The extra mile

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Kris Madden takes a look at some ecotourism leaders working to create real change in the world.

There are many companies that practice responsible travel, but some are working at the extreme edge of tourism and conservation and social justice. In some cases their operations mean the difference between life or death and survival or extinction for the communities and environments they work in.

Take for example Calabash Tours, which specialises in travel and home stays around the black Xhosa townships near South Africa’s Nelson Mandela Bay. Calabash was started by Paul Mediema, who during the days of apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s had to meet illegally with his black friends.

Determined to do something about their appalling conditions, he formed Calabash Tours to offer opportunities for ‘real travellers to meet real people and understand the real issues’ and learn first-hand about the experience of being a black South African.

Mediema also established The Calabash Trust, which benefits economically disadvantaged communities through educational and agricultural projects. This tiny company, now a partnership between Mediema and his friends, provides work for previously unemployed locals as guides and hosts; supports seven local primary schools; sponsors a community HIV/AIDS program; and runs a volunteer placement program. Their efforts are currently helping to feed more than 120 children per day.

Another company working to benefit disadvantaged communities in Africa at a grass-roots level is Robin Pope Safaris. This company has been ‘doing’ responsible tourism even before it was a buzz-word. Winner of both the overall and poverty reduction categories in the [2011] Responsible Tourism Awards, the judges said RPS’s 20 year record of remarkable work with local communities set a standard to which other tourism organisations should aspire.

“We never lose sight of the responsibility that comes with working in a fragile and rare environment with a unique tribal community,” says managing director Ton de Roy. “This places huge responsibilities and expectations on our company and it is important that we deliver.”

Just some of the small company’s massive achievements include setting up Project Luangwa, where travellers’ donations support community school projects including paying teachers, rebuilding classrooms and buying educational materials. They offer a learning environment for students who have been turned away from the government schools due to overpopulation. The company believes education is the best way to alleviate poverty in Africa.

RPS also founded the Luangwa Safaris Association Medical Fund which provides doctors and medical supplies to the local clinic, caring for more than 20,000 people. They are also very active in wildlife conservation.

Conservation Custodians

On the wildlife and environmental conservation front, many travel companies are at the cutting edge of helping to put wildlife and wilderness protection before profit. One such company, Biosphere Expeditions, was started by biologist Matthias Hammer in one of those famous ‘in the shower’ ideas. Looking for a way to combine his training with real hands-on conservation work, someone suggested he take people on expedition with him, so he did.

Not-for-profit Biosphere Expeditions offers ‘citizen science’ and says its purpose is purely serving the greater good. At least two-thirds of the cost of these paid volunteer vacations goes directly into wildlife conservation projects.

“We run real conservation expeditions that have real biological conservation content,” says Hammer. “Our volunteers know that they not only had an exciting conservation holiday, but also a productive time conserving part of our global natural heritage.”

Some of the company’s many achievements include providing data that led to the declaration of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, the world’s largest conservation area, which span five southern African countries; and the declaration of a protected area in the Altai Republic, a habitat for a many critically endangered species including the snow leopard.

Likewise, Earthwatch and i-to-i also offer explorers the opportunity to lend a hand with conserving wildlife and endangered habitats worldwide. More than 50,000 paying volunteers have contributed over 2.5 million hours to i-to-i volunteer projects; with every penny going into the local economy, helping small businesses around the world succeed. Earthwatch volunteers have helped more than 140 projects in 50 countries, ranging from turtle conservation in Costa Rica to climate change programs from Australia to the Arctic. These paid volunteer holidays contribute valuable data on species and habitat ecology, land management and human influences on the environment.;

One of the stand-out performances in environmental protection goes to Inkaterra, a hotel group that for more than 30 years has been a guardian of Peru’s nature and culture. As well as operating 100 per cent carbon neutral hotels and becoming the first carbon neutral tourism company in Peru, it acts as a steward for more than 40,000 acres of rainforest in the Amazon basin and cloud forest within the Machu Picchu sanctuary. It’s now a renowned biodiversity research and conservation company, funded completely by tourism.

Another working to ‘green’ tourism from the ground-up is Tamu Tours, the travel arm of Beyond Green Travel, the company founded by Costas Christ, who helped coin the term ‘ecotourism’ [see interview GL#33].

Customised trips to Africa, the Americas, Mediterranean and India, often follow in Christ’s footsteps as he travels, speaks, blogs, and reports from the frontlines of sustainable tourism around the globe.

“Along with selecting businesses who are committed to sustainable tourism practices, and ensuring social and economic benefits flow directly to local people from our tours; we’re actively involved in lobbying for government policy to address global climate change and sustainable development,” says Christ.

Sockin’ it to them

Proving that you don’t have to travel to the remote corners of the earth to make a difference, Unseen Tours offers walking tours of London, led by homeless and formerly homeless guides. The not-for-profit initiative was developed by Sock Mob, a volunteer group led by 29-year old social researcher Lidija Mavra, who went around handing out socks and other basic materials to the city’s homeless and sitting and talking with them. The guides share their own unique perspective on the city, bringing a new social consciousness to commercial walking tours.

“We’re a little bit radical because we always align ourselves with social justice issues rather than tourism,” says Mavra.

These are just a few of the leading edge ventures formed by people with a simple desire to put their values into everyday action.

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