maejantai village where the coffee is grown.

Where: Akha Ama has multiple locations in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Check their map for full details.

When: Akha Ama Coffee shops are open year-round. The hours vary by location. The annual Coffee Journey is run during the harvest season, November — January. Spots are extremely limited.

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