Innovator Spotlight: sustainable tourism in remote mountain communities with Andean Lodges

Andean Lodges develops sustainable tourism itineraries in the remote Andes in partnership with indigenous rural communities otherwise excluded from society. The company’s administrative manager Juan Carlos Flores speaks to Jeremy Smith about the challenges in developing sustainable tourism in such a hard to reach region.

1 – What inspired you to create your business?

We created Andean Lodges thanks to the initiative of two High Andean communities: Chillca and Osefina.

During the 90s, the creation of roads allowed remote rural communities to connect with cities. This made business easier for these communities. However, for the alpaca-shepherding communities, this meant a significant drop off in business as the llamas, which were the traditional means of transportation, were replaced by trucks, at the same time as the traditional markets began to import industrial products. As a result the use of llamas as transport suffered heavily, as did local rural productio, meaning which new alternatives were needed.

Ideas started to come-up, such as creating hikes for travellers that were accompanied by llamas, staying in mountain refuges and sharing in the local culture. We ended up with a lodge to lodge trekking circuit, operated by native community members, using their llamas to carry luggage and equipment, combined with the comfort of environmentally friendly mountain lodges.

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

In 2005, we decided to set this company up in a joint venture with the communities of Chillca and Osefina, in order to create Andean Lodges. The first step was to integrate the communities in the company. We applied to a State-financed program which would pay for the building of one of the lodges through funds destined to the community´s development. As a result, the Anantapata Tambo Lodge was built with a 20% share ownership for the communities in the company.

The second step was training community members in tourist services. While we were building the four lodges – a process that lasted 5 years – we trained over fifty community members in cooking, housekeeping, maintenance, security and llama driving. Once everything was ready in 2009, we had our first group operated by community members  as chefs, llama drivers, maintenance staff and assistant guides. They all come from the communities of Chillca and Osefina and they are all our company partners.

These characteristics turned Andean Lodges into a unique tourist product in Peru, since it is the first time a private company has partners with rural communities, creating a private hiking circuit operated by High Andean shepherding communities.

The geographical area, the Ausangate is the Andean Tutelary Mountain or Apu. In its surroundings, native communities have managed to get a concession for 9,000 hectares, for the creation of a Private Conservation Area; a natural space of the highest cultural, religious and ecological value.

This is Andean Lodges´ story, as well as our company´s identity, which has allowed us to work with customers who believe in our communities´ sustainable development and, at the same time, seek an authentic trekking experience, with lots of comfort.

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

From the moment a customer purchases a tour, he or she knows that they are supporting the sustainable development of community members, and that these people own their part of the company´s shares. Therefore, at the same time as we give our clients their trip´s information, we inform them that the experience will include the participation of community staff. Furthermore, we hand a script to our guides, in which we stress all aspects of community work involved.

On the first day of the tour, the guide introduces our guests to the native work team: everyone from the cooks and llama drivers to the cleaning personnel and the lodges´ security staff. Each customer is gifted a pair of alpaca fur slippers made by craftspeople of Chillca, which means extra income, to them. Then, on the second day, there is a display of Andean fabrics, during which a group of local ladies teach the whole process to our guests, from how to obtain the alpaca wool, all the way to the final product, which can be purchased directly from its maker´s hands, thus generating another income for those families.

While operating Andean Lodges´ groups, we give our guests some tips on suitable behaviour to take into account cultural differences, and indicate what they can and should not do during while hiking days with community members in their natural environment. In addition, we give them a personal toilet kit,with biodegradable shampoo and soap which will be used throughout the whole hike.

As a result, we have 100% satisfied customers who are genuinely involved in the route´s social, cultural and ecological aspects.

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

The greatest challenge was to get High Andean shepherding communities – one of the world´s last shepherding cultures – involved in Peru´s tourist economy, as well as that of creating mutual trust-based bonds, in order to become partners.

In the 90s, while Peru´s economy was starting to grow, High Andean communities were still excluded from the market, and thus, in a situation of extreme poverty. This caused a rural exodus towards the cities and with it the disappearance of their local customs and traditions. With the creation of the Andean Lodges project, we were able to integrate their local economic and traditional activities, as well as their customs and belief systems, as cultural resources for sustainable tourism. This allows community members to gain access to the market and to generate economic development on their territory, without losing their identity, and while maintaining the value of their culture.

Today, these community members are proud of wearing their traditional clothes, and they understand that this is an added value to Andean Lodges´ experience. They don´t feel they are employees, but rather they know they are shareowners, working for themselves and for the welfare of their own community. This results in a friendly and enthusiastic work atmosphere, which is an enviable aspect for many companies, in the world.

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

We only work with people from the communities of Chillca and Osefina, which has improved the quality of life of those families who work with us, and benefited the wider communities as well. Over ten full-time jobs and more than fifty seasonal jobs have been created. By means of annual training for cooks and housekeepers, we have ensured the community members have a great attitude and motivation to work. A market has been created for alpaca fur slippers, designed by community members of Chillca and Osefina. Two women weavers associations were created, which are composed of over 80 women weavers from the communities of Chillca and Osefina.

Today the community members feel proud of their identity, and they now see in its conservation an opportunity for development for future generations. Furthermore, we provide ongoing training about health and hygiene, as well as environmental conservation. And all of this is shared with out customers, so that they might grasp how valuable their participation is in our shared experience.

6 – What has been biggest challenge you have faced?

The first challenge we faced was over 25 years ago, when we had to create mutual trust-based bonds with the communities of Chillca and Osefina, which were then forgotten villages, marginalized by modernity and the State. To this very day it remains a challenge.

The second challenge was building the lodges, as we had to work in a wild geographical area, over 4,600 meters above sea level, and with temperatures below 0ºC. As a result the process lasted five years, working only six months a year, during the dry season in the Andes. Throughout it was difficult to transport materials and equipment to these hard to access places hard to access, relying only on pack animals, and the tireless efforts of our community members.

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

Value all tools you have at hand, within the environment you are developing, as well as the natural resources and local cultures. Give the greatest importance to your project´s social and cultural aspects, without losing sight of quality of services you offer while you responsibly protect the environment.

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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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