When Filipinos heard about Gawad Kalinga‘s mission to provide housing for the poor, they never imagined that the foundation is also making each of its newfound community a tourism destination. But even the kind of tourism that will eventually come to these communities has been unheard of; whereas the government banners Boracay and El Nido in million-dollar ads, backpacking young travelers are making a long stopover elsewhere in far-flung communities and slums that marketers frown upon.
They call it in many names: social tourism, voluntourism, transformative travel, travel with a purpose, even slum tourism. While a handful of organizations in the Philippines are doing one form or another, Gawad Kalinga has been the most popular so far, attracting young tourists and students specifically Europeans and Americans to visit its communities for volunteer work and even to develop their own social enterprises. Gawad Kalinga founder Tony Meloto aims to raise 500,000 social entrepreneurs by 2024.
Thomas Graham is co-founder of MAD (Make A Difference) Travel, a social tourism enterprise that works closely with Gawad Kalinga, GK Enchanted Farm, and other local communities in the Philippines. A writer by profession, Graham arrived in the Philippines for a story without ever imagining he would stay ever since. In an email interview, we ask him how social tourism is on its way to disrupt the travel space:
What is social tourism, and how does this come into play at MAD Travel?
Thomas Graham (TG): Social tourism, through connecting travelers to local communities, offers travelers this opportunity. The experience itself varies, but may include volunteering (anything from teaching to house-building) to immersive experiences (homestays in the community) and the sharing of skills (from cooking classes provided by the local community to learning about social enterprise from local entrepreneurs).
With MAD, our goal is to help generate income for these communities by promoting sustainable, authentic, and meaningful tours in their areas. We specialize in developing and marketing alternative travel experiences that bring people together to share their time and talent, and to inspire each other to build a kinder, fairer world. We have welcomed almost 50 groups to the Philippines since we began operating tours in January 2015, and we work closely with GK communities in Metro Manila, Bohol, Baler and Enchanted Farm in Bulacan as well as the Aeta community in Zambales.
How is it different from the traditional travel agency and tour operator business model?
TG: MAD Travel is a social tourism platform which aims to work in partnership with local and international tour operators. We focus on what we do best – creating fun and fulfilling events and experiences Gawad Kalinga villages – so that our partners can focus on other aspects of the trip where they know best, such a transportation or more typical tourist experiences such as island hopping.
MAD Travel also goes out of our way to bring the benefits of tourism – from bringing in revenue to providing training – to those communities who would otherwise remain on the margins. Finally, we are a social enterprise which shares 30% of our profit with Gawad Kalinga.
Do you think social tourism will be the kind that can be embraced by mass travelers? Or will this remain as a niche activity?
TG: Travelers today, especially the young, want to gain a more complete understanding of country – not just of its most beautiful sites but of its people too, and how they live. They want to explore a country and immerse in its culture, while making a meaningful contribution as they travel. Social tourism makes this possible.
The Philippines can become the leading destination for social tourism in Asia for two reasons. Firstly, the people speak English which, for a type of tourism which is based on making a human connection to communities, is a clear advantage to other countries in Asia where the only person to speak English will be your tour guide. In addition, the wonderful communities of Gawad Kalinga – 2,500 in total – offer a huge platform of colorful, empowered and organized communities we can work with.
We are not the only ones to see the potential. In the short time MAD (Make A Difference) Travel has been in existence, we have built partnerships with several distinguished international travel brands, including STA Travel and Air France.
I understand most of your guests are foreigners. Do you see strong interest in social tourism among local residents, not just foreign tourists?
TG: Yes we do, especially in the GK Enchanted Farm. I think many Filipinos start to become curious when they hear about a place which is now attracting people from all over the world to come visit, with some of them even deciding to extend their stay to several months or even years. If there is such a unique place – the first farm-village-university in Asia – just a couple of hours drive from Manila, then maybe Filipinos themselves will be curious enough to come check it out.
Do you find it challenging to keep the immersion experience with local communities authentic? Tourists are often criticized for doing something for the community for the sake of photos or posting something on Facebook. If yes, how do you overcome this?
TG: What helps us to keep the experience authentic is that, when volunteering for Gawad Kalinga, guests have the feeling of connecting to something far larger than themselves or even our own MAD program. The volunteering projects our guests participate in have not been created purely for the purposes of tourism, but because they enable people to connect to the great GK mission which is to end poverty by 2024. There are often 100s or 1,000s of other volunteers taking part, many of them Filipinos.
Although the direct impact of a social tourist who stays just a few days may appear small, if we can inspire our guests during this short time through the spirit of ‘bayanihan’ or ‘walang iwanan’, or plant the seed of social enterprise, then the longer term impact can go far beyond the guests short stay and even become life-changing.
Note: An edited version of this article was published on Newsrack magazine in 2016.