© Tierra del Volcan / Jorge Peréz - Hacienda el Porvenir

Community Benefit and Economic Sustainability at the Heart of AdventureELEVATE Latin America

15 May 2024

Last week in Quito, Ecuador, at Latin America’s first AdventureELEVATE, delegates heard from industry leaders whose tourism business models were created to benefit both their local community and land. From adventures to panel sessions to keynote speakers, key players from some of Latin America’s most innovative adventure travel businesses showcased their individual and collective commitment to conservation, collaboration, and efforts to bring economic benefit to where they live and operate.

“What makes Latin America so special as a region is its diversity – diversity in terms of nature, but especially in terms of its people,” said Nicolas Caram, ATTA Regional Director of Latin America. “Increasingly, adventure tour operators are working with local and Indigenous communities around the design of their experiences, making a greater impact at the local level. This vision is already being shared by most of our members, and being embraced collaboratively, because they understand that the only way to do this is if we work together, as one region, as Una Fuerza – One Force.”

This focus on benefiting the community is important. First, because it is a locally-led approach to preventing tourism leakage. Secondly, because sometimes the umbrella of sustainability is condensed to imply only environmental sustainability. However, the United Nations has named 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in tourism, ranging from climate action to gender equality. Earlier this year, the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) chose to prioritize eight of the UN SDGs with the greatest impact on adventure travel to guide the organization's sustainability strategy moving forward.

But how do these efforts translate to actual impact and action? What does that look like on the ground? From a Pre-Adventure in Ecuador’s highlands to inspiring keynote speakers, these Latin America-based operators are leading the adventure travel industry forward through their hands-on approaches to benefiting their community and land. 

Tierra del Volcan

ATTA Ambassador Jorge Peréz and ATCF Board Member Maria Jose Andrade are the founders of Tierra del Volcan and pioneers of adventure travel and private land conservation. Operating two working haciendas and a tourism business in the Cotopaxi region since 1999, Tierra del Volcan has also partnered with and supported other tourism initiatives in the region. Their model is to offer guidance to others; it is a gradual process built on trust and personal relationships as a way to conserve the landscape, preserve cultural heritage, and create economic opportunities. Over the last 25 years – well before anyone was talking about sustainability – Peréz and Andrade have been working with their neighbors, and planting seeds of opportunity. 

Those seeds are both literal and figurative. Since 1992, they have planted more than 700,000 native trees  for habitat restoration as well to conserve the unique paramo ecosystem of the high Andes. According to Peréz, local people thought they were crazy. Primarily because the trees they were planting could not be used for timber, but also because they were talking about tourism development. At the time, it was unheard of in the region. 

Peréz and Andrade shared a vision to transform the local economy – they saw the potential of the landscape to inspire those who visit and for their neighbors to benefit from the opportunities sustainable tourism could bring. They also envisioned it as a way to celebrate the cultural heritage of the region, and pass on that knowledge and pride to future generations.

© Tierra del Volcan / Jorge Peréz - Pachamama and Cotopaxi

Activities and experiences designed with transformation in mind are at the heart of Tierra del Volcan. The transformative experience is not one directional, but rather intended to embody the ideal of traveling with a purpose and create a mutually beneficial relationship. The traveler is invited to turn inward, and reconnect with oneself – finding presence and reclaiming their childlike spirit. Outwardly, Tierra del Volcan’s business model is designed to spread economic benefit throughout the community.

This effort begins onsite. All products and food are Ecuadorian, even the wine and liquor, and sourced from their land, the surrounding valley, and at the local Machachi market. The staff they hire – from their chefs who work magic in the kitchens to the many drivers, chagras, and hospitality professionals – all live locally. Then it begins to spread into the community. Since 2000, Tierra del Volcan has been partnering with local schools and education programs.

“We can not be an island of prosperity amid a sea of misery,” Peréz said. But he added, they also don’t want schoolchildren to learn to expect gifts or charity from tourists. So Tierra del Volcan developed a new mutually beneficial model that engages students and parents in projects as well. Investment from tourism dollars flows where it is needed – to purchase books, replace a roof, and buy science lab equipment, for example. But, the parents are responsible for half of each initiative – usually through a donation of their time and skills needed to complete each project.

The reach and partnership efforts of Tierra del Volcan have expanded beyond their direct suppliers and employees to support other tourism initiatives, such as the Santa Rita Ecological Reserve. Offering opportunities for biking, hiking, and camping, the reserve is part of a long-term project supported by the Nature Conservancy to protect the high mountain forest and create a conservation corridor between national parks. These connected corridors allow for larger areas of uninterrupted protected land that benefit ecosystems, but offer the added value of creating opportunities for tourism and adventure activities beyond the hotspots of national parks and landmarks – spreading both crowds and economic benefit across a broader area.

“Conservation is more of a social problem than an environmental problem,” Peréz shared. After all, left untouched, the paramo is more effective than rainforest at sequestering carbon. But people have to understand the value and potential of ecosystems beyond extractive industries. “You don't love what you don't know,” he added. “Once you know them, you realize how important it is to conserve.”

© Tierra del Volcan / Jorge Peréz - Hiking across the paramo

Leaders in Their Communities

Tierra del Volcan is not alone in this community- and land-focused approach to tourism, which was evident throughout AdventureELEVATE as keynote speakers and panelists from Latin America shared their initiatives, projects, and stories of community partnerships onstage. 

According to Rocío Guzmán, the Sales & Marketing Manager for Rainforest Expeditions, which operates Posada Amazonas and other lodges in the Peruvian Amazon, their company generates income and protects the rainforest by working with more than 500 members of the surrounding community to support conservation and protect biodiversity through low-impact ecotourism and their award-winning citizen science program, Wired Amazon.

“Communities find a benefit in nature and a value in conservation,” Guzmán said, adding that through partnerships with Indigenous groups, they have demonstrated that ecotourism is a means to preserve natural areas. One example of this is a lodge financed and operated by a community that has implemented checkpoints and a program of Indigenous park rangers to stop illegal mining and logging. 

© ATTA / Hassen Salum - AELA 2024 Rocio Guzman

In Ecuador’s Amazon, Sacha Lodge has developed a similar business model. Sara Borja, the lodge’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, shared that it is challenging but necessary to prove that the value of tourism to Indigenous communities is more beneficial than mines and oil extraction. They are currently working together on a management system to protect more of the Amazon from extraction using tourism as an alternative, which requires building trust and partnerships with local leaders. 

To date, Sacha Lodge operates on the largest private reserve in the Ecuadorian rainforest, with more than 5,000 acres protected from deforestation. This extensive bio-corridor protects the ecosystem and its incredible diversity of species in a relatively small area, which includes more than 500 types of birds and 1,600 species of plants.

In Costa Rica, Rios Lodge and the nonprofit organization Rivers and Forest Alliance (RAFA) continue the legacy of Rafael Gallo, who was a key advocate in preventing two hydroelectric dams from being built on the Pacuare River. According to Roberto Gallo – Rafael’s son and the President of the RAFA Board and Partner in Rios Lodge – they try to plant seeds everywhere they go, so that “the legacy not only continues, it expands.”

Rios Lodge is continuously working to make activities more accessible and more sustainable, because they believe conservation is paramount to everything they do, but also requires remaining adaptable to a changing world and business model. As an example, Gallo shared that they began using concrete in the foundations of their buildings, something his father was against. However, they have realized it is both more sustainable and affordable to implement that change rather than providing maintenance to the wooden structures every few months. 

Arturo Oropeza, Rios Lodge Partner, said that part of their company mission is to elevate the entire community, even those they do not work with directly, to create economic benefit and training opportunities for other area businesses. For example, they recently hosted the first free CPR certification and wilderness basic first aid training program for remote lodges and adventure tourism operators in the Pacuare River region, ensuring everyone in the area is trained to deal with emergencies. 

Stronger Together

These are just a few examples of the innovative projects, sustainability initiatives, and the collaborative mindset that many ATTA members share. Throughout events, roundtable discussions, and social media channels, the adventure travel community has set itself apart in the tourism world for its willingness to share ideas and challenges openly while crowdsourcing solutions. 

By highlighting stories of specific actions these visionary leaders are taking, we hope to inspire others to join the discussion. If you are a Business member and have a story to share, we’d love to hear from you. Read about the ways to contribute to Adventure Travel News here.

© ATTA / Hassen Salum - AELA 2024