Sustainable tourism - responsible travel company making the most of tourism
We are a profit making company with a strong ethos towards supporting the communities where we take people on holiday, and giving all our employees and stakeholders in the countries where we have set up an Adventure Alternative office a fair and equitable deal. You could say we are a community business because we serve our customers and make money, and we plough profits back into local communities and we invest back into our local companies.
The more successful the business, the better it is for the community and the holiday, and the happier the clients. In essence this makes us more sustainable, but in a long term organic way that is more to do with integrity and quality. We have a very low staff turnover rate, but a high repeat business repeat rate.
It works just like any other business because what we offer meets a need and we try to deliver it at a price which gives value for money. We pride ourselves on expertise and quality and being a professional company, and we use local assets and landscapes and attractions in order to market our product. We feel that in taking the benefit of such places, it’s only right to give something back. We want to provide a great holiday that also improves quality of life and is socially responsible.
Investing in local communities and social capital
We have run many successful tourism projects which are a result of community organizations and businesses working together to generate financial and social profit for the entire community. In many cases there was no such environment before we came along, for example in the villages in Nepal and in western Kenya.
It starts with creating a collaborative entity which believes that working together can be effective in the long term; this might be a co-operative or a community non-profit or a company that takes the Adventure Alternative name for itself. We then invest in that group of people and provide an engaged community that is directly linked in to deciding its future.
Communities love to share what they love about where they live, and of course they also like to make money and develop themselves. In developing countries this has not always been traditionally possible because of exploitative attitudes. We have a model that thinks in terms of social capital as well as financial return, and we think in long term chunks of time. We want to create a vibrant local economy with our holidays, but we also aim to sustain traditional customs and ways of life by committing ourselves for decades. Crucially that means not walking away when times are difficult.
The idea of community led tourism is not new, but it is quite recent. There is a surge of interest in sustainable tourism and in how our holidays can have a positive impact on the places we visit. The debate is of course dominated by the fact that flights in themselves generate carbon emissions that are harmful to the atmosphere, but clearly holidays will not just stop. At the very least we can mitigate that irreversible fact with our business model and how we can best improve the circumstances of the people who make the holiday happen.
Apart from doing what we think is the right thing to do, which is essentially doing ‘good business’, we also find that it is a lot more enjoyable and has created many friendships along the way, and some great memories of this journey we have all been on together.
Award winning Responsible Travel Company
Adventure Alternative has won the World Responsible Travel Awards twice now, once in 2009 for 'Best Personal Contribution' and again in 2013 for 'Best for Poverty Reduction'. The company also received accreditation by Sustainable Travel International for our internal processes.
We have also won the Roger Diski Community prize delivered by the Association of Independent Tour Operators twice in a row, and we are founding members of Fair Trade Volunteering and the Tourism Concern Volunteering Group.
Our ethos aims to make a profit with a responsible business model that deliver positive economic benefits to the communities and areas where we work. We have been developing this concept since the company started and worked hard to create a sustainable caring tour company.
The 'alternative' in Adventure Alternative
Our vision has been to run a tourism business that allows everyone who is involved in providing a holiday to share in the economic benefits. We know that at a local level tourism can really improve people's lives so we work closely with local people and help them develop a holiday that is well run and provides a high quality experience for our visitors.
For founder Gavin Bate this has been a labour of love and a lot of fun, as much as a clear-sighted business model. The 'alternative' idea for sharing the spoils of tourism and helping create long term sustainable benefits came about because of his own personal experiences and friendships made during many years of travelling and climbing.
The interest in holidays that are ethical, responsible or sustainable has risen rapidly in the last few decades and there can be no doubt that holiday makers nowadays expect their tour company to do 'the right thing'.
"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 a mature organisation that has set up various locally based tourism companies to be a provider in numerous locations around the world. The UK office provides venture capital and management advice which focuses on sound ethical business practice and social entrepreneurship.
AA works to generate local markets for each regional company, but also invests in 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 and become financially sustainable. Each regional office has a different support package which depends on local culture and needs, in the belief that one model does not work for all. We also provide money for training so that all our staff throughout the supply chain have a sense of ownership and loyalty to the company over many years.
This long term business model and strategy has given Adventure Alternative an advantage in terms of staff loyalty, credibility and client satisfaction. It has allowed people to develop tourism fairly and transparently in their own country and to act as role models for other companies.
All of the companies are run as profit-making venture but their character is more of a social enterprise. Where possible we try to ensure that every holiday has an identifiable local benefit, and this is connected to Moving Mountains which is a non profit we set up to manage many community projects and developmental programmes.
The non-profit provides capital investment into infrastructure and facilities like electricity, machinery and buildings; the company then generates revenue from tourism for the local stakeholders to get an income and build on the business opportunity.
We emphatically endeavour to be a socially conscious tour operator, creating long term benefits in social value from our holidays for our local partners and owners. We think of this as 'value' and 'quality' in a holiday, as much as we aim for high standards in guiding and management.
Developing people in tourism
It is a main concern of ours that an employee in any of our satellite offices should have the opportunity to create a long term career out of tourism and receive funding and encouragement to grow within the company. We actively promote this vision of equality in the workforce which has been hugely rewarding as well as a diverse and colourful challenge.
The different 'AA' companies set up by Adventure Alternative have flourished and many still employ the same people who were involved at the beginning. Investing in the training and development of staff has enabled the operation to grow organically.
In the case of AA Kenya, almost every member of staff used to be a street child and they all met Gavin Bate when he was helping to build schools in Nairobi. It took many years for them to become educated through Moving Mountains and qualified. Now they are all professionals and they have children of their own who will never suffer the same privations.
The staff are proud 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 our clients. For the consumer this increases the so-called EFM, or Experience for Money!
All the senior staff from the regional companies travel abroad and ioften assist with holidays in other countries. They also work 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.
We visit all the country offices and develop 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.
Investing in local social enterprises and entrepreneurs
We are very loyal to small businesses and enteprises such as local hotels which compete with the larger chains. This is not about providing clients, but helping with investment in facilities and helping to raise standards. In some cases we become business partners with the provide.
For example we have been working with the Blue Line Hotel on the slopes of Mount Kenya for nearly twenty years now, lodges in the Khumbu and we have invested in the Lupa Masa eco lodge on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu.
In remote areas we helped to set up co-operatives and business enterprises, for example Bumburi 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 trekking holidays below the popular areas near Mount Everest. 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 sustained income from tourism and this has led to 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.
A key strategy of ours is to promote the idea of social enterprises in the areas where we work and to develop local social entrepreneurs with the revenue and potential of tourism. We do this by building a long term trust with our partners and investing in a way which reflects the culture of the place and needs of the community. We provide clients and help develop products, and ensure the local company becomes a DMC (destination management company) for other tour operators who are bringing tourists.
As long as the main tenets of equitable salaries (based on a proper measurement of the cost of living in that country) are upheld and their price is not just determined by what is cheapest, then we will continue to support the local company with training, resources and mentoring.
We firmly believe that local operators should be able to compete equitably, and without having to adopt the lowest price just to get the business. Holiday makers want quality and value for their holiday, and tourism will only be sustainable in developing countries when the tourist dollar is allowed to properly fill the pockets of every one in the supply chain.
Positive business model of Gap Years and Volunteering
Much is written about the relevancy of gap years and what benefit they truly bring to communities. Done correctly, volunteering and gap years and school expeditions can provide fantastic benefits to areas, as long as there is a long term fair business model that involves local stakeholders and local needs which are identified culturally and geographically.
Nobody would ever deny the immorality of exploiting people's generosity for profit, so it is vital that every volunteering placement, elective, school trip or gap year has a clear developmental aim at its heart. This aim should be long term, involving stakeholders from the area being visited, and it should have evidence for showing its worth. This is the ethos of Fair Trade Volunteering, which Gavin Bate jointly founded as a movement for good practice in this area.
A Fair trade volunteering model
In our case we invite people to get involved with projects and programmes that our managed by our charity Moving Mountains. The school or home or clinic receives more than just cash though, it can become self-sufficient through the money provided by tourism.
Volunteering and gap years are a form of tourism and they create an income stream for the community and the institution which is being visited. Gap Year trips or volunteering trips are an opportunity for cultural exchange and learning for all people involved but they also provide money for a local economy.
Every volunteer or gap year participant enables us to fund an institution or a member of staff. This is a direct percentage of the trip fee and if we manage to send 20 or 30 people per year then this is normally enough to allow the institution to become financially self-sufficient.
For example the schools in western Kenya where we send volunteers can receive around £3000 per year, more than enough to pay for exam fees, books and administrative costs.
We also ensure that the community is not left to pay for the upkeep of volunteers. Accommodation is paid for at a healthy rate which allows growth and development.
For example in western Kenya all our clients stay on the site of the Ulamba Childrens Home 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.
This income 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 local employment and it is now a centre for education, health, community programmes and sports.
This business model is not unheard of and we are not inventing the wheel, but there is some suspicion about a type of tourism that utilises one persons desire to help with another persons perceived need for that help. If this was just about business then no account would be made of those two desires, in fact they could both be exploited. By introducing the developmental angle as the determining factor though, which includes all the correct processes of selection, training, feedback and evaulation, we can avoid that trap of commercialising volunteering. In fact we can capitalise on it with great success because it is Moving Mountains (a registered charity) that is commissioning Adventure Alternative to provide the holiday aspect of the visit and ensure that the client is legally protected under the UK Package Travel laws. The employees of AA are also volunteering for MM, in fact in many cases they used to be supported by the charity.
Our business model has had a long term positive effect on many communities and we have nearly twenty years of evidence to back up such a claim. Every client who goes to one of our projects in western Kenya for example is contributing to a phenomenal success story, and all because the money is being distributed correctly.
Spending money locally and developing people
Add to that the money that Gap clients are spending in the markets for their food, 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 a very long term operation, and we have seen how volunteer holidays and school expeditions and gap years have quite literally transformed communities.
For us as a company, it is a simple question: "where is the money going?". We aim to make volunteering holidays a really beneficial and vital source of income for host communities, as well as a genuinely good personal development experience for the visitor. For Moving Mountains there are many questions around quality of life, development ideologies and evaluation cycles, and we recommend you visit the MM website to see how this is managed.