Interview: Judy Karwacki, Tourism Entrepreneur

Judy KarwackiJudy Karwacki is the Founder and Owner of Small Planet Consulting, and has over 25 years of tourism industry experience. Prior to founding Small Planet in 2002, she held senior consulting positions with Deloitte, ARA Consulting and KPMG Consulting/Bearing Point. Judy is also the owner of Jubilee Travel, a retail travel agency that opened in 1986. Judy is passionate about sustainable travel and authentic experiential travel. Her key interest is tourism that provides destinations, communities and companies with sustainable long-term economic and social benefits while protecting in their natural and cultural heritage. Judy has worked around the globe on tourism projects, many of them in the world's poorest countries. She specializes in sustainable nature/eco-, birding, agri-, horticultural, community and cultural tourism. Judy also is recognized for her special expertise in indigenous tourism and emerging destinations tourism development. Judy has built a successful international consultancy, working across Canada and around the globe from the U.S. to the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Asia and the Middle East. Among others, Judy has worked on projects for the World Bank, Canadian International Development Agency, US Agency for International Development, Organization of American States, Inter-American Development Bank, British High Commission, Conservation International, Asian Productivity Organization, The International Ecotourism Society and International Institute for Peace through Tourism. To contact Judy, please write to judy[at] You are considered a leading international tourism consultant specialising in indigenous tourism. What is your overall assessment of the state and progress of the indigenous tourism sector in the last decade - growing, declining, key successes & shortcomings?

Judy Karwacki: Indigenous tourism is benefitting from changing trends in tourism as enlightened travelers look for more experiential and cultural travel experiences. In recent decades the promotion of indigenous tourism has gained higher prominence in the product development and marketing policies of many countries, and in the conference and other programs of leading sustainable tourism trade associations, such as the Adventure Travel Trade Association and The International Ecotourism Society. Many international aid agencies have recognized the positive impacts indigenous tourism development can bring to a developing country by creating economic opportunities and contributing to cultural, social and environmental sustainability. The combination of these trends has resulted in the growth in the number of indigenous tourism businesses and the number of visitors who participate in indigenous tourism. However, most travelers tend to incorporate an indigenous tourism element into a broader holiday. They are likely to seek out only day tours or short tours rather than multi-day experiences that provide the more lucrative employment and revenue generation opportunities. Most indigenous tourism operators around the globe continue to struggle to survive, and the sector needs to attract a greater share of both international and domestic visitor markets to experience real growth. In some but certainly not all countries, indigenous (or aboriginal) communities are making some progress in reclaiming rights previously denied to them in the context of institutionalised racism, including land and mineral rights and access to means of production, including tourism. Now, the phrase Indigenous tourism confusingly includes both Indigenous-owned tourism and tourism that just involves the indigenous, in some capacity ranging from a menial to a managerial capacity. The general impression is that the 'owned' version is rarer to find. What is your evaluation and preference, in terms of indigenous ownership in tourism?

Judy Karwacki: Just as some tourism operators market their operations as "ecotourism" while in reality they are "greenwashing", there are operators who misrepresent their businesses as indigenous tourism products. The issues are similar and there is a similar need to distinguish which operations are genuine. Just as codes of conduct, certification and other programs are being developed to address the need to identify genuine ecotourism operations, more emphasis is being placed on ensuring the cultural authenticity of indigenous tourism products. For example in my home province of British Columbia, Canada, the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC (ATBC) has an Aboriginal Cultural Authenticity program and an Aboriginal Ownership requirement in place to ensure the cultural authenticity of the products it markets. However, ATBC recognizes that the entire tourism community benefits if Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal partners reach mutual understanding and work together to develop the sector. ATBC encourages non-Aboriginal businesses to participate in and support the Aboriginal tourism industry by becoming Associate Stakeholders. The Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operator's Committee (WAITOC) has a similar membership policy. In addition, saavy travelers are now doing more research when planning a trip to help make sure their dollars are supporting the authentic indigenous tourism operations.

My preference is for indigenous tourism operations to be 100% indigenous-owned, but the reality is that often indigenous communities and entrepreneurs do not possess the necessary capital, experience or capabilities needed to operate tourism businesses. In such cases, joint ventures can be the answer if they are structured to promote self-management, self-sufficiency and economic independence and have the ultimate goal of becoming totally owned or controlled by the indigenous partner. In what key ways does indigenous tourism marketing differ from other tourism segments? Are there any key ethical / political guidelines that you consider or apply in your own work, for example related to authenticity and the commodification of culture, or in cultural compatibility of controversial but otherwise lucrative tourism 'products', such as hunting safaris or casino tourism which are thriving in some indigenous lands.

Judy Karwacki: I believe the authentic cultural tourism philosophy and guidelines established by the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC have relevance for indigenous tourism products around the world, and consider them in my projects. ATBC defines an authentic Aboriginal cultural tourism experience as one that is majority Aboriginal owned or controlled, satisfies international market standards for market readiness, has high operating standards, and sufficient cultural content that is culturally appropriate and recognized by the originators of that culture while providing an opportunity for visitors to interact with Aboriginal people during the cultural tourism experience. In addition to Aboriginal ownership / control, there are three program areas an operator must satisfy to be approved in the program – 1) Market or Export-readiness; 2) Operating Standards; and 3) Cultural Content. The Benefits Information Sheet "From Good to Great! The Aboriginal Cultural Tourism Authenticity Program" created by ATBC is a useful tool to help indigenous tourism operators to become market-ready, improve operating standards and cultural content. In some cases, human rights NGOs argue for 'no (tourism) development at all', with reference to indigenous communities, especially those that keep limited or no contact with the outside world. Have you ever encountered or recommended the 'no tourism' option during your consultancy work?

Judy Karwacki: The short answer is no. Every indigenous community that I have worked with has wanted to pursue sustainable tourism because it fits well with their philosophies, values and principles. I have recommended putting in place safeguards, such as establishing tourism zones and cultural codes of conduct, to protect communities against the negative impacts of tourism. I have also advised communities not to undertake specific initiatives, for example building a cultural centre or lodge, due to lack of market or other business feasibility concerns but have never worked with a community where it was recommended that no tourism take place at all. Some see geopolitical games behind the funding through national and international aid agencies of otherwise not needed or viable projects. From your experience with aid funded tourism projects is there sometimes a pro-market or otherwise 'western' agenda being imposed on local communities via such projects ('have funding, seeking community')?

Judy Karwacki: Given that aid funded projects are conceived of and implemented by western entities, the pro-market point of view generally is inherent in them. My point of view is that the projects must be market responsive. Otherwise, they will not be economically sustainable and will not survive in the long run, which is required if they are to return on-going cultural, social and environmental benefits to their host communities. To understand and meet market needs, indigenous communities, and especially those in the developing world, typically do need support from and facilitation by aid agencies, NGOs, government and other such organisations. Having said that, in order to ensure the self-determination, self-management and self-sufficiency it is critical that indigenous communities and people take the lead in tourism that takes place on their traditional lands. There is always the danger that aid funded tourism projects will fail to empower communities to take the lead in the decision making, planning or implementation of tourism projects. Even though I have the best intentions and am highly conscious of importance of allowing indigenous communities to take matters into their own hands, I know that I have been guilty of deciding what's 'best' for indigenous communities and failing to consult them fully in projects I have lead or participated in. You have worked extensively in Guyana, a low-income, multicultural but with racial tensions, former colony, one of the least densely populated countries in the planet, but of strategic interest since the cold war era (when it briefly rose to fame or infamy through the tragic 1978 Jonestown incident) to the present day, acting as a bridge between a largely apolitical english-speaking Caribbean and an increasingly left-leaning Latin America. Are Guyana's natural and cultural attractions unique enough to attract discerning & affluent independent tourists, or should Guyana rather focus in attracting a small piece of the mass packaged market in the current economic crisis climate and climate crisis? Is this typical for other countries currently lacking a mass tourism, in your view, i.e. are they better or worse-sheltered than mass tourism destinations?

Judy Karwacki: Guyana has a wealth of unique natural and cultural attractions. Guyana is where the Guiana Shield, one of the world's four remaining large tracts of relatively undisturbed tropical rainforests, and the Amazon Basin meet. Verdant rainforest carpets 80 per cent of the country, and other habitats vary from exotic mangroves to wild coastal swamps, rugged Atlantic beaches, lofty mountain ranges and sprawling savannahs that have been compared to eastern Africa. Guyana offers the chance to view remarkable wildlife against the backdrop of one of the world's most unspoiled natural wilderness areas. The Rupununi region, one of most ecologically diverse places in the world, is the most popular destination for leisure tourists. Here, one half of the tourism businesses are owned by Amerindian-owned, such as Surama Ecolodge, which is a model for other communities. The vast majority of tourism employees in the Rupununi are Amerindian too.

Guyana's focus in recent years on the birding and wildlife viewing tourism niche segments as well as the broader general nature and cultural tourism markets has met with considerable success. Whereas many destinations have been experiencing downturns in tourism, Guyana has been enjoying increased visitor arrivals and revenues annually. Lodges in the interior regions have higher occupancy levels than ever before and annual visitor arrival records are higher every year. As of November the Ministry of Tourism reported an overall 7.3 percent increase in arrivals for the year to date compared over 2009. Other destinations such as Costa Rica that are also focussed on experiential sustainable tourism are also weathering the economic crisis better than many mass tourism destinations, illustrating that experiential tourism is a better economic alternative for emerging tourism destinations.

In Guyana's case, tourism is an integral part of the climate change strategy. Guyana has developed a Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) which has received attention at global climate change talks, and serves as a example to the world of how humankind can improve livehoods through conserving and maintaining the forest ecosystems for climate stability. An historic agreement was signed with Norway that will see the Scandinavian country invest $250m to preserve Guyana's rainforests, providing a workable model for climate change collaboration between the north and the south. The strategy recognizes that community tourism must be an important and critical ingredient in the country's low carbon, low emissions future, and it is attracting much attention from green-minded tourists. Could you name a favourite or near-ideal tourism project in your consultancy career so far?

Judy Karwacki: Among my most favourite projects is the 5+ years I spent working with the Squamish and Lil'wat First Nations on initiatives related to the 2010 Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. The 2010 Winter Olympics took place on the traditional and shared traditional territories of these nations, and Aboriginal people achieved unprecedented participation in the planning and hosting of this high profile international event. The Squamish and Lil'wat First Nations signed an agreement with the Province of BC and the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation called "Partners Creating Shared Legacies from the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games". It was an honour and an exciting experience to assist these Host Nations to take advantage of economic, cultural, sport and capacity-building benefits and legacies contained in that agreement, including the architecturally-stunning Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre in Whistler.

I have been fortunate to work on many other worthwhile and stimulating projects. As you mentioned, I have extensive experience in Guyana, a simply amazing experiential tourism destination where I have been working for the past five years on nature and birding tourism development initiatives, mainly with the Guyana Tourism Authority and USAID but also with the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, Conservation International, the British High Commission and the European Union. I recently concluded EDIP, a USAID-funded project in Palestine, where the on-going political struggle creates an enormous challenge for tourism development to say the least. At the moment, an exciting project I am working on is a World Bank-funded initiative with the Ministry of Tourism in Jamaica to prepare a community tourism strategy for the island nation. Another current project is with Rainforest Expeditions, a Peruvian ecotourism company which operates three lodges in the rainforest of Tambopata. They are an exemplary model of how private companies can combine authentic, educational, experiential tourism experiences and support conservation of the areas where they operate through close partnerships with indigenous and community groups. Thank you!