Community tourism is a concept that places emphasis on bridging the economic and social divides between travelers and locals that is gaining prominence in the travel industry. As we learn in the case studies below from G Adventures, the pioneers of community tourism, redefined, it also has the potential to empower the industry employees who organize, lead, and sell travel experiences to customers.
When community tourism is done right, everyone wins – local people and businesses are empowered to thrive, travelers return home with a greater sense of connectedness, and everyone working in tourism benefits. This will be especially important as we re-imagine travel following the devastating impact of Covid-19.
Exploring other places and immersing ourselves in different cultures has always been a passport to personal growth, sparking opportunities to adopt a new perspective. But throughout 2020, the prevalence of Covid-19 has created seismic shifts across the travel industry. This global pandemic – along with the resulting lockdowns, quarantines and rising economic uncertainty – is encouraging us to transform the way we travel, along with many other aspects of our lives.
According to recent statistics by the OECD, the coronavirus pandemic has spurred an unprecedented crisis in the global tourism economy, thanks to a 60 percent decline in international tourism, which could rise to 80 percent if recovery is delayed until December. This has had a dramatic effect on many of the world’s developing countries. A June 2020 report in The Guardian, citing the latest research from the World Bank, found that the pandemic could push 60 million people into extreme poverty.
The pandemic has confined many of us to our homes and countries. But it has reminded us of the myriad ways that we are connected to each other, regardless of geography and circumstance. The pause this crisis has created in our busy schedules hasn’t eliminated the universal desire to see other places and forge bonds with other people. It has, however, alerted the global travel community to the importance of ‘relearning’ the art of travel as travel returns. These themes are explored by Bruce Poon Tip, the founder of G Adventures, in his recently published instabook, Unlearn: The Year The Earth Stood Still.
Poon Tip believes in the power of community tourism, redefined, to address the economic fallout from the pandemic and rebuild livelihoods from the ground up. It can also sow the seeds for the financial and social sustainability that can help developing countries bounce back and position them for future success.
“It’s about creating a dialogue with communities,” Poon Tip said. “Many tour operators develop programs from the perspective of the developed world. Community tourism is about creating cultural exchange between travelers and visitors, and having local communities benefit from your decision to travel.”
There are also practical new on-tour considerations to develop and implement, as Poon Tip suggests we learn to ‘retravel’, to protect travelers, local communities and on-the-ground guides and partners. A recent G Adventures survey into travel trends post-pandemic found that 69 percent of travelers expect travel companies to make changes to their health and safety measures. Of those surveyed, 51 percent expect operators to incorporate physical distancing measures and 88 percent anticipate that increased sanitization and cleaning procedures will play a starring role in travel’s future.
G Adventures has joined forces with the Adventure Travel Trade Association to create and implement new industry Covid-19 health and safety guidelines, in association with Cleveland Clinic. These are designed to ensure that adventure activities such as trekking, biking and rafting are conducted safely, and that all community tourism efforts protect vulnerable communities. A new Travel with Confidence Plus Collection – featuring trips to places like Northern Spain and Costa Rica – embraces smaller group sizes, additional physical distancing and private transport, to give both travelers and locals greater peace of mind.
HOW COMMUNITY TOURISM CAN BENEFIT LOCAL EMPLOYEES AND SUPPLIERS
Local tour guides have always possessed deep cultural knowledge and intimate insights into a destination’s rituals and customs – assets that turn a generic travel experience into a powerful relationship between travelers and the places they visit. But economically speaking, these individuals don’t always benefit from foreign visitors to their destinations. Research from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) finds that from every $100 USD spent on holiday by a tourist, only five dollars is invested back into the developing country’s economy. This highlights the risk of “Zero Dollar” tourism, the process of booking tours with foreign-owned companies that employ overseas suppliers which encourage profits to flow offshore.
As countries around the world open their borders to visitors and put procedures into place to put community health front and centre, the efforts to combat Zero Dollar tourism will become more critical. It is vital that every dollar spent rebuilds and empowers communities and that travelers invest their money in the right place.
Companies like G Adventures employ local tour guides called “Chief Experience Officers” (CEOs) around the world. In addition to the standard support required to run trips, the company also equips them with further skills, training, and even financial capital to generate income that can be filtered back into their communities.
Right now, the local people in these communities who deliver life-changing experiences are struggling with the lack of income tourism provides, often not just for them but for their extended families. G Adventures has set-up three benevolent funds; a CEO Wellbeing Fund to support its CEOs, plus funds for Inca Trail porters and support staff, and Planeterra community projects that typically rely on tourism to survive and flourish.
Poon Tip said he’s been humbled by the outpouring of concern and compassion from travelers after he received thousands of letters asking how they could help.
“This is what makes our travelers different – we transcend travel when our collective humanity extends support during difficult times. These funds all have been launched to answer requests to help people in need. It is one of the most heartwarming movements I’ve witnessed in my thirty years of building G Adventures as a leader in social enterprise and community tourism,” said Poon Tip.
G Adventures has always placed a great deal of importance on developing its CEOs, and prior to the pandemic provided them with opportunities to grow within the business and travel to many parts of the world to undertake different apprentice programs.”
“Our CEOs are well-trained,” said Poon Tip. “And with this current pandemic we’ve added another level of training with regards to their health and safety, and that of our travelers. As travel returns it’s so important we have these in place to help build traveller confidence to book, and most importantly to ensure everyone stays safe in the destination.
Prior to the pandemic, another fund set-up by Poon Tip, the G Values Fund was taking community tourism one step further by providing mentoring and financial assistance to former CEOs so they could make a living and contribute to their societies beyond their tenure as G employees. For instance, the G Values Fund provided seed capital for former CEOs to start socially conscious tourism businesses that can then be integrated into G Adventures’ supply chain.
Kitchen With A Cause, a café in Delhi’s Karol Bagh neighborhood that puts street children through a training program is an example of this.
“We provide internships for young adults who are being rescued by non-profit organizations,” said Abhi Chhetri, a former G Adventures CEO in New Delhi who co-founded Kitchen With A Cause alongside fellow former CEO Govind Jha. “Here they learn the tricks of the trade of the food business. But the main intention is also to motivate them and make them more confident so when they finish their internship here, they yearn to learn and earn at the same time.”
GIVING TRAVEL AGENTS A GREATER SENSE OF PURPOSE AS TRAVEL RETURNS
When we travel, local guides can profoundly shape our understanding of the places we visit. But the travel advisors we consult before we plan our itinerary are also on the frontline of how travel industry products are bought and sold. That’s why G Adventures’ Change Makers program, which is currently on hold, has incentivized and empowered travel agents to become advocates of community tourism and to witness the power of the model firsthand. David Green, Vice President, Commercial with G Adventures ranked the organization’s Change Makers summit among the top initiatives that give travel agents a greater sense of purpose pre-pandemic.
“Our first summit was in Peru, and with over 130 ‘agents of change’ on our trip everyone was able to see the ripple effect created when travel is done right,” said Green, who added that G Adventures’ team of global purpose specialists hosts regular workshops, now held virtually, with agent partners to help them understand how community tourism works.
“We do a deep dive into what actions we could take to change even more lives in the future. We’ve had more demand for training and marketing support from our agents, especially as this pandemic continues. It’s about finding new ways to work together with our frontline partners to keep everyone engaged and learning, and to prepare for when travel returns.”
Skift’s pre-pandemic report into travel agents’ perspectives on community tourism revealed that 54 percent of respondents would book travel and experiences for clients with companies that support sustainability and environmental issues, while 79 percent would like to better understand the positive financial impact of their purchase decisions on local communities while traveling. A 2019 G Adventures study found that there was a powerful correlation between travel agents’ professional satisfaction and sense of purpose. The report found that 90 percent of purpose-oriented travel agents were also satisfied with their jobs. For Canada-based Kerri, one of G Adventures’ top-selling Canadian travel agents, this purpose also sparked a sense of connectedness as well as the rewards of building and sustaining a community.
“The connections and lifelong friendships you make are wonderful,” said Kerri who has donated to G Adventures’ non-profit partner, Planeterra, and hosted visiting CEO’s in her own home. “But the biggest thing for me is the tolerance and understanding you learn. We need way more of this in the world.”
For Poon Tip, community tourism, redefined, is also about reminding and empowering travelers – along with members of the travel industry – that how and where you spend your money is vital and that you make a difference. The smallest decisions can affect major change and this current pause has created a huge opportunity for a real shift in how we travel.
“Travel really can be the greatest form of wealth distribution the world has ever seen. This pandemic has created the largest startup economy ever seen as we all go into hibernation and wait until we can travel again – and we must travel again. But we can do it better. We can rethink everything we thought was normal. Why fight so damn hard to return to normal when the opportunity to transform travel is on the other side of this mess? This is about you…it’s about me…it’s about everyone,” said Poon Tip.