Last month, journalist Rachel Stine visited Ecuador with the Rainforest Alliance’s tourism team. In this guest blog, Rachel talks about visiting the mouth of a live volcano, the importance of sustainable practices and guinea pig bartering…
As a freelance journalist, I am fairly accustomed to going wherever a job may take me. I am used to starting with a small piece on city bus renovations for a newspaper and then, the next day, landing a feature on Boston’s first all-male burlesque troupe for the same publication. I am used to starting an assignment on a small disruption at a local school and having it turn into a three piece feature on first amendment rights for students. Essentially, doing freelance means I need to expect the unexpected.
This summer, I expected to stray from my Boston home to go to London for three months to work on a series of small projects about responsible business practices for Ethical Corporation magazine. My second day in the magazine’s office, my boss decided to send me on assignment to Ecuador. Definitely unexpected.
Hosted by the Rainforest Alliance, the trip offered a few members of the press from around the world the chance to study sustainable tourism efforts firsthand in Quito. Certainly I had been on daylong press tours, but never had I been on a weeklong trip, let alone in a country I had never set foot in. So, high school Spanish in hand, I flew to Quito with no idea what to expect.
From the moment I arrived, I was swept up in a whirl of adventures ranging from going to the top of active volcanoes to visiting a local llama museum. I tasted fruit I never knew existed and watched locals barter over the choice guinea pigs in a market. I was given the opportunity to speak with owners and managers who incorporated sustainable management practices in their small businesses. In talking with them, I learned what it is like to start investing in sustainable practices from scratch — from handling the challenges of convincing staff of sustainability’s value to creating a unique approach that balances the need for reduced resource use with the need to maintain comfort.
In particular, I found myself drawn toward discovering how Quito used sustainable tourism to not only address environmental issues but also to benefit the surrounding communities. Ecuador is a developing nation after all, where most people make a living from farming and herding. As such, I wanted to know how tourists from all over the world and the businesses that cater to them could directly contribute to the well-being of the people who live there.
Soon after speaking with a few people involved in the industry, I realized that tourism created jobs, enabled members of the community to earn additional income by producing supplies for the tourism businesses, and in some cases improved infrastructure in the surrounding community. While on the trip, I observed these benefits myself, but moreover I discovered some unforeseeable advantages for the local people and communities.
For example, our local guide often commented on how his job allowed him to experience different cultures through interactions with the visitors he accompanied and gave him the financial means to travel abroad. In another case, the small restaurant tucked in the mountains near Chimborazo was able to transition back to using sustainable farming methods thanks to the profits community members made from hosting tourists.
What I did not anticipate, is that as a tourist I benefited just as much from interacting with these local businesses and people as they did from me.
The local guides who showed me throughout Quito and the nearby areas led me to places that no amount of Internet research would have helped me find. Without them, I would have had no idea that Thursdays are the best days to visit Saquisilí market because that is the day when people bring their livestock to sell and trade, or that mules are available for hire to carry people back up the steep crater around Quilotoa Lake. And without our experienced driver, I would never have been able to navigate my way around the twisting mountain roads outside of downtown Quito.
Just talking with local community members deepened my understanding of Ecuador’s history and culture. My appreciation of the intricate paintings in the gallery in the village of Tigua expanded tenfold when the artist took the time to explain the folklore themes behind his work. Listening to a local woman describe her day-to-day tasks offered me insight into the lifestyles of women who ran the llama restaurant and farm outside of Riobamba while their husbands worked in the city.
So while I was fully prepared to examine the advantages of tourism for the people of tourist destinations, I inadvertently experienced the potential benefits for tourists that go hand in hand with interacting directly with local communities. And when looking back on my trip, having this unexpected experience play such a key role seems fitting. After all, if the past has taught me anything, it’s that the unexpected parts of a journey are often the most memorable.