Companies We Love - Lokal Travel
NONC is a huge fan of the sustainable travel movement which encompasses a wide range of travel philosophies and niches such as eco, adventure, volunteer, community tourism and simply traveling with a mind to leave a place and its people a little better than when you arrived. Our work with Travel+SocialGood has introduced us to not only the latest news, innovations and accomplishments in this area, but to the movers and shakers who are creating amazing travel experiences such as our friends at Lokal.
Q&A with Lokal co-founder Marco Bollinger
1. How do you define community tourism?
Community tourism is any culturally immersive experience or lodging that is owned and operated by local residents of the place you’re visiting. Think of attending a local grandmother’s cooking class or taking a kayak into a rainforest mangrove with someone who grew up there. The goal of community tourism is to provide the traveler a truly authentic experience while positively impacting the place you visit through your travel spending.
According to the UN, as little as 5% of international travel spending actually reaches local communities. The vast majority of travel dollars ends up with airlines, big box hotels, booking sites and travel agents. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Thousands of communities around the world are embracing a new kind of locally-led travel. Instead of building chain hotels or hip fusion restaurants, local (often rural) communities are choosing to offer something simpler and much more unique – a chance to participate in their daily lives. Families invite travelers to stay in 150-year-old traditional homes and join them for a home-cooked meal; locals offer guided hikes to little-known vistas and hidden waterfalls; farmers take visitors on their daily rounds picking mountain-grown coffee; and so much more.
2. What sets Lokal apart from other cultural immersion travel companies?
I think the key differentiator is that we offer experiences that are incredibly unique and meaningful because they are owned and operated by locals. Our goal is to change travel by empowering both the traveler and the local communities and to help travelers be cultural ambassadors while also driving more tourism dollars directly into the hands of local communities as opposed to foreign-owned mass tourism.
[Lokal founders, Marco and Eytan Elterman, are also documentary filmmakers.] Through the process of making our award-winning documentary film “2.5%”, we understood that most of the negative impacts of tourism come from the disenfranchisement of a destination’s local people. Less than 5% of global tourism spending reaches local communities, and even less manages to stay in the community long term. It’s our mission to change this because we’ve seen firsthand the positive impact on local communities when they are directly integrated into the larger travel economy: schools get better, creative entrepreneurism is sparked.
3. How did you form partnerships in so many countries?
We’ve spent a lot of time on the ground getting to know communities, from co-founder Dave Koken who spent two years working with Kiva.org in Southeast Asia, to Eytan and myself spending significant portions of the last five years in Latin America. In getting to know local communities, I think we really earned their trust by addressing the issues that these communities are dealing with. Issues such as feeling overlooked by the tourism world and not knowing how to communicate their stories and value to potential travelers. Lastly, when potential business partners look at who we’re already representing, they really connect and see themselves as a part of this Lokal community. This last point is critical. We are building a movement of community tourism and sustainable travel from the the partnership side and the travelers side. Therefore, making sure that people feel like they identify with our mission, our stories, and the community we’re building is incredibly important to much of the success we’ve had.
4. What is the demographic of the majority of your travelers? Are you finding it resonates with a particular group or age range?
I think we’ve always thought of the Lokal traveler as more of a psychographic. “Conscious consumer” or “conscious traveler” are good descriptors, but sometimes I feel like these terms gloss over the reasons why people have made conscious lifestyle choices and want to give back to the communities and cultures they visit. These individuals are very self-aware and curious. They understand that we are one people living on the only planet we have. They crave deeper connection with what they choose to experience because it’s the uniqueness of each moment, each day, that excites them. I resonate with these sentiments because I feel and search for the same.
With that said, It’s been really exciting for us to learn more about those who are excited about what Lokal has to offer. Over 60% of our travelers are women. I guess this is no surprise; women around the world are proving to be major drivers and trailblazers of social change. One fun fact: although our top age group is millennials between ages 26 - 35 (23%), boomers ages 56 - 65 were a close second (20%). Probably the biggest discovery we made through our data is that over 50% of our conscious traveler community are couples – that fact actually caused us to rethink how we were approaching our expansion, sales, marketing, community engagement, everything!
5. Do your clients have the ability to stay in touch with the communities or groups that they meet/serve?
Definitely! Because many of our partners aren’t regular email users, we communicate with many of them via WhatsApp and travelers have done the same. It’s amazing what WhatsApp did for global communication and bridge-building across borders, as well as connecting estranged families. Many of our partner communities have friends and family abroad in the U.S. or Europe and the ability to effortlessly stay in touch has completely changed their relationships.
6. What are some of the most popular destinations so far?
Peru, Thailand, Costa Rica, and Nepal have been hits so far, but we’re really excited to be opening up Mexico in a bigger way over the next several months. Mexico has so much to offer from culinary tourism in the Oaxaca region to amazing surf destinations along the coast, along with the incredible remnants of the Aztec and Mayan cultures all over the country.
7. Will you be adding any new destinations or travel-related features in the near future?
Soon we’re launching a huge Indiegogo campaign where we’ll be selling a limited number of incredibly discounted bucket-list sustainable adventures. We’re going to have sustainable honeymoons at 30-40% off and ways for early supporters to earn credit on Lokal towards their next trip!
The goal of the campaign is to raise enough money to onboard 10 new countries by sending people as part of our explorer’s program to help us vet all of these new community tourism projects.
Stay tuned for Lokal’s crowdfunding campaign, tentatively set to launch November 12th, for an opportunity to not only support this budding community tourism business, but to take one of their life-changing tours. Thanks to Marco for sparing some time in his busy, global day to tell us more about this exciting venture.