Why conscious travel startups are disrupting the tourism industry
In 2016 I left the grey skies of England, in search of the sun.
While many backpackers attempt to find themselves or seek enlightenment when they travel overseas, I just wanted to have a great time abroad and tell amazing stories when I returned.
I never imagined that spending 8 months overseas would teach me so much about the world and radically change my perspective about the tourism industry.
I learned important lessons about the way we interact with less privileged communities overseas and the role that small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) can play in putting ethics and sustainability at the heart of the tourism sector.
As a tourist, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate how our powerful and memorable journeys can have such a big impact on people and environments in the countries we go to.
Few tourists get to openly witness the dark side of tourism where animals are neglected, local environments are destroyed or tourism workers are exploited.
If it were not for a few chance encounters I had while traveling abroad, I would have been ignorant about the way in which seemingly harmless tourism activities can have such a devastating impact if left unchecked.
For example, there were some countries where I saw animals being mistreated in the name of entertainment. There were tour companies which enticed tourists to go elephant-riding, or they would train the elephants to paint pictures and often, the elephants would be beaten into compliance.
I also saw cases where entire communities were routinely exploited and misrepresented in the tourism industry. Read more about that on my blog JaninesJourneys.
But on the other hand, I came across two amazing organizations — Haasil and Fair Voyage — which leaves me optimistic about the future of ethical tourism.
Working for these travel startups leads me to believe that grassroots organizations will be the catalyst for change by ensuring that responsible travel becomes the norm within the tourism industry.
Haasil — lessons learned from working with the Kayan long neck tribe in Thailand
When I travelled to Thailand, I visited the Kayan long neck village just in north of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.
The Karen long neck hill tribe people, are also referred to as the Kayan tribe, Kayan people or Kayan long neck tribe. They are refugees who previously lived on the hills of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).
They are best recognized for the coils they wear around their necks, forearms, and shins. While the Kayan men are mainly field workers and farmers, the women have a rich history of crafting from wood carving to weaving.
There are still around 40,000 Karen members today, but thousands have had to flee Burma over the decades due to political unrest.
When I visited the Kayan village, I had no idea that the tribespeople who worked in those villages were exploited by ruthless employers who pay them next to nothing and trap them in a cycle of poverty and servitude.
Quite often, the women are taken from the communities in which they live and forced to work in fake long neck tourism villages where they are stared at by tourists who have no idea about what really goes on behind closed doors.
This is the human zoo tourism model that exploits so many indigenous communities across Asia and indeed, the world.
I only discovered this much later when I volunteered to work for a small startup company that is dedicated to improving the conditions of tourism workers within the Kayan community.
It was then that I discovered that my trip to the Kayan village had been an unethical one.
However, I had a chance at redemption when I worked alongside Haasil to educate other travelers about the exploitation of the Kayan people.
Haasil is an organization which works with the Kayan tribes and helps them to set up their own tourism businesses on their terms. The money generated then goes back to the Kayan community.
Although I feel privileged to have been part of such a unique project, I also believe that this needs to be part of a much larger, ongoing conversation about ethical tourism that we need to have within the travel industry.
Why responsible tourism practices will be a grassroots effort
None of the major tourism companies that I booked my trip with had so much as highlighted this issue. This was despite the fact that I booked my tour with a well-known travel corporation that had advertised their dedication to responsible travel.
This is not about blaming larger companies, or ignoring the good work that they do.
Rather, this is simply a demonstration of some of the gaps and disconnect that is still prevalent within the tourism industry.
Big tour companies don’t always get to see what is happening on the ground. While they may talk about their dedication to promoting ethical and responsible travel, the right kind of checks and balances may not always be in place.
For example, too often, tour companies rely on third party contractors to monitor tourism practices for them. However, without the effective oversight of certification schemes or independent, third party monitoring organizations, it is difficult to measure the impact of responsible tourism initiatives within a larger company.
So far, my experiences indicate that smaller SMEs and organizations are the ones that are leading the way when it comes to driving change within the tourism industry and promoting more ethical practices.
SMEs and non-profit organizations have already taken the lead in creating long-term responsible tourism initiatives with the right checks and balances in place.
The appetite for responsible travel
In 2018, the Center for Responsible Travel released its annual report, “The Case for Responsible Travel: Trends and Statistics 2018”. The report revealed that responsible travel and tourism hit the mainstream media in a bigger way than ever before in 2017.
This is in part because of a growing demand among travelers for more sustainable and ethical tourism initiatives.
It concluded that good tourism management practices and stringent planning are key to the sustainable development of tourism.
In 2017, the UN declared that it was the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
So with the appetite for responsible travel continuing to grow, the question is, which companies are taking the lead in making ethical tourism a reality for travelers?
Fair Voyage — making ethical travel accessible
Well one such company is Fair Voyage, an ethical and sustainable travel platform.
When I returned to England, I’d learned so much about the importance of ethical tourism from my experiences abroad, and I wanted to work for a company that was actively making a difference in the tourism sector.
That’s why I started working for Fair Voyage. It was founded by Alexandra Pastollnigg, who is also the CEO.
Alex left a career in banking to focus on helping to make ethical travel more accessible. During a trip to Kilimanjaro, she witnessed the exploitation of Kilimanjaro porters, and heard about how her own guide was effectively left to die by an unscrupulous tour company, when he worked as a porter.
Kilimanjaro porters help tourists carry luggage and equipment up the mountain. However, they are often exploited by budget operators who give them minimal compensation and neglect to give them equipment that would help them to stay warm and safe when working on the mountain.
Many porters die or suffer as a result.
This is what inspired Alex to set up Fair Voyage — which makes it easy for conscious travelers to book ethical tours.
Fair Voyage mainly works with third-party monitoring and certification organizations to promote ethically and environmentally responsible tours.
For example, one of the organizations that Fair Voyage works with is the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), an initiative of the International Mountain Explorers Connection (IMEC). KPAP is a legally registered Tanzanian organization that is dedicated to supporting the fair and ethical treatment of Kilimanjaro porters.
They help porters by lending them free clothing and they campaign for fairer wages on their behalf. KPAP also provides educational opportunities to staff members working on Kilimanjaro.
They strongly encourage climbers to use companies that treat their porters fairly. KPAP’s porter treatment monitoring program regularly reviews company payment and tipping practices and surveys porters. It also audits partner companies and provides feedback to them.
Changing the travel industry from the ground up
The great work done by companies such as Fair Voyage and Haasil demonstrate how the passion, dedication and initiative of startups and non-profits is already helping to create great change within the travel industry.
Of course, in order for responsible travel initiatives to become more widespread, the appetite for these types of initiatives will need to be shared by all of those in the tourism sector — including bigger companies.
However, smaller organizations work on the ground and have a much closer connection with the communities they serve. This is why ethical startups like Fair Voyage have been able to create lasting change within the tourism industry. The end result is that tourism workers are treated more fairly and it also makes it easier for travelers to be more responsible.