Innovator Spotlight: Surtrek and sustainable luxury travel in South America

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Ecuador-based Surtrek is a 20-yr old responsible tourism business running luxury travel experiences across South America. Jeremy Smith spoke to its founder Alfonso Tandazo about his inspirations, challenges and ideas.

1 – What inspired you to create your business?

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Surtrek began 20 years ago with a local guide who had seen the environmental threat posed by conventional tourism to the region’s cultural and natural resources – everything from the impairment the water supply and beaches, to the overrunning and eroding of heritage sites. His initial vision was not only to provide the best and most authentic services for tourists coming to Ecuador, but for their travel to simultaneously generate greater economic benefits for local people and to enhance the well-being of communities in his country.

To realise this dream, a locally-based approach was adopted that viewed tourism — particularly nature and ecotourism — as a means of promoting the conservation of wildlife and natural resources, increasing cultural awareness through interchanges between visitors and locals, and stimulating local economies.

Over the years, that guide — me, Alfonso Tandazo — became the president and owner of the Quito-based Surtrek Tour Operator. What began as a tiny adventure travel company has grown to where Surtrek has a large staff of passionate travel specialists from Ecuador and around the world and we now work with a host of partner organizations from across the continent …in Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

2 – How does being responsible help your business attract potential customers?

2. attracting customers

The new awareness of the environmental issues confronting the planet’s population has made many tourists vitally concerned about how their travel can have negative physical impacts – whether in the form of pollution, exacerbated traffic, littering, increased sewage, noise or damage caused by the overrunning of natural reserves and world heritage sites. Similarly, travelers themselves have come to reject the old social habits of the “ugly tourist” (loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant and ethnocentric).

We’re increasingly seeing travellers prepared to offset any negative physical affects associated with their trips, insisting on tours that safeguard the physical surroundings, wanting to directly participate in conservation efforts, and providing financial support for remediation actions as a part of their tour packages. With regard to the social environment, these days many travellers are seeking what we at Surtrek promote: forms of tourism that respect human environments that are different from those of the travellers.

This can include tourists being exposed to traditional customs and handicrafts (which simultaneously creates national and community pride on the part of local people), in addition to real interchanges between guests and hosts, which is another way of creating better cultural understanding and helping to raise global awareness about issues of poverty and human rights. Consequently, the “language” we at Surtrek actively use emphasises green practices, social responsibility, sustainable tourism, conservation, reforestation, and community-support initiatives.

This is because an increasing number of travellers want the same thing we do: for them to enjoy their vacation while doing what’s right.

3 – How do you engage guests in your responsible tourism activities?

3. Engagement in RT

We promote the very best eco-tourism “products” in Ecuador. We carefully select only those rainforest lodges, haciendas, cruise ships and partner tour agencies that take systematic efforts to operate in accordance with the principles of environmental responsibility; on top of this, we only support those organizations that work actively to introduce such actions and practices to their guests.

Such service providers include the Chirije Eco-lodge on the Pacific Coast, the community-run and managed Huaorani Eco-lodge and the Napo Wildlife Center in the Amazon, the Eric, Letty & Flamingo yachts in the Galapagos Islands, and the Septimo Paraiso Ecolodge here in the Ecuadorian highlands – to cite only a few.

Surtrek is also the founder and principal funder of Vitalideas, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness and generating sustainable change in the areas of natural resource conservation and rural community development. Vitalideas has assisted Surtrek in its efforts to engage its guests in responsible tourism by raising their consciousness concerning environmental issues.

Through on-the-ground presentations during tours, Surtrek guests have been provided with information and new perspectives regarding topics that relate to everything from simple measures to reduce CO2 emissions and the impact of deforestation, to the importance of local cultural heritage and the need to promote local and fair trade. As a consequence, we are one of very few companies in Ecuador certified by the Rainforest Alliance and Smart Voyager as a responsible tour operator. Ninety percent of the products we offer are certified as well.

Many of Surtrek’s travel programs get travelers to”roll up their sleeves” and directly participate in reforestation activities. Not only do these actions assist in conserving primary forests and stimulating biodiversity, but also these guest in our country become more aware of deforestation (often stemming from actions that originate in their home countries) and other practices that are harmful to the environment.

4 – What is the responsible tourism initiative of which you are most proud?

4. Project most proud of

Cajabamba II is a small community located at the entrance of the Amazon region, where agricultural activities are the most important source of incomes for the inhabitants. In tandem with the NGO Vitalideas, Surtrek (as the owner of an eco-lodge in the area), partnered with this small community to improve agricultural productivity, encourage diversification in agricultural production, and focus on organic production to achieve better living conditions in Cajabamba II.

Consensus around this project was created through local participatory methods so that community members could express their views and make decisions at each stage of the process. Surtrek and Vitalideas worked as facilitators as the people themselves decided their own future and became the main actors of their own development. Vitalideas first conducted a market study to analyze whether organic products from that area could be sold to hotels and restaurants in the surrounding community. In that study, 100% of local tourism companies expressed the need for a supply of fruit and vegetables for their facilities and then planned to buy vegetables from the local community so as to contribute to local development.

Subsequently a large greenhouse was built, and from that success other issues were then tackled – such as waste and pollution problems, the production of organic fertiliser and the use of other environmentally friendly methods of agriculture, community education (on topics such as hygiene, the environment, water treatment, education, agriculture, industry, micro-lending, etc…), as well the organisation of free medical and oral-hygiene check-ups.

5 – What positive impacts does your tourism business have on the community / environment where you are based?

5. Positive impacts

The positive community effects of a locally-based tour company come directly through the employment of local residents. The overwhelming majority of our office staff, drivers, guides, accountants, lawyers and cleaners are native Ecuadorians. We also work primarily with Ecuadorian suppliers and tour agencies. What’s more, these jobs are not part of any “underground economy.” All of these are above-board jobs that are highly competitive and receive fair wage rates, with all employees covered under the nation’s Social Security program.

In addition, the positive impact on the local economy is multiplied when our employees spend their salaries and wages on goods and services here in Ecuador, which obviously helps create more jobs here in this country. Indirectly, the positive economic impact of our business is enjoyed by the locally-owned service sector, such as retail services (particularly hotels and restaurants) and transportation services (from airlines and bus companies, to train lines and cabs). Surtrek has also supported special efforts to encourage small-scale community-run business operations, which have been especially important in remote rural and jungle communities.What’s more, as these communities come to see their direct economic interests tied to conserving the physical environment that surrounds them, it becomes easier for them to see their stakes in doing exactly that – protecting the natural environment.

When visiting remote areas that have traditionally been cut off from participation in the general economy (communities deep in the Amazon, as well as isolated indigenous settlements in the Andean highlands), our guests need only to communicate with local members of these communities to find out if their visit is making a contribution. In this way, travellers can confirm for themselves the positive economic as well as social impact of their visits. After being introduced to a community-owned and managed eco-lodge, or being served at a traditional restaurant in a small village, or when spending an afternoon in an English class or staying the night in the home of a local family, they’ll hear from local residents themselves how much these visits by foreign guest are valued. This is partly why such people-to-people contact is a basic element of Surtrek tours.

6 – What has been biggest challenge you have faced?

6. Biggest challanges

The biggest challenge as a company is to sustain and maintain our philosophy and commitment to serve our customers, our communities and our environment. Everyone expects the best results in increasingly shorter periods, and we tend to have increasingly less patience – not realising that sometimes improvements and results come in the medium- or longer-term. Maintaining the right perspective and balance that works for everyone is the most difficult part of corporate social responsibility! This means that we have to convince communities that sustainable alternatives really work, while persuading tourists that they need to be responsible for their use of limited resources, and that their visits impact the environment. For us this entails constant work that we must undertake every day.

We must create a new culture with everyone involved, though it’s difficult to convince people to change their traditional ways when these aren’t the most appropriate approaches. This is why the work is be slow, however the achievements stand over time. This is the perspective needed to understand how change is realised! Notwithstanding, when we attempt to catalyse change, we must be careful not to change the essence of the culture of those involved. Instead, we need to strengthen those core values and connect them with nature and the environment. Obviously this demands a great deal of discipline and perseverance in a protracted process of change and development.

The main challenge for us has always been organising a community around an idea or a project. This process is exceedingly complex for the actors as they have diverse and varying interests in these projects. This is further complicated when there’s a lack of community leadership possessing this vision; such a situation often results in outsiders becoming involved in the core values and ideas of the organisation, as these individuals disregard their proper roles as facilitators and insert themselves as the decision-making actors.

7 – What advice would you give to any entrepreneur starting a responsible tourism business?

7. advice

See it as everyone’s responsibility to use resources responsibly. The sooner we understand this the better it will be for our planet’s survival. From this, we can understand how tourism is the industry that offers the most opportunities for educating people about the need for the responsible use of resources. With patience, discipline and perseverance, the changes that are needed on our planet can be achieved.

Nevertheless, it is incumbent on us to be willing to do our best to effect those vital changes. In addition to a passionate desire to work for the well-being of all, creativity is needed to convince everyone involved. One needs to be very consistent, and also consistent in acting in accordance with this philosophy. It’s rewarding to see the results of a responsible job that benefits everyone involved. Again, tourism is the best industry for applying corporate social responsibility as it is experiential, and those experiences are direct and lived first-hand. This makes each of us a more sensitive and better human being!

 If your company is a supporter of World Responsible Tourism Day and you are interested in being featured in a future Spotlight interview, please contact us here

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Jeremy Smith is a writer and editor specialising in responsible tourism. He is the editor of Travindy.com, an industry news site focussing on developments in sustainable and responsible tourism. He also works with ethical and sustainable travel businesses, developing their communications, brands, marketing and digital & social media strategy.

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