Interview: Vicky Smith, Founder of Earth Changers

Sketch of Vicky Smith, Founder of Earth Changers

In today’s interview, I’m talking with the wonderful Vicky Smith, the eco tourism expert behind Earth Changers.

Vicky and I crossed paths a few times online initially, and her site’s purpose really got me thinking about how travel could be a positive action, rather than something we simply aim to offset.

Earth Changers is a site that champions sustainable tourism around the world, covering people, places, and purpose. They are not a travel agency or tour guide operation; instead, they list the best teams and locations that make for a positive holiday and positive impact, and provide education around every single recommendation on their site.

We finally met at our appointment as Ambassadors for DEFRA’s Year of Green Action in the spring of this year. Despite our very different fields and job roles, our passion is definitely the same: to encourage more people to value the planet, and leave it in a better way than we found it!

Vicky is an expert in her field, and from every time we’ve met, it’s clear that she truly loves what she does, the people she works with, and the places she’s been. Her outlook on tourism is a bright one – and it’s what really inspires me about her!

I hope you enjoy our interview…

1. What inspired you to work in ecotourism?

Quick answer – a love of wildlife, wilderness, learning French, and skiing!

It’s not something I set out to do, but it evolved. I was born and brought up in North West London but moved to Yorkshire by teenage years. There, schools started teaching French later on, so I had an advantage in Yorkshire as I had started, stopped, and restarted. I also got involved in sports and outdoor pursuits I wouldn’t have done otherwise, including skiing.

I ended up studying a degree in French and International Business, at Sheffield University, which had a big dry ski slope and club. [When I graduated] I knew I wanted to work in the French Alps rather than some blue chip corporate graduate training programme. What was intended as a year of working in travel and travelling became further years, including summer hiking in the mountains, then sales and marketing in head offices, and web development and e-commerce when it came along in the late 90s.

But the jobs were in the mass market and the travel I loved wasn’t, so I travelled and volunteered round Southern Africa in 2006, including living on a reserve working on lion conservation, and never looked back.

The rest of my life story and how I came to set up Earth Changers is shared here – ecotourism is far from always glam, but a commitment to hard work and sacrifice for positive purpose. 

2. Your business, Earth Changers, champions both people and places. Can you give an example of a great trip that can support both a community and the environment?

The first thing it’s important to say is that it’s local people who look after the local environment. So environmental protection and conservation isn’t separate from community; they are inherently integrated locally wherever you go.

In actual fact, the definition of responsible tourism is tourism which helps create “better places for people to live in and visit” – note the local people are the first priority, not the tourists.

People have been the guardians of places since they existed. Indigenous people have known for centuries how to live off the land and in balance with an ecosystem – and that doesn’t happen if they don’t look after it. It’s often modern life and tourism development that brings conflicts. 

For example, take the Maasai [an ethnic group inhabiting northern, central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania]. They symbolise a formidable warrior people with strong unique culture. As pastoralists who lead a nomadic herding existence, they are fiercely protective of their cattle, which is their livelihood. Historically, they might have killed wildlife predators. But now, they appreciate protected wildlife – it brings vital tourism that also supports their culture, and predators are a key part of that wildlife to be protected.

Tourism should never come from outside and exploit local resources, but enable host places and people to be empowered to manage the tourism and its impacts. So we work with a really special ecolodge in Kenya that was created as a true partnership with the Maasai, on Maasai community land, employing local Maasai people.

The set-up allows the Maasai to decide how to develop and manage the tourism, so their culture is supported but not exploited, and tourism profits are paid to a community trust for big projects in health, education and conservation. This includes a per-night ‘payment for ecosystem services’ which supports environmental protection, reimburses Maasai if they lose cattle to predators, and also pays for ‘Simba Scouts’, ensuring lions are protected along with cattle – so it’s win-win for positive impacts for culture, community, conservation and tourism commerce.

3. What’s one thing all holidaymakers can do to be more eco-friendly?

So many! First it’s about being aware – be conscious about your trips’ impacts. Understand sustainability is ‘triple bottom line’ – a balance of economic, social and environmental impacts – which can be subjective, imperfect and evolving.

What we judge acceptable at one time can become unethical, for learnt good reasons. So for example, I started working in responsible tourism when it was a new concept. Swimming with dolphins, riding elephants, petting tigers and feeding cubs or walking with lions were common place. Thankfully with ecotourism we now know these activities are not ethical and why.

If you’re curiously conscious, you find out about this, become aware of what creates what impacts and why, can choose more responsible options and so take responsibility for the impacts of your choices. With Earth Changers‘ social media and all I write about on the site sections of People, Places, Purpose and the blog, we aim to help people understand, because it’s quite a complex mixture of issues that come together in the supply chain, like fashion. 

Research and learn the truth and don’t assume – while something can appear positive, the impact can be horrifically negative. For example, orphanage tourism, which I’ve campaigned against a lot, creates and fuels child trafficking. Volunteers are complicit if they do it and support it, even if it’s with the best of intentions.  

So the answer is, make sure you’re not negatively impacting this world, and preferably create a net positive impact where you go. Flights will have a negative environmental impact, and carbon offsets don’t get rid of that, but without that tourism, there isn’t the jobs and conservation to support and positively contribute to community and iconic species. But you can reduce your carbon impact whilst still travelling where it’s important to do so. None of these things are black and white so learning about impacts on a wider perspective is key. 

4. Where has been your favourite place to travel?

The world, its people and places is my passion, so literally I love everywhere! There many amazing things everywhere you go and I’m always learning, even if to see how not to do tourism! 

Southern Africa was a real life-changing trip for me, for its conservation and community. I also really love Costa Rica; its government has been world-leading in ecotourism and sustainable development. [I also love] Madagascar  – where I’m a trustee for a sustainable development charity where volunteers can join our conservation and community programmes – and The Galapagos Islands, which are truly out of this world where nature historically reigns supreme but extremely fragile to the demands of our current world.

5. Finally, do you have anything exciting coming up that you can share with us?

I’ve been judging some awards lately – for adventure travel and responsible tourism for the International Travel and Tourism Awards and the Travel Trade Gazette industry media – which has been fun and no doubt I’ll share the results when they’re public on my socials.

As fellow Ambassador for the Year of Green Action for Defra, the UK Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I’m going to be doing some awareness-raising, hopefully in line with the UK Parliament Inquiry into the impacts of tourism that has just been launched.

I’ve also got a couple of trips coming up. Next up, I’m speaking at a global travel industry conference in Singapore and visiting Asia a little, so looking forward to that, and adding various destinations to the site shortly!

Thanks Vicky! You can keep up with Vicky and Earth Changers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


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