The COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt been a challenging time for us all, not least the travel industry, but it’s also provided an opportunity to rethink and reset our path towards a more sustainable future.
It’s one that Planeterra grabbed with both hands, according to its president, Jamie Sweeting.
“Through this very difficult journey of COVID, we have looked deeply to work out who we are and what we want to be,” he told Travel Weekly.
“I think during this time, we came to the realisation we are a community NGO that happens to do our work through tourism.”
Planeterra helps local organisations and communities use tourism as a catalyst to improve people’s lives, protect their natural environments and celebrate their culture.
Of course, with COVID, it has been a very difficult time for the tourism sector, as well as the communities that are so reliant on travellers for their livelihood.
Sweeting said time away from the field and the communities has been an opportunity to reflect on what matters in the work Planeterra does, and the possibility of driving tourism through corporate partners.
“A multinational global law firm in Europe could be interested in supporting work in Indonesia, and the dozens of communities throughout Indonesia, through their social responsibility objectives that many companies have now,” he said.
“And the fun bit about being a community development NGO that works with tourism is that your corporate partners can actually send their staff to go and visit the sites that they’re supporting, because we work in tourism.”
It has taken Planeterra a decade to get to working with 100 different communities; partnering with outbound tour operators in Australia, the UK, Canada and the US, and looking out to the travelling world.
“When COVID hit, our instant reaction was, ‘how do we make sure that nobody goes hungry and nobody gets sick … from the lack of travel revenue, not COVID,” Sweeting explained.
“We had this bizarre situation where we had communities that we work with that there was no COVID in their country. And yet they had no revenue, no travellers coming.”
Sweeting said he and his small team at Planeterra repurposed themselves to look at what they were doing. Could the communities repurpose themselves, too?
“We had one amazing group at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe – a women’s cooperative who we’d helped develop a meal experience for travellers,” he told Travel Weekly.
“In lockdown, with the elderly or disabled villagers, unable to get out to the shop, we created a Meals on Wheels service and they literally created a food cart for the villages.
“They repurposed everything they learned in developing a travel business, making it relevant when there are no travellers.”
Sweeting sure makes a compelling case for community tourism.