Recently, Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, and myself were having a discussion that stemmed from the Adventure Travel World Summit in Québec, Canada 2009. We were talking about how companies can practically pursue sustainability and responsibility and also be profitable businesses. Curiosity got the better of Shannon and he quizzed me on a number of practices that Volcanoes pursues. This has been published with permission in hopes of shedding light for other operators who might face similar issues:
SS: You commented on how more lodges should be designed so they don’t need air conditioning (like people have done for centuries). Have you been able to do this with your lodges?
Volcanoes Safaris do not just offer safaris, but aim to create a unique great ape experience for clients visiting Uganda and Rwanda. Their safaris offer an unparalleled insight into the complex ape-human world, giving guests not only a chance to see mountain gorillas and chimpanzees in their natural habitat, an awe-inspiring experience, but also to gain an understanding of the communities who live in the areas surrounding the national parks and how tourism and conservation affects their lives. Volcanoes believe that ecotourism in these remote areas needs to respect the culture of local communities, their modest economic means and the fragility of the environment. Providing western standards of comfort needs to be balanced with the pressure local people face in obtaining food and clean water. Their eco-lodges ensure that water consumption is reduced, waste disposal controlled and free solar power used as much as possible.
PM: Our lodges don’t need air conditioning because of altitude. But traditional building has many mechanisms for building using natural flows so this does work. Look at http://www.carbontrust.co.uk/ and search for ‘Passive Cooling.’
SS: So, you used the term ‘passive housing’ also, which I must admit I had not heard of- it turns out that it’s not common here in the US. I did some research and it’s fascinating but what I did learn is that air quality in tropical locations doesn’t do so well under these principles. Have you done passive house building in your location in Uganda? Or used some of the key principles?
PM: It’s worked well in Germany and other multi-season places so to date we have not used it but our new architectural consultant will be looking at these aspects as we move forward.
SS: Switching subjects a bit, I heard you say once that working within and around wildlife is challenging because of the effects. One of the things you called out was the impact of waste and from tossed out food, etc… How do you keep the gorillas away from these problematic spots?
The Volcanoes Safaris Team
PM: We try and make sure everything is disposed in pits with lids that cannot be accessed by the animals. We also try and separate different waste materials and dispose of them in appropriate ways. Waste as we all know is a major challenge and we need to constantly think about how best to handle it effectively.
PM: Also, If there is uncontrolled tourism, gorillas can die from our diseases.
SS: Are there examples of this, say, where a location was doing gorilla tourism and then succumbed to being uncontrolled and human diseases caused problems?
PM: So far, there is no specific place where this has happened but the risks of this are high as gorillas are very prone to human diseases. The lesson from gorilla tourism is clear. A gorilla safari benefits a highly endangered species. It contributes to local people having bread on the table. They are motivated to support the survival of the gorillas. It is not very high income relative to logging and mining but well controlled it can be a sensitive way of ensuring local people get an income from their local assets that have an international appeal — the forests where the gorillas live. But tourism will have to be carefully controlled so that the interaction between apes and humans is not too intense and does not affect gorilla health.
SS: In light of this lower income compared to extractive industries, how do you think the argument is successfully made to locals when they know or can be convinced that other, more destructive industries might bring them much more financial payoff?
PM: This is tough – in Gabon logging brings in much more money than tourism. We must all lobby for the environmental and social benefits as well as pure money. For local people income from tourism is a significant resource and helps in keeping forest areas intact. And people working in harmony with the environment rather than in conflict. This model can work elsewhere – the Tigers in India, the Galapagos, Ngorongoro crater. Working in post conflict Uganda and Rwanda .
SS: Let’s talk about what it’s like to work in a post conflict region.
PM: I have worked for 12 years in Uganda and 10 in Rwanda. Both have re-emerged from conflict – Uganda, 25 years ago and Rwanda about 15 years ago. There are many shining success stories of reconciliation, regeneration and hope in these countries. In Rwanda the journey started more recently so more work needs to be done.
SS: Do you have staff who have been on both sides of a conflict? How do you manage that? It seems like a huge challenge…
PM: Yes – it is a challenge – especially in Rwanda where the memories of genocide can be stronger and staff can have fears about working with people from different groups. We try and work in a way that is ethnic and gender neutral and work to build bridges between human beings of all backgrounds. I am happy to say that this approach helps build confidence and harmony that not only builds teamwork between staff but is also a positive model for the community.
The balance of luxury and responsibility
SS: I’m sure you ask yourself questions along these lines: What is the model for tourism in such countries? Is it ethical to launch luxury tourism here? How much luxury should the western traveler be provided when refugees are returning home after conflict and don’t have homes, bread and water, let alone schools for their children? How have you handled this? Do you have guiding principles or is it more of a managing by gut feel? Because I imagine this shifts as time goes on…
PM: We have had to evolve our approach. In an opening destination clients accepted the circumstances and whatever services we provided ten years ago. Now that we are connected to the global economy we have had to be more sensitive to the needs of our clients. As the region has settled, as the reputation of Volcanoes Safaris has grown, as interest in gorillas grows, we have noticed that our travelers are more discerning and more up-market. As a company with a strong customer focus we have embraced the need to change to meet their requirements. In doing so however, we start with our basic eco-principles and see how to adapt them in a practical way. Now at Volcanoes Virunga Lodge in Rwanda, it’s the first of our lodges where we have moved away from bush showers and dry toilets and introduced flush toilets but they are low flush, we collect our own rainwater and we recycle the grey water. We continue to use solar power for all our power needs although with the increased use of hot water we may have to have a standby generator for heating water on very cloudy days.
PM: In my work I have asked these questions: “In building lodges should you look at the global luxury model or the reality of your neighbourhood?”, “How much should be behind a wall in a cocoon and how much should you be sharing with your poor neighbours?” These questions have played a central part in my journey of life as I pioneered tourism in these areas that had seen so much devastation and strife.
SS: What key lessons have you learned from pioneering in post-conflict areas?
PM: Well, that’s a huge question! It takes a long time to do things in post conflict areas as structures, societies, infrastructure, people, education, training skills have been destroyed and you have to start at zero. But the human spirit is strong and people want to pick themselves up and progress. We have tried to work with them in all steps along the way in making this happen. It’s been a challenge but rewarding because people want to move on after conflict. As a company I believe we can make an important change through our approach and attitude. This can have an impact not only on how your own staff works but can be a model in the wider community. In Rwanda for example, others who have built hotels and lodges since our pioneering work have looked at our models of working and a number have said how they have been inspired by them – even if they have evolved their own distinct way of working. I believe as we all travel more we need to think carefully about the impact we have on fragile areas and societies if we are to work in harmony with other cultures and countries and not just expect the global luxury model.
SS: Thanks Praveen – you’ve chosen to do tourism in regions that have a lot to offer, but also have tremendous challenges to overcome. We wish you the best as you continue to provide an example for others to learn from and follow.