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VICKY SMITH: The rise of social businesses in travel

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VICKY SMITH: The rise of social businesses in travel

In Women in Travel, ALESSANDRA ALONSO, spoke to the founder of Earth Changers, who is passionate about empowering women through sustainable tourism and giving women the tools to make tourism more sustainable.

 

Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey to date?
I fell into travel after a Dual Honours International Business and French degree, I wanted to take a year out and spend some time in France using my language working for a ski company, even though I was told it would ruin my career.
So, in 1995 I went to work as a ski resort manager for Crystal Holidays. The staff management and long hours were tough, but it was the best grounding in tourism operations, consumer understanding, and entrepreneurialism too.
Back in the UK with always itchy feet, I worked as an international conference director in a start-up company. First Conferences were the first in London dealing with internet tech and how it was affecting different industries.
I learnt a lot about building B2B online and offline communities, but I missed the travel industry and later went to work for Teletext Holidays, where I was part of a virtual start-up team within a big media organisation, and then Virgin Holidays.

At what point then did you come up with Earth Changers?
By now my eyes had been opened to responsible tourism and the entrepreneurial skills to start my own travel website, but I knew I needed more sustainable tourism product and sector knowledge.
It took me a decade to gain that and with Masters of Science in Responsible Tourism Management to finally be in a position to create my own start-up Earth Changers, which promotes some of the very best positive impact, sustainable tourism around the world.
Along the way, I’ve also had the great fortune to work with fabulous entrepreneurial women running great travel businesses, such as Debbie Marshall at Crystal, Sarah at Different Travel and Andrea at Green Tourism, as well as being taught by one of the top female ranger trainers in South Africa!
It’s not an easy ride to be entrepreneurial, you have to be tenacious and do what it takes with a lot of hard work, especially if you want to change the world! You can launch into something entrepreneurially, without knowing too much. But if trust is key in travel, credibility is vital in sustainability. Prioritising people lives and dealing with livelihoods, you have to be responsible.

How did your passion for sustainable tourism start?
In 2001 I went on holidays to friends’ weddings: one, to New Zealand, all open roads, stunning scenery, interacting with locals and appreciating heritage; the other, to an East Kenya beach and safari, where I got a cheap deal through work and witnessed an all-inclusive where all the benefits of tourism were in the resort, none shared to outside.
That was the seed that grew until I couldn’t wait any longer, so I returned in 2006, having left my e-commerce marketing job, and wanting to connect with tourism that had a purpose, not just ‘frivolous tourism.’ That became my real life-changing trip. I volunteered on a lion conservation project (very Big Cat Diary), living on a private reserve in northern South Africa.
I travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia, and spent some time on community development projects. I was horrified in Botswana when the average age expectancy at the time, was mine, 34. Mainly because of HIV, unavailable or inaccessible medical support, lack of nutrition, water and education issues. And yet there were tourists and money. I thought tourism can help here, help this.

What challenges and opportunities do you encounter in convincing people to travel more sustainably and how do they make you more determined to succeed?
Often people assume it’s either expensive luxury or spit and sawdust basics; realistically it can be both and everything in between. A challenge is people don’t know where to find it, or how to discern the difference, all of which I hope to show with Earth Changers. Tourism can hugely support and reach corners of other less well-off countries in ways no other industry can.
Most of the 50 least developed countries in this world have tourism in their top three export sectors, if not the top. To cut aviation is to cut off a life-line to developing countries. But that means flying, and obviously, carbon is a big problem for climate change.
And so I talk on my site about how tourism positively impacts poverty, health, education, employment, inequalities, and each of the other sustainable development goals, as well as how to reduce your carbon impact or reduce your plastic consumption when you travel for example.
Sustainable tourism is about being transparent. So, we don’t shy away from big issues and tough questions. Instead, Earth Changers is about saying ‘what can we do about them as a tourism industry or tourists,’ demonstrating, with examples and stories, what is being done where and by whom.

Can sustainable tourism really empower women and do you have some examples to share?
Yes, absolutely. Let’s take Chumbe Island off Zanzibar. Set up by an incredible woman, Sibylle Riedmiller, who set out to prove conservation and education can be funded by ecotourism alone, in creating the first private marine park in the world.
Responsible tourism considers locals first and engages with the local population. You can’t do that and ignore 50% of the population. Women make up 40% of the workforce currently, in a Muslim country.
Many destinations have women’s cooperatives to introduce them to work, developing skills and empowerment – but it has a massive effect on the home too. In Madagascar, a charity women’s embroidery project has grown from 11 ladies to over 10, making thousands of pounds and selling on the international market online.
Importantly, as a result of the women earning money, they buy better food for the household, go to the doctor more often, and their children attend education more. They also support others in the community – an average of 11 extra people per woman.
We also promote ocean exploration and conservation, aiming to highlight, enable and empower women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and the broader sporting community with all-female eXXpedition trips, looking not just at ocean toxins and plastic pollution, but how as endocrine disruptors they might affect women’s health, where historically, studies on the effects of chemicals on human health have focused mainly on men.
You can read about these and more examples of Gender Equality and Female Empowerment on the Earth Changers website.

If you encountered a genie in a bottle, what three wishes would you like to see fulfilled?
That the world wakes up to climate change and understands how our everyday unthoughtful actions impact the very people who need or can deal with it least, half a world away; That people care about communities and conservation to make an active choice for more responsible tourism; and That Earth Changers is a successful business that helps change the world and create great positive impacts.

*Culled from: wtm.com; Alessandra Alonso is the founder of Social Enterprise Women in Travel CIC

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