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Balancing Tourism: Empowering communities through social enterprises

Balancing Tourism: Empowering Communities through Social Enterprises

Explore the impactful role of social enterprises in tourism, fostering responsible travel that balances profit with purpose, enriching local communities, and promoting sustainable, meaningful travel experiences.

In the landscape of travel, there’s a beacon of hope that often goes unrecognized amidst the flashy resorts and blockbuster tour packages: social enterprises.

These are the unsung heroes of the tourism industry, the quiet revolutionaries reshaping the tourism industry with integrity, passion, and a rock-solid commitment to balanced tourism. They are the vanguards of change, ensuring that the seductive allure of wanderlust doesn’t come at the expense of the local ethos. They are the visionaries who have recognized that travel can be more than an escape; it can be an exchange — one that enriches and empowers. They prove that responsible travel isn’t just possible; it’s profitable, it’s pleasurable, and it’s the path forward for an industry at a crossroads.

Responsible travel is the harmonious balance between exploration and conservation, where every footstep on foreign soil is as much about leaving a positive impact as it is about personal enrichment, as someone who’s had his fair share of witnessing both the deleterious footprints of tourism and the uplifting stories of balanced tourism.

While traditional businesses often chase profit with a singularity of purpose, social enterprises chase something more holistic: a profit that propels purpose. Social enterprises generate its own revenues, reinvesting a significant portion back into the societal or environmental causes it champions. This self-sustaining model is a powerful engine for continuous impact, a cycle of growth and giving that perpetuates positive change. It’s a business model that measures success not just by the bottom line, but by the positive ripples it sends through communities and ecosystems.

At its core, a social enterprise in the tourism industry is a balance beam, perfectly poised between the pursuit of profit and the imperative of social and environmental stewardship. It’s a business model that doesn’t just exist to make money; it exists to make a difference. When I first encountered the concept, it was like a light bulb flickered on, illuminating the potential for travel to be a catalyst for good, rather than a vector of exploitation. Through my personal experience, I learned that supporting social enterprises goes beyond just making a financial contribution. It’s about engaging in meaningful and sustainable travel experiences that prioritize the welfare of local communities and the environment while providing an authentic and immersive experience, which directly supports the local community by creating job opportunities and investing in education and sustainable development projects.  It’s not just about having a memorable travel experience, but also about contributing to the well-being of the local people.

As sustainable tourism is the objective of most destinations in the world, reaching total sustainability is a challenge that most destinations never reach. There is the need for growth to stimulate economic development, however that growth is not always inclusive. While tourism destinations need visitor arrivals in order to leverage the positive aspects of tourism, that growth needs to be sustainable for tourism to be a force for good. Balancing growth and regeneration by managing destinations sustainably and responsibly, taking into account carrying capacity and inclusivity of all stakeholders should be the aspiration of the public and private sectors. Social Enterprises can be a big part of the solution.

Social enterprises are businesses that seek to maximize profits while maximizing benefits to society and the environment.

Because the travel industry integrates so many different types of suppliers – shopping, eating, accommodations, transportation, and experiences – there is a tremendous opportunity to select suppliers who are intentionally using their business for the benefit of their local people and communities. When we actively integrate social enterprises into tourism, we:

  • Provide visitors with authentic and engaging experiences
  • Keep money in the local communities
  • Empower local people to positively impact their destination in their own way
  • Improve – not detract – from the resiliency and spirit of a community
  • Create a virtuous cycle where tourism is viewed as a good thing, thus improving the visitor experience

Examples of tourism businesses and services that may operate as a social enterprise in a place you are visiting include:

  • restaurants
  • retail shops and boutiques
  • craft centers
  • artisans
  • tour operators
  • guesthouses
  • transportation companies
  • tailors
  • massage parlors
  • cultural shows

The fact is, you have a choice when you travel of where you invest your money. Though it is unlikely you can only support social enterprises on your trip, you can prioritize these businesses when given the opportunity.

Travelers who support these enterprises are not just buying a trip; they are investing in a brighter future for the destinations they visit, which is the best souvenir anybody could ever bring home.

Supporting social enterprises is as simple as it is impactful: choose them. Choosing to book travels through companies that wear their values on their sleeve. Choosing to eat at restaurants that train and employ marginalized youth. Choosing to buy souvenirs from cooperatives that funnel profits back into local hands. Every choice is a vote for the world people want to travel in, a world where tourism doesn’t take, it gives.

I’ve always been passionate about responsible travel and supporting local communities. That’s why I launched the Purpose Picks blog, to spotlight inspiring purpose-driven social enterprises that are not just offering trips, but transformative journeys that stitch together the fabric of local communities with the threads of responsible travelers’ yearnings.

Founding Partner - Chameleon Strategies | Website | + Articles

With over 30 years of global travel and tourism expertise, Dr. Jens Thraenhart is the Founding Partner of 25-year-old bespoke strategy consulting firm Chameleon Strategies, the 2nd Vice Chair of the World Tourism Organization’s UNWTO Affiliate Members, the former Chief Executive Officer of the Barbados Tourism Marketing, Inc. (Visit Barbados), the former Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office, the founder of private-sector-led tourism marketing organization Destination Mekong, and former Board Member of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO).

Previously active in China, in 2009, he co-founded acclaimed marketing agency Dragon Trail and published the China Travel Trends books and website. Jens has also held leadership positions with Destination Canada and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts (now Accor).

As founder of the Destination Film Forum, he is also a big proponent of the power of storytelling, having been recognized as one of the top 10 Most Influential Leaders in Travel in 2022 by Travel Vertical, ranking first in the category of Creativity and Brand Storytelling, and served on the Jury of the Cannes Lion International Film Awards.

Other recognitions for his work include being one of the travel industry’s top 100 rising stars by Travel Agent Magazine in 2003, one of HSMAI’s 25 Most Extraordinary Sales and Marketing Minds in Hospitality and Travel in 2004 and 2005, one of the Top 20 Extraordinary Minds in European Travel and Hospitality in 2014, and honored as one of the Global Travel Heroes in 2021.

He completed his Doctor in Tourism Management at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and graduated from Cornell University with a Masters in Hospitality Management.

He publishes his three tourism industry blogs: (1); (2); (3)