Global day tour operator Urban Adventures has won the travel industry equivalent of the Oscar for empowering local communities. Announced yesterday, the brand won the top spot in the World Responsible Tourism Awards category of ‘Engaging People and Culture,’ which honours the best examples of holidays that celebrate local people, traditions, and ways of life.
General manager Tony Carne says the award recognises Urban Adventures’ ingrained values of passion, enthusiasm, fun, knowledge, togetherness, and responsibility. “Responsible travel is a key plank in everything we do and in every decision we make. We don’t really believe in responsible tourism as a sector — we simply believe that all tourism should be responsible. We want to build a world in tourism that positively impacts the world at large. That may sound a bit grandiose, but with tourism we have a vehicle to educate first-hand about cross-cultural differences, to breed acceptance and understanding, and to provide livelihoods for people who don’t have a lot of obvious opportunities.”
The award comes at the perfect time for Urban Adventures, who have just launched a new product line-up supporting social enterprises in communities around the globe. Its “In Focus” series takes travellers on a deep dive into work being done by local NGOs, non-profits, and accelerators in struggling communities.
Current tours in the In Focus line-up include Outcast Bucharest, which provides employment to homeless locals and enables travellers to understand what life is like on city streets; the Bangalore Solar Slum Tour, which shows travellers a local initiative to eliminate indoor air pollution from kerosene lamps in India’s urban slums; and the Taipei Sweet Potato Mama Project, which introduces travellers to Taiwanese single mothers who earn their living selling potatoes as street snacks. Additional tours are in the works and will be available in the coming months, with Johannesburg and Sydney next on the launch list.
“The places where some of these stories are being played out are not on the usual tourist route,” says Carne. “The benefits of tourism don’t reach these people — and that is part of the current problem but also the opportunity for the solution. For a traveller to be welcomed into these places is like being at the forefront of discovery again in a world with less and less ‘off-the-beaten-tracks.’”
Urban Adventures is one of the fastest growing adventure travel companies in the world, with more than 460 unique tours in 128 cities around the globe, and 35% year-over-year growth in 2015. To date, Urban Adventures has carried close to 300,000 travellers, and its list of destinations continues to expand, often into cities that are off the traditional tourist track; recent additions to the Urban Adventures line-up include tours in Aswan, Colombo, Cape Town, Jakarta, Luang Prabang, and Tirana.
The company knows that travellers today are seeking out more authentic experiences with locals, and is addressing this growing travel niche by not only making it easier for travellers to find those interactions, but also for local travel entrepreneurs to deliver those experiences. All tours are designed and led by local guides and support independent businesses, thereby funnelling money directly back into the local economy.
“We want the benefits of having a group of people come and experience local stories to be a win-win situation all around”, says Carne. “Not only should the traveller be given a deep, unique, memorable perspective of a destination, but the local guide should be fairly compensated for sharing their stories, and the local independent vendors visited on tour should also be rewarded by the fruits of tourism. In our opinion, when engaging in tourism for good is no easier or harder than engaging in tourism that does harm, why would anyone choose the latter?”