I recently interviewed the founders of nine sustainable travel companies about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their businesses. As a follow up, I talked to Rhea Simms of Planeterra Foundation to learn more about how Planterra has supported its 85 global partners — social enterprises that rely on tourism — throughout this crisis.
Planeterra’s COVID-19 Response Efforts
We believe that tourism can be the greatest method of wealth distribution in the world, and we’re out to prove it. ~ Planeterra Foundation
Planeterra Foundation packages and promotes unique tourist experiences that generate critical revenue for communities in 50 countries across the globe. Rhea Simms is the program manager for Planeterra’s Asia Pacific region, supporting 34 partners — nonprofits, grassroots organizations and social enterprises — spanning Turkey, Middle East, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Rhea’s responsibilities typically include scouting for new partners, determining their funding and training needs, preparing them to receive international tourists, and monitoring the experiences after they’re up and running.
Needless to say, these past three months have been anything but typical. I recently spoke with Rhea about how Planeterra has supported its 85 partners in the wake of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, how these organizations and their communities are faring, and what the future holds for them as the world begins to open back up.
How has Planeterra shifted its focus since the pandemic hit?
We knew this was going to be difficult, so we launched our emergency campaign early on. We were able to get 12 grants* out in the first six weeks — all for basic needs. We were thinking, “Do they have medicine? Do they have food? Can they meet basic hygiene standards in their homes?”
Some of our partners have a huge network of community members who rely on them for services as essential as shelter, so it was critical for us to help them keep an income scream coming in.
*seven grants in Africa, two in the Americas and four in Asia
We met our initial goal of $50,000, which is exciting.
Can you give me some examples of the emergency grants?
In my region, we work with a community tourism program in Bali (Indonesia) called Senang Hati. They have a team of 30 differently abled people whose work allows them to be independent and earn income. They can work in a fully accessible kitchen — it’s the right height and has the right utensils. They had to all go home, of course, but we were able to help meet their basic needs at a time when they were already at risk.
Another program is in India (Kerala) called Together We Earn — it’s a tiny women’s empowerment nonprofit. We actually just launched this partnership at the beginning of the year. They had 10 women who were dependent on earning this income, and they haven’t been able to make any money because of the lockdown, but we were able to help them with some basic needs.
We met our initial goal of $50,000, which is exciting, and will continue to raise funds. We keep assessing needs as we talk to our partners, and those needs are changing now. Some are still very much in basic needs management, and some are looking at costs and what they need to do to open again as a business — meet new standards, and tap into new markets to make sure they can keep their doors open.
What’s the attitude among your partners?
The general attitude is safety: Is everyone healthy? Is everyone comfortable? We’re checking in all the time to make sure people have what they need. Many are still fighting for survival of their businesses and the health of their clients. Also, looking forward, we’re asking how they’re feeling about getting back to work. Everything is unknown right now.
A huge priority is seeing what’s relevant for the domestic travel market.
What changes do you see them making?
We are seeing the organizations looking at their products and services. A huge priority is seeing what’s relevant for the domestic travel market. Planterra links organizations to an international traveler base, which has been great until there was a global pandemic. So now they’re looking at making their products and services relevant for the people who live in their communities. For example, if they’re more rural, can they make themselves a destination for those in urban areas?
Jia Community Restaurant, for example, grows pomelos on their land (in Yangshuo, China). They’re promoting having people come work on their farm for a day. This will drive a much wider domestic tour market versus the restaurant and local experience, which we developed for the international base.
A lot are innovating — asking, “How can we do what we do for a different group of people?” We see some partners leaning on technology — like Zoom — to deliver some of their programs, which will lead to a much more scalable impact than before. Take Linkage Training Restaurant in Myanmar (Yangon). They had 18 students this year — all at-risk youth. They bring them in for a whole year and train them in all things hospitality, and they gain English skills as well, so they have an upper hand in the hospitality market. These students all had to go back home, so Linkage is trying to see what parts of the training can still be done, and how they can continue mentoring the students and finding jobs for them in a post-COVID world. We see organizations using the time to scale, impact, innovate, and make their businesses stronger for the future.
What are some considerations for re-opening?
We’re waiting on governments to set standards for re-opening — it varies by country. We have a women-run cafe in Jordan (Souf) — Beit Khayrat Souf — and there you have to do a huge cleaning of your space before opening to the public, and your kitchen has to meet specific requirements. Some of these requirements will come at a great cost — we’re looking at those needs and how we can help with that. That will be the next phase of what we can do for our partners.
Our project partners in rural communities…have definitely the ones that have been the best off.
Do you have any good news to share?
All of our partners are still in business and trying to navigate this new normal. Our project partners in rural communities that have agricultural land have definitely the ones that have been the best off. Most of those were using tourism as supplemental income. They’ve kept the farms going, they’ve found new markets to sell their crops. They’re at least sheltered and have food, and they’re going to be ready when travelers come back.
Across Southeast Asia we’re starting to see some of the project partners open for that domestic market, in particular. It’s a great thing to see happening now. Jia Community Restaurant closed in January, but they’re open again!
What shift would you like to personally see in the tourism industry?
I’d love at the end of this if every traveler was responsible. That we’re making conscious decisions about where we go and why, and what impact that has as we get on planes again and go back out into the world. How do we help rebuild some of the economies and help spend our money in a way that’s staying in the countries?
The number of people traveling responsibly is already growing drastically, and perhaps this time of reflection will make that base bigger. I do think people might go further, step off the beaten path, bring new communities into the tourism market. The more communities that can benefit in a responsible way, the better.
It’s a huge time of reflection at the individual level and also for countries as they strategize what tourism looks like. I’m curious to see if there will be more policies that protect communities and their environment.
I’m definitely hopeful for the future.
How are you feeling these days?
The pandemic situation is a rollercoaster of emotions. One day it’s, “We can get through this. We’re going to be stronger.” Then the next day you’re alone in your house dealing with this crisis. But we have an amazing network of organizations led by incredibly innovative people, and the more we can lend our expertise and support, the better. Luckily, we’ve had the chance to do that during this time. I’m definitely hopeful for the future.
I have no idea when I’ll get on a plane again to visit our project partners. But I hope it’s not too away from now. We’re ready when the world is ready.