Vicky Smith has worked in tourism for over 20 years, and specifically in sustainable tourism for over 10 years. She has an extensive background in destination marketing and ecommerce, and leading operations abroad and online for major tour operators. Smith’s experience further includes overseeing online travel agents and media in mass market tourism, ski, safari, charity challenges and volunteer tourism, NGOs and sustainable tourism accreditation organisations. She has been a ski guide and resort manager and is a qualified game ranger in Africa. Vicky also voluntarily leads charity challenge and volunteer groups on trips such as hiking up Kilimanjaro, kayaking the lower Zambezi, trekking the Sahara, or helping conservation in the Galapagos. She gained a distinction for her MSc paper, later published and a top 10 download on the Journal of Sustainable Tourism: “Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory.”

A ski injury in April 2016 followed by reconstructive surgery and a year of hindered mobility led Vicky to her own start-up journey. Launched in March 2017, Earth Changers promotes the most sustainable tourism around the world for life-affirming trips with serious positive impacts.

A walking safari with Maasai warrior guide in Kenya.
A walking safari with Maasai warrior guide in Kenya. This experience takes place at an Earth Changers partner ecolodge in Kenya, it is a Maasai community-run ecolodge that is carbon neutral and provides health and educational support to a Maasai community of 16,000 people.

How do the experiences you offer at Earth Changers give participants a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of the regions where you travel?

At Earth Changers the experiences we promote are pioneering sustainable, transformative tourism for people to find and book trips that truly change the world.

Earth Changers’ whole ethos is about creating the best positive impacts for local communities through tourism.  We start with why – that may be conservation, education, health, water, poverty, energy, livelihoods etc – big issues around the world where tourism can be a force for good. It may be 5 star, or really quite raw. With some experiences, like marine conservation sailing, guests will be hands-on helping, others are just WOW trips – such as a private island in Indonesia – where guests’ interaction with locals is more leisure-based, but the tourism funds the foundation to support the local indigenous cultural preservation. It’s all fun – but not just frivolous.

The common thread is commitment to creating positive impact, first and foremost creating better places for people to live in, and as a consequence, better places to visit, with people at the centre. For guests that translates to a more considered, better quality, deeper and better value experience. It’s transformative for hosts and guests.

How have the experiences that you offer evolved since their inception?

Although I’ve been in experiential tourism for 20 years and responsible tourism for over 10 years, Earth Changers is my own start-up, new this year.  So we’re still very much developing in many ways.

That said, I won’t include just anyone, it’s by merit of being Earth Changers, which means demonstrable results from true commitment to sustainable development through tourism. We get to know our local partners well to discern whether they are appropriate and write extensively about their initiatives and impacts, so it takes time. They also evolve their products, for example our island ecolodge in Nicaragua has just added a private sister island where romantic couples can spend the day totally alone!

Given our purpose, we also keep abreast of how partners’ positive impacts evolve. For example, our partners in Madagascar have recently found species never previously identified before or not seen locally for decades; they’ve expanded rainwater harvesting to 8 more villages; and across a 3 year operation, a whopping 11,000 people (13% of the local town) gained access to improved sanitation.

The experiences we offer there enable lives to be saved, and culture and environment to be preserved on an evolving basis.

Giant tortoise, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
Vicky’s most tricky client ever, her mother! Asking her very nicely to please come further away from the giant tortoise, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos.

What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?

Sustainability! A lot of what makes tourism more sustainable is behind the scenes. It’s a complex, often intangible, synthesis of inter-related elements, which makes it hard for people to understand let alone discern what is more sustainable, or not.  That’s where we step-in. We have the specialist expertise to do the research and hold up our curated collection partners as shining lights for guest experience and beacons to be emulated in the industry – so we’re followed by a lot of the industry too.

We’re also fusing what is often charity foundation work with commercial travel operations, communicated all in one place, when usually not presented together. We’re joining dots that others don’t see to demonstrate explicitly what tourism can create and in doing so hopefully help educate. Basically we do the hard work so the customer can rely on our judgement of the best, read all about it if they wish (but don’t have to!), then all they have to do is decide where they want to go, safe in the knowledge the experience is truly positive impact.

Being a responsible business, one of our key elements is transparency. So we don’t just tell consumers our partners are the best – we provide the contextual evidence of the sustainable tourism recipe ingredients – like energy, water, waste, employment, which otherwise may be a bit abstract for many people’s interest. And we tell the stories of people behind the amazing places. How did they came to do what they do, why, and what impact it has on lives.

What do you wish every guest knew as they consider participating in an Earth Changers trip?

That we feature life-changing places, with world-changing people, for extraordinary experiences with purpose. It will bring them a different perspective on the world and their place in its great ecosystem and they may never be the same.

Your aspirations for Earth Changers are lofty, how have you been able to distill those goals into action items that can be achieved on relatively short trip?

We’re a curated collection working with the most amazing partners. They are already Earth Changers, and we already have shared values, we just seek them out for inclusion.

We bring what we know together, to be able to spread the word to a wider audience, but the real hard work goes on at grassroots level by our partners in the destinations. They are innovative, have been developing community and conservation support for years if not decades, and often against all odds and naysayers. They have amazing vision, missions and they are the ones who enable locals to set their purpose priorities, create their positive impact initiatives, to empower the people, to be protectors of their places.  They have ongoing sustainability work plans that break down goals into actionable bitesize chunks, which enable guests to see what’s achieved and make it more tangible.

It may sound cheesy but I genuinely love what I do to promote and serve those partners, for all they achieve. I am constantly in awe at their incredible work, commitment and altruism. I only hope I add some value to them by helping educate consumers as to the importance. I just want to bring them more tourism for creating the funds for sustainable development for local communities. They are inspirational.

But it’s not just us or our partners who are Earth Changers.  Guests who take part in Earth Changers trips contribute and facilitate the work so are key to the success of the overall goal, positive impact. Even just by having an amazing trip experience they help change the world. The guests are Earth Changers too.

Earth Changers - Lapa Rios - Costa Rica
One of Earth Changers partner ecolodges in Costa Rica. It offers beautiful, nature-immersed rainforest experiential travel options. Lodge owners built and support a local school, as well as preserving 930 acres of Central America’s last remaining lowland dense tropical rainforest, home to 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity.

What is one travel trend that really excites you?

Transformative travel of course!

Seriously though, why would you take a trip which creates a negative impact when you can create a positive one? When you can create jobs for people, meaning they can support their families, get access to medical support, clean water, more and better food, education, skills and thus jobs, income; stay at home in villages reducing rural brain, and cultural, drain? Experiencing the people, place and purpose that facilitates that is transformative. And you can have the most amazing vacation for doing so!

I love travel.  So I can’t think of anything more exciting than being able to make the world a better place by doing just that.

What is one insider’s tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?

I’d say let go of ego. That goes for everything from trying new food or activities that might make you look silly, to forgetting about appearance. It’s letting go of the need to know, to be fixed and in control. It’s allowing yourself the adventure, of free spirit as much as of travel movement, of getting out of your comfort zone which requires being open minded to different or unusual ways or things. Allow yourself to connect with the people, the environment, nature, the greater scheme of things.

It’s about fully embracing and enjoying the moment, not bringing or comparing experiences from the past, nor having expectations of how things will play out. Accepting what is and going with the flow. That complete openness exposes us to heightened and new sensations and emotions, which can be overwhelming but totally liberating if you go with it. That is pure experience.

What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow?

Our values are the foundation and core to everything we do: Adventure, connection and integrity.

  • Adventure – Not just in terms of travel, but mindset – curiosity and life-long learning about others.
  • Connection – With people, places, purpose, nature, spirituality, between travel and development.
  • Integrity – We have strong ethics, do what we say and say what we do, we’re responsible, reliable and authentic in our business and relationships, and committed to sustainability.

Like our logo, we’re about the heart and soul of tourism. We articulate it in more in our manifesto – if people agree with that, then they are Earth Changers in mindset too.

Microlight flight over Victoria Falls, Zambia, Africa
On a microlight over Victoria Falls, a very powerful and magnetic place.

What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?

That’s tough. There’s not one thing but a fusion of many. But I’d say intuition is massively under-valued, especially in corporate boardrooms. Being intuitive means I’m good with people, gauging situations, a knowing of purpose, and ability to connect and bring many things together: people and concepts, policy and practice, commercial and not-for-profit, online and offline.

Success also comes from having strong values; Sheer and utter graft; commitment in loyalty and time, faith and conviction in what I am doing; wisdom from personal experience, awareness, consideration, being very grounded, resilience and always being able to find a silver lining. I have incredible strength and resourcefulness, especially in adversity. It comes in handy for adventure!

Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.

From a 20 year travel career, that’s a lot! Even speaking at a conference on responsible tourism about my Masters thesis on volunteer tourism I once made a front row participant cry when I made the penny drop on how orphanage tourism leads to child trafficking. And as a charity challenge guide, which I’ve done for 10 years voluntarily, most participants have an emotional point at some time during a trip – pushed to an extreme of challenge, but often doing so during a grieving process – they often have a moment when the realise how strong they’ve been and come through. I count myself incredibly privileged to share such moments in someone’s personal journey.

But what I really love to see is that emotional, moving reaction between guest and hosts. One of my most memorable was on Floreana Island. The first inhabited island of the Galapagos, it’s a 4 hour speed boat trip from Santa Cruz main island, and due to the limited natural water supply, could only ever sustain a community of around 100 people. We think of the Galapagos in terms of its wildlife but rarely its communities. And remoteness means they’re often forgotten by the mainland – which makes it an amazing place to visit and experience the real Galapagos. People often visit by day from boats but rarely stay – so islanders get all pf the negative impacts of tourism but few of the benefits. It’s not easy to live out there – in terms of supplies, education, medical treatment etc. So the National Park ranger, who is the one with the speedboat, ends up being all the emergency services, as well as emergency shopping orders, and voluntary local bar. He opens up his small house, pushes the furniture aside, brings forward the pool table and welcomes everyone to salsa dancing! You go to the toilet and it’s the family bathroom, their toothbrushes on the sink, while the kids sleep in the room next door. One night, after midnight, when guests were having a great time laughing, drinking and dancing with the Ranger host, a visitor arrived in an emergency. One of the islanders had had a heart attack at home and needed to get to hospital. The Ranger is the only one with the speedboat, never mind that he’d been on duty since 7am then opened his house-bar, never mind it would take 4 hours each way and he would arrive back to start work again immediately with no sleep. And it’s then, when the guests see the reality of life in beautiful places, when real connection occurs. We assume they benefit, more often than not they don’t. I think all the guests were at once emotional, dumbfounded and in awe at the ranger, and you see brains whirring – tourism can and should help here.

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