For 30 years Amazonas Explorer has been taking travellers to see the best that Peru has to offer. Their owner Paul Cripps spoke to Jeremy Smith about the challenges of running a responsible tourism business in South America
1: What inspired you to create your business?
I actually bought the business from a fellow rafting enthusiast twenty five years ago. I was out here rafting and kayaking as much as possible and the opportunity came up. To be honest the original motivation was to just enable me to stay out in Peru as much as possible, and enjoy the fantastic whitewater. It was only later that I realised I had become a businessman. But we always aimed to do things as well as possible, and that remains today. We try to do everything as well as possible, and that covers everything from safety, using only the best equipment, most experienced guides, all the way to doing things as well as possible for our planet.
2: How does being responsible help your business attract potential customers?
I think responsible tourism has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years. Everyone claims to be doing it yet I wonder how many actually are. We try not to make any great claims, just to do the best we can to minimise the impact we have on the environment we work in. Obviously encouraging people to fly across the world to visit Peru is not in itself helping the planet. But I think the reputation for operating responsibly we have built encourages potential clients who are going to come anyway, that they should travel with us, rather than the competition.
3: How do you engage guests in your responsible tourism activities?
Little things really. We encourage them to refill their bottles rather than buy plastic water bottles. We teach them how to dispose of waste here. We introduce them to members of the communities we meet along the way and introduce them as people, rather than a strange cultural thing to be stared at and photographed. We never try to force anything down people’s throats, but I think the passion our guides have for caring for their environment shines through, and makes people think. Peru is a country where the evidence of global warming is very evident. You can talk about the theory all you like, but when you come here and a guide points out all the recently lost glaciers on the local mountains, it all becomes very real.
We also only do small group tours, or private tours, and we try to time our visits to the popular sites to avoid the crowds. We use lots of alternative routes that very few tourists get to see. So if you come on one of our tours, and are happily walking around an empty, spectacular place with no one else there but you and your guide, it seems odd when you see the chain of forty tourist buses all heading along the road in the opposite direction. Some of the popular sites have a thousand people there at any one time. You cannot help but notice and think that perhaps our way of doing things is not only nicer, but has less of an impact on the environment. Seeing that many people and that much traffic concentrated in one place at one time, just looks wrong, it looks damaging and unsustainable.
4: What is the responsible tourism initiative of which you are most proud?
Our yearly tree planting initiative with the communities of Lares and Ecoan. We have been doing this since 2007 and our aim is one million native trees by 2020. So far we have reached over 300,000. This year we planted over fifty thousand in one day. Perhaps what pleases us most about it, is the involvement of the local communities. It is so fantastic to see literally the whole community from tiny kids to grandmas, all out planting trees with us. They realise how important it is for their future. In a country where there is a real lack of general awareness of the importance of caring for the environment, these communities stand out as great examples.
Also we are really proud of being the first Peruvian company to join One Percent for the Planet back in 2007. Set up by Yvon Chouinard the owner of Patagonia, you commit to give 1% of turnover to an environmental cause. Ours goes to the tree planting. It is a little sad that still to date there is only one other Peruvian member, and no Peruvian tour operators have joined us.
5: What positive impacts does your tourism business have on the community / environment where you are based?
Perhaps the biggest compliment to us is that we are copied by a lot of the other agencies. So every time we introduce something new, we soon see it being rolled out across the market. So by setting a good example, and trying to introduce exemplary standards of working and looking after the environment and community, we inadvertently find market standards increasing.
We led the way in raising working conditions for porters, in making sure all rubbish and human waste was disposed of correctly. We also led the way in increasing standards of expertise and training for guides. So while our intention was only to raise our own standards, we find the general standard of things here amongst Peruvian agencies has increased, which benefits everyone.
6: What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?
The recession hit hard. The Peruvian economy however continued to grow. So while prices for everything here were increasing dramatically, our clientele in Europe and the States had less money than ever before. We scaled back and used the time to explore more of our local area on bikes and foot. I think the recession made many people aware that nothing is guaranteed, and that the world is a fragile one. So long term, I think it has actually benefitted us, because people have realised that life is about quality not quantity. So they have become more discerning in who they choose to travel with.
7: What advice would you give to any entrepreneur starting a responsible tourism business?
I am not sure you should try to start a “responsible tourism business”. You should do something because you love it, not because you want to make a business out of it. If you really love the mountains, the rivers, the sea, you will want to look after them. If you really love being out and active in wild environments, then you cannot help but notice the effect of your actions and the actions of others on the environment. You cannot help but want to do the best possible to protect them. And people will see that.
If you are honest with yourself and just try to do everything to the best of your ability, do everything as well as possible, then customers will see that.