When Tourism Meets Microfinance

Travel & Tourism employs a large percentage of the global population (284 million people globally, according to WTTC research). The sector is a powerful force in the world. Even more, Travel & Tourism can be used as a force for good. The choices travellers make on their trips impact the people and the places they visit. That core belief underpins the responsible tourism industry.

Responsible travel has two key purposes:
to respect the rights of local environments and communities, and
to lessen tourism’s negative impact on places and people.

One of the most remarkable parts of our increasingly globalised world is the sheer diversity of responsible tourism opportunities. It’s easier than ever to visit every corner of the world, and this accessibility allows small, grassroots organisations to build sustainable tourism businesses. The WTTC’s Tourism for Tomorrow Awards highlight organisations that pave a new way forward. These organisations are but a sampling, however, and all over the world travellers can use their trips to directly support social enterprises and responsible tourism businesses.

Here’s an example of how one unique microfinance organisation in Mexico is building a unique relationship between tourists and regional indigenous groups.

The Oaxaca Valley is a fascinating area of Mexico — it has one of the highest concentrations of indigenous groups in the country. Oaxaca City is the launching point to this region, and it’s a vibrant, colonial city that welcomes tourists with charmingly cobbled streets and brightly colored colonial buildings. Although there is beautiful history within the city, when I ventured into the small villages and dusty towns outside of Oaxaca I understood why so many find this area fascinating. The Oaxaca Valley is home to 16 indigenous groups, each with distinct culture, languages, and traditions. When I first landed in Oaxaca, I knew that I wanted to explore beyond the city and learn more about the range of people in this area. And while I could have simply ventured solo into the small towns, I instead connected with Fundacion En Via, a local microfinance organisation using tourism, education, and microfinance to fight poverty in Oaxaca.

En Via’s core mission is to use interest-free microloans to empower women by supporting the growth and creation of income-generating businesses. But En Via takes a unique approach to microfinance. Rather than relying solely on donations to fund the program — an unpredictable funding source — the organisation developed a dynamic social enterprise that capitalises on the region’s growing tourism industry. En Via’s tours allow travellers visiting Oaxaca to travel into the Valley to meet the women in the microlending program. The tours visit artisans, cooks, business owners — a range of businesses run by the program’s women borrowers. Then, En Via uses 100% of the tour fee to lend money to the women in one of the six communities where they work. In this way, tour participants take part in an authentic cultural experience while knowing their money is creating a real and lasting impact on the communities they are visiting.

Even if that was the extent of the organisation, it would be remarkable. En Via has a unique blend of tourism and microlending. Many microfinance organisations rely on massive donation-based lending programs — think Kiva. En Via, however, is building a business that creates layers of impact at every level. Beyond their lending program, the women are given a range of integrated educational programs that foster a healthy community while also supporting economic and social growth.

I’ve been staying in Oaxaca for two months now, and I was so taken with the organisation that I am now one of the many international volunteers donating their time to support this organisation’s mission. You know what did it for me? I loved the piece of their mission that specifically aims to “channel capital from tourism into local communities by using tour fees to provide interest-free loans, which support the business ideas and goals of local women entrepreneurs.” When I read that, all I could think was “YES!”. This is it. This is the core of responsible tourism — to leave behind tourism money in a way that supports and empowers those impacted by your trip.

Innovative organisations all over the world are creating dynamic programs that specifically address the unique tourism demands in their corner of the world. There is no “one size fits all” definition of a social enterprise. These organisations are pioneering what the tourism sector of tomorrow will look like. It’s only when both travellers and organisations make a commitment to responsible travel that we move toward connected and empowering travel experiences. It’s only when organisations dare to create a new paradigm for tourism that we begin to see the path that lies ahead.

Considering a Visit to Oaxaca with En Via?

What You Can Do: En Via offers weekly tours into the villages where they run the microlending programs. The full-day tours visit a handful of women within the program. Tour participants learn about how the women are growing their businesses, as well as their plans for the future. En Via also runs several volunteer tours each year that include work on volunteer projects within the community — often stove-building, constructing community gardens, or a range of social-impact projects.

Where: All tours start and end from the historic center of Oaxaca City, Mexico. From there, tour participants head into the gorgeous mountains east of the city and into the towns where En Via runs its microlending programs.

When: Oaxaca is beautiful year-round and tours run every week. The weather is cool and dry in the winter and spring, and warm and moderate during the summer and fall. The volunteer-based tours run quarterly — dates are listed on the site.


Written by Shannon O’Donnell of A Little Adrift.