A Different Approach: The Good Living Tourist Model

A Different Approach: The Good Living Tourist Model

Sumak Travel Sun Island, Lake Titicaca
The mystical Lake Titicaca, from the Sun Island - Bolivia and Peru (Photo by Sumak Travel)


By Felipe Zalamea


According to the United Nations over 1bn people travelled as tourists in 2012 (up by 4% on the year before), spending around a trillion dollars. This confirms that tourism is a truly important global industry. Clearly, it delivers important benefits, including jobs and some degree of meaningful cross-cultural communication. But what about the quality of the experience generated both for travellers and for host communities? And are these jobs decent and beneficial for the local population? Some fear that this has all become a gigantic mass production process that churns out greater volumes of standardised and uniform package tours, and in the process burns resources in an unsustainable fashion.


So it is not surprising that in recent years a number of individuals, entrepreneurs and communities have been experimenting with different approaches to the complex issue of international travel. What might be a better business model to pursue? There may in fact be no 'right' model, but a range of unorthodox approaches.


Community Based Eco-Tourism (CBET)

At Sumak Sustainable Travel, we are trying something different. We are a start-up tour operator launched out of London last year. Sumak Travel (from sumak kawsay which means 'good living' in Quechua) is initially offering destinations in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay, specialising in community-based eco-tourism (CBET).


The first difference is that that the company is not in the mass-market space at all. We have placed it at the niche, tailor-made end of the spectrum. The second difference is that the host communities are critically important stakeholders. Sumak Travel has established partnerships with local communities in rural areas, in shanty towns and fishing villages in different parts of Latin America. These are communities who want tourism to make a contribution to their livelihood, but do not want to be dependent on it as their only source of income.


A typical example would be Prainha do Canto Verde, a community of around 200 fishing families located in Ceará state, on the North-East coast of Brazil. We wrote an article about this initiative on Sustainable Pangea.


Sumak Travel - Pousada, Brazil

Pousada (Inn) in Prainha do Canto Verde, unspoilt beach in Brazilian North-East (Photo by Sumak Travel)


According to Antonio Aires, one of the project leaders, CBET must be a complementary source of income - it currently represents 15% of the total - thus enabling improved living standards for the community’s inhabitants without endangering their cultural traditions or the environment. If tours become popular, it is vitally important not to oversell them. There is an understanding that once enough tourists are arriving to meet the needs of the local community, whether they are generating 15% or some other similar proportion of the total revenue, then there will be a need to find and support other communities wanting to start their own entrepreneurial tourism projects.


Currently, the supply of CBET destinations largely outweighs the demand. So there is an opportunity to avoid intensive tourism, spreading visitors more thinly across a range of locations, and it is hoped that the experience for them and their hosts will be richer, more diverse, and more personal.


CBET Models

We are working with a range of different local partners from across the region, and they each have adopted different models and approaches to CBET.

Community Based Tourism Networks

The Prainha do Canto Verde community is part of a wider network set up in 2008 and known as the Community-based Tourism Network of Ceara (Tucum). Tucum links up small local projects, supported by like-minded NGOs and grass-root movements so they are able to commercialise their services, get visibility and operate at national level. Another good example for this model is the Central de Turismo Comunitario da Amazonia, which regroups five small CBET initiatives near Manaus, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.


Then there is the co-operative model, where several local communities and/or CBET projects centralise their operations under this democratic legal structure, obtaining more independence and visibility as a group. This model works well at local and regional levels, the best examples being the Rural Tourism Network in Salta (Argentina) and Cocla Tours near Cusco (Peru).


Salta, Argentina

Stay in this amazing cabin, with impressive views of the valleys of Salta, Argentina (Photo by Sumak Travel)


Associations work best at a national level and when there are other driving forces besides tourism. This is the model followed by the Solidarity and Community-based Tourism Network (Tusoco) of Bolivia, which started 10 years ago with the aims of defending the culture and improving the living conditions of rural communities across the country, in particular those of indigenous peoples and farmers.

Social Enterprises

In 2008 Tusoco set up their own travel agency in La Paz, a democratically managed social enterprise whose mission is not to maximise profit but to commercialise tourism services offered by the 26 local communities in the network.

National and International Organizations

Finally, there are responsible tour operators, organisations that are not managed directly by local communities but adhere to the social enterprise model. They work at national and international levels, have full operational independence and deal with other major stakeholders such as Governments, NGOs and Foundations. Some examples are Aoka in Brazil, Mambe Travel in Colombia, and Travolution in Chile.


Sumak Travel, Southern Chile

Horse-riding on the Andes Mountain range, Southern Chile (Photo by Travolution.org)

Sumak's Model

There are some other interesting features in our own 'Sumak model'. Some of our customers are concerned about the environmental impact of long distance jet travel. Rather than offering them a market-based carbon-offsetting scheme, we have decided to support the Bloomtrigger Project, where some of the costs of each tour go towards Amazon reforestation projects.


Apart from standard tours, Sumak offers private and group tours which can be tailored to the needs of the travellers. And for tourists specially interested in innovative social-and-eco-friendly initiatives, we organise 'learning journeys', which include guided visits of community-led projects that are changing the lives of thousand of people.


We all know that at the end of the day success depends on customer satisfaction. "Personally, the most memorable parts of the holiday were staying with the Pewenche family who were fantastic hosts, and stargazing in the Atacama with the Lickan Antay people. Learning from locals' experiences was amazing" wrote one traveller returning from Chile, adding: "this was my first experience of community based tourism and I honestly believe it is the future of travelling".


More About Sumak

Sumak TravelSumak Travel focuses on the need to provide fantastic, memorable and unique experiences, from tango dancing in Buenos Aires, to bird-watching in the Amazon forest, to stargazing in the Atacama desert. Being also a social business model, half of the profits are reinvested back into the company to increase the number of destinations and reduce transaction costs. The other half is invested in innovative social and environmental projects that are part of the network. In addition, Sumak offers transparent pricing so that customers can see how much of the money they spend goes to the local community.


>> See Sumak Travel's member profile








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