Andaman Discoveries was one of the finalists in the Engaging Communities category of the 2017 National Geographic World Legacy Awards hosted at ITB Berlin.
“Established in response to the 2004 tsunami, Andaman Discoveries has become a bridge between visitors, volunteers, and small Thai communities. The group’s tours empower local people while immersing guests in the cultural diversity and natural beauty of Thailand’s north Andaman coast. All initiatives are community-led. Villagers decide a fair cost for tourism services, 20 percent of guests’ payments goes to a fund that benefits community members, and 50 percent of Andaman profits support its Foundation for local initiatives.” National Geographic
For this interview, which is part of a series with all the finalists for this year’s National Geographic World Legacy Awards, Anula Galewska speaks with Lindsey Reding, Client Relations Manager at Andaman Discoveries.
ANULA: Why did you enter this award?
LINDSEY: We entered the awards because the National Geographic World Legacy Awards are incredibly honorable and prestigious to be awarded. This also means that the application process and site visits allowed us to look at and analyze our own company to see the areas that we excel at and also the areas that we need to improve on to ensure we are always following sustainable tourism practices.
We also entered the award because it allows for small companies like ourselves who do not have a marketing budget to be recognized on a large scale. It is also a great opportunity to meet and network with other like-minded sustainable tourism operators and create an open forum amongst ourselves to discuss, share and explore possibilities for future sustainable tourism development.
ANULA: What positive impacts have your efforts to be a sustainable tourism busines had on the communities and region where you operate?
LINDSEY: The communities make a 30 percent higher income when participating in the tourism programs. But we have found that monetary value is not always the most important thing to the communities. They see the intrinsic value of sustainable tourism and recognize how it preserves their culture and environment for future generations.
To engage and effect an even wider spectrum of communities and local project initiatives, Andaman Discoveries gives 50 percent of our profits to the North Andaman Network Foundation to continue the support of our initial North Andaman Tsunami Relief Projects and for additional charitable giving projects in the local area.
ANULA: How do you engage with the local community to ensure they have a positive opinion of your business working in the area they live?
LINDSEY: Since 2006 Andaman Discoveries (AD) has been engaging local communities to be the stewards of their culture and environment, through capacity development and alternative means of income. Our approach to community-based tourism starts by creating a sense of place, identifying what villagers see as important, and using this information to develop tourist activities. AD helped develop and continues to support the North Andaman Community Tourism Network, a group enabling local communities to engage in tourism and environmental conservation.
In cooperation with community members, we assess whether tourism meets the wider needs of the community. We help develop trainings for local guides and homestays to create a quality standard. The villagers decide on a fair cost for their activities and community funds are put in place to ensure every member of the community benefits from the tourism. We also hold monthly meetings with the tourism teams in the villages to give them guest feedback and also to facilitate open discussion about the programs.
ANULA: How do you communicate to guests about your responsible tourism practices?
LINDSEY: We have direct email contact with guests before arrival to answer questions; ensuring expectations are correct thus allowing for respectful and informed guests to enter the villages. Andaman Discoveries provides guests with a ‘Pre-Departure Guide’, ‘In-Village Guide’, and ‘Visitor’s Phrasebook’ before participating in our programs. These guides include a code of conduct for the guests according to each community. We encourage guests to utilize the Andaman Discoveries’ resource library which contains books focusing on the local area, communities and nature. A briefing that covers cultural standards is conducted in our office with the guests and volunteers before they depart for a community based tour or volunteer program. All village tours employ a local guide and AD translator to accompany the guests throughout the program to ensure that the cultural customs and local area are thoroughly explained and respected. The benefit to the communities can be seen directly by guests while on the tours or while volunteering in the schools.
We inform our guests about local businesses, restaurants and shops and encourage them to utilize these services while staying in the area. The handicraft store in our office offers visitors the opportunity to purchase products from seven different villages, which directly supports the livelihood of local people. We encourage guests to learn about the handicrafts and their significance to the local people.
ANULA: How do you make sure your staff care about your efforts and support them?
LINDSEY: We have a very dedicated staff of four people and we do not have to make anyone care, we do this because we love it and have personal relationships with all of our community members☺ I think that this bond and passion is what makes Andaman Discoveries so special and able to engage with communities on a very real, honest and trustworthy level, which is at the core of community based tourism.
ANULA: What’s the best lesson you have learned over the years of developing a successful sustainable tourism business?
LINDSEY: The best lessons that Andaman Discoveries has learned is to have patience, the willingness to adapt and also that sustainable tourism takes time and persistence. When working with local communities it is essential to put their needs and ideas first and act as facilitators to build their capacity so that the actual responsible tourism business is only needed for certain aspects of the program, allowing the communities to be as independent and self serving as possible.
We feel that it is important to have transparency within and outside of the company and also to stick with the core values, ethics and mission of the company. It is also important to realize the capacity and what is able to be accomplished so that expectations are accurate.
Through our previous successes in the initial working communities, our model of community based tourism and volunteer programs have inspired new villages and schools to participate in tourism. This type of tourism allows guests to immerse in the local culture and directly contribute to the economic and social development of these communities. For communities, the tourism helps villagers develop a sense of pride in their local culture and environment and encourages them to keep their traditions alive. For schools, the volunteers allow students and teachers to see the reality of language and experience cross-cultural exchange.
Empowerment, education, and training will fail to have any long-term economic, social, or environmental benefit without creating realistic opportunity. After empowering communities, we work to help them understand responsibilities, create a common goal, and develop capacity in all areas, not only those related to tourism. We ensure that the majority of the profit from each village tour goes directly back to the villagers, 20% of guests’ in-village costs are donated to the village community fund. This creates concrete opportunities for the villagers who may otherwise have to find employment outside the village. This approach allows community-led development and tourism to go hand in hand.
We also think that having a charitable giving component to our company that supports local projects and initiatives is beneficial and powerful to our core values and mission. If possible, it is good to open a foundation to separate the profit making company from the charitable giving side, allowing for transparency and marketing separation.
This article is part of the interview series with the National Geographic World Legacy Awards 2017 winners and finalists, with whom we explore the best practices in sustainable tourism communications and stakeholders’ engagement.