If you’re looking for more meaningful travel interactions and are interested in giving something back as you travel, it’s important to understand the concept of social enterprise — what is it, how it works with local communities, and where to find it in the travel industry.
When we told friends last month that we would visit social enterprises in Peru which intersected with the travel industry, we could read in their reactions both affirmation and confusion.
“Social enterprise…hmmm, that sounds cool. But what does that really mean? And what does it have to do with travel?”
Similarly, I recently suggested to clients in Kyrgyzstan that the regional DMO (Destination Management Organization) operating models Audrey and I helped them set up — tourist office-agencies which developed the local tourism sector while earning money from its local tours and services to sustain operations — resembled a social enterprise. We considered this a strength.
“Social enterprise…what’s that?” They asked. “And how do we do it?”
Before we answer those questions, a step back as to why this matters – to those of us who travel, to the local communities we visit, and to the world as a whole.
Note: This article was originally published June 12, 2018 and updated on April 3, 2019.
Overtourism vs. Community-Based Tourism: The Opportunity Landscape
We’ve all seen headlines about 1.2+ billion tourists and the potential environmental, cultural and economic havoc overtourism can wreak on the places we visit. Not to mention, the negative impact on the destination and experiences that brought tourism there in the first place.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Tourism done well and right can also enhance local communities so that they are at once attractions and also better places for local people to live. This is the sustainable tourism holy grail: travelers traveling with social impact in mind, making deliberate travel decisions aligned with their values, having more meaningful travel experiences, and engaging with businesses and organizations that care.
A tall order, isn’t it? Among the mechanisms travelers have to achieve this, social enterprise.
We’ve always minded the social impact of travel throughout our work, travels and writing. However, it was our recent “G for Good” tour-meets-study trip in Peru with G Adventures which further catalyzed our thinking. Our experiences in Peru exposed the supply chain and demonstrated in detail exactly how purchasing travel services (e.g., tours, accommodation, restaurants, transportation, souvenirs, etc.) through social enterprises can deliver benefits to travelers and communities at once.
It also expanded and deepened our sense of what those benefits are.
Though the concept has been around for ages, the actual term “social enterprise” originated in the U.K. in the 1970s. Initially, it meant a financially viable common ownership organization operating in an environmentally responsible way, delivering something referred to as “social wealth.”
“What is that in ordinary speak?” you ask.
Fast-forward to today, using layman’s terms. A social enterprise is roughly a market-driven organization which also fulfills a social or environmental mission. We could debate and parse words, but the two concepts required to pass the social enterprise sniff test: the organization makes money, then invests a significant portion or all of its proceeds/profits back into community projects.
Social enterprises are not entirely dependent on grants or donations (this is how they differ from NGOs). Instead, they are financially sustainable through the sale of their products and services.
It's also true that social enterprises and their products often appeal to consumers on an altruistic level. That link may even inform the business model and messaging. Regardless, the essence of the social enterprise remains the same: earn money and invest the lion’s share to serve the community.
Let’s talk features and some common examples you might find in your travels.
1. Organic and Driven by Community Strengths
A social enterprise may find motivation and market access through an international partner, but its essence is organic. Its products and experiences typically draw on the existing cultural raw materials and strengths of the local community.
If you peel back the layers of how a social enterprise came to be, you might find a community which asked itself, “What do we need to accomplish our goals? And what cultural assets, strengths, and elements of identity can we bring to bear?”
Sure, sometimes outside advice or financing is needed to kick-start the project and help achieve those goals, but the ongoing physical and mental energy emanates from within the community.
Adrienne Lee, Director of Development at Planeterra Foundation, explained: “We'll work with our community partners and ground partners to develop a tourism plan that encompasses and drives their vision and mission-driven work (help brainstorm what we've done in other countries, look at where we might be able to replicate models, collaborate on ideas) and develop this budget with them.
We provide our funding for the length of the program to get it off the ground. Once it's “market-ready” and included into tourism product (or G Adventures itineraries), and our budget for the tourism enterprise is completed, we usually step away at this point.”
2. Market-Driven and Viable
Social enterprises are different. They address a current market need or cultivate a new one.
In Kyrgyzstan, we worked with four regional DMOs, focusing first on inventorying capacity, then branding and identity, and finally on implementing a rapid sustainable product development process.
The aim: to create market-ready tour products that highlighted the unique strengths and characteristics of each destination while also tapping into the leading travel market trends of food, culture and light adventure. These new local experiences rose to meet traveler demand to do and engage more in each destination, but in a way that emphasized community, identity and dignity. Throughout the process, the DMOs behaved as social enterprises.
After just one tourism season, average stays in each of the destinations – Karakol, Osh, South Shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, and Jyrgalan – is on a steep upswing. Each destination now has a brand identity in line with products and traveler experience. Moreover, community members now say things like, “We think about ourselves differently…we never thought about ourselves or our abilities in this way.”
3. Surfaces the Human Supply Chain
A travel experience is created and delivered differently from an object like an iPhone or a purse. Sure, people might have helped make those things. But, when I hold those products, I rarely experience direct human contact.
Not so in travel. Travel is high touch, high context. When I travel, people are not only involved throughout the process, they are essential.
This is especially true with experiences delivered under social enterprise. Impacted communities aren’t just a backdrop. Their human engagement components are the main event. They serve as critical, differentiating features of the travel experience. The idea: you are immersed in the community or environment, and your purchase and engagement make a direct, positive impact on the people you’ve met.
In this way, tourism truly is the people’s business.
Our first travel encounter with a social enterprise was in Hanoi, Vietnam ten years ago. The Hoa Sua School network of restaurants, bakeries and cafes throughout the city provided hospitality training and practical work experience to disadvantaged youth. Not only were food quality and service level high, but we also knew that our money (and our time) spent at the restaurants contributed to the futures of the young people working there.
4. Their Ecosystems Spawn Knock-On Businesses and Benefits
Because social enterprises are community-centric, they often spur development of other micro-enterprises to fill gaps and meet new supply needs. For example, at Parwa Community Restaurant in the Sacred Valley — a three-year initiative co-financed by the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American development bank and G Adventures, implemented by Planeterra — one local entrepreneur set up a business to harvest quail eggs essential to one of the lunch courses on the menu. Another community member entrepreneur now offers trekking snacks made from local, natural ingredients to sell to travelers headed for the Inca Trail.
When a social enterprise is successful, the community may draw other needed attention, too. At the Ccaccaccollo Women’s Weaving Cooperative, another Planeterra Foundation project, one woman told the story of how the cooperative’s success encouraged the local government to begin improving local roads. Absent the community’s social enterprise success, she believes the government would have continued to ignore their requests for infrastructure assistance.
5. Transcends the Transaction
Especially for external partners creating or making an investment in social enterprise, it’s about having skin in the game. And we’re not just talking an economic or financial stake, but an emotional one.
Unlike some Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, social enterprise is not about donating a bunch of money to salve one’s conscience, or throwing a couple of paragraphs in the annual report to tick off the “we’re doing something good” corporate checkbox. Don't get us wrong — those types of donations and support are also essential. But building or investing in a social enterprise is different.
Social enterprise creation requires active engagement, depth of involvement and connection. It demands the expenditure of personal capital, emotional capital, and time. When done well and thoughtfully, the result is the creation of something that matters to an entire community of people beyond just those directly employed.
To think of it another way, social enterprise investment resembles venture capital where not only is money invested, but time is spent mentoring, guiding and building relationships. This approach typically offers better stewardship and oversight of one’s investment, but it first requires a greater level of care and commitment.
As a traveler or a consumer, take a step back from any transaction or interaction with a social enterprise and ask yourself: Does it feel as though involved parties and partners are present and engaged? Do they really care about more than just the financial bottom line? Can you feel it?
Social enterprise-powered travel generally fits within in the category of responsible travel or sustainable travel. Its features rich, engaging, high-context travel experiences – in part because there is no trade-off between travel pleasure and advocacy or giving back.
Instead, those are all bound together. And as a result, a traveler’s experience is enhanced or multiplied.
1. Cultivates Interaction, Participation and Exchange
Social enterprise-powered travel often allows travelers to participate, to create, to interact directly with local people and communities, in a respectful, engaging way. It’s not just about observing or watching, but actively engaging in a hands-on way that chips away at barriers, assumptions and fears.
What travelers often implicitly understand in social enterprise contexts is that they and community members both – that is, each of us – has something special to offer that’s reflective of our life experience and our home culture. In this way, social enterprise travel dissolves any sense of “levels” of humanity – through interactions and experiences which simultaneously emphasize what we have in common while constructively and curiously highlighting the differences that brought us to visit the community in the first place.
When we worked with Destination Osh and Destination Karakol in Kyrgyzstan on developing food-related tours with local families and entrepreneurs, our emphasis encouraged hands-on, interactive experiences. The idea: travelers and hosts create something together while everyone shares a bit of himself in the process.
The result: bread-making courses, a family dinner where you make your own ashlan-fu (a delicious cold, vinegar-based soup), a plov (traditional rice-based dish) cooking class. The essence was interaction, not transaction. Because of that, travelers engaged in resonant experiences where their purchases all impacted locally and directly — with people the travelers actually met.
2. Builds Connection, Meaning and a Sense of Stewardship
Travel experiences delivered through social enterprise develop connection between travelers and the local community and environment. These connections also build meaning in multiple layers — in part by cultivating an immeasurable sense of care for more than oneself. Social enterprise enhances the travel experience by enabling us as travelers to develop a growing sense of ourselves, our world and our place in it.
Also, long after a social enterprise experience, its memories reinforce a relationship between the traveler, the community and the organization that brought them together.
3. Offers a Natural Platform for Transformational Travel
The binding of connection, meaning and exchange offers a natural platform for transformational travel – the idea that after my travels, I emerge changed, perhaps engaging with the world and my life back home differently upon my return.
Often times, we talk out of cliché about our travel experiences changing our lives. However, social enterprise and travel animates and motivates. Community-engaged travel experiences offered by social enterprises often plant seeds of thought and care. They provide human anchors that expand our experiential vocabulary and enable us to articulate how a travel encounter has impacted us.
Because its high-context, social enterprise often allows a traveler to more clearly articulate “This is how my travel experience changed me. This is who touched me and how I was touched.”
4. Delivers a Local Experience
Travel experiences with social enterprises are by nature community-based. So their essence, features and details are entirely local. As a traveler, you don’t need to interact with a social enterprise during your travels to ensure a local experience. However, if you engage with a social enterprise, it’s virtually guaranteed.
It’s hard to imagine an experience more local and real that the Maasai Clean Cookstoves social enterprise experience in northern Tanzania. While many tours in Tanzania visit a Maasai village on a show-and-souvenir display, this social enterprise begins by using a portion of the tour fees from G Adventures passengers headed to the Serengeti to purchase a clean cookstove for a Maasai family in a nearby village.
It then takes travelers through a stove installation process. And it's all led by local Maasai women who articulate the importance of this simple cooking device to the well-being and health of local families. Travelers enjoy a unique, intimate experience in a Maasai village, with a Maasai family.
5. Delivers a Differentiated Experience
To the point, travel experiences delivered by social enterprises are typically not of the ordinary, beaten-path variety. Because of their local, personal, community-based nature, they often feature something unusual, something different – sparking the feeling of, “I never thought about it or looked at it this way.”
This was also the case of Parque de la Papa, a new G Adventures and Planeterra Foundation partner in the Sacred Valley.
I admit to having a conflicted relationship with potatoes since they often serve as tasteless filler. Potatoes were not something I would have considered building a travel experience around. Well, no longer. After meeting a local farmer and potato enthusiast at this local organization that works with nearby agricultural communities to preserve 3,000 varieties of Peruvian potatoes, I'm convinced. No longer the lowly potato.
There were over 500 or so varieties of potatoes on display of funky shapes, colors and flavors (Yes, I ate many… and they tasted unreal!) that I had never before seen or imagined. Moreover, the discussion on potatoes and the importance of their preservation to food security of these communities helped me better understand the historical and cultural relevance of potatoes to Peru and to its people.
In other words, I'll never look at the humble potato in quite the same way again.
G Adventures pays a tour fee to Parque de la Papa for an educational, cultural and culinary experience en route to Machu Picchu. While 42 people are employed by the park, around 2,500 people in nearby communities are impacted indirectly by this social enterprise. Not to mention, the sustainable stream of income from traveler visits allows even more research to be conducted on preserving indigenous food sources and seeds.
Rare in travel that something so unassuming could have such wide-ranging impact.
The desire to give something back to the places we visit is wholesome and ought to be encouraged. However, we need to find the appropriate outlets or channels to give effectively. The market-based, community-aware nature of social enterprises naturally lend them and their experiences to delivering direct impacts to communities and facilitating positive outcomes.
Here are just some of the impacts and benefits we've seen social enterprise-powered travel deliver to local communities.
1. Preserves Traditions
Social enterprises often aim to preserve storytelling patterns and local traditions, not only because that preservation is essential to the community and its identity, but also because those assets are valuable to delivering differentiated experiences to the travel market.
Social enterprise travel experiences typically offer culture concurrent with reality, evolved and presented in a way that feels like living history. In some instances, social enterprises rescue and resurrect valuable traditions that communities didn’t even realize they were in danger of losing.
Ten years ago, many of the local indigenous designs and traditional methods of weaving almost died out in the remote Sacred Valley village Ccaccaccolla. Although tourism in nearby Cusco and Machu Picchu had been growing, the village was far enough off the main road that they were missing out. Economically-viable opportunities for local women to produce their traditional handicrafts were evaporating quickly.
With the development of the Ccaccaccollo Women's Weaving Cooperative, G Adventures brings close to 15,000 of its tour passengers per year to visit this social enterprise. Forty-six local women now earn a living for themselves and their families by sharing their traditional weaving techniques with travelers and selling their handicrafts directly to visitors without the need of an intermediary.
Several women reporting having used their income to send their children to university, something that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. Others have invested in developing a homestay program for travelers interested in an overnight Peruvian village family experience. Mothers are once again teaching their daughters traditional Incan weaving methods and designs, hoping to sustain their passage through the generations.
2. A Dignity Based on Identity and Exchange
Social enterprises are not about charity or an unequal hierarchical relationship where one gives something to another. The key feature of social enterprise is exchange – not only of goods, services and experiences, but of a kind of cultural interchange which communicates that we all have something of value to offer one another.
This relates to the organic nature of social enterprise – where business, products and experiences link back to a sense of personal pride and stewardship for one’s community.
Key to this is the concept of identity. Engage in social enterprise-powered travel and you’ll feel and hear a sense of pride – especially when travelers from all over the world come not only to see the local nature and landscape, but to see and experience a local community — their culture, crafts, cuisine and life.
Ownership and development of this asset becomes local; and transformation ripples at the individual, group, ethnic and community levels.
This concept was first highlighted and demonstrated to us by Rabee’ Zureikat, founder of the Zikra Initiative in Jordan, an organization whose core philosophy is “riches come in many forms.”
In our experience with the women of Ghor al Mazra'a as part of a Zikra Initiative experience, they shared with us their cultural wealth — their crafts, cooking, culture, and a glimpse into their lives, their family and a primarily Afro-Jordanian community along the Dead Sea.
In other words, everyone, no matter his or her socio-economic position, has something of value to share with this world. Enterprising on the basis of this simple principle delivers a continual sense of pride, confidence and dignity.
3. Focused and Targeted
Social enterprise typically concentrates its effects on small, often marginalized communities. One social enterprise may only affect a limited number of people, but it likely does so deeply. It leads and offers examples within the wider community and to ones nearby who might wish to do something similar.
In this way, social enterprise and travel helps alter the world through micro action and effect.
Social enterprises often exhibit the core value of inclusivity – a way of living which is essential to serving the community. That inclusivity implies opportunity, especially for those who might otherwise be excluded due to their socio-economic status. It's important to note that inclusivity is provisional only on the basis that one is willing to work, to cooperate and to develop a skill. This is why job training is often a crucial component to social enterprise, as it’s along the path to expanding the pie and growing the benefit to the community and its members.
When we traveled recently to Phnom Penh, Cambodia earlier this year, we came across a network of social enterprises run by Friends-International. These businesses apply a vocational training business model which provides practical and in-demand skills and professional experience to targeted disadvantaged and marginalized youth, populations typically excluded from such opportunities.
For example, at the Friends Nails Bar, Audrey dropped-in for a manicure and pedicure. The entire organization, including the affiliated souvenir shop and restaurant, was geared to developing a professional bearing and helping its employees build confidence to continue working or launch their own businesses as they develop.
5. Economic Impact is Additive, not Extractive
If you wish to measure the full cost of your visit – ask yourself, “Besides the money I paid, what of value is left on the ground in the community after my visit?”
In other words, what's the net impact?
Essential to social enterprise is the development of an asset base or knowledge base. It’s not about travel companies running roughshod over a destination merely for profit, stripping it of its essence until it’s no longer recognizable.
The impact isn’t just money and jobs, either. It’s about an ecosystem and mindset which invests in homes, infrastructure, clean water, access to education, and more. It’s about taking stock of how the community has benefited from the enterprise, particularly outside of the direct financial exchange.
Social enterprise asks, “What is the path of the quality of life for people who live there? What is the viability”
Parwa Community Restaurant is located in a small community which is home to 65 families. Through the restaurant and organization's proceeds, community management has chosen to re-invest their profits into projects that spoke to business investment (i.e., tending an organic garden and expanding the restaurant’s capacity to host more travelers), as well as to initiatives that improved the well-being of the community and its environment. For the latter, they invested in things like water containers on community members’ houses to improve access to clean water, a new toilet block to improve sanitation, and a reforestation program to replace trees consumed for firewood.
And that’s only from 2017 profits. In previous years they invested in a computer room for local students, educational scholarships and other home improvement projects. These annual “reinvestments” have the potential to impact the community for years and generations to come.
At this point you might be thinking: “All this sounds well and good, but how do I go about finding social enterprises for my next trip?”
A few ideas and recommendations:
- Choose a tour operator — international or local — that partners or actively works with local social enterprises to deliver services or offer tour experiences. We’ve provided examples from the G Adventures social enterprise model in this article. You can also limit your search of their experience catalog to those tours which include a Planeterra Foundation project visit or local social enterprise component. When researching local tour operators ask about how they work with local organizations and communities to be sure that the money from your tour fees also stays in the regions instead of just in the capital city or major cities.
- Consider seeking out organizations who operate as Benefit Corporations (or, B Corporations), a type of legal entity which includes positive impact on environment, community, employees and society in its legally defined goals. B Corporations are recognized in a growing number of states in the United States (33 at the time of writing) and countries around the world. B Corporations can then use free third-party impact assessment tools to bolster their assertions of doing good or pursue independent third-party certification like the B Corp certification. You can find a listing of travel related B Corporations here.
- Conduct online research as to whether there are local social enterprise restaurants, accommodation, tours or shops in the locations where you will be traveling. In addition to mighty Google, Grassroots Volunteering's social enterprise database is a good first stop for tourism-related organizations around the world. Asking your network of family and friends, especially if they are also keen travelers with an eye to social impact and giving back, can also delivers great results and discussion.
- When you're on the ground ask around and keep your eyes open: you'll likely find that your awareness of social enterprises will surface them more quickly in your field of view. (When you learn of something new and your attention is raised to it, the phenomenon is referred to as “selective attention” or blue car syndrome). Cafes or restaurants will often display flyers or signs on their bulletin boards of local social enterprises or community organizations. Sometimes, you'll even literally stumble over the organization, as happened to us in Alice Springs, Australia, where by last-minute chance, we came across a local Aboriginal art gallery at a Salvation Army Community Center.
The great thing about the intersection of social enterprise and travel: we can all get involved – travelers, travel industry and trade, and members of host communities.
As travelers, we can achieve two-way impact, experience, and exchange. And as we optimize the impact of travel on ourselves, we can also optimize our impact on communities as we honor and respect the nuance and realities of the places we visit.
Travel companies — now, more than ever — also have the opportunity to innovate experiences which simultaneously engage travelers and serve communities just as it impacts their bottom line. To keep this in check, communities, too, must care.
It just takes a little interest, effort and time – to educate oneself, to get perspective and to continually tune our decision-making processes and choices.
But we’d argue it’s worth it. When it comes to the intersection of travel and healthy communities, we all have a stake.