Vet, vet and vet again. Tour companies need to vet any and all organizations they work with or support with tourist dollars. Tourists need to vet tour companies they use. Ask tough questions. Ask for references!
Joe Staiano is a 20-year professional in responsible travel, a 75-country world explorer, conference-speaker, tourism trainer, travel photographer, philanthropist and founder of Meaningful Trip (Web: www.MeaningfulTrip.com). He has worked on tourism development efforts in Africa, Asia and Latin America with a focus on responsible tourism training and gender equity in tourism. He has presented his work in many conferences including TIES - Ecotourism & Sustainable Tourism Conference, ICRT – International Center for Responsible Tourism, and CREST – Center for Responsible Travel, while his post-college education includes a Certificate of Global Sustainable Tourism Development. Joe is passionate about "the power that meaningful travel has in affecting positive economic, environmental and social development". He also believes that it provides travelers with 'a tool kit for continuing their engagement on issues" in their everyday lives. At home in Seattle, Joe volunteers with non-profits, International Red Cross refugee families, Sierra Club Inner City Outings and with providing meals to the city's homeless, but he somehow also finds time to do his favourite thing: kayaking among whales.
ECOCLUB.com: What attracted you to the responsible and adventure travel sector? If you were to choose your best experience, your favourite destination and your most satisfactory achievement which ones would you choose?
Joe Staiano: Ever since my very first solo backpacking and Eurail Pass trip throughout Europe, I was hooked on travel. I returned, keen on hospitality, and worked at a New York City hotel and conference center. I took post graduate courses in Tour & Travel Management. During another multi-month world exploration I first heard the term 'ecotourism'... combining tourism with being good to the planet... I had found my calling! I volunteered at The International Ecotourism Society, I volunteered at various ecotourism conferences to get to know the players of this odd new industry. My passion for eco and adventure and a desire for relocating to a more recreation and outdoors-friendly locale led me to get my foot in the door at REI Adventures in Seattle. What started as a 3-month temp assignment filling in for a woman on maternity leave blossomed into a 10-year career as a main architect of building REI's travel program. I left REI over 9 years ago and always remained in tourism, small ship adventure cruising and ultimately in founding my own responsible adventure travel company. Over my 20+ year career, I have been blessed with exploring 75+ countries on all seven continents. As I answer this question I am aware of something a bit surprising... my 'best experience', 'favourite destination' and 'satisfactory achievements' are all quite close to "home". My favourite nature/adventure experience is to go kayaking, with whales nearby. I've done this in Alaska, Baja, Hawaii, but my favourite is the numerous times I've had the chance to kayak alongside resident pods of orca whales in Washington's San Juan Islands. While I absolutely love India, Nepal, Colombia and Turkey, one of my favorite places is Alaska USA, specifically, Glacier Bay National Park. Breaching whales, swooping eagles, calving glaciers, fascinating native culture all rolled into one! And, as for my most satisfactory experiences... I've had countless memorable, impactful experiences far and wide. But, where I receive most satisfaction from is any of the many volunteer endeavours I do close to home with refugees and inner-city youth.
ECOCLUB.com: From your base in Seattle-you currently offer tours in over 10 international destinations. How do you choose and check on your local tourism partners and charities so as to ensure that your tours meet and continue to meet your responsibility and quality criteria?
Joe Staiano: Meaningful Trip builds social responsibility into its tours in three ways. First, when founding Meaningful Trip I knew I wanted to offer tours that supported human-development issues. I picked areas across the globe that have an appeal to keen eco and adventure travelers, but that also have definite development needs. All hike and trek-lovers wish to visit Nepal. Yet Nepal has one of the lowest literacy rates for women living in rural areas. India is an immense country, with myriad of wonders to see, but an equal myriad of some pressing human issues. I thought about and expanded these areas (destinations). Secondly, we apply stringent criteria for selecting international partners. We look for local partners with professionalism, experience, environmental ethics and practices, hiring practices, percentage of female workforce, guide training processes, relationships that they have with in-country NGO's and non-profits. Prospective partners were asked what types of development issues exist and are pressing in their particular regions and what NGO's and non-profit relationships they might already have. Most already had existing relationships or familiarity with projects, NGO's and nonprofits. For others, the most pressing issues were readily apparent and then careful searching, visiting and vetting of projects and organizations was undertaken. Finally, we build experiences into the tours that provide travelers with the opportunity to learn about environmental and social issues relevant to the destination through financially supporting and sometimes visits to nonprofits and NGO's with whom Meaningful Trip and local country partners have relationships.
ECOCLUB.com: We note your interest on women's empowerment through tourism and would like to ask you to explain your tour operation policies in that respect. Do you believe that women's empowerment through tourism involves broader sociocultural changes and economic democracy structures such as workers' self-managed companies and women's tourism cooperatives, as opposed to more women becoming tourism bosses without 'disturbing' the status quo?
Joe Staiano: Let me start by first saying, our "quo" needs LOTS of shaking and 'disturbing'! Women on a global scale are more likely than men to be poor and illiterate. They usually have less access than men to medical care, property ownership, credit, training and employment. They are far less likely than men to be politically active and far more likely to be victims of domestic violence. When women are empowered, whole families benefit, and these benefits often have ripple effects to future generations. I believe change and empowerment is needed on all levels. When Meaningful Trip first approaches and vets potential tour partners we ascertain: is there female ownership?, what's the percent of female workforce?, are their female guides? And yes, beyond tourism company progressiveness and equity, there also needs to be higher-level social-cultural changes, and political changes fully embracing women's rights and women's empowerment. I would like to give you an example from Nepal where we conduct hiking trips In rural west Nepal there is only about a 7.8% literacy rate for women. It's a big problem. There is much exploitation, employment abuse, unemployment, illiteracy. We partner with a non-profit called EWN, which stands for Empowering Women of Nepal. They give women an education, food, lodging, education and hope. Some women, along with the Meaningful Trip trekking partner, go through a special 5-month training and they emerge from that as trained female Sherpa guides... the first of their kind. They are awesome. We just recently trekked in the Annapurna with these empowered young women. .. they rock!
ECOCLUB.com: Is the despicable phenomenon of trafficking and exploitation of children through Tourism more or less confined to certain countries or regions or is it a global problem? If so, what other less visible factors may be feeding it besides the all too visible demand from tourists? Can alternative forms of tourism really help combat the root of the problem or are they also sometimes used by child abusers?
Joe Staiano: Is trafficking and exploitation of children through tourism confined to certain regions or countries?... NO! Is it a global problem...Some of the worst and most visible abuses are seen in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, SE Asia's Mekong Region, China, West Africa and Brazil. Most exploitation takes place close to home with intra-regional and domestic trafficking as the major forms of trafficking in persons. Can alternative (enlightened) tourism help combat this problem? Yes. There is an estimated 1 billion tourists that's a lot of awareness-raising! Sex trafficking and exploitation of children does exist within the realm of tourism, we as travel companies, and we as travelers, and we as concerned people must fight to put an end to this horrific practice. I urge all fellow ECOCLUB.com Members and everyone in the travel industry to look into ECPAT at http://www.thecode.org. ECPAT is an international organization that fights trafficking and exploitation of children. Within ECPAT is "The CODE" (Ed: 'The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism'). This is a code of conduct that fights exploitation and trafficking of children within the world of tourism. Meaningful Trip is 1-of-only-2 USA tour operators that have signed the code. It is great to see powerful travel industry organizations such as Adventure travel Trade Association being signators too and continuing to raise awareness on this issue.
ECOCLUB.com: Noting that you are one of just two US-based tour operators to sign The Code we wonder why there are so few signatories... An issue related to child trafficking, which has created some controversy lately, is the so-called Orphanage Tourism: critics argue that may be actually encouraging the exploitation of orphans. From your own experience is such sweeping criticism justified or do we rather need to create some practical and transparent laws and standards?
Joe Staiano: Yes, this is a specific issue that has had lots of press in last two years and rightfully so as horrible abuses were uncovered in SE Asia. This makes it difficult for respectful organizations and legitimate orphanages that desperately need support. Vet, vet and vet again. Tour companies need to vet any and all organizations they work with or support with tourist dollars. Tourists need to vet tour companies they use. Ask tough questions. Ask for references. One thing that arose from this controversy was exposing of the pitfalls of orphanage tourism, and exposing disreputable organizations, and forcing policy changes of tour companies that do business here.
ECOCLUB.com: And what about Voluntourism, does it also need stringent legislation or simply self-regulation? Does it risk becoming one more corporate playground through CSR?
Joe Staiano: Voluntourism runs an entire spectrum. Some tours might be 100% volunteer work, some might be 50% work and 50% play, and some might be 90% vacation with a day spent doing a volunteer or community project. There is no one-size-fits-all. I honor all of these styles and I honour all those travelers who want to give back somehow and who have researched and chosen that mix which is just right for them. As mentioned above, vet, vet, vet... ask tough questions, ask for references.
ECOCLUB.com: Beyond glowing press releases, there are lingering doubts that demand for responsible and ethical tours is not really there, there are no profits to be made, that it is not growing and so on... Do you share this assessment? Does private profitability really matter so much or should we learn to live with less and share with everyone?
Joe Staiano: I do not share this assessment, I feel that the demand for responsible, ethical, authentic tourism is growing and will continue to grow. I think there are many companies who embrace responsible and sustainable tourism practices that are making a profitable living. I personally preach the idea of living with less and sharing more. In our industry (and in all), 'Greenwashing' is a very real problem as is CSR just for PR purposes. When founding Meaningful Trip, one of the first decisions I needed to make was to pick a business structure... Do I launch Meaningful Trip as a nonprofit? Or as a B-Corporation? An LC3? A hybrid? I chose a for-profit LLC structure with generous giving elements built in. Do your homework, choose the structure that works best for you, then walk-the-walk.
ECOCLUB.com: As they say 'charity begins at home', and as expected you are also active in your local community, not just overseas. Do you see linkages and synergies between what you do locally and your international work?
Joe Staiano: Absolutely! My tour company is an extension of me. Meaningful Trip 'walks-the-walk' by giving 5% percent of proceeds to human issues in the international regions we travel to. We make small donations to domestic charities focusing on hunger and poverty in the United States. We bank at a small, community bank. Our web host uses wind power. We were one of the first tour companies to take the TAP pledge. TAP stands for 'Travelers Against Plastic' and seeks to stop the scourge of plastic bottle use. And as mentioned previously, we are a proud signator of ECPAT's Code to fight exploitation and trafficking of children. At home in Seattle, I have spent last five years volunteering with Sierra Club ICO inner-city kids-in-the-outdoors programs and with the IRC International Rescue Committee assisting newly arrived refugees. I give presentations and slide shows that highlight development and human rights issues. I assist monthly at Operation Nightwatch which prepares and serves meals to homeless. Next week, I am participating in a PATH cycle event – PATH stands for Pedal Against Trafficking of Humans. Gotta say, as much as I love travel... giving, volunteering, doing good is really what feeds my soul.
ECOCLUB.com: Is there any other issue that you would like to raise?
Joe Staiano: Yes. Be the hummingbird. Let me explain... I was a presenter last year at the Eco and Sustainable Tourism Conference. A colleague, Judy, from Kenya share with all of us the story of 'The Hummingbird and the Elephant". A forest is ablaze on fire, a hummingbird and an elephant are in a clearing with fire raging all around them. The hummingbird whisks off and after a bit of time returns and drops a drop of water onto the fire. Then whisks off again, and returns and drops another drop onto the fire, and again... "What are you doing? How is this helping?" cries the elephant. "I'm doing what I can"... Be the hummingbird.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much, we are proud to have inspiring, caring and pro-active tourism professionals like you as Members.