A conversation about sustainable tourism with Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours & Expeditions By Penny Whitman Courier magazine, June 2014

BIG FIVE TOURS & EXPEDITIONS, an  NTA member since 2003, was one of 14 winners of the Conde Nast Traveler’s World Savers Award in 2013, a program to honor travel companies that are doing the most to save the world, from fighting climate change to saving wildlife and alleviating poverty.  Editor Penny Whitman talked with Sanghrajka about Big Five’s take on voluntourism versus sustainability.

PW: Can you explain how this issue of giving back and sustainability and supporting communities is more complicated than it can seem?

AS: We’re believers in voluntourism done right, not glorified vacations that make people feel better. We look at voluntourism with a really skeptical eye. It is not because the intentions are bad. It is that you end up inadvertently doing more harm than good. If you are, for example, going to Kenya to help build a school, unless you are going to stay there for three months, six months, a year living in the village with those people, you are going to leave an unfinished project. The locals end up resenting the foreigners who are coming; they feel like a charity case. What if that school is half-built?  What if that  person  who is helping is not staying  in the village but staying  in a hotel  that  is funneling money out of the community, undoing the good that the person  did while he was there?  It is a lot more complicated than just going and helping. There is a big difference between voluntourism and being part of the larger solution.

PW: Can you explain the larger solution?

AS: It is a matter of choices and education. For example, in Kenya, if you go to the Northern Rangelands Trust, which is a whole collection of communities in the very north, just by staying there and not at the [government-run] main game reserves, you are giving employment to local tribes that actually own the land. You are empowering them to take care of their own land. There is a lodge in the cloud forest of Ecuador, the Mashpi Ecuador Lodge,which was built to help conserve an area that has suffered from some of the worst deforestation. The first thing the company did was hire all those loggers to come work at the lodge. Just by staying there, you are actually furthering a larger cause in reducing deforestation.

PW: For a small mom-and-pop tour operator, how do you recommend  beginning exploring sustainability?

AS: The first place to start is to become an advocate of something you believe in; the second part is to create your own metric. Then, you have to be able to communicate it properly, and you have to be willing to stick with it. We have a three-pillar definition of sustainability [see this at www.bigfive.com/interest/sustainable-travel], and everything we design has to fit within those pillars. We worked with a sustainability expert to help us build those. We didn’t just go through and say “OK, we’re going to add sustainability to our product mix. “We looked at everything, even product that we had been doing for a long time, and rebuilt it from the ground up. We always knew we wanted to do something, even before our foundation [Spirit of Big Five Foundation, www.spiritofbigfive.org, was born. Everyone here in the office always knew that we could do a lot more, that it was matter of having the right vehicle for it. For a while the vehicle was the foundation – and it still is to some extent – but the larger vehicle has become our product – where we end people.

You have to be willing to stand for something. If you’re not willing to stand for something, all it is is a transaction.