Felipe Zalamea is the London-based brain and brawn behind Sumak Sustainable Travel, a tour operator specialising in community-based ecotourism (CBET) and focusing on building bridges between local communities active in tourism and travellers interested in seeing a different side of Latin America. Sumak (from sumak kawsay, which means ‘good living’ in Quechua) is initially offering destinations in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay.
The Travel Word had a chat with him about the work he is doing to connect travellers to amazing off-the-beaten-track travel in Latin America.
The Travel Word: Felipe, what, if anything, is wrong with international tourism today?
Felipe Zalamea: Mass tourism is a global industry. In fact, total tourism sales were about US$1.03 trillion in 2011, which is more than the gross domestic product of a number of medium-sized countries. You can imagine what that means in the total number of aeroplane flights, busy airports, large-scale hotels and purpose-built holiday resorts. All this does create employment and wealth, which is important, but overdevelopment of tourism can also suck up scarce resources like water, damage the environment, and have a negative impact on the quality of life for local residents. Something more balanced and, frankly, smaller might be better.
TTW: Tell us what you are trying to do differently.
FZ: I travelled around Latin America researching the tourism industry and found a large number of small-scale initiatives where local people – farmers, fishermen, indigenous communities – were experimenting with a different, much smaller-scale type of tourism. They have been offering homestays to visitors interested in spending time with local communities, eating local food, sharing and understanding their lifestyles and customs. These are amazing experiences, well off the beaten tracks, and almost nobody knows about them! So we decided to make some of them available to travellers.
Now, our business model is different too. We are a social enterprise, not profit-driven. Half of any surplus we make will be reinvested to expand our travel destinations, and the other half will go to the local communities. We work with the communities in shanty towns, fishing villages and rural areas as partners and stakeholders. These community organisations don’t want mass tourism, which would swamp them and disrupt their environments and lifestyles, but they do want a modest source of revenue to help them make a living alongside the other things they do, like farming and fishing.
One example is Prainha do Canto Verde, a community of around 200 fishing families located in Ceará state, on the northeast coast of Brazil. I wrote an article about this initiative for Sustainable Pangea. Here, CBET income represents no more than around 15% of the community’s total income, and they are happy with that. In fact, by complementing their fishing business with a steady and modest income from homestays in a beautiful part of the Brazilian Atlantic coast, the locals convinced the government to make their village an environmental reserve, protecting it from land speculation and the development of large-scale hotels or industrial facilities.
We also work with the Solidarity and Community-based Tourism Network of Bolivia (TUSOCO). This was set up over a decade ago and now has 26 member communities. It has also created a tourism agency in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. It is interesting to note that despite emerging in different regions and countries and at different times, these community-based tourism providers have many things in common. They all tend to be small in scale, they share revenue within the community, they favour transparency and fair trade, and they believe in empowerment.
TTW: But when your tours become popular, won’t you and your partners go ‘mass market’?
FZ: No. This is not about building vast hotels or ‘industrialising’ the travel experience. If a particular community, which, remember, will only have a fixed number of spare beds to fill on a homestay basis, fills its quota, so to speak, then we won’t encourage them to build more accommodation. Instead, depending on communities’s interests and desires, we’ll look at developing ecotourism capacity in another community, always on a small-scale basis. There are so many communities located in amazing parts of the continent, with interesting things to share and stories to tell, that there isn’t a supply problem. Our model is to send small groups of visitors to many destinations, not massive groups of tourists to few destinations.
TTW: Do your customers just visit CBET initiatives?
FZ: What we are offering is a combination of community visits blended with some of the iconic attractions of Latin America, including big cities. So we do include everything from tango dancing in Buenos Aires to tours of the shantytowns of Rio, not to mention bird-watching in the Amazon rainforest and stargazing in the Atacama Desert. People who travel with us have the option to have their itinerary tailored to their particular needs or interests. We take our commitment to the traveller very seriously, for example by offering transparent pricing, so customers know where their money is going, and how much ends up in local communities.
But it’s the activities we have developed with local communities that are creating really memorable and rich experiences for travellers. Our partnership with the Association of Indigenous Ecotourism in the Atacama Desert of Chile is a case in point. Members of the Lickan Antay ethnic group take our travellers to look at the night stars in the desert. They explain how the community sees the constellations, how it links the night sky to farming seasons and to local beliefs and traditions. This is one of our most popular activities, bringing in revenue for the association and affirming the cultural value of the community’s traditions.
TTW: What kind of feedback are you getting?
FZ: So far, incredibly encouraging. One of our travellers write in an email that “Personally, the most memorable parts of the holiday were staying with the Pewenche family who were fantastic hosts, and stargazing in the Atacama with the Lickan Antay people. Learning from locals’ experiences was amazing.” He added that “this was my first experience of community-based tourism and I honestly believe it is the future of travelling.” Another emailed that “Staying with an authentic indigenous community in the Amazon and being able to share and learn from them was already something I thought I would never do, but then just a few days later travelling to the Pacific and being surrounded by whales was just ridiculous!”