Local Guest is a women-powered social enterprise dedicated to co-creating and promoting authentic tourism experiences by working hand-in-hand with local communities and entrepreneurs in order to build a new tourism ecosystem based on sustainable development practices.
Local Guest was cemented on three operational pillars:
- Sustainability: Our mission is to operate in a sustainable manner and develop purely sustainable tourism products considering the economic development opportunities it brings to communities and the cultural exchange that brings both the local and responsible traveler. We foresee sustainability in all its facets: people, place and profit. For the benefit of the locals, their empowerment and their growth. The benefit of the environment by looking for eco-friendly solutions and mitigating environmental impact. All via fair-trade to bring true economic development to our country and the Caribbean region.
- Co-creation: We work closely with communities in order to generate economic and educational development through the visitor economy (tourism). We train them and co-create sustainable tourism experiences alongside entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to create opportunities for both sectors in the tourism ecosystem. All of this is done in order to showcase the authenticity of our destination.
- Marketing: We have worked in the marketing field focused on the tourism industry for more than 18 years. We provide our partners and hosts with a suite of marketing services to connect communities and entrepreneurs with travelers looking for transformational experiences. Our online platform serves as a community for seekers focused on making their travel experience a responsible one.
When and why did you begin your impact tourism program?
Founded in 2017 and based in Puerto Rico, Local Guest was conceived as a response to the fiscal crisis in the island as a way to transform tourism into a true engine of economic development. We started with seven pilot projects or tourism experiences that ranged from a caving adventure, a cooking class with a chef, a community-based kayaking experience, snorkeling with marine biologists, and an art class with a local artist in his urban workshop. It took us around a year in a half to co-create these experiences with local community leaders, and we were able to launch a month before Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico.
Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico, and our young social enterprise suffered greatly during that time. However, at the same time, we also noticed a paradigm shift in: 1) industry partners, who started understanding and adopting the concept of sustainable and community-based tourism 2) community leaders, who began seeing the opportunity to create self-sustainability through tourism and 3) responsible travelers, who had never considered Puerto Rico as an impact-driven destination and began requesting ways to give back during their visit.
As a result, we launched our non-profit, Love in Motion, to provide relief post- Hurricane María and now we have built an educational program to provide the tools for communities to co-create their tourism experiences. We continue to be active participants in the development of community-based tourism by cementing our partnership with the US Forest Service in El Yunque through a collaborative agreement to develop three community programs: trails, volunteering, and wellness through their CIRMA co-management plan which is the first of its kind in the United States.
How do you select projects?
At the beginning we started reaching out through our network to co-create experiences with local entrepreneurs and community organizations. We delved into a comprehensive assessment of the community’s assets and needs that could have potential to be market ready while bringing true value to all involved. After three years and the needs generated due to Hurricane María, projects started reaching us with ways they wanted to participate and become Local Guest collaborators/hosts. Sadly, due to staff constraints we cannot onboard all of the leads we were receiving so we started choosing either projects that were in regions that had limited tourism assets, tourism projects that had a unique value proposition, or tourism projects that were of interest to our target market.
What is the structure to ensure ongoing accountability?
We created a full Local Guest handbook for onboarding hosts that included: educational details of the sustainable tourism industry; legal requirements; personnel requirements; step-by-step processes on commercializing a community-based tourism experience, a comprehensive checklist for preparation of receiving visitors before, during, and after; and things they may expect to encounter when receiving visitors, such as addressing culture shock and what to do if visitors or community members become ill or injured during the experience.
We also created a simple agreement between Local Guest and our hosts that includes pricing structure and itinerary or description of the experience to ensure clear understanding between both parties. Now this agreement is also in electronic form on our website.
Have you provided staff training to support your impact tourism program?
We are a small team of women that do it all. We have trained ourselves and taken certifications on sustainable tourism development and marketing, organizing communities for change, and more.
How are your employees and your company involved in the projects?
All of Local Guest staff is dedicated to either looking for distribution channels for our experiences, onboarding or training hosts, and/or maintaining operational and marketing aspects of the enterprise.
How do you solicit donations?
All of our experiences include a pricing structure to which all communities or entrepreneurs agree. The pricing structure includes: donation to the project, materials (gloves, reusable water bottle, etc.), lunch, Local Guest group coordinator, and sometimes transportation.
Are donations tax deductible?
Some donations are tax deductible in the US depending on the 501c3 status of the community organization which the traveler is visiting.
How are funds distributed?
Travelers pay a 50% nonrefundable fee due on reservation so that every host can also receive 50% of their payment upon reservation, if they have electronic means to receive funds. Some communities only take check, and in those cases the Local Guest team provides full payment on the day of the experience.
To date, how much has been raised?
From 2018 to 2020 travelers have funded around $80K for Local Guest community-based experiences.
Do you offer opportunities for voluntourism and/or material donations? What type of educational opportunities and/or materials do you give to travelers?
We have both community service and community-based experiences. Community service experiences consist of a volunteering aspect, such as maintenance, cleaning, and painting, as well as a material or financial donation. The volunteers’ time contribution helps to support programs that need assistance but do not have the financial means to hire workers, while their monetary donations support the hiring of other skilled workers for bigger projects. Community-based experiences can be fun or educational in nature, like a kayaking experience in the river, but they are provided by community leaders and include a lunch prepared by the community. We have a code of conduct that all visitors sign in order to promote ethical behaviors among the volunteers and visitors.
How is the impact tourism program promoted or marketed to guests?
We market our experiences through our website, social channels, content creation, public relations, and collaborative marketing with our B2B partners. We also create blog posts and educational content about sustainability that are promotional in nature. Our group coordinators are always trained to provide a moment during the experience, either in the beginning or the end, to talk about sustainable tourism and Local Guest’s story. That conversation always leads to paradigm shifts and further questions about how the industry performs and how we can try to create a more participatory ecosystem.
How do you ensure that your values and approach align with those of the community supported?
Every community is a little world in itself and some projects can be easily onboarded in a month, and others can take up to a year to be market ready. We have created personal relationships with all of our hosts. We know their needs, struggles and hopes, specifically after surviving hurricanes, social unrest, and earthquakes together. We do not pressure communities into participating until they can clearly voice how visitors would bring long-term value to their projects. We are always open about creating experiences that can support the long-term goals of the projects.
Do you engage in ongoing dialogue with the local community? If so, how?
We are in constant contact with our hosts/collaborators and even when a group of travelers shares interest in an experience we call or text our hosts to see if they are available before confirming reservations. We know if they are sick, if they met a project goal, if they are moving in another direction, if they paved their street, if they are happy, and even if there are controversies among themselves. We have been brought also as mediators in situations where the community, local government and other organizations are trying to collaborate. These relationships are the most important aspects of what we do and the biggest value and assets we have.
Community Partner Perspectives: Maricruz Rivera Clemente, Founder of The Corporación Piñones Se Integra (COPI), Social Worker and Sociologist
The collaboration between COPI and Local Guest has been an extraordinary experience. Extraordinary because the work is thoughtful, felt and articulated in relation to the tourist, nature, the community and between partners in appreciation and respect rather than profit.
Why do you feel your impact tourism program has been so successful? What challenges has your company faced in developing a successful program?
We believe Local Guest started really early in the Caribbean speaking about sustainable and community-based tourism. The Caribbean depends a lot on mass tourism and the idea of doing something different was and still is swimming against the current.
Our main challenges are:
- 1) A lack of understanding: The tourism industry and local government won’t always financially support projects like ours when it’s hard to encapsulate our hybrid tourism business and development model under current regulations.
- 2) A lack of business acumen with communities: We have special certifications in Organizing Communities for Change and Interpretation and Sustainable Tourism. With this knowledge, we were able to provide step-by-step processes for communities to adapt those learnings into their own tourism experience for added value, but this takes a lot of resources.
- 3) A lack of funding: As a for-profit social enterprise it has been hard to pursue ways of capital, funding, and investment that are measured by social impact rather than ROI. This is why we also created our non-profit, Love in Motion, which can fund educational programming for communities to be ready for tourism.
Nonetheless, we have seen the great transformational impact human connection can have on us, our communities and travelers when community-based tourism is done respectfully and value-driven. Community projects have been able to continue even after hurricanes, social unrest and earthquakes; travelers are seeing Puerto Rico and the Caribbean as beautiful places to discover, support and give-back and the group of amazing women than makes up Local Guest is still surviving in these uncertain times.
Why do you feel it is important for the tourism industry to not only promote a product but to provide environmental and community support?
We are strong advocates in many forums that the tourism industry should and can be a driver to support communities and the environment and these goals should be even more of a priority post COVID-19. We are concerned that the pandemic can turn the clock of sustainability a couple of years back on the industry side, even though we trust that our market will continue to travel responsibly. On the community side, however, the health guidelines, requirements, risks ,and costs are too great at the moment. We are assessing our processes to provide tools to them to be able to adapt and protect communities from the virus while figuring other more sustainable funding streams.
What would your advice be to another company that is hoping to establish a successful impact tourism program?
Our advice to anybody interested in pursuing sustainable tourism is to consider diversifying their revenue streams, always consider themselves as “the other” and be patient with an open-heart and open-mind; good things take time. We can work and teach in communities, but we are not them and have to always check our privilege and listen, listen, and listen. Listening is the only way to grow together in a responsible and respectful manner.
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