The founder of Open Eyes Project, a sustainable tourism company, Anna Alaman tells us about the importance of sustainable tourism.
What does travel mean to you?
For me, travel means movement, curiosity, empathy and learning new ways of living. In a world where we have less and less time to look at others lives and see what really is happening around our planet, travelling gives you the opportunity to open your eyes and make the best of yourself and your life.
How did you get involved in travel?
When I was 30, I faced a deep crisis in my life, so after working in marketing and management for seven years I decided to take a three-year break to travel and work in Latin America and Europe. After a breakup from a long relationship, I started questioning how I wanted to dedicate my life from then on to make it more meaningful for both myself and others.
At 21, I had started working in a company as a product manager developing a portfolio of home products with Chinese and Indian suppliers. In those years, import-export was anything but sustainable, and I constantly used to think about an “ethical” approach.
My life changed when I discovered the concept of Social Business in a book. The idea of a company being driven by change captivated me. I didn’t know I was an entrepreneur at that time, but I was moved by my beliefs. So in 2011, I decided to combine two of my passions: travel and social impact. That year I quit my job and came to India with the idea of opening a social tourism business. I started meeting people, communities, and designing activities for engagement. Then I returned to Barcelona to promote and raise awareness for tours. I had no financial support, so I started with a blog. And this was how the first two groups started. Open Eyes was launched.
Open Eyes is now, a growing social enterprise in responsible tourism in India operating in eight states. To do this, we identify the skills of tourism stakeholders usually excluded from the conventional holiday experience, mainly women. We train them and create immersive experiences that connect them to travellers, in both urban and rural settings, with the aim to include them in the tourism value chain.
When did you first hear about sustainable tourism and why is it important to you to travel sustainably?
I didn’t know anything about sustainable tourism when I started. I managed the company by putting our ethical values at the core of the business, as any social business should.
After two years of running Open Eyes, I realised that what we were doing was called responsible tourism. So I joined the MSc in Responsible Tourism in Leeds (UK) where I’m currently a student actively researching and learning more. It has opened a new door for both me and Open Eyes.
Travelling sustainably is a very holistic concept that involves many facets and it is very difficult to achieve. However, tourism needs sensible travellers as this is one of the few industries based in someone else’s home. This aspect makes sustainable tourism special and meaningful to me.
What’s the biggest thing someone can do to travel in a sustainable/responsible way?
We must change our mindset from thinking that when we travel, our destination hosts should cater to all of our desires because we are paying for a service. We must not behave differently while travelling than we do in our own homes – we can still enjoy our holidays, relax and discover a destination without disturbing it.
It is easy to lose perspective and forget that we are in other people’s homes. Once we change our point of view on holidays from “invader” to “guest”, responsible tourism takes place.
What is your favourite means of transportation when travelling?
In India, I prefer travelling by train instead of driving. For three years after I started, train travel was my main way of reaching communities and destinations. They became my movable office. You can find a lot of inspiration in trains in India because Indian trains are alive.
This is how I started building experiences and learning how to measure impacts that consider social and gender issues related to tourism and international development, how to develop new ways to include communities into the guest experience, and to create pro-poor and immersive travel experiences.
In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m travelling on a train to meet one of our communities in Agra.
What things do you look for before you pick a place to travel to?
For me, when I travel, I always look for stories behind the destination: entrepreneurs, communities or any inspiration to design experiences that can add value to the place. These destinations could be from the conventional hotspot of Agra to the isolated rural areas of Uttarakhand. It is not the destination but what you do when you are travelling that matters.
What is your favourite destination? And Why?
My favourite ones are always related to nature or by the ocean. I enjoy diving and swimming, so I love water and connecting with the environment. Usually these places are very difficult to reach. In India, my favourite holiday destination is the Andamans. It combines pure nature, the authenticity and roots of indigenous people, encounters with environmental and activist organisations, and the most spectacular oceanic and marine life. I think it is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
What is your most memorable travel story?
It may sound as if I’m gloating but I have been very fortunate to travel extensively. After living for 11 years outside my home country, working in five countries, and travelling within India for six years to build Open Eyes, it is very difficult, well nearly impossible, for me to pick just one travel story.
So I will share the last trip that literally “opened my eyes” – it happened during the implementation phase of our most recently added tour, a holistic wellness retreat package. The wellness retreat works with visually impaired female massage therapists and involves the five wellness elements: nature, food, touch, movement and connection.
For three days, I was travelling with two of our blind female massage therapists to one of our retreat sites. We opened up and shared our emotions like women do when they spend time together, but I was particularly touched when Laxmi, one of the therapists, confessed, “the most important thing for me was to be in contact with animals. I didn’t know the shape of some animals, and I have never touched them. It was my first time.”
Then Neha also shared how the experience had changed her way of life. “We can’t see but through our sense of touch we can be therapists – and we get to learn about many cultural and new things from your clients.”
These stories are so inspirational and touching – they make Open Eyes’ vision more driven and more focused on involving women usually excluded from the value chain of mainstream tourism.
If you were to share a stat/fact to make tourists more environmentally conscious when travelling, what would you share?
More than 80% of marine life pollution comes from land. This is a shocking statistic which could be reduced by raising awareness of small behavioural changes.
It is very important to see that any of our actions creates an impact in our environment. Our life style matters the most whether it is our food consumption, fashion or travel decisions, so it is up to us to decide what type of impact we want to create.
What are some touristic destinations or cities considered to be the “greenest” in terms of sustainable tourism? And why?
The Costa Rica Certificate for Sustainable Tourism (CST) is a good example of implementing Destination Management strategies. It’s Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) involves criteria and strategies for all tourism companies to approach a sustainable model, in term of decreasing their impact within their operations.
It is a genuine certification made from the country for the country and addresses physical-biological parameters, infrastructure services, guest awareness and socio–economic environment. It is a good model to replicate.
In Kerala in India, I have been impressed by its destination management strategies from a very holistic partnership point of view. Their strategies to develop responsible tourism practices involve academicians, tourism companies, entrepreneurs, communities and institutions. I believe that other states can learn from it and I wish more states in the country would have the vision to implement sustainable practices at their destinations.
What are some things that tourists should do to be more eco-friendly while travelling?
I believe that small little changes in our travelling behaviour can have a great impact on our environment. For example, most developing countries lack efficient waste management policies and women often travel with various plastic accessories that end up in the garbage.
So to live by example, I try to use renewable make up fabric pads, and avoid the cotton ones, which take three years to decompose in the ocean. Or I fill up day cream bottles with reused ingredients at home so I don’t buy new ones. I believe everyone can follow suit, if you ask yourself very basic questions about what you may do travelling that you might not do at home, such as: would you leave the AC on when you are gone, just so that the room is cool when you return?
Or, would you clean your towels every day at home? If you wouldn’t do these things at home, don’t request it at the hotel either because these unnecessary actions damage our environment.
Any travel tip for our readers.
As Jane Goodall says “What you do makes a difference, and what you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make”, so enjoy the journey and make the best of it!