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Categories Opinion Column

Tourism Enterprises as Agents of Social Change

Written By: Jesús Parrilla, Principal, Luxury Frontiers

In recent weeks I have witnessed a painful situation in Chile, my country of adoption. The uprising that ruptured government, institutions, and the vast majority of the civil society is rooted in a myriad of factors: social discontent, the government´s failure to live up to its grand promises, economic disparity, mistrust in public and private institutions, and the loss of hope.

While many Chileans were genuinely surprised by the violent turn— a revolt against inequality, the high price of healthcare, and poor funding for education, among other things—I believe they were in the minority. In mid-2007, in my early days working at Explora Lodge, I saw visible signs of discontent in the local communities I was working with. I listened as people expressed concern over economic inequality, the lack of meaningful employment opportunities, and the subtle yet noticeable undercurrent of social discontent towards private businesses and institutions. As the years went on, this contained discontent became increasingly more vocal until it broke out and spilled out onto every street in the country in mid-October 2019.

This experience motivated me to join Smartrip in early 2014. A start-up at that time, Smartrip was founded by Juan Luis Crespo, a visionary who recognized tourism as a platform for social development. We employees were taught to view the tourism sector as not only being instrumental in the economic development of the nation, but also in building the country’s brand value, image, identity, and self-esteem. At the same time, we understood that, without shrewd guidance and leadership, the industry could generate a vacuum whereby its economic impact did not directly benefit those in need, further marginalizing and disenfranchising locals at the most vulnerable levels of society.

Smartrip is the first travel agency in the world with a social purpose. The company invests 20% of its net income to developing social programs located in the country’s main tourism hubs. Smartrip´s services, partnerships, and programs are engineered to reach individuals with great potential for success, ultimately promoting fair trade, local entrepreneurship, and the preservation of the culture, traditions, and identity of local communities.

With the support of 96 hotel partners, Smartrip leverages its relationships to insert local entrepreneurs into the tourism industry, providing more and better economic opportunities. In fact, since its inception and despite limited resources, the company has carried out more than 60 social initiatives which benefit more than 6,300 micro-entrepreneurs and artisans, providing them with promotional media, confidence in their skills, innovative marketing, and business strategies to expand their networks with likeminded individuals and hotels in their community and beyond.

When I reflect on the social upheaval Chile has endured these past few months, I can´t help but shed a tear over the collective failure of our civil society to fight inequality and take proactive measures against swelling discontent.

It hurts to see Smartrip´s learnings, efforts and commitment diminished, but this hurt does not blind me from my conviction that Smartrip can be a leading and authoritative voice in the birth of a new Chile.

What has happened in Chile can happen anywhere in the world and tourism enterprises can, and should, be as a force of good across the globe. Although it is unreasonable to expect the industry to tackle all economic, environmental, and social inequalities, it must lead the way on the front of balancing profit and purpose. Tourism, in my opinion, and that of my partners at Luxury Frontiers, is the most important global platform to achieve social justice and ultimately social peace. Those who are a part of the industry must mobilize and become inspiring social agents of positive transformation.