Women in Business, Eco Tourism & Sustainable Travel
Ruth Franklin is the co-founder of Secret Paradise Maldives and together with her energetic and engaging team of local guides, they have been leading local island Maldives tours since 2012. Ruth was recently interviewed about being a women in business in the Maldives and here is what she said:
Tell us more about Secret Paradise Maldives
We partner 25 guesthouses on 15 islands across 8 atolls. The properties we partner are owned and in the main operated by local island families where everyone is instrumental in the day to day running of the guest house ensuring profits are directed back into local hands. We are also using services developed and managed by locals which in turn provides employment and business opportunities for local people.
Sustainability What are your key communities? How does your organization actively support and strengthen these communities?
Local communities are crucial to sustainable tourism and this has always been the foundation of the Secret Paradise offer.
We have built over a period of time what I would see as three key communities.
Our local island partner community
We chose to work with only selected guesthouses in order that we could build strong relationships. This has resulted in us being able to support them from a business management and marketing perspective in the very beginning, to them supporting us in our sustainable tourism wish list such as the removal of plastic straws, the introduction of water coolers to minimize the use of plastic bottles which is a project we are working on this year.
The feedback we have received from the families with whom we work closely is that they are proud to be able to provide such opportunities . At first they could not understand why we would want our guests to interact with them, share meals and visit their home. Now they understand that their everyday practices are of interest to international visitors. Our role with the local communities has been to highlight that not all tourists are visiting for an affordable beach holiday and that many are looking to get under the skin of the country and learn about culture and traditions. For me this is important as these traditions need to be kept alive.
Our NGO community
We seek out ways to open up channels to allow NGO organisations the opportunity to interact with guests and in so doing increase their exposure to a wider audience. Many of our tours involve some form of conservation awareness or activity. Our guests spend time with NGOs gaining an insight into the conservation challenges that face local islands or social challenges that people within the local community may face. We offer opportunities for guests to get involved if they wish, supporting local conservationists on coral nurseries, attending beach cleans or events held within the community. Even on our Villimale day tour our guides and guests can be seen collecting rubbish as they explore the island. As a business we try where ever possible to support environmental events organised by our NGO partners both financially and in person and a proportion of the tour cost is provided in the form of a donation to their funds.
Our employee community
Tourism has seen an increase in demand for experiential travel opportunities. Meeting and travelling with local people and seeing the Maldives through their eyes allows guests to connect with locals and enhance their trip. No one should know the Maldives better than a Maldivian and hence why with the exception of myself the Secret Paradise team is 100% local.
We provide good working conditions, the opportunity to travel, a fair wage and performance reviews for local employees. Our guides achieve personal development through interaction with guests from different cultures and backgrounds. They also have the opportunity to participate in tour leader development programs available from our international partners.
How do you consider societal well-being and benefit as part of your strategy and daily operations?
I came from a 30 year retail background and therefore my tourism knowledge was based on my own experiences as a traveler as well as my desire to give back to the people who had welcomed me into their homes when I visited the Maldives myself as a tourist.
When Secret Paradise was formed in 2012 local tourism was at the beginning of it’s journey and I was conscious that however we developed the business we needed to be mindful of ensuring we promoted local tourism in line with Maldivian culture and beliefs. With this in mind our core strategy was formed and has over time developed on the basis of three values – economic responsibility, social responsibility and environmental responsibility.
I am a great believer in keeping it simple and as a small business we needed to recognize that it was far better to build a solid foundation of a few key principals that could be followed through and kept alive than produce a manifesto or sustainable tourism standard operating practice that would gather dust on a shelf.
We drew up three key actions for each value.
To use locally owned and operated tourism infrastructure.
To use wherever possible business services in country which are operated by locals and not out source to businesses aboard.
To provide employment for local people.
For a local guide to travel with our guests from time of arrival to departure.
To educate our guests on local history, customs and cultural practices and provide opportunities for guests to engage with the local community in some format.
To actively support local communities, NGOs and environmental organisations.
To limit the physical impact of trips and work with our partners to educate and improve awareness within local the community.
To brief all our guests on the Green fin snorkeling etiquette
To encourage our guests to deal with waste appropriately, to lead by example and where possible take plastic waste home.
We are fortunate that we are in a position that our business model allows societal well being to form part of our day to day practice.
Our guests stay in local island guest houses. We utilise local transportation providers as opposed to owning our own vehicles.
Our guests eat at local cafes, regularly enjoy evening tea – hedikaa, we buy food items for our tours from the local market and we encourage guests to purchase locally made souvenirs, all this mean means that local individuals and small businesses benefit.
We encourage our guests through briefings and general conversation to respect the environment and lead by example, for example to refuse plastic straws and bags.
We carry out annual audits of our guesthouse properties that includes a review of responsible and sustainable practices and we offer support and advice on improvements. Our guides provide a trip report following each tour which amongst other things will highlight best practice or improvement opportunities. Our guests complete feedback forms which again include the opportunity to feedback and comment on sustainable practices.
We hold regular training sessions with our guiding team and provide opportunities for their education and development. For example the team recently spent two days with Coral Doctors learning more about coral and reef rehabilitation and we have a planned session on the importance of seagrass up and coming.
Our social media feeds include images and information that are locally inspired. We highlight historical facts, religious festivals, national holidays, food, wildlife and overviews of local islands. We share and celebrate environmental best practices such as beach cleans by local communities, awareness days and community news that we feel would be of interest to our followers.
We provide guests with pre trip information as part of the booking process to ensure they understand the requirements of travelling to a locally inhabited island. Content provides information on local customs and requirements, particularly in relation to religion, dress, food and beverages and upon arrival they receive a further briefing from one of our guiding team which includes environmental and cultural awareness and highlights the opportunities they may have during the time with us to support local environmental initiatives.
With local island tourism continuing to grow my dream would be that government policies would be brought into place to regulate and provide accreditation to properties across a number of standards but with sustainable practices playing a significant role.
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