This is the first in our new series of interviews with social entrepreneurs working in tourism. Amy Mcloughlin is co-founder of Ayana Journeys, a small responsible travel company based in Cambodia that shares immersive, educational experiences with culturally curious travellers.
TRAVINDY: What are the challenges your company is trying to address?
AYANA JOURNEYS: Aside from generally just trying to do tourism better, there are two main issues our work seeks to address. The first is voyeurism vs engaging travel.
Tourism in Cambodia is increasing, as are the number of ‘local’ or ‘community’ tourism providers to meet the growing demand of visitors seeking the ‘authentic’. We feel that many of these experiences, whilst providing exciting opportunities for guests to visit rural locations and meet families, lack meaningful connections with local people based on mutual exchange and benefit. People tend to come to look, but not engage.
Many of the awful things that happen in our world come from a desire to assert control over others, a confusion between ‘different’ and ‘wrong’, or a combination of the two. We believe that respect and empathy are crucial to combatting these causes of much global unhappiness, and that the best way to achieve these is through immersive, handcrafted, and open-minded travel. So we reject the conventional model of ‘observing’ new places and cultures, which ultimately encourages us to feel distanced from them. Instead we craft engaging, ethical learning journeys that support open-minded travellers keen to develop an appreciation for other cultures, learn about different ways of life, explore international issues, deepen their own sense of empathy, and reflect on themselves as global citizens.
"We reject the conventional model of ‘observing’ new places and cultures, which ultimately encourages us to feel distanced from them."
The second issue we seek to address concerns voluntourism. It has been well documented that the burgeoning volunteer travel industry often doesn’t have the positive impacts on host communities it aims to. In Cambodia this is often especially true, with many voluntourism offerings having more focus on the experience of the volunteer/guest, than tangible benefits for local people. In different capacities our team have been contributing to advocacy campaigns that shed light on ways the voluntourism industry could improve by becoming more responsible, and are always faced with the question: ‘so what is the alternative?’
In partnership with our educational travel providers (PEPY Tours), we are providing an alternative for young people that is about learning first, and learning about service (including its complexities and potential pitfalls). Our school and study trips in Cambodia facilitate discussions and debates about issues such as voluntourism, encouraging them to think more critically about approaches to development.
We recently designed and launched a sign up tour called Bridging the Gap for those seeking gap-year style travel, but are searching for a more in depth experience. This culturally immersive trip allows our guests to gain the knowledge to reflect on themselves as a traveller, change-maker, and a member of a global community.
TRAVINDY: What is the impact you are trying to achieve?
AYANA JOURNEYS: Our mission is to contribute to a more peaceful world. We do this by carefully crafting exceptional travel experiences that prioritise new insights through experiential learning; fostering a deeper sense of empathy; widening understanding of global issues; and reflecting on our potential as members of an international community. We curate ethical and engaging travel that facilitates genuine connections and learning opportunities. We do this by using responsible travel to promote and support grass-roots community projects, as well as using travel to inspire a generation of global citizens who feel compassionate towards fellow human beings.
TRAVINDY: What's special about your approach to meeting these challenges?
AYANA JOURNEYS: We are passionate about the outstanding learning opportunities that educational travel provides us all, and are proud to host experiences that encourage and facilitate learning. In fact, Ayana comes from Pali (a sacred ancient language) and means a learning journey. We provide school and study trips to Cambodia that have an obvious and in-depth learning component, but all our other tours are also focused on education too.
For example, we deliver spiritual tourism offerings such as our pioneering Buddhism tour across Cambodia. Through this experience guests not only learn about the teachings of Buddha, but also gain an understanding of its role on culture and everyday life, as well as Buddhism contributions to social activism and healing from war.
"By raising awareness of traditional beliefs, we hope to encourage local people to take pride in their culture and contribute to the conservation of these traditions"
Spiritual tourism focuses on the traveller taking time to become more self-aware, and learning from and about different faiths. We believe that learning about other cultures can encourage people to become more open-minded about differences, and contribute to a more peaceful world by enhancing your sense of compassion and empathy for others.
By raising awareness of traditional beliefs, we hope to encourage local people to take pride in their culture and contribute to the conservation of these traditions, either through practice or storytelling. We also feel privileged to play even a minor role in helping share these stories and traditions with visitors.
TRAVINDY: What's the most exciting thing you, your company, or your organisation has achieved so far?
It has to be our contributions to local development initiatives. Our model and style of travel is to build tourism experiences by connecting inspirational grass-root initiatives and creating trails. There are already so many amazing organisations working in development, and community-based tourism programs in existence, that need the tourism industry’s support.
Many travel companies decide to create their own foundation, but we’d rather focus our efforts to invest our time, energy, and money, into leaders already in the field. This way, we hope to not only provide unique and insightful experiences for our guests, but to give exposure and channel funds to projects on the ground we believe in.
In less than one full year of operation our tours have already contributed more than $34,000 (USD) for various development initiatives in Cambodia (these have been through buying services through NGOs, encouraging our visitors to fundraise, or straight up donations to charities we believe in). This inspires us to do more! Not only do we hope to continue to finance organisations in this way, but through our tours are providing a platform for small projects to share their story and connect with change-makers or donors of the future.
TRAVINDY: What do you need to help you be more successful?
AYANA JOURNEYS: We are confident travellers who share our vision are out there! To help us be (more) successful, we need more exposure of our work so that people can find us. We’ve already started to partner with like-minded tour operators to help get our offerings promoted outside of Cambodia, and are looking for more. We’d like to see more travellers come to us directly too. We believe in quality over quantity, so attracting visitors in line with our philosophy for us is far better than sacrificing our values for the sake of generating traffic.
TRAVINDY: What does that success look like? Share your dream with us.
AYANA JOURNEYS: Our vision is to become the leading provider of creative, insightful, and enriching travel experiences that mutually benefit travellers, host communities, and the world. Our dream is a tourism industry that always engages and benefits local communities. Success for us is proving that carefully crafted and considerate travel experiences can make a real difference to communities, and as the tour coordinator we can also become financially sustainable and successful, without ever being exploitative. We feel we are well on our way to this goal.
TRAVINDY: If you could connect with one person, company or organisation in responsible tourism, who would it be, and why?
Ayana Journeys: It would be great to connect with universities delivering responsible tourism and development studies. We are passionate about educational travel and have been delivering exciting immersion experiences for university groups in Cambodia. These experiences can be, and have been, either a general introduction to all things Cambodia, or special interest focused such as development studies, responsible tourism, Buddhism, humanitarian engineering, and global health.
"We believe these are powerful opportunities that encourage students to challenge the theories they have learned, by getting in the field."
We would love to be connected to more universities delivering these kind of fields of study who are seeking activities outside of the classroom. We believe these are powerful opportunities that encourage students to challenge the theories they have learned, by getting in the field. For example, one recent guest student said: “Not only have I learned more about development during one month in Cambodia than two years at university, I have learned to critically analyse and dig deeper into every theme and issue.”
Also we'd love to connect with special interest groups such as those focussed on Buddhism, food, art & culture or history. Special interest travel excites us and we'd love to be connected to groups of people around the world who would like to experience travel through the lens of their particular passion. This might be groups of foodies, art and culture buffs, or historians. Cambodia has a lot to offer people like this, and special interest travel allows them to connect to individuals and projects that would fascinate them.
TRAVINDY: Which other person, company or organisation would you most like to recommend to be interviewed for this series, and why?
AYANA JOURNEYS: We'd recommend Local Alike, from Thailand. We are fans of this relatively new enterprise that is pioneered by a group of smart, young Thai people. Local Alike is an innovative way to market community-based tourism. We really admire their approach, the look and feel of their communications, and in many ways aspire to create something similar.