You know those stories about tourists doing embarrassing things abroad? Planeterra is the exact opposite of that. Working in partnership with small group tour operator G Adventures, Planeterra builds social enterprises that employ people who would otherwise struggle to find work in their communities — namely, women. As Director of Development at Planeterra, Adrienne Lee travels the globe looking for opportunities to help build local-led businesses that become destinations for tourists and travelers. The reach of these seemingly small operations is impressive. Punching far above their weight, Planeterra-supported businesses have a trickle-down effect in the local economy, improving the lives of women, youth, and families as a whole and introducing new skills to a community while preserving traditional ones.
B+C: Can you talk about the inspiration behind Planeterra — among all the ways that an organization could make a positive impact on the tourism industry, why decide to focus on supporting and empowering women in particular?
Adrienne Lee: Planeterra was created as a means for the travel industry to give back to communities. As a non-profit organization, Planeterra has contributed millions of dollars toward projects in areas of social enterprise, healthcare, conservation, and emergency response in travel destinations around the world.
We work with community groups that have often been traditionally excluded from the formal economy. This includes marginalized women that may not have benefitted from a formal education growing up, at-risk youth that are carving out new pathways and futures for themselves, and rural communities, with a particular focus on indigenous communities.
B+C: Gender equality is a big topic in the media right now, and it’s tied to so many other issues, like sexual harassment, pay equity, and domestic violence. What does helping women find and create employment opportunities do to combat these things?
AL: All too often, women are marginalized in society. Women are expected to take on a heavier burden to maintain and support a family household, and girls are often the first to lose out on education, training, and resource opportunities. Tourism creates a platform for women to access capacity and vocational training for those that may not have benefitted from a formal education growing up, and these skills can be converted into meaningful jobs.
Tourism has the potential to be the first step into the formal economy for women who come from underserved communities. Creating dignified and engaging livelihoods also enhances income and independence for women. Women who earn an income create opportunities for themselves; they have greater agency and freedom to determine how money is spent. This strengthens decision-making powers and builds self-esteem.
B+C: Projects like the Sthree Craft Shop and Café in Sri Lanka and Bike With Purpose and the San Antonio Pottery Co-op in Belize go beyond just benefitting women and extend into the wider community. Can you talk about how that works?
AL: When jobs are created, we are also ensuring a longer-term impact by driving local economic investment in a community. Tourism has a breadth of ripple effects, and by creating jobs in a local economy, you’re also helping to invest in that region’s future. By creating jobs in the tourism economy, [we’re] creating a platform for people to work and stay in their region. We work with each of our partners to set up a community development fund, which helps create a platform for equal decision making on how funds from tourism are spent. Trends we’ve observed from this community fund include spending on local education, healthcare, conservation programs, and community cultural celebrations.
Tourism can provide an entryway into the formal economy, opportunities to stay and work within one’s own rural community, or the chance to move and apply hospitality skills in other regions.
B+C: Can you tell us about a Planeterra project that you’re currently excited about?
AL: One Planeterra program that I’m excited about is one that you mentioned above — the Sthree Craftshop and Café! Our community partners — the Women’s Development Centre in Kandy, Sri Lanka — had already been doing great empowerment and gender work in the country. It was always a dream of theirs to convert their workshop space into a training center and space for female entrepreneurs to come together, share, and learn from each other’s experiences. They also wanted to convert this space into a café and serve traditional Sri Lankan food and tea.
To convert this into a commercial retail space, Planeterra raised funds to get it off the ground. The space was fully renovated, and our partners underwent an extensive hospitality, sanitation and hygiene, and financial literacy program.
Now the café and craft shop is booming. On their first day of opening to G Adventures travelers, the craft shop alone earned $200, versus the $40 they were previously making. With continuous practice, the hope is to open this café to be public-facing and welcome travelers from all over the globe.
B+C: There’s a growing concern over how travel affects the people who live and work in popular tourist destinations. Do you have any advice for travelers who want to make sure their next trip has a positive impact on the community that’s hosting them?
AL: 1. Always do your research beforehand.
2. If you aren’t completely comfortable traveling alone, consider traveling with a reputable tour operator that employs local people. Having lived abroad for a number of years in a country where I did not speak the local language, I know the culture shock can become overwhelming, and leaning on friends who know the lay of the land was vital. Traveling with someone that knows the landscape will also give you the “insiders’ scoop” of the destination you are traveling to.
3. Travel light. I almost always travel with a carry-on bag only. Most things you might “forget” can be purchased locally, and will help drive economic investment in the places you’ll go.
4. When possible, purchase from a female entrepreneur. By supporting her small business, you are likely also investing in her household’s needs as well.
How do you try to make a positive impact when you’re traveling? Let us know on Twitter.
(Photos via G Adventures)