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Presenting: Danielle Weiss Talks About Sustainable Tourism

By Susanne Pacher

Danielle Weiss is the Sustainable Travel Coordinator for G.A.P Adventures, Canada's largest adventure travel company and winner of many distinguished entrepreneurial and travel industry awards. I am also happy to say that G.A.P is also the sponsor of our first travel story contest who has generously provided the top prize for our contest: an amazing adventure expedition cruise through the Amazon.

G.A.P Adventures is a very unique travel company that combines small group adventure tours with concepts of environmental sustainability and social conscience.

Danielle is also one of the main people behind the Planeterra Foundation, a non-profit organization that was developed by G.A.P Adventures as a way to give back to the people and places they visit on our tours. Danielle herself is an avid traveller and in her personal interview she shares her personal stories of how travel changed her life.

I had a chance to ask Danielle about "sustainable tourism" and what all of us can do to minimize our impact on the communities we come in touch with. Here are her insights:

1. Please tell us more about "Sustainable Tourism", what is it?

I would define Sustainable Tourism as tourism that has minimal impact on the environment, respects local people and cultures, offers economic benefit to locally owned businesses and incorporates community-based ecotourism projects.

2. What does it mean to be a "Responsible Tour Operator"?

Being a Responsible tourism means being committed to offering low-impact tours that benefit traveller and host alike. G.A.P Adventures is an example of a company that prides itself on being a responsible operator. We work with local communities, businesses and individuals to develop sustainable tourism opportunities that help local economies while minimizing negative environmental and cultural impacts. We travel in small groups, use local transportation and stay in locally-owned accommodations.

Part of G.A.P's operating philosophy is to respect the communities in which we operate. G.A.P does this by acting in a manner that is environmentally, socially and economically responsible. While our sustainable tourism policies are constantly evolving, our commitment to socially conscious, grassroots style travel has never changed. In recognition of our efforts in the area of social responsibility, G.A.P won the Ethics in Action Award. We are proud of our reputation, the work we do with local communities and the style of travel we offer to our passengers.

3. What are "Ecotourism Operator Standards"?

With the help of Conservation International, G.A.P Adventures developed a set of Ecotourism standards which act as a code-of-conduct to ensure that we act responsibly at all levels of the company. Every year these standards are re-examined and, where appropriate, targets are raised or new standards are added.

- Company-wide policies:

1 Use of local transportation

2 All G.A.P Adventures staff and partners are aware and knowledgeable of the Standards program.

3 Reduce, Reuse (and Recycle whenever possible).

4 Annual contribution to conservation and community development NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

- Marketing:

1 Promote Standards in all marketing campaigns.

2 Marketing materials: Brochure contains at least 20% post-consumer recycled paper. Newsletter to remain online.

- Tour Operation:

1 Visit at least one officially established protected area on each tour and provide information on such areas to our clients.

2 Provide employment and/or business opportunities to local people.

3 Suppliers are encouraged to improve their own environmental/social standards.

4 Maximum group size is 12 passengers on all G.A.P Tour Leader-led tours. G.A.P ensures that local operators and other travellers are aware of the benefits of conducting small-group tours.

5 No use of suppliers who support exploitative practices. For example, we don't condone selling endangered species products, harming threatened habitats or prostitution.

- Tour Leaders:

1 Tour Leaders are fluent in English and Spanish.

2 Tour Leaders receive special training in low-impact travel and are selected based on their knowledge, commitment to and awareness of sustainable travel. Tour Leaders must possess First Aid and CPR certification upon being hired.

3 Tour leaders are encouraged to research eco-friendly operators, accommodation, and possible projects that can be incorporated into our tours.

- Accommodation:

1 All hotels have less than 40 rooms, except joining and departure points, which have less than 100. Otherwise, the best feasible option is employed. Best feasible option means that if there is an alternative that is a more responsible option in terms of the social and natural environment, this can be taken.

2 The majority of accommodation is locally owned.

4. What makes travelling with G.A.P Adventures unique in the context of sustainable tourism?

Travelling responsibly as a passenger on a G.A.P Adventures tour results in a more enjoyable and authentic travel experience. We believe that tourism should be about interacting with other cultures, not exploiting them. This means travelling with local people on public buses rather than looking at them through the window of a private tour bus; and staying at a small, locally- owned guesthouse rather than a large, foreign-owned hotel. It also means travelling in small groups that are less intrusive and offer more opportunity for local interaction.

5. What does being a "Responsible Traveller" entail?

As a traveller, you can do a lot to help ensure that tourism in developing countries remains a positive experience for everyone. The following guidelines offer suggestions for low-impact and culturally sensitive travel:

- Stay on the trail

Straying from the trail while hiking can cause erosion and other environmentally harmful impacts.

- Respect the wildlife

Viewing animals from a safe distance is fine; touching, feeding, or cornering them is not.

- Respect endangered species

Do not buy products that exploit wildlife, aid in habitat destruction, or come from endangered species.

- Do not litter

This is one time when the old adage "When in Rome, do as the Romans" doesn't apply. Even if you see a local person littering, set an example and dispose of your garbage appropriately.

- Reduce waste

Recycling is extremely limited or non-existent in most developing countries. Avoid products with excess packaging; opt for beverages in glass bottles as they tend to be re-used.

Danielle, kayaking in Patagonia, Chile

- Protect local water systems

Use only biodegradable soaps and shampoos while camping. Avoid sunblock while snorkelling as the chemicals are harmful to the coral reef - wear a T-shirt instead.

- Respect cultural differences

Local customs and traditions may be different from our own. Take the time to learn what behaviour is acceptable and what isn't.

- Take photos with care

Always ask permission to take photos of people and respect their wishes if they refuse. If you do take a photo, offer to send copies back to them and make sure to follow through with your promise. If your subject wants immediate compensation in return for the photo taken, offering a piece of fruit or bread, or a souvenir from your home are ways to do it.

- Learn a few phrases

Take the time to learn about the country you are visiting. Learning about the customs and a few words in the local language can go a long way and is appreciated by the local people. It also makes your interactions more meaningful and memorable.

- Giving gifts

G.A.P highly discourages offering money to people begging on the streets of Latin America. Parents often send their children out into the streets, since a child can make more than their parents make begging on the street. This promotes further dependency and encourages more parents to send out their children. Instead, we would suggest offering a piece of bread or fruit.

- Support Local Artisans

Support local artists and artisans by purchasing locally made goods. Many communities sell handmade crafts that you may purchase while on tour. You may also ask your Tour Leader for recommendations about where to find local markets, stores and cooperatives.

6. Please tell us more about Planeterra as well as about your Community Projects?

The Planeterra Foundation is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to making a positive difference in the lives of people and communities around the world through support of community projects, local organizations and international charities.

The Planeterra Foundation was developed by G.A.P Adventures, and provides us as a company, our travellers and other donors with a way to give back to the people and places we visit on our tours.

G.A.P Adventures pays all administration costs and matches each donation dollar-for-dollar so that 100% of each donation goes to support Planeterra projects. By identifying projects and organizations that specialize in different areas, our donors are provided with a variety of worthwhile projects to choose from and support. Based on the individual needs of each project, resources are delivered on an annual basis in the form of funds and/or materials.

We support a number of community projects throughout Latin America which our travellers are given the opportunity to visit while on our tours. These projects focus on the areas of health, education childcare, women's projects, wildlife conservation and the development of community-based ecotourism.

To learn more about the individual community projects that we support please visit:

http://www.planeterra.org/community.html

7. Why did G.A.P Adventures become so committed to the concept of sustainable tourism?

Planeterra is a labour of love and a dream that has come together after years of planning. As a company that strives to give back to local communities, developing our own foundation has long been on the agenda and is now a reality. We have been very successful as a company and part of our mission statement is to never forget what really makes our company and programs great.

Bruce Poon Tip, G.A.P Adventures' founder and C.E.O. has the following to say about his company's commitment to sustainable tourism:

"It's about community, people and cultural exchange. It is our duty to show ultimate respect for the privilege we all have with modern international travel. In appreciation of the people and places that have provided us with unforgettable memories and experiences, we encourage you to help us give back to the country in which you have travelled. We ensure that 100% of your donation goes back to the people and supports community development with the goal of promoting long-term sustainability. It is my duty as the founder and CEO of G.A.P Adventures, to help preserve our planet, her people and to make sure her treasures are around for the next generation of eager travellers and wide-eyed explorers."

8. What additional sustainable tourism initiatives are you working on?

a) Raising $100,000 to help build a home for street kids in Peru

Every year donations made to the Planeterra Foundation are dispersed amongst the community projects and international charities that we support. In addition to raising funds for the various local projects and charities we support, the Planeterra Foundation currently has a goal of raising $100,000 which will be used to purchase land and build a home for street children in Cusco, Peru.

We are working together with Inti Runakunaq Wasin (IRW), Quechua for "house of the people of the sun", a local non-profit organization that acts as a haven for children who live in extreme poverty. IRW currently rents a small apartment space and is operated by a group of social workers, teachers and other professionals who volunteer their time to provide support programs for children and their families. Children are given the opportunity to voluntarily drop-in and participate in a variety of classes and workshops that teach them valuable skills including reading, writing, carpentry, handicrafts, shoe repair, cooking, music and English.

IRW currently works with 50 children but have a goal of establishing a bigger home outside of Cuzco in order to provide services to more children in need. The Planeterra Foundation is organizing fundraising events and is relying on matched donations from travellers and other donors in order to make this dream a reality.

b) Upcoming Fundraising Events

We have just recently hired a full-time Fundraiser, Elinor Schwob, who comes to us with 15 years of fundraising experience. With Elinor's help we aim to raise a minimum of $250,000 for our projects in 2006 through matched donations from travellers and some exciting fundraising events. We will continually be updating the Planeterra Events page with information about these events:

http://www.planeterra.org/support.html

c) New Volunteer Tours

For many people, travelling is about gaining an understanding and appreciation of new cultures and developing relationships with local people. This year we have developed a new style of tour that incorporates a volunteer component so that travellers have the opportunity to help improve the basic living conditions of the local people while having an unforgettable cultural experience. In 2006 our goal is to research and develop more of these types of tours.

PROJECT PERU

Travellers have the opportunity to work alongside local host families to build a Peruvian cooking stove. Without the help of travellers that want to make a difference, these communities do not have the resources to build safe and clean cooking stoves for themselves. Benefits of the stove include the removal of smoke from the kitchen, a 50% reduction in wood used and the reduction of eye and lung infections especially among women and children. Travellers will also have the opportunity to visit Cusco, a women's weaving project in the Sacred Valley and the lost city of Machu Picchu.

For more information about this tour please visit Project Peru

PROJECT GUATEMALA

Working alongside members of the community and international volunteers travellers will participate in a project that provides villagers with clean drinking water in Guatemala 's eastern highlands. Travellers may also have the opportunity participate in other cultural aspects of village life such as learning to make tortillas with the women, helping with the corn harvest, and teaching English to the children. We will also visit the colonial town of Antigua, relax on the shores of Lake Atitlan and explore the colourful Sunday market in Chichicastenango.

For more information about this tour please visit Project Guatemala

No training or special skills are required, just a desire to help make a difference.

3) Planeterra in Africa

In 2006, we will be expanding the scope of Planeterra to support community and conservation projects in Africa.

Danielle, I appreciate that you took your time to educate us about the concept of sustainable tourism and what all of us can do to show respect to the people and places that we have the privilege to visit. Good luck with your work for the Planeterra Foundation......

About The Author

Susanne Pacher is the publisher of a website called Travel and Transitions (www.travelandtransitions.com). Travel and Transitions deals with unconventional travel and is chock full of advice, tips, real life travel experiences, interviews with travellers and travel experts, insights and reflections, cross-cultural issues, contests and many other features. You will also find stories about life and the transitions that we face as we go through our own personal life-long journeys.

Submit your own travel stories in our first travel story contest (http://www.travelandtransitions.com/contests.htm) and have a chance to win an amazing adventure cruise on the Amazon River.

"Life is a Journey Explore New Horizons".

The story with photos is published at Stories and Photos (http://www.travelandtransitions.com/stories_photos/orlando_regional_history_center.htm)

Susanne Pacher sq@travelandtransitions.com


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