Tourism For Good with Sumak Travel

Travel is a subject I plan to begin covering more deeply on Life+Style+Justice. I have a lot of strong feelings about the subject of travel, since international travel is deeply tied to both environmental issues (tourism done wrong can be very taxing on our earth’s resources) and social justice issues (tourism done wrong can result in harm to impoverished communities and local industries). Even in the limited traveling I’ve done (it may surprise you that I’ve only been to 4 other countries outside of the US- though I have been to the Philippines 4 times), I’ve seen quite a few horrific situations- from a British tourist screaming at an old man that she thought was trying to charge her too much for a taxi (by an amount of about 50 cents), to old white guys purchasing Asian girls for sex, to a group of Americans snapping pictures without permission of kids on the street (like, would you go up to a kid playing at a park in the US and snap a dozen photos of him/her while others looked on? NO!).

But just as tourism can be done the wrong way, tourism can be done well- in a way that brings prosperity to indigenous communities (tourism can be a wonderful, supplemental source of income to rural or impoverished communities struggling to adapt and survive in our globalized world), and promotes human connection and an understanding of what I can only refer to as our “sameness” with our brothers and sisters around the world.

One of the pioneers of the ethical travel movement is Sumak Travel, an agency based out of the UK that coordinates low-impact travel experiences for conscious consumers. Sumak travel’s founder, Felipe, began to dream up the concept while backpacking in South America. He noticed a problem: Many of the community leaders that he spoke to on his adventures found tourism extremely beneficial to their communities, but they didn’t have a way to connect with consumers to market their unique offerings. Likewise, travelers were looking for unique, off-the-beaten path experiences that couldn’t be booked through normal travel agencies or resorts.

Sumak travel bridges that gap while highlighting fair trade initiatives, traditional art and handicrafts, and eco-friendly travel. Sumak currently coordinates experiences in Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicargua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela!

What should you expect when you travel through Sumak Travel? Sumak Travel’s carefully curated experiences are authentic, off the beaten path, and focused on cultural immersion. You’ll stay with indigenous communities, travel through remote jungle paths, and experience the wonders of your destination with a local guide who truly understands the cultural richness to be shared. You might visit a fair trade coffee farm or stay in an eco-friendly lodge where you’re the only tourist in sight. As Felipe states, “the people who we work with are not selling their culture, and they are not selling ‘poverty tourism’- they are selling an experience that is rooted in a mutual respect and exchange of cultures”.  It’s tourism that isn’t patronizing- it’s a horizontal way of thinking. The message isn’t “Come and help these people”  but rather “Come and learn from us, and we will learn from you”.

I asked the Sumak Travel team some pretty pointed questions about how they ensure that their travel really is “fair trade” and environmentally friendly, and here’s what I learned:

1. Sumak Travel works with small groups and maintains their commitment to only bringing a low volume of people into the communities that they partner with. This ensures that everything possible can be done to keep the environmental impact of increased traffic low, as well as to preserve the authenticity of the experience and the intimacy of relationships built while on your trip.

2. Sumak Travel pays people fairly. When you book a trip through Sumak Travel, the vast majority of your money goes to your destination and local hosts/guides. Sumak is the only intermediary and keeps just a small fraction to cover their office’s overhead. Sumak Travel is a huge fan of transparency and will provide you with a breakdown of costs so that you can track each cent.

5. Sumak Travel operates under a Fair Trade model- and while they don’t currently subscribe to any particular certifications they function under full transparency and a lot of trust and respect. Travelers will get to see firsthand the positive impact of traveling.

4. For lodging, Sumak Travel uses eco lodges and cabins that are built with principals of preservation. Sumak travel counts on their local partners to maintain best practices that preserve the local land and culture. Sumak Travel’s partners are committed to using tourism as a catalyst for conservation efforts.

I’m excited about planning my first trip with Sumak Travel (Now, to decide which location to visit!), because I believe that my desire to travel shouldn’t have a negative impact on other people or my planet! If you want to learn more about Sumak Travel, visit their wonderful and informative website, or check them out on social media for some breathtaking photos!