Viaggi Solidali organizes responsible tourism vacation packages in Italy and around the world. with the aim of promoting cultural exchange with the local people in a spirit of mutual respect between the vacationer and the host community.
For this interview, which is part of a series with all the finalists for this year’s World Responsible Tourism Awards, Anula Galewska speaks with Enrico Marletto, President of Viaggi Solidali.
Anula: How do you communicate your efforts towards sustainable tourism to your guests?
Enrico: Informing the travelers and training host communities is fundamental to us, because the dimension of the encounter that takes place in someone else’s home is perhaps the most delicate part of managing responsible tourism.
Getting ready for the encounter means going beyond the stereotypes that we, travelers and host communities, all have, and giving a tangible trip experience breakdown.
On our website, in the “solidarity plus” section we make it clear how the non-touristic component will define the experience. Simultaneously, we try to give our local partners a description of who they will meet (generally and specifically with the data from a traveler sheet).
Anula: What’s your biggest challenge in communicating sustainability?
Enrico: The biggest challenge is to communicate that responsible tourism, in addition to being more sustainable, is even more beautiful and rich than traditional tourism!
Anula: How do you engage local community in what you do?
Enrico: Since the beginning (17 years ago) we have built our tourism business by carefully selecting individuals that epitomise their local community, not international chains. So our business is their business. The program and itineraries are designed together with our local partners because they meet the expectations of tourists in respect of places and people encountered.
These communities are financially backed by the payment for the tourism services provided and the “solidarity dues” that each traveler pays (€70 per person for trips abroad). These dues go entirely to local development projects through a “development fund” supporting at least one or two projects at each destination. On our trips, coming together and having an exchange with the local people is the core of the tourist’s experience.
Anula: How do you engage your suppliers in what you do?
Enrico: We choose our suppliers based on their sustainability in tourism and therefore we favor those that are rooted in the local community. Our preferred choice of accommodation is family-run hotels. While visiting projects, we have often been given hospitality by NGOs and in some cases even by local families. Our choice of tour leaders is oriented around people that know how to handle the travelers, but above all that can perform the role of cultural mediation.
All travelers are given a trip assessment sheet. The analysis of the data shows that 81% of people said that they would recommend this type of experience to their friends or family. It’s important to consider that often we’re talking about responsible tourism neophytes; in 75% of the cases, they had never gone on a responsible tourism trip before.
Obviously, the assessment is also done with local partners in a less structured and more direct way by email. Because their level of satisfaction with the experience is important to us as well. The proper decisions for improving the offering are made in mutual agreement with local partners based on feedback from these assessments.
Anula: What is unique or innovative about your marketing and communication approach?
Enrico: The truly novel idea we conceived was that the best way to promote responsible tourism principles and trips was to give a taste of the experience by organizing “trip tidbits” in our cities. That’s why when we are asked to give a single distinguishing element, paradoxically we feel that it is the Migrantour cross-cultural walking tours, an activity done in our cities and not in the destination countries.
Today all the specialized media and tourism experts talk about experiential tourism. Responsible and solidarity tourism has always been experiential tourism. Our innovation was to propose tourist experiences at km 0, to do it in their cities even before leaving for a trip! Intercultural urban routes are also an excellent way to contact schools in anticipation of educational trips.
Anula: What have you learned about marketing so far, what works and what doesn’t?
Enrico: The most important thing for us is to create community among travelers: the word-of-mouth among travelers is our best form of advertising! For this reason, the most important communication channels are our website and more and more social media.
In the beginning we thought responsible tourism was a niche market, but we soon changed our mind, because in the meantime perhaps the market has changed as well. We realized that the demand embraced different types of travelers who came to us to go on a wonderful vacation but also a travel experience. It’s no coincidence that we call our clients travelers and not just tourists.
We thus put themed sections next to the list of destinations on our website (with a calendar of departures and custom programs). Each section was for a different type of traveler so that we could cater to each with the right product. The thematic offering includes: responsible tourism honeymoons, school field trips, trips on foot and cross-cultural Migrantour walking tours.
The thing that doesn’t work is selling through travel agencies and fair trade shops (this practically nothing): ours clients are looking for trips where the contact with the local people is the focus of the experience; to be able to sell the trips you have to get to know the program of the trip and the local partners more than the structures and means of transport.
Anula: What motivated you to apply for World Responsible Tourism Awards?
Enrico: Two main reasons. First, to prove that a professional tour operator that dealt only responsible tourism was a winning bet. Secondly, to present the “Migrantour cities network” at WTM.
Anula: What expectations do you have if you win?
Enrico: Being finalists is already a great honour for us. Winning would be great. For us, but especially for the hundreds of partners of local communities, who have helped to build day by day this success and for the thousands of travelers each believe in our responsibility and solidarity tourism formula. Last but not least, it would be a prize for the whole movement of the Italian responsible tourism represented by AITR and migrants who have become “griot” of their cultures in our cities!
This article is part of the interview series with the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2016 finalists, with whom we explore the best practices in marketing and sustainable tourism communications. The rest will be published between now and the opening of World Travel Market on November 7th.