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    Sustainable Tourism


    International Trade Forum - Issue 1/2009

    © GAP Adventures Bruce Poon Tip in Choquequirao, Peru.

    By integrating social and environmental principles in their business models, tourism operators can lead the way in promoting positive development with enduring benefit for all.

    In the grip of the current economic crisis, it can seem all too hard to operate a profitable global business that benefits multiple stakeholders, which assists people in developing countries to preserve their cultural heritage and lessens human impact on the environment.

    Tourism, one of the largest and most influential industries in the world, is already set up to lead the way in promoting triple bottom line business principles that have immeasurable positive benefits for the environment, societies and cultures. More than ever before, travellers are demanding lower environmental and cultural impacts, and more meaningful interaction with local people in their travel experiences.

    What's more, the long-term economic viability of the industry itself is at risk from destination degradation: beach erosion, deforestation and population displacement. There is a significant opportunity for all tourism-related businesses to be agile, to work with local communities in offering mutually beneficial sustainable tourism products, and to take advantage of emerging market opportunities.

    Planeterra in Peru

    Since 2005, the Planeterra foundation has been working with the Ccaccaccollo community in Peru to develop employment opportunities and assist in community development initiatives.

    Despite their close proximity to tourist meccas of Cuzco and Machu Picchu, very few communities from the surrounding countryside benefit from tourism. These indigenous communities maintain a traditional way of life, dedicated mainly to pastoral and agricultural activities. In order to provide work opportunities, men from Ccaccaccollo are employed by GAP Adventures to work as porters and cooks on the Inca Trail.

    Planeterra is also providing a viable economic alternative for women, through the development of a weaving co-operative. In partnership with a local Peruvian non-profit, the foundation organized workshops for women in the community to learn traditional weaving practices, which had been largely abandoned over time. From three women participating only four years ago, the co-op has grown to include over 60 weavers, who are reviving traditional techniques of hand-spinning wool, using natural dyes made of local plants and flowers, and weaving by hand using time-honoured techniques. This increases pride in cultural heritage and enables the women to provide for their families, and the project is a good example of how communities can benefit from tourism without suffering negative social and cultural impacts.

    Travellers often visit this community while touring the Sacred Valley. They have an opportunity to meet the women, learn about the weaving process and purchase a variety of high quality textiles directly from the creators. Travellers can further support the community by volunteering on GAP's Project Machu Picchu tour, which includes a homestay. Volunteers spend time living with one of the families, and helping out in the fields, the local school or with the weaving co-operative.

    Based in Cuzco, Planeterra's Project Manager, Danielle Weiss, helps facilitate the relationship between the community and travellers. Speaking of a recent visit to the co-operative, she said:

    'Juliana spoke about life in their community before we began working with them. She said life was hard, and she spent her days bent over in the fields with her baby strapped to her back. The lack of water in the community made it difficult to rely solely on agricultural activities. She also said that some women were forced to travel to Cuzco to work as maids and cleaning ladies in the homes of wealthy people who paid them little and treated them badly. Tears streamed down her face as she described how life in the community has changed for her since joining the co-op. She stood taller, expressing to us how proud she is to be able to contribute financially to her family. She no longer depends solely on her husband to bring home his wages, as she can now contribute to buying better food for her family and is able to pay for her children to study past the primary level.'

    © GAP Adventures In Ccaccaccollo, Peru, a weaving
    co-operative has given at least 60 women the
    opportunity to provide for their families.

    A business case for the integrated bottom line

    The current trend among travel-related companies, large and small, is to find and support one-off projects that provide some finite environmental or community gain - such as purchasing a piece of land in the rainforest for preservation, or instituting water and energy saving measures - and then presenting those projects as their all-encompassing Corporate Social Responsibility programme. While these programmes are indispensable, they are too often justified internally and motivated by the desire to reduce operational costs. They don't address social issues in any real way, nor do they represent substantive changes in corporate environmental policy.

    There is an urgent need to better understand and implement the integrated bottom line: that is, to develop practices within every department and aspect of that organization which, taken separately or as whole, make the departments and the organization sustainable. The environmental and social factors in the areas you operate affect profit and the viability of your business to the same extent as strict economics, according to the integrated bottom line argument. Examples include making sure that a river remains undammed for a rafting company; an old growth forest remains intact for wildlife viewing; or perhaps most importantly, a local community is involved in receiving visitors at a particular site of interest in a way that distributes monetary benefits throughout the community and gives them incentive to preserve and manage the site.

    Responding to consumer demand

    A company built on the principles of responsible tourism is not only setting itself up for long-term success, but also responding directly to current consumer demand, which has never before been so focused on sustainability. At the local community level, there's an unprecedented opportunity for micro-enterprises to become a part of the organized tourism supply chain. Small communities can work with international and national tour operators, to develop the type of authentic offering many of today's travellers are seeking.

    A large and fast-growing movement is prioritizing a 'simpler life', putting things like family, interpersonal relationships and experiences above material possessions. Translated into travel, this generally means more meaningful experiences: time spent in new places, with opportunities for uncontrived interactions with local people and cultures, as opposed to being isolated from the place they're visiting in a large tour bus or all-inclusive resort.

    How can we be sure this move is actually happening and has the potential to be profitable? At a time when many businesses are dealing with discounting and downsizing to survive, GAP Adventures has increased its historic growth rate in late 2008 and to date in 2009. Some 85,000 people travelled with us last year.

    Opportunity in Ecuador

    Over 10 years ago, a GAP Adventures tour leader met Delfin Pauchi, a local Ecuadorian jungle guide. Delfin invited the group to his home in the Amazon, where they experienced his family's way of life and the natural wonders of the surrounding Amazon. Since this was such a positive experience for both Delfin's family and the travellers, we developed a partnership, and GAP travellers continue to experience life with Delfin, his wife Estela and their six children. Through this partnership, Delfin and Estela developed Caba_as Pimpilala, a small jungle lodge, and now offer memorable homestays as part of GAP's Inland and Amazon tour.

    When we first started working in this community, children had to walk several hours to get to school, but with the help of funds generated through community-based tourism, a school was built for children aged between six and 12. Through Planeterra and traveller support we have continuously contributed to the development of the community school, with donations going towards school supplies, teaching materials, drinking water and the construction of a kitchen and eating area.

    With little opportunity for children of the community to study past secondary school, we have now developed a brand new scholarship fund that will enable them to follow their chosen career path, providing them with better opportunities for the future.

    Through the partnerships we have formed and with the support of travellers, members of this South American community are on a path to economic sustainability. Just like Ccaccaccollo, the area is now well equipped to benefit financially and socially from tourism, despite the global economic crisis affecting so many other communities around the world.

    © GAP Adventures 'Voluntours', such as this
    stove-building project in northern Peru, allow
    travellers to contribute to the communities
    they visit.

    © GAP Adventures By visiting
    Cuzco, Peru, travellers have
    helped GAP Adventures to fund
    a home for kids living on the

    © GAP Adventures Planeterra flew 60
    eye doctors into Tibet last year, who
    together restored the vision of 300
    people in 10 days. A repeat trip is
    being planned for 2009.

    Assuring locals continue to benefit

    The unique partnership between local communities and tourism companies can help to solve one of the most prevalent problems in international community development: the lack of continued funding for follow-up business consulting and quality control maintenance. Obviously, tour operators have profit-motivated incentives to continue to provide assistance to the communities they work in, and keep the projects feasible and vibrant. It's not about dictating what the experiences are - authenticity is important - but it is necessary to maintain schedules and keep certain basic aspects consistent.

    The other reality of quality control in managing community-based experiences is dealing with the carrying capacity of these projects. When the number of visitors exceeds a certain level, community members can become jaded, visitors begin to see too many other visitors, and the experience deteriorates. Complicating matters is that the threshold is nearly impossible to determine beforehand; instead, projects need to be monitored regularly. Fortunately, this situation motivates tour operators to replicate successful projects in other areas to diversify the offering, further distributing income among more and more communities without creating a negative level of homogeneity, as each community has unique characteristics. What better pattern of growth could a developing region hope for?

    Positive change, locally and globally

    Though the genesis of Planeterra was simply a desire to do what we felt was right, through our work we've explored all aspects of how small community development projects can interact with both the local and global economies. We've discovered that the seemingly insignificant relationship that begins in a remote community in a developing country eventually touches every member of that community, and reaches up through each area of our business and out to our entire sphere of influence, especially travellers.

    At the small-scale level, many of our travellers become self-appointed ambassadors, raising funds for projects they are going to visit or, more often, have spent time with on their vacation.

    On a larger scale, when every business decision is based on economic, environmental and socio-cultural considerations, tourism has enormous potential to create positive change. International tourism generated US$856 billion in 2007, or 30% of the world's exports of services according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Integrating sustainability into this giant industry can improve long-term viability for businesses small and large, and provide a model for other large industries to make similar positive changes.

    Bruce Poon Tip is the CEO and Founder of Canadian adventure tourism company GAP Adventures, and its partner non-profit organization Planeterra, which supports sustainable community development through travel and 'voluntourism'. He has won numerous awards for ethical and successful business, including twice being named Canadian Entrepreneur of the Year.