A Model of Sustainable Tourism
Our vision has been to run a tourism business that allows everyone involved in providing a holiday to share in the economic benefits. Although we help people travel and discover new places around the world, we believe that it is at a local level that tourism can really improve people's lives. This has been a process that began in 1991 and has resulted in founder Gavin Bate winning the Responsible Tourism Award in 2009 for Best Personal Contribution. For Gavin this has been a labour of love, and a lot of fun, as much as a clear-sighted and dedicated business model.
"In 2009, 38% of people would feel guilty if they didn't do something ethical. This percentage is up from 19%. Consumers are expecting responsible tourism in their holidays and a sustainable value in their holiday"
AITO Conference, Kerala, 2009
Adventure Alternative began as a small expedition company and has now developed into an organisation that has set up various locally based tourism companies to be a provider in numerous locations around the world (Kenya, Nepal, Tanzania and Russia are the main ones). The UK office provides venture capital and management advice which focuses on sound ethical business practice.
AA provides a market but works to generate local markets for each regional company. It invests in considerable local resources such as vehicles, offices and equipment. This process can sometimes take years, but the sustained finance package ensures the local company does not drop its ethical standards. Eventually AA drops its investment when the local company is able to manage its own cash flow.
This long term business model and strategy has given Adventure Alternative an advantage in terms of staff loyalty, credibility and client satisfaction and allows people to develop tourism fairly and transparently in their own country and to act as role models for other companies.
A Model of Sustainable Tourism
It is the main tenet of Gavin Bate's belief that an employee in Africa or Nepal should have the same opportunity to create a long term career out of tourism as an employee in our Northern Ireland office. It is this vision of equality that has made running Adventure Alternative hugely rewarding as well as a diverse and colourful challenge.
In Kenya, Nepal, Russia and Tanzania the four companies set up by Adventure Alternative have flourished and still employ the same people who were involved at the beginning. Investing heavily in the training and development of staff has enabled the operation to grow organically and according to the local demands. In the case of Kenya, almost every member of staff used to be a street child and it took many years for them to become educated (with funds from Moving Mountains) and qualified in their chosen field.
Crucially all the staff understand that they are taking part in a developmental model of tourism. With a good salary and permanent employment, they can afford a good lifestyle and are keen to provide an authentic holiday. For the consumer this increases the so-called EFM, or Experience for Money!
All the senior staff travel abroad and assist with holidays in other countries, often working in the UK office to understand the bigger picture of tourist markets. All the regional staff have direct correspondence with clients and work from a central online database.
Gavin visits all the country offices and develops the management technique that has made his company so authentic and popular. The employees are all long term friends and the word 'family' best describes it. For example Kelly Kioko was once a street kid in Nairobi who met Gavin when he was trying to pickpocket him! Now Kelly is Director of AA Kenya, which has 26 staff and runs trips all year round. He also manages Moving Mountains Kenya, a case of coming full circle, as he was once a beneficiary of this charity when he went to school.
Supporting local businesses
It's not just a matter of the full time staff either, what about the providers and small businesses which all contribute to the holiday? We are very loyal to small businesses such as local hotels which struggle with the larger chains. For example the Blue Line Hotel on the slopes of Mount Kenya, which has enjoyed working with us for over ten years now. This is not just a case of providing clientele, but also help with standards, facilities and even investment. In some cases we become business partners in the provider, for example with the Lupa Masa Lodge we use on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu.
In small remote areas we help to set up co-operatives or social enterprises, for example in Bumburi in the Solu Khumbu which was a dying village in an area which had no access to tourism. We worked with the villagers to improve facilities and offered homestays and authentic holidays. We provided investment and a long term strategy which included oil and flour producing businesses, a tea plantation and IT. Over a period of years the village has grown through income and an increased quality of life. Now it is a thriving area, and the entrepreneurial spirit has established its own momentum. At the same time we still employ local villagers on our treks to ensure that new money is constantly entering the economy.
Much is written about the relevancy of gap years and what benefit they truly bring to communities. In our case we invite people to get involved with projects and programmes that have received financial investment from our charity Moving Mountains (which is in turn financially supported by the company). It is vital for us that a school or orphanage or clinic receives more than just a lump sum of cash, but has the opportunity to become self-sufficient through tourism. Gap Years are a form of tourism and they create an income stream which we direct towards the community and the institution which is being visited. We do not see Gap Years as just personal development for the paying client, we see them as both an opportunity for cultural exchange and a practical way in which a market can provide external money to a small local economy.
Every Gap client represents a payment to the institution that he or she stays at, and this money is used to offset the cost of administering that place. This is a direct percentage of the trip fee. Each trip dossier describes how much that figure is; if we manage to send 20 or 30 people per year then this is normally enough to allow the place to become financially self-sufficient. For example the schools in western Kenya where we send Gap clients can receive upward of £3000 per year, more than enough to pay for exam fees, books and administrative costs. Thus the Gap clients become an important source of income for the school.
We also ensure that the community is not left to pay for the upkeep of Gap clients. Accommodation is paid for at a healthy rate which allows growth and development. For example in western Kenya all our Gap clients stay on the site of the Ulamba orphanage which was built by Moving Mountains. The centre also has a clinic, an early child development centre, a community centre and a series of guesthouses on site. By filling those guesthouses with paying guests, it provides a substantial income to Ulamba which completely offsets the cost of looking after all the orphans. It enables the committee at Ulamba to develop the centre, which now takes over a hundred children into the ECD every day. This early cognitive development has had a knock-on effect for the primary and secondary schools, as children perform better. Academic performances have risen. Ulamba has provided employment and it is now a centre for education, health, community programmes and sports. Our business model has had a long term effect on a community which encompasses thousands of people. Every Gap client who goes to one of our projects in western Kenya is contributing to a phenomenal success story, and all because the money is being distributed correctly.
Add to that the money that Gap clients are spending in the markets for their food (this is part of their trip fee and is given back to them in local currency when they arrive so they have freedom to spend as they want), the financial and management advice we give to local committees, the financial integrity we provide through the local Moving Mountains and Adventure Alternative operations, plus of course the fact that this is always a very long term operation, and we have seen how Gap holidays have quite literally transformed communities.
For us, it is a simple question: where is the money going? From the trip fee paid to AA, we ensure that a minimum of 50% of it is spent locally, and that there are strict guidelines on exactly how much is given where. We are very proud of this model and we are founding members of Fair Trade Volunteering.