When people speak of travel as a “force for good,” what can it look like from the standpoint of communities impacted by the tourism industry? What sort of benefits — not only economic, but also cultural and environmental — can communities draw from tourism projects?
In the first installment of this series we examined the impact the tourism industry has on the lives of individual people working in it. The following is the second installment of ‘Travel as a Force For Good”, a three-part series written for WTTC by Audrey Scott and Daniel Noll, the storytellers and digital marketing consultants behind UncorneredMarket.com.
“Let me know when you can’t take it any more and we can leave,” Kisioki advised. We were in a Maasai village near Arusha, Tanzania, about to enter a typical hut of a local family.
I nodded in acknowledgement and noticed the trails of black soot that outlined the doorway, but I still felt he was being overly cautious. A family of eight lived inside. How bad could it really be?
I was about to find out.
This reminded me of something resonant Judy Kepher-Gona from Kenya Conservation Land Trust (KLCT) is fond of saying: “Great places to visit must first and foremost be great places to live in for host communities.”
Sounds about right, doesn’t it? But what does this mean in practice for businesses in the tourism industry?
It means engaging with and investing back into the communities where they operate not only by offering economic opportunities, but also by supporting local educational, health, and environmental projects. With an estimated 1.1 billion tourists crossing borders each year, there’s obvious potential for harm, but there’s also tremendous — and often unmet — potential for good.
Here are handful of stories of social enterprises and sustainable tourism projects that we’ve seen at work around the world — ones that, sometimes quietly, transcend travel to impact communities in innovative ways.
A Social Enterprise Partnership in Tanzania: Maasai Clean Stoves Project and Planeterra Foundation
The black soot outline around the hut’s door hadn’t quite prepared me for what came next.
We followed Kisioki into the hut’s central room and I was accosted by acrid smoke. Within seconds, I could barely see. I labored to breathe. I blinked repeatedly, trying to clear the smoke and sting from my eyes.
Our host, Nagoyoneeni, clearly accustomed to these conditions, made a pot of porridge for her family. In an effort to hide my discomfort out of respect, I attempted to suppress a cough. It was impossible. Within minutes, I had to excuse myself outside to recuperate and breathe some fresh air.
We were in the village of Enguiki not far from the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro to witness in action a newly launched social enterprise project between Planeterra Foundation and the locally run Maasai Stoves and Solar Project. Earlier that morning, we visited a hut outfitted with a clean stove from the project. Although we expected some improvement, the contrast was staggering. The difference: being able to breathe, or not.
When you consider that an average Maasai hut houses seven people — a mother and her children — you begin to understand the quality of life and health upshot of installing a simple $60 clean cook stove.
At this point you might be thinking, “This project sounds inspiring and has the potential to truly change lives, but what does tourism have to do with it?”
Enter the creative implementation of a tourism social enterprise.
The goal of the Planeterra Foundation and Maasai Stoves and Solar partnership is to provide a sustained, reliable source of funding for the local organization through the tourism industry. The mechanism: G Adventures travelers who book a safari in the Serengeti have a portion of their tour fees go towards buying and installing a clean cook stove for a family in a Maasai village. These travelers then have the opportunity to visit the village, witness a stove installation, learn more about why this simple stove design can be life changing, and see the world in a different light.
And more Maasai children in the region can grow up in huts with clean, breathable air.
Desert Harmony: Feynan Ecolodge, Jordan
“We will provide you with candles when the sun goes down since there is no electricity here,” our hostess informed us upon checking in at Feynan Ecolodge*, an environmentally responsible lodge-meets-experience located inside Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve. To someone whose business is about digital connection, it feels unsettling, even if only momentarily, to be off the grid. But I realized instantly that’s in fact the point.
Set in the remote desert valley of Wadi Feynan, the lodge offers something that is all too quickly disappearing on the planet: peace, stillness, and an opportunity to disconnect while simultaneously reconnecting with nature, another culture and themselves.
At dinner we ate communal style and learned the source of the fresh, vegetarian food served to us. “We try to serve only what we can source locally. This not only keeps the food fresh, but it means that we support local families. Around 80% of what you find here is from a 45km radius. This isn’t just about the food, but also the clay water jugs, candles and other design touches you see here,” our hosts explained.
At Feynan the goal is that local families who have called this land their home, many for several generations, are able to continue living there while preserving their Bedouin culture. Through various cultural exchange and trekking activities provided by the ecolodge, the local community has an opportunity to be ambassadors for their culture and to respectfully share the features of their desert home with visitors.
What I remember most from our visit to Feynan was the evening we spent drinking tea and discussing Bedouin life in the traditional black goat-hair tent of the now late Abu Abdullah. When we asked him what brought him happiness, his response: “Life is short. Don’t make it difficult on yourself.”
Sage advice, indeed.
Breaking the Slum Stereotype: Reality Tours and Travel in Mumbai, India
“Once we’re inside the slum, there’s no photography allowed. We want to create a respectful environment where the local community feels comfortable with tourists,” Akshay, our guide with Reality Tours and Travel* told us as we stood atop an overpass looking out over Mumbai’s infamous and famous Dharavi slum.
Slum. It’s a loaded word, one that conjures up all manner of negative imagery and stereotypes. But there’s one characteristic that rarely comes to mind: industry and education. That’s where the Dharavi Slum Tour run by Reality Tours and Travel enters the conversation in order to dismantle some of the prevailing narratives about slums and the people who inhabit them.
The second goal of the Dharavi tour is to provide support and opportunities for education and training for that local community through Reality Gives, its sister NGO.
After we finished wending our way through the small alleys and courtyards where plastic barrels are recycled and poppadum (Indian flat bread) dry in the sun, we dropped in on the Ashayen Community Centre, run by Reality Gives, located right in the heart of Dharavi.
We walked up the stairs of the center into a room lined with computers on one side and stacked with tables and chairs for an upcoming class on the other. We met Sangeeta, one of the “soft skills” teachers, and herself a graduate from an educational program at the center. She lives nearby and uses her skills not only to teach, but also to work with local families on health and nutrition projects.
With 80% of Reality Tours and Travel’s profits going to Reality Gives projects there is a direct connection between tourists taking tours — and re-orienting their sense of the meaning of the word slum — and providing support to the local community.
Most of all, however, the program changes the relationship visitors might have with the term slum, a place — now humanized — where people, live, work, eat, play and learn.
Hike and Help Local Kids: Quetzal Trekkers, Guatemala and Nicaragua
There we were, loaded down with 9 liters of water each in our backpacks. Beyond that, Dan also lugged a camping stove and I carried bags of pasta and vegetables — all tucked tightly into our backpacks. Fully loaded at the trailhead, I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to make it up not just one but two volcanoes that day.
We had chosen to take this two-day hike outside of Leon, Nicaragua with Quetzal Trekkers, an organization that runs hikes in both Nicaragua and Guatemala. Our guides were volunteers from around the world — United States, Israel, Sweden, and Germany — who donated a minimum of three months of their time to guide tourists up and down volcanoes, and across several different trekking routes in the region.
“We love the work we do with tourists, but the real reason we’re here is because of the kids,” James Gore, our lead guide, explained. He went on to describe how Quetzal Trekkers is a social enterprise where 100% of the profits from its tours goes to support projects for local street kids and disadvantaged children. “When we’re not guiding, we’re spending time with the kids. But more importantly, it’s the high quality of the work we do with tourists that keeps the funding going for the local projects Quetzal Trekkers support.”
Similarly, Quetzal Trekker’s operations in Guatemala gives all the profits from its popular treks to Lake Atitlan and around the city of Quetzaltenango to support a dormitory and school for disadvantaged children. Currently these projects educate 200 students and provide social and health services to local children.
To merge the moral imperative, while tying it into the travelers’ need for more satisfying and meaningful experiences, Quetzal Trekkers slogan pretty much sums it up: “Hike and Help.”
This was the second part in our series on “Tourism as a Force for Good.” Our next and last article in the series will discuss how travel brings people together for greater understanding and respect of each other.