Sustainable Tourism as a Mission for the Earth
My first foray into sustainable tourism began when I dropped out of college and embarked on a trip through Latin America in search of new ways to inhabit the planet.
When we talk about tourism, at the root of the (French) word, we seek to get out of the comfort zone and give our soul experiences that enrich it. Now, the term sustainable is born from the need to maintain this activity over time, both for the traveler and for the destination that receives tourists. Thus, my first steps in sustainable tourism were those of a traveler in search of experiences and with strong ecological and social justice principles (which I found at the time were still rare).
During this trip, I had experiences and retreats of several months within nature and away from technology, and I was able to understand the fundamental pillar that sustains, not only tourism, but any activity: Planet Earth is Alive and every human being is a cell that is part of this great living being.
With this in mind, the concept of sustainability of any activity responds to the same principles that allow a human body to be healthy: balance, synergy, connectivity, transparency, resilience … and that’s why for me, sustainable tourism is not just a job to earn money with, but it is a mission that makes my soul vibrate and fills me with energy and new ideas.
Tourism as a Tool for a Healthy Planet
Traveling through remote and even wild places in South America, I encountered a social phenomenon working against such principles.
The local people living in natural places seek social benefits and economic opportunities like everyone else in the world. The problem is, many often consider their options to be limited to working for a mining company, a hydroelectric company, a supermarket or any mega company that promises them a minimum wage each month, even if they have to work 10 hours a day.
And such economic opportunities may come with a very high price tag of losing their freedom and their natural heritage. But with promises of "benefits for society", mining companies and other extractive industries that destroy ecosystems are gaining ground in these regions.
It does not need to be this way.
The very powerful truth is: you can earn money taking care of your cultural and natural heritage through sustainable tourism. You can even find online jobs in which your creativity can be your heritage. If only governments spend resources on educating and giving people the tools to develop their own businesses and initiatives, locals could aspire to a much better quality of life than earning the minimum wage and losing their freedom.
In Chile, for some years now, the economic activity categorized as "services", which includes tourism, surpassed the categories "mining" and "fishing" as the most important economic activity. But still the government continues to give more priority to mining and fishing projects that only provide raw material to foreign countries, which buy it at very low prices, leaving a very negative environmental impact in the area.
Of course, this is a very large and complex monster, and describing its details would require many more pages and hours. But I want to emphasize that, despite the enormous power this monster has, the potential of sustainable tourism to counter such power is significant. It’s a viable tool that ecologically conscious locals can use against the monster destroying our planet.
Creating Networks That Create Sustainable Experiences
Managing and offering sustainable tourism experiences is about working with a diverse network of product and service providers. As such, my work has focused on developing networks of local providers within each destination, and I also bring them together to provide connected multi-destination experiences.
Since I’ve also worked for many years as a guide myself, I know that the guides and drivers are the stars of the trip. They are the ones who will spend most time interacting directly with the customers, and it’s those interactions that customers will remember the most. So you need to have a very good trusted team that will receive the customers.
Another key aspect of building networks is creating connections beyond the tourism offers. I’ve placed a lot of importance on supporting local projects benefiting community members, because I believe the more one gives the more one receives. Even though we work in tourism, which is an important economic activity, not everything is about profit. There is a great value in enriching relationships with the people who live in the places where we operate. And for me personally, it’s also a way to enrich my own life, being able to feel positively about my own tracks on earth.
Key Lessons on Working in Sustainable Tourism
As a business leader, I’ve gained a lot of insights from my own experiences working on the ground and with different networks. Here are some lessons and suggestions I’d share with anyone considering similar paths.
Be honest and do the best you can. And know that you can’t do everything, and that’s fine.
But try to make it easier for yourself to achieve your goals. One good way to do so is planning ahead, leaving enough time for you to deal with all the last-minute issues that will come up.
It is also very important to understand that different cultures have different ways of working and communicating. Some cultures can be colder and more practical and other cultures can be warmer but messy at the same time. In this way, when working with international tourism, you must incorporate something called empathy in yourself. Empathy allows us to feel each other, and to understand what that others may expect of us. Developing soft skills that help maintain fluid and respectful communication will facilitate work with both clients and suppliers.
The greatest achievement of any person, I believe, is to do what your heart dictates and then, on that path, create the structures that support that path. Only from our hearts, not our minds, new ideas are born that will generate fundamental changes in our society.
Keeping these in mind, and being independent, free, happy and working with love in what I do - these are for me the recipe for success in my professional journey.
Mario Mellado is the founder and director of Nave Tours (Chile) and Ecomorro (Brazil). He also designs custom programs for Nanook Travel (Norway) and Vivitravel.com (Italy). For Nanook he manages the Latin American network of providers.