By Willem Niemeijer, Founder and CEO, Khiri Travel
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In a recent interview with PATA Conversations, Shannon Stowell, President of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, said: “Our hope is that destinations will focus on low-impact and high-quality travel…” Quite.
At Khiri Travel we cater to companies that want their guests to have authentic encounters and meaningful experiences that delight and broaden cultural and environmental horizons. These companies often identify themselves as adventure travel operators. They are not catering to outdoor sports people, but to those who see adventure as venturing off the beaten track and finding out what is really going on. Sometimes ‘off the beaten track’ can be one street down from the main tourist attractions.
Over the years, Khiri Travel has designed and operated many tours for such adventure travel organizations. We continue to do so. When we take people, often in a group, to remote areas in developing countries, we have a responsibility to ensure that such visits have a positive effect on the community. This is a moral imperative. At the same time, the trip needs to be financially viable for the operator. Tour operators need to understand what makes a community tick and what the local values and customs are. Visitors need to be educated on how to behave so they will be welcomed as guests. Additionally, what are the needs of the community and how can visitors contribute in a sustainable way?
These are the questions that lay the foundation for a respectful visit that has mutual benefits.
So how does that work in practice? This depends very much on the visit. For example, in Luang Prabang, the former capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we offer guests the experience of participating in a Bai Si Su Kwan ceremony, the time-honoured Lao welcome. Many hotels offer this. But Khiri prefers to arrange the ceremony in a village or a neighbourhood in Luang Prabang instead. We have a local team talk with the village headman and elders to ensure they are open to the idea and that they receive proper compensation. By doing that, we ensure that part of the remuneration goes to development of the community as a whole.
If it brings a greater good to the community, Khiri will also get involved in more complex projects, such as the Tented Camp project at Banteay Chhmar community. This is in the remote Northwest of Cambodia, where not only the local community is involved, but also the Ministries of Tourism and Fine Arts. The point here is that, no matter the case, simple or complicated, ‘people on the ground’ are of the utmost importance. To facilitate this, Khiri Travel has offices throughout Southeast Asia and our staff has a passion for delivering great travel experiences.
There are also plenty of specialist organizations that provide practical advice on sustainability and responsible travel. They are useful resources to turn to. They can give advice on animal welfare, child safe tourism and environmental issues, such as the ubiquitous plastic bag that wreaks havoc on our environment.
PATA is a great starting point to get involved in these initiatives. All of these are matters of importance when building a sustainable travel business that shares benefits with broader communities.
By working together as an industry we can start to make some real change and address issues that not only affect businesses but also the quality of life in the villages, neighbourhoods and cities that we operate in. We just need to listen.