AdventureConnect Highlights the Life-Changing Power of Artisan Cooperatives

7 October 2013

by guest writer Annika Hipple

At the ATTA’s October AdventureConnect event, held at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, members of Seattle’s adventure travel community had the opportunity to explore a special exhibit of great relevance to the tourism industry: “Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives That Transform Communities.”

An initiative of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the exhibit profiles 10 artisan cooperatives in 10 countries, each dealing with different issues including AIDS, violence against women, preserving cultural traditions, civic engagement, and rebuilding lives after war. The powerful personal stories from each country clearly demonstrate how the collaborative work of the cooperatives is contributing to real and significant change – both economic and social – for these women and their entire communities.

AdventureConnect events are designed to facilitate education and networking among members of the adventure travel community, including tour operators, tourism boards, travel agents, media and others. The Burke Museum event was generously sponsored by Eddie Bauer.

Master weaver Pema Lhendup in Trashigang, Bhutan. Photo Credit: Red Lantern Journeys

Lace Thornburg, program manager for the exhibit, highlighted several cooperatives that offer opportunities for travelers to explore handicraft traditions while supporting local communities, including the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, Peru, and the Lao cooperative OckPopTok, which fuses traditional weaving techniques with modern culture. Thornburg said the most rewarding thing for her was realizing “how incredibly dedicated each of these women is to their communities. They are great leaders, but they display amazing humility. It is all about the community.”

“I like the three-dimensional-ness and the personal stories,” said Pam Perry, director of operations at Grand Asian Journeys. “Each exhibit has a story, so when you look at that photo you can feel what’s happening and how it’s affecting their lives.” Grand Asian Journeys currently runs a Fibers of Bhutan tour that empowers local artisans, and is in the process of launching a Fibers of Laos tour. The exhibit “makes me want to offer Fibers of every Asian country that I could possibly offer,” Perry said.

The Burke exhibit also features several international cooperatives with connections to the Seattle area, including Awamaki, a cooperative co-founded by a Seattle resident to enable weavers in Ollantaytambo, Peru, to benefit from the tourism industry. Among other activities, Awamaki offers workshops in weaving and other artisan traditions.

“People don’t necessarily think of spending a week learning to weave as an adventure, but it really is,” said event attendee Laura Raymond.

Tibetan Master potter Sun Nuo Qiling in Shangri La, China. Photo Credit: Red Lantern Journeys

“I wish I had known about this exhibit sooner. I would have volunteered to put together sample itineraries and info on how to put together trips,” said Irene Wong, director of product development at Red Lantern Journeys, which specializes in customized travel to Asia and offers various itineraries with options to visit with artisans.

Both Wong and Raymond said they would like to see greater emphasis from the travel industry on empowering local women, as well as greater exposure for lesser-known cooperatives that could benefit from connections with travelers and tour operators.

Thornburg acknowledged that it is not always easy to connect with cooperatives such as those featured in the exhibit. “It really requires a lot of the individual traveler to seek these out,” she said. “All of the cooperatives are in a little bit different place.” Some are simply not equipped to receive travelers, especially organized groups. However, travelers can support these artisans by buying their products at markets and shops and and paying fair prices that reflect the time and effort involved in creating high-quality handicrafts.

“Empowering Women” will remain at the Burke Museum through October 27.