Bodhi Surf + Yoga is a small tourism business located in Bahia Ballena, Osa, Costa Rica, that utilizes surfing, yoga, nature immersion, and community engagement as tools to facilitate memorable learning experiences with the intention of promoting individual, long-term, pro-environmental action. Operating within the Marino Ballena National Park, our surf lessons are geared toward providing guests with an appreciation for the larger Osa ecosystem—one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.
Respect for the ocean and knowledge of its basic ecological functions are heavily emphasized throughout our week-long surf and yoga sessions. Surfing directs the individual’s attention outward toward nature and the elements, while yoga draws the attention inward toward the mind and the breath. Ultimately, these activities function synergistically in the cultivation of awareness—which, quite deliberately, is the meaning of the Sanskrit word Bodhi.
In 2019, we were recognized as a “Best for the World” B Corporation in the Community category for the second year in a row. Additionally, Bodhi Surf + Yoga is a member of 1% for the Planet, voluntarily donating one percent of our gross annual sales to support environmental nonprofits.
When and why did you begin your impact tourism program?
At Bodhi Surf + Yoga, we understand that the three entities—community, business, and traveler—must have a mutually beneficial relationship to ensure continued success. The Bodhi Surf + Yoga business model is intentionally not all-inclusive, so that our business is intertwined in the fabric of our community, and travelers get a taste of the world outside our property lines. Therefore, it is in the best interest of our business to make sure our community is healthy and thriving.
Inspired by pioneers in the responsible travel industry, such as our friends from the Center for Responsible Travel, Bodhi Surf + Yoga launched its own impact tourism program in 2014. We initiated this program to ensure that philanthropic funds are properly allocated to projects and/or organizations that we see firsthand having a positive impact in our community.
Please provide brief examples of some of your most impactful projects.
One of our most impactful philanthropic projects to date is the Bahia Ballena Plastic Free Initiative, which aims to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics by raising awareness about how plastics are suffocating our oceans, as well as providing viable alternatives like recyclable and/or compostable materials. Locally known as Bahia Ballena Libre de Plástico, this initiative was officially launched on Earth Day (April 22) 2017, and targets communities surrounding Costa Rica’s Marino Ballena National Park—a high-profile coastal tourism destination that hosts up to 170,000 visitors annually.
Spearheaded by Bodhi Surf + Yoga in conjunction with local nonprofits Geoporter and ASANA, this initiative targets businesses such as tour agencies, hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets, over eighty of which have already signed the plastic-free pledge and are active participants in the initiative.
Additionally, in 2019 Bodhi Surf + Yoga began hosting a mini tree nursery onsite in support of the Semilla de Ballena coastal reforestation project initiated by the local nonprofit Geoporter. Semillas (seeds) are collected from local and native trees in the Bahia-Uvita community and allowed to germinate in Geoporter’s tree nursery. Saplings are then watered and cared for by Bodhi staff until they are ready to be transplanted. Travelers have the option to adopt a tree from our mini vivero (nursery) for $25 USD.
Has your impact tourism program helped, hurt, or had no impact on your business?
Here at Bodhi, we are in the business of doing good for people and the planet, and we believe philanthropy is a necessary component to upholding that ethos. The majority of our guests choose us over other tourism companies because we strive to use business as a force for good. For that reason, even when making donations that take away from potential revenue, our business ultimately benefits from our impact tourism program.
How do you select projects?
In 2018 we helped jumpstart the SOMOS Foundation—a Costa Rican not-for-profit foundation along the Central and South Pacific Coast shaping resilient communities through sustainable development, community security, and social enterprise. SOMOS specializes in allocating funds between roughly a dozen nonprofits in the area, whose projects range from eliminating single-use plastics in hotels and restaurants, to supporting English language development amongst local community members. Bodhi Surf + Yoga’s philanthropic projects are selected by the SOMOS foundation.
What is the structure to ensure ongoing accountability?
Three co-founders of Bodhi Surf + Yoga serve on four different nonprofit advisory boards in our community. Co-founder Travis Bays sits on the board of the SOMOS Foundation, thus overseeing and actively participating in the distribution of philanthropic monies. Additionally, two Bodhi co-owners sit on the board of Geoporter, a local nonprofit that uses geospatial technologies to support various projects in the Bahia-Uvita community, including the Semilla de Ballena coastal reforestation project.
How are your employees and your company involved in the projects?
Employees have a hand in most (if not all) of Bodhi Surf + Yoga’s community service projects in one form or another, but the majority of volunteer hours come from our Service & Surf program. Founded in 2012, our Service & Surf program provides free surf instruction for local community members in exchange for participation in a beach cleanup and/or coastal tree maintenance sponsored by Bodhi Surf + Yoga.
Surf lessons are meant to empower community youth by exposing them to the ocean, while the beach cleanup and coastal reforestation efforts keep the Marino Ballena National Park healthy and thriving.
Bodhi employees also frequently participate in Yoga for the Community, a program that began in 2013 with a similar ethos to our Service & Surf program. We offer donation-based yoga classes to the community with a Spanish-speaking yoga instructor and an accessible yoga space, thus reducing barriers to entry so that local residents can participate.
Improved body awareness and mental clarity are just two of yoga’s myriad benefits that contribute to a more wholesome individual, and with more local residents seeking these benefits, our Bahia-Uvita community will undoubtedly reap the rewards of this offering.
What have been staff reactions?
Staff reactions to our philanthropic programs have been positive, as Bodhi Surf + Yoga employees understand that volunteer work is a necessary component of our mission. Whether removing trash from beaches, educating travelers about the environmental harms associated with single-use plastics, or participating in local nonprofit board meetings, Bodhi Surf + Yoga employees take responsibility for being social and environmental stewards in our community.
Since the establishment of our impact tourism agenda in 2014, Bodhi Surf + Yoga staff members have donated over 1,200 hours to our Service & Surf and Yoga for the Community programs alone, and over 11,000 volunteer hours in total.
Have you provided staff training to support your impact tourism program?
We have several employees, including housekeeping staff and part-time surf instructors, that we need to provide with better information about our environmental and social initiatives. We recently instituted a mandatory training program in which each Bodhi Surf + Yoga co-founder sits down with staff members every quarter for a two-hour training session to discuss the business model and educate them about community investment projects.
How are funds raised from travelers?
Bodhi Surf + Yoga initiates the raising of funds from travelers by making a $20 USD donation on their behalf, and then kindly asking patrons to match or exceed that donation. We believe in taking philanthropic action first in order to live our values and incentivize travelers to do the same.
How do you solicit donations?
Donations are typically solicited through an offboarding email campaign sent to guests after their week-long stay at Bodhi Surf + Yoga. This email campaign informs travelers that we have made a donation on their behalf, and prompts them to follow suit. In the case of our tree adoption program, guests will often purchase a tree onsite and make the $25 USD donation right away.
Are donations tax deductible?
Donations are processed via the SOMOS Foundation’s U.S.-based partner Amigos of Costa Rica. Amigos of Costa Rica is a registered nonprofit in the United States, thus allowing donations to be tax deductible.
How are funds distributed?
As previously mentioned, funds are distributed to various nonprofits selected by the SOMOS Foundation.
To date, how much has been raised?
As of April 2019, we have raised over $77,950 through our impact tourism program since its inception in 2014. During this timeframe, Bodhi Surf + Yoga staff members have donated 11,559 volunteer hours.
Do project funds go into a separate account or to a foundation to ensure transparency and separation from business revenue? If not, what is your process to ensure financial accountability of donated funds?
All donations are channeled through the SOMOS foundation.
Do travelers visit the project sites? Why or why not?
Travelers visit project sites such as the aforementioned plastic whale during a two-hour community walking tour included in their stay at Bodhi Surf + Yoga. Guests also have the opportunity to visit trees that were planted in the Marino Ballena National Park through the Semilla de Ballena coastal reforestation project.
In the case of our tree adoption program, trees are hosted onsite and seen every day by Bodhi Surf + Yoga guests. Each adopted tree is geotagged upon planting, allowing guests to find the location of their tree and follow its progress.
Do you offer opportunities for voluntourism and/or material donations? Why or why not?
We offer voluntourism opportunities through our partnership with Global Leadership Adventures (GLA)—a B Corp Certified study abroad program for high school students. GLA students in the Protecting the Pacific and Surf & Sustainable Service programs travel to Bahia Ballena to learn about marine conservation through various community service and hands-on learning projects.
How is the impact tourism promoted or marketed to guests?
We attempt to make clear to travelers that they are “dollar voting” for corporate responsibility by giving their business to a company that is rooted in community involvement, conservation, and responsible travel. Therefore, we have an entire page on our website dedicated to promoting impact tourism titled “Traveler’s Philanthropy Program,” in addition to several videos and blog posts that inform travelers about our philanthropic projects.
What type of educational opportunities and/or materials do you give to travelers?
Educational opportunities and materials are distributed to travelers before, during, and after their stay at Bodhi Surf + Yoga. Our high regard for ocean advocacy is exemplified by our Ocean Guardian program—an educational agenda that involves the annual Ocean Guardian contest, in which participants are asked to share innovative actions they are taking to reduce their ecological footprint at home.
One of the stipulations of the Ocean Guardian contest is that participants first sign an Ocean Guardian pledge, thus initiating a year-long email campaign disseminating concrete actions of environmental stewardship. As of April 2019, the Ocean Guardian pledge had over 500 signees.
How do you ensure that your values and approach align with the community supported?
Several representatives from Bodhi Surf + Yoga are active participants in various community organizations and meetings, whereby we are constantly engaging with stakeholders and paying attention to their needs and goals and trying to figure out ways in which we can better support them.
How are you ensuring that your projects meet the most relevant needs of the community?
Bodhi Surf + Yoga’s Service & Surf project was a product of discussions had with park officials about the need for community-led beach cleanups within the Marino Ballena National Park. Additionally, we decided to incorporate free surf lessons as a reward for participation in these beach cleanups after learning that community youth had a strong desire to connect with mother ocean through surfing. Furthermore, our weekly Yoga for the Community session is in high demand and is heavily attended by community members, thus indicating that this project meets the relevant needs of the community.
However, the majority of the projects we take part in are community owned and operated, and we support them financially through our donations to the SOMOS Foundation.
Do you engage in ongoing dialogue with the local community? If so, how?
Yes, primarily through participation in community meetings, but also through our contributions to the SOMOS Foundation. SOMOS acts as a bridge between all other community-led organizations, so when we engage with them, we also indirectly engage with local stakeholders.
Has there ever been a time when adjustments to your approach or project have needed to be made as a result of community feedback? Please explain how you were able to adapt.
Bodhi Surf + Yoga used to distribute donations among three separate organizations. However, these organizations were not collaborating or sharing resources like we wanted them to.
We adapted to this lack of collaboration by channeling donations through the SOMOS Foundation. Now, community organizations tell us what they need, and SOMOS attempts to improve their work by connecting them with other organizations and sources of funding.
Community Partner Perspectives: Perry Gladsonte, President of SOMOS
Bodhi Surf + Yoga has served as a co-founder/co-financier of the SOMOS Foundation, a non-profit foundation and fund for sustainable development in southern Costa Rica. Serving as a link between public and private development, SOMOS was legally constituted under Costa Rica law in 2019, is endorsed by the Federal and Municipal government and is a trusted partner of: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Costa Rica USA Foundation (CRUSA), Stanford University Woods Institute for the Environment, Amigos of Costa Rica, United States Peace Corps, Costa Rica Tourism Board (ICT), Fuerza Publica, and many other influential organizations.
Travis Bays, co-founder of Bodhi Surf + Yoga, is also Vice President of SOMOS and plays an active role in co-developing the strategy for the organization. In addition to this, Bodhi Surf + Yoga’s donates USD$20.00 per full paying guest to SOMOS to help finance a diverse portfolio of community based projects. To date this philanthropic effort has raised over USD$6,000.00 and has become the go-to model for SOMOS with other business partners now known as the 1% SOMOS Pledge.
Why do you feel your impact tourism program has been so successful?
In the development of our business model, we incorporated a tool from the Peace Corps called Participatory Analysis for Community Action (PACA), which “consists of various participatory methods to engage community members in the process of uncovering information needed to lay the groundwork for sustainable community-led development efforts.” Therefore, our impact tourism program is embedded in our business model—it’s not a one-off. We’ve been in the Bahia-Uvita community for quite some time, and important personal relationships were formed with leading community members long before we founded our business.
Furthermore, we are very thorough when it comes to educating our guests about sustainable travel. For example, we send each Bodhi Surf + Yoga guest a series of pre-trip emails that include such things as our Sustainable Pre-Trip Purchase Guide—a comprehensive list of eleven brands that we support because of their commitment to the environment, social justice, and the betterment of their local communities.
We have also created an Ocean Guardian video series designed to inform guests about Bodhi Surf + Yoga’s onsite environmental efforts and community impact. After guests leave, we make sure to stay in touch and remind them of the commitments they made to themselves and the planet during their stay with us.
What challenges has your company faced in developing a successful program?
It has been difficult to select non-profits that are actually moving the needle in terms of their impact. Our goal is to help these non-profits become better at what they do, but we aren’t the ones doing the work per se. One of the challenges we’ve had is making sure our partners are capable of running their programs and having a deeper impact, not just superficial, and running them over the long-term.
Bodhi Surf + Yoga has moved from donating to three separate non-profits, to just one umbrella organization—the SOMOS Foundation. SOMOS has borrowed the 1% for the Planet model of receiving donations from for-profit businesses, and then strategically allocating funds to community-driven programs that are making a real difference.
Why do you feel it is important for the tourism industry to not only promote a product but to provide environmental and community support?
The community plays host to us, and we play host to our guests. Therefore, we have an incentive to ensure our community is thriving and attractive to outsiders. People should want to visit not just us, but our surrounding community too. The more the tourism industry looks at investing in community and social/environmental programs, the better their product is going to be at the end of the day, so it’s really a win-win situation.
What would your advice be to another company that is hoping to establish a successful impact tourism program?
Use tools that are already out there and incorporate some of those findings into your business model. Look at pre-existing models like Appreciative Inquiry and Participatory Analysis for Community Action, do some surveying, and make sure to meet with stakeholders in the community.
Try to establish a diverse, holistic group of professionals from different fields, ranging from health and education, to safety and security for citizens and for ecosystems. Find levers where your investment will hit a variety of those things and really make them better.
Also, make sure to pick something that fits with what your business is about. Remember, you can’t solve all the problems, so focus your attention on one or two that you can, and dig deep.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
As a tourism business, Bodhi Surf + Yoga depends greatly on the health and vitality of our surrounding ecosystem. When giving surf lessons, we need our local beach and ocean to be clean and free of Styrofoam cups, cigarette butts, plastic bags, etc. Our business will continue to thrive if, and only if, our community is healthy and flourishing. Thus, we urge other businesses to extend their vision past property lines and truly examine the natural resources they depend upon to be profitable.
Are we protecting and investing in these natural resources? Are we ensuring that these resources will exist in the future so our business can continue to grow and prosper? These are the tough questions that business owners and employees, especially those in the tourism sector, must examine for the industry to grow in a sustainable manner. We encourage fellow tourism businesses to join the global movement of leaders using “business as a force for good” by becoming B Corp Certified.