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The tourism industry must be harnessed to boost the impact economy. Here’s how

"If we care about racial equity, women’s empowerment, equitable economic opportunities, poverty reduction, or climate change, we should care about the tourism industry." Untours Foundation Co-CEO Jonathan Coleman makes the case.

Traveling with The GREEN Program. (Photo via facebook.com/TGPabroad)

This essay was originally published via ImpactPHL Perspectives, a multi-part series which explores the many facets of the impact economy in Greater Philadelphia from the perspectives of its doers, movers, shakers and agents of change. This version has been edited for style.

This is a guest post by Jonathan Coleman, co-CEO of the Untours Foundation.
Tourism is an industry that is crying out for impact-driven entrepreneurs and investors to do what they do best.

That’s challenge traditional norms; put capital into new places; support diverse and dynamic entrepreneurs; find ways to ensure financial returns while prioritizing people and the planet; and move industries stuck in old paradigms into a future that enhances well-being for us all.

It may feel counterintuitive to make a case for launching or investing in tourism-based businesses when the industry has been decimated. Still, a closer look reveals a tremendous opportunity for both real impact and promising financial returns. The COVID-19 pandemic has only enhanced the need — and the opportunity — for tourism to become a driving force for systemic change in the U.S. and around the world. Consider this: Before the pandemic began, tourism was responsible for approximately 10% of the world’s GDP, 10% of jobs, and more than 5% of carbon emissions.

Plain and simple, tourism is a powerful lever for change that has been untapped and underused for decades.

Jonathan Coleman. (Courtesy photo)

The past year’s shutdowns have had a devastating effect on this industry, with many small businesses and front-line workers, most of whom are women and people of color, bearing the brunt of the negative impact. In the past year, the tourism industry has lost 120 million jobs worldwide, including 52,000 in Philadelphia alone.

In short, if we care about racial equity, women’s empowerment, equitable economic opportunities, poverty reduction, or climate change, we should care about the tourism industry and be actively involved in harnessing the power of the industry for positive change in these critical areas.

In many ways, the opportunity lies not in returning the industry to its former glory but transforming the industry into one that better enhances host communities, people and the environment, while also providing better and more authentic experiences for the travelers.

The potential silver lining of the pandemic for tourism is that it provides a tremendous opportunity to rethink, redesign and rebirth this industry. The time is now for entrepreneurs and investors to act. Here are just a few examples of tourism-based businesses based in Philadelphia, all of which are owned by women of color who are transforming their industry and making big plans for the future.

  • Yasmine Mustafa is cofounder and CEO of ROAR for Good, a technology company for hotel worker safety. Their AlwaysOn technology keeps hotel housekeepers safe, of whom 88% are women and 58% experience sexual harassment in the workplace. The company recently closed a fundraising round, allowing them to make several strategic hires to help meet growing demand from hotels as they ramp up for the post-pandemic travel opportunities and meet new government compliance requirements for worker safety.
  • The GREEN Program, founded and led by Melissa Lee, educates and empowers future sustainability leaders through innovative experiential travel, education and adventure models. Since 2009, more than 3,000 student leaders and young professionals from 400+ universities and 70 countries worldwide have traveled and learned with Melissa and her team. The company reports that 95% of alumni stay actively engaged in sustainability efforts and have gone on to work for places like NASA, Tesla, National Geographic and SpaceX. This business is preparing to tap into the growing demand for experiential learning and environmental education after pivoting to virtual learning experiences once the shutdowns began. It will expand offerings and grow revenues moving into 2022 and beyond. In doing so, they will be preparing the next generation of sustainability leaders who will tackle the world’s biggest problems.
  • Philly Experiences, owned and operated by Chrissy Watts, provides experiential day tours with titles like “Morals + Murals,” “Tales from Our Hood,” and “Beginner’s Guide to Black Philadelphia.” Due to these tours’ popularity — they are amongst the most popular Philadelphia-based tours on Airbnb — Chrissy is preparing to launch new tours that allow travelers to move outside of the traditional tourist bubbles and into surrounding neighborhoods, opening doors to the “real Philadelphia” and ensuring that tourist dollars are better spread throughout the city especially to diverse entrepreneurs.

We need more visionary entrepreneurs like Yasmine, Melissa and Christian to harness the power of tourism — and tourist dollars — to build business models that enhance both the traveler experience and the communities and natural environments they visit.

We also need more forward-looking investors to fuel the fire that those entrepreneurs have started, helping the businesses thrive with new investments. The Media-based Untours Foundation is currently working on playing our part. We view tourism as a tool for both deep impact and sustainable returns. We are beginning to leverage our roots in the industry and going all-in on tourism.

The foundation is building a fund that invests explicitly in tourism-based businesses. Beginning in a few specific geographies, with Philadelphia as the first U.S.-based target area, our goal is to elevate diverse and impact-focused entrepreneurs in the space and pave the way for other impact investors to follow. We are currently raising $1 million in philanthropic capital to seed the fund.

Writer and artist Henry Miller said it well: “Travel is never a destination, but a new way of seeing things.”

Companies: ROAR

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