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The fair trade movement has grown considerably in recent years, but tourism is one industry where it is failing to establish itself. Felipe Zalamea FRSA, Founder and Director of social enterprise Sumak Travel, explains why we desperately need a greater focus on ethical tourism.

It is pretty simple to find fair trade coffee and bananas in most supermarkets, but it is still way too hard for a conscious traveller to find a genuine fair trade holiday. This is something that urgently needs to be addressed. As a social enterprise specialising in ecotourism to Latin America, my company Sumak Travel has partnered with Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation to develop new and innovative Fair Trade Adventures. These small group tours not only represent a small step in the right direction, but also aim to prove that responsible and fair trade tourism is not only the most rewarding and enriching option, but can be the most exciting one too. 

Understanding the problem – a few facts and figures:

According to the The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism has enjoyed virtually uninterrupted growth in recent decades, and has become one of the largest and fastest growing economic sectors in the world. This trend is predicted to continue, with international tourist arrivals expected to reach 1.8 billion by 2030. Globally, tourism already accounts for 1 in 11 jobs and 9% of GDP, “turning it into a key driver of socio-economic progress through the creation of jobs and enterprises, export revenues, and infrastructure development” (UNWTO). This process is far from automatic however, and depends on many factors such as the quality of jobs available to local people, and on the existence of supply chain linkages between tourism and other sectors of the economy. Unfortunately, mass tourism generally places profit over people and planet, and does little to contribute towards socio-economic progress, especially in the developing world, where it is most needed.

The tourism sector may employ 1 in 11 people worldwide but, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the sector has a reputation of poor working conditions - and work characterised by low wages, low levels of skill requirements and seasonality, as well as low levels of union representation. Research by ethical tourism charity Tourism Concern, highlights that labour standards can be particularly poor for staff working for companies offering all-inclusive holidays, one of mass tourism’s most emblematic products. As competition between operators is so intense, margins are squeezed beyond levels of financial sustainability, affecting all providers of products and services throughout the supply chain: the polar opposite to a fair trade approach. 

The local economic benefits of tourism depend to a large extent on how much money remains in the local economy after taxes, profits, and wages are paid outside the area, and imports are taken into account. According to the UNEP, for all-inclusive package holidays, it is estimated that the economic leakage is around 80%, meaning that only 20% of tourist expenditure has the potential to reach local people and businesses. For local people and businesses to benefit from tourism, economic linkages with other sectors of the economy are also essential. Strengthening the links between agriculture and tourism, for example, can facilitate the contribution of tourism to sustained growth and poverty reduction (FAO, 2012). Bringing travellers into direct contact with smallholder farmers during a Fair Trade Adventure is a starting point, and great for raising awareness. Ensuring that most of the food and other products are both local and fair trade, is something we take very seriously at Sumak Travel. Unfortunately, however, this is another area where mass tourism is failing: the average import-related leakage for most developing countries is between 40% and 50% of gross tourism earnings, according to the UNCTAD. 

Integrating fair trade principles into tourism

These examples demonstrate that for tourism to fulfil its potential as a force for good, and a contributor to sustainable development and poverty alleviation, there is still a very long way to go. They also demonstrate why a fair trade approach to tourism is desperately needed. What we need is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in developing countries” (World Fair Trade Organization et al, 2011).

From the very beginning, fair trade principles have been at the core of Sumak’s social business model. Travellers pay a fair price for the high quality and unique products and services they receive from the many community-based organisations we work with. And we ensure that as much money as possible remains in the local economy by using local suppliers, local food, and family owned accommodation and homestays. Travellers experience local traditions, get involved in cultural activities and have the chance to enjoy unspoilt nature and eco-systems. The host communities on the other hand, benefit from a responsible form of tourism that directly generates revenues and decent jobs – jobs that often support groups that have been traditionally discriminated against. 

At a very small scale, our social business model means we are already achieving one of our main goals: to use tourism as a force for good. But we wanted to do more, and a meeting with Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF) last year, lead to the development of an exciting joint campaign: Fair Trade Adventures. In partnership with CPF, and the local communities we work with, we designed four small group tours to destinations in Peru, Costa Rica and Colombia. These tours give travellers a rare opportunity to meet the farmers behind popular fair trade products such as coffee, chocolate and handicrafts, whilst also experiencing some of the countries' most iconic sights and natural wonders. We believe these tours are the perfect mix of adventure, culture, wildlife, iconic destinations - and a little rest and relaxation.

Fair trade tourism is also a great way for CPF to further their work empowering smallholder communities, allowing them to showcase their work on their own terms. The complementary sources of income it provides allow these communities to diversify their offer, and implement sustainable, long-lasting solutions to some of the problems they face.

Primarily, we hope this campaign will help raise awareness within the industry of the type of tourism we should be aiming for. The principles behind fair trade are hardly radical. It is about paying people a fair price for the excellent products and services they offer, and treating workers with dignity and respect. It is about considering people and planet alongside profit – and ensuring that profits are not the reserve of mass tourism operators. Then and only then, can tourism contribute to genuine socio-economic progress and sustainable development. 

Get Involved

In order to further our aim of using tourism as a force for good, and to expand the number of fair trade destinations we offer, we are always on the look out for new and exciting ideas and people! Are you passionate about responsible tourism or fair trade? Do you run a social enterprise working in international development? We would welcome contact from any RSA fellow who would like to work together to further our aims:


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