Travel conscious: How SPU alumni help others adventure responsibly
While many Seattle Pacific students and alumni embrace the outdoors as a hobby, others have made it their workplace.
While many Seattle Pacific students and alumni embrace the outdoors as a hobby, others have made it their workplace. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.
“Going outdoors just takes you to a different world and challenges you,” says Suzanne Weston ’14, a program coordinator at Seattle-based Peak 7 Adventures. “It lets you see the beauty of God’s creation — it’s meant for us to go explore.”
Whether their jobs involve planning adventurous mountain-climbing trips to Europe, exotic penguin-viewing stays in the Falkland Islands, or hikes up Mount Rainier, alumni who make outdoor adventures their business are invested in helping others travel responsibly and learn something about the world along the way.
Shannon Stowell ’90, CEO at the Adventure Travel Trade Association, got into adventure travel after studying biology at SPU and doing hands-on work with nature, first in an Alaskan fishery and then as a chemist and project manager at an environmental chemistry lab.
There are a lot of adventure travelers: four in 10 international trips include an adventure element, according to a 2014 report by the United Nations World Tourism Organization. And adventure travel isn’t just a hardcore, risk-taking, extreme exertion-focused excursion for adrenaline junkies. Many adventure travelers used those words in 2005, but in 2017, they say they want travel that takes them to a natural environment where they learn something and have meaningful experiences, according to a survey conducted for the Adventure Travel Trade Association.
Adventure travel includes a wide range of activities, from visiting mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda to hiking in Slovenia and cycling in Tuscany.
Stowell has been in his current job since 2004. His organization is a trade group that works to network, educate, and promote adventure travel; it has organized recent trips to help its member organizations learn how to plan travel to locations such as Nepal and the Western Balkans.
For him, work is not just about helping member organizations better plan their adventurous trips; he is working to create understanding and encourage peace and harmony across differences of culture and geography.
Stowell has seen travel turn people into advocates of important issues, break down cultural barriers, and strengthen local communities. He’s passionate about his work because he knows poorly planned trips can have deeply felt and long-lasting negative consequences.
“Tourism should be symbiotic, but it is often parasitic,” he says. “In a lot of emerging destinations, people’s livelihoods are made or broken by tourism.”
For instance, many all-inclusive resorts in Mexico hire local staff at very low wages and funnel most of their revenue back to big, international corporations, so that only about 10 percent of what someone spends on a vacation benefits people in the area, he says. The model is attractive to local businesses because it creates jobs, but the jobs are typically low level and provide minimal benefits.
In contrast, Stowell’s organization encourages members to organize trips that rely on local guides, lodges, and other services, to ensure that more money stays in host communities. The goal is to keep at least two-thirds of the tourist’s expenses in the local community.
Research confirms that adventure travelers do leave more income with the host communities. Stowell points to a recent study by consulting group FHI 360, which found that adventure travelers in Jordan had an economic impact six times greater than other tourists visiting the country.
Many of the organization’s 1,300 members have initiatives to improve local communities in areas highlighted by adventure trips. One example is Volcanoes Safaris, a tour company that has operated luxury lodges in Uganda and Rwanda since 1997.
Volcanoes Safaris leads treks through gorilla and chimpanzee parks along the border between Uganda and Rwanda. On the treks, hikers get to see rare mountain gorillas and chimpanzees, and the lodge donates a portion of the safari booking income to the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust. This nonprofit organization supports self-sustaining projects in nearby communities, including one of the oldest surviving indigenous communities in central Africa in Batwa, Uganda.
In 2016, the Adventure Travel Trade Association launched the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund to directly fund local projects that conserve natural and cultural resources at adventure-travel destinations.
“The adventure travel community has already shown how it can collaborate and make positive change in the world,” Stowell says. “This new fund is taking our collective power to the next level.”
Wendy Worrall Redal ’83 works for Natural Habitat Adventures, a member organization of the Adventure Travel Trade Association located in Boulder, Colorado. This wildlife travel company partners with World Wildlife Fund to sell trips to view wildlife in places like Zimbabwe, the Galapagos Islands, and Antarctica.
Redal is the organization’s editorial director and writes everything from catalog copy and e-newsletters to Facebook blurbs on wildlife conservation, natural resource protection, and how readers can support local communities when they travel. She also blogs for Good Nature, the official travel blog of Natural Habitat Adventures and World Wildlife Fund.
“As a writer, I try to bring in detail and set the scene, to inspire interest and enthusiasm,” Redal says. “I see my job as helping people discover the wonder of nature. There is power in wild creatures, wild places, and in detaching from the digital world.”
While Redal and Stowell help customers access adventures in remote and far-flung corners of the globe, Weston and Ryan McSparran ’04 introduce people to the wildernesses closer to home.
At Peak 7 Adventures, Project Manager Weston strategizes how to introduce the Pacific Northwest outdoors to youth from low-income and minority backgrounds. She coordinates with youth groups in South Seattle and homeless shelters like Mary’s Place, Street Youth Ministries, and Tacoma Rescue Mission to plan outdoor adventures for 11- to 18-year-olds. Each outdoor activity includes a faith element such as Bible study or prayer time.
“It’s really rewarding — for kids that never experience it, their first time in the outdoors is a very spiritual time,” Weston says. “They’re like, ‘How is this so amazing? Who made this?’”
McSparran also introduces people to the outdoors, but he does so digitally. He’s the volunteer social media coordinator for the Colorado chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, an organization that educates the public and lobbies on behalf of wild public lands and waterways. He also is founder and CEO of Peak Outfitter Marketing, a digital content marketing agency for around 10 businesses in the outdoor recreation industry.
McSparran uses his social media work in both roles to highlight the importance of supporting nationally protected lands such as national forests, as well as the national organizations that work to preserve them.
McSparran has been a member of BHA for three years and was asked in August to help with their social media. He set up email and Instagram accounts and created newsletter templates; he now updates social media accounts and works to increase engagement and awareness of outdoor spaces.
He has been surprised by the audience he can reach by discussing the outdoors on digital platforms. He expected to reach only people who already cared about outdoor activities like skiing, hiking, or hunting. But he has also found that plenty of people who aren’t outdoor aficionados “like” his photos of public lands and natural landscapes.
“No matter what angle you come to the outdoors with, there are a lot of people who care about sustainability and are doing work to ensure it,” he says. “No matter where you live or if you use wild land, clean water and air are important to all of us.”