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How the Geotourism Development Foundation Is Changing Lives

Posted: 10/11/11 03:44 PM ET

Indian philosopher Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi once said: "You must be the change you want to see in the world." And through non-profit institutions like the Geotourism Development Foundation (which partners with local tour operators to develop thriving sustainable communities in impoverished countries) countless people are pitching in and adopting Ghandi's motto, including the organization's president, John McKenzie.

We tracked down McKenzie to learn more about the Geotourism Development Foundation's (GDF) efforts that include four projects on three continents, all of which aim to preserve culture, protect the environment and improve the lives of individuals in poverty-stricken communities. -- Andrew Skwarek

Malawi children

Q: The GDF launched this past summer and is very much a grassroots organization. Why was GDF founded, what is the non-profit's chief goal and how do you plan to achieve it?

A: Travel has a profound impact on impoverished countries in the world and the fact that international tourist arrivals in the least 48 developed countries grew from 6 million in 2000 to over 17 million in 2010 only corroborates this notion. In the same span of time, international tourism spending climbed from $3 billion to over $10 billion. With such favorable statistics, we saw a real potential for tourism to help lift people out of poverty. The GDF aims to use tourism as a force for good by improving the lives of the underprivileged, protecting the environment, conserving culture, and, ultimately, promoting tolerance and understanding between people.

The GDF was established in response to the opportunity of teaming up with travel industry partners (tour operators) to sponsor social, environmental and cultural geotourism projects that provide points of interest and establish a symbiotic relationship between tourists and the local community on a sustainable basis.

GDF lays the groundwork by providing design input and loans to develop local projects as tour products and partners with tour operators to tackle the distribution, booking, ground handling and service standards side of the business. Loans to the projects are ultimately repaid from booking revenue, which provides long-term income.

It's a win-win outcome: The local projects generate revenue and employment opportunities, as well as social and environmental benefits; tour operators improve their business; travelers experience unforgettable trips; GDF recovers loan funding and promotes travel as a force for good, and, it's sustainable - paying travelers keep coming, perpetuating the financial, social and environmental benefits.

Q:  What does sustainable tourism and geotourism mean?

A: Sustainable tourism is mainly about ensuring that destinations should remain unspoiled for future generations with a "take only pictures, leave only footprints" approach, but geotourism is a slightly broader concept. Geotourism is defined as "tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place - its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and the well-being of its residents."

Q: GDF's initiative in Southern Malawi sounds like it gives the traveler an authentic cultural experience. Can you tell us some more about this project and the impact it will have on the locals?

A: The Responsible Safari Company is GDF's partner in Malawi and as their name suggests, they aim to ensure that the benefits of tourism reach local communities and have tried to achieve this by building links with existing community initiatives in Malawi.

One of the projects the Responsible Safari Company works with is a community orphan care scheme. There are a number of small community centers dotted throughout the Mulanje district that provide afterschool care, education sponsorship, healthcare and social services for the vast number of disadvantaged children in the area. The tourism visit revolves around travelers going to one of the centers, learning about the work that's done there, watching short performances and playing with the children.

It is hard to say what the experience is like for the children, and this is something that the Responsible Safari Company is working hard to find out. They want to try and make their project visits informative and enjoyable for both the visitor and overall project. Most of the locals in the communities would love to dance and sing throughout the visit but the travelers prefer to learn about the project and perhaps only spend an hour, as opposed to five. So, it is a work in progress. But, the feedback so far from the projects has been excellent - the Responsible Safari Company just needs more visitors coming through and hopefully the GDF loan will help make this possible.

Q: Why did GDF start the Yachana Gastronomy and Agricultural Development Program in Ecuador and how are the students of the local high school benefiting?

A: The community in this part of the Amazon is increasingly exposed to commercial farm produce and processed food and was therefore slowly beginning to lose its own culinary and farming traditions. Although this project is still in its infancy, the main goal here is to involve schoolchildren in learning how to farm local produce, as well as for the farm to provide fresh food for the school cafeteria and maintain traditions and flavors through a more nutritious diet. Ultimately, this helps the community be healthier, more financially sustainable and culturally independent.

Q:  So, what is GDF's biggest hurdle?

A: GDF's biggest hurdle is also its biggest opportunity: getting "geotourism" to be adopted by the mainstream travel industry, so that visits to our projects are something that might fit into anyone's travel plans. In order to accomplish this, it means we have to "connect the dots" between the travel industry and the non-profit sector, and take a global systematic approach.

For example, many large tour operators and travel companies show their desire to do good by setting aside part of their profits to donate to community, environmental or cultural projects, but usually this is done in isolation to the core business. Now, working with GDF, they can link some of this giving back to their business.

Q: Right now, there are four ongoing projects, but do you see GDF expanding their presence in the developing world within the next year or two, and if yes, where?

A: We hope that our current projects in Ecuador, Malawi, India and Philippines will demonstrate proof of concept for those regions and see huge potential everywhere, so we'll expand our network as quickly as we can find good people to work with. For now, we'll focus on the developing world, but one day we also hope to help less fortunate people and places in the developed world.

Q:  How can our members help GDF?

A: Many of Jetsetter's members are no doubt among those experiential travelers who wish to broaden their travel experience, to use travel as an opportunity to engage more with local people, the environment and the culture. Individuals like them set off to become participants rather than spectators - geotourists, rather than just tourists. Our hope is to create long-lasting three-way partnerships between us, the travel industry and local social entrepreneurs, bringing countless benefits to both local residents and visiting travelers.

GDF is just getting started and we welcome support in all areas. For more information or to donate, members can visit our website: www.geotourismfoundation.org. For more inspirational stories, check out Jetsetter.com and our blog, Passport.

 

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