26 October 2010 ~ 3 Comments

Defining Success

On October 21st Wild Asia held its annual Responsible Tourism Awards ceremony at the International Travel Bureau conference in Singapore. PEPY Tours, a finalist for the RT award, was invited to speak to an audience of peers—that is, folks in the tourism industry who likewise work in the growing field of RT. The PEPY Tours talk, delivered by Chief Tourmaster Eric Lewis, was slated under a segment called “Successful RT Case Studies from Tour Providers around Asia.” The following is a transcript of that talk.

As a prelude I’ll give you the elevator-version of what PEPY is. PEPY is one organization that comprises two separate legal entities: a development nonprofit, and a for-profit tours company. The nonprofit aims to empower Cambodians to improve their quality of life, with a focus on increased access to quality education. The for-profit arm, PEPY Tours, operates adventure travel in Cambodia that emphasizes social action and accountability, while also raising awareness and funding for our ongoing non-profit programs.

So that’s where I’m coming from—PEPY Tours has a triple bottom line.

The subtitle of this segment is “Successful Responsible Tourism Case Studies,” and I’d like to dissect that title, because the word ‘successful’ carries some implications that I’d like to address before we really get underway here.

By definition, an organization that is successful has either

a) achieved its goals,


b) turned a profit.

And these two are often the same, where the goal is profit.

Now Wild Asia has decided that PEPY Tours represents success in our industry, and ostensibly I’m here to share the secrets of our success. And that’s very flattering. But the nomination presents a bit of a paradox. What I mean is that if we are successful by traditional standards then we may actually be unsuccessful according to our own.

This sounds strange, I know. Let me explain. If we’re successful by traditional standards then we’ve turned a profit or achieved our goals. But if we’re aiming for profit, then social responsibility takes a backseat and by our definition we aren’t successful as a responsible tour provider. We want profit, of course, but it’s not our barometer of success. I’ll come back to this idea of chasing income later.

The other possibility is that we’ve achieved all our goals—we’ve had the impact we wanted to have. Mission accomplished. But if you’ve been to Cambodia recently you know that we’re far from hoisting the Mission Accomplished banner, both in terms of quality education for all, and in terms of tourism having a purely positive impact. The reality, and this is putting it optimistically, is that there’s room for improvement. Education in Cambodia is less than ideal, and invasive poverty voyeurism that calls itself ‘voluntourism’ persists. We are optimistic, though—that’s why we’re still over there. We’ve seen and been part of some wonderful improvements, and this progress motivates us to soldier on.

So if PEPY Tours is ‘successful,’ we’ll have to rethink success as less an accomplishment and more a policy: a policy of relentless self-reflection, a policy of questioning our methods and learning from mistakes—a kind of anti-complacency. If we’re doing a good job, it doesn’t mean we’ve got it all figured out. It means we acknowledge that we don’t have it all figured out, and that we keep trying to improve.

I think that now the stage for our case study is set. We’re going to examine success on our terms, meaning we’re going to examine relentless self-reflection. And further, we must put this self-reflection to use. We must be relentlessly resourceful in finding ways to improve. These are the terms of our success.

With this new definition in mind, we can now look at PEPY Tours. We can ask, What does PEPY Tours do that makes it an outlier in our industry? And more specifically, how has our policy of anti-complacency shaped us into who we are today? The answer should be no surprise. The answer is found in our mistakes, and—crucially—how we’ve handled those mistakes.

Now I don’t want anyone digging for the root message here, so I’ll tell you upfront: the message is that positive change does not happen quickly. No shortcuts. Keep this idea in mind as you listen to the story of how the PEPY nonprofit has gradually changed roles from provider to facilitator, and how PEPY Tours has changed its focus from voluntourism to experiential learning trips.

Our story begins in 2004 with an idea, a desire to build a school in Cambodia. You see our founders believed (correctly) that education is a key—perhaps the key—to development, and so the obvious solution for Cambodia was to put more schools in it. Those founders worked hard, they campaigned, they raised over a hundred thousand dollars, and a school got built. To celebrate, the group planned a cross-country cycle trip. They would travel the eco-friendly way, they would visit the school they’d built so they could put their hand on it and say We did this!, and they would visit other villages along the way, teaching lessons about the environment.

Does this kind of trip sound familiar? Their plan, if we look back at it through the lens of many lessons learned—their plan was to traipse around a needy country, paternalistically doling out aid and wisdom.

Remember that we’re looking at past mistakes, and perhaps you can see where this story is going. In 2005 the trip happened. That initial group arrived at the school, and they were shocked at the scene. Here was this pretty, new school, with very few students, with very few teachers. And the teachers who were there didn’t really seem to be teaching. They’d just kind of clocked in. It became painfully obvious that a school building does not educate kids, teachers do. Teachers who are empowered with training, community support and motivation—teachers with the tools and confidence to take control of a classroom.

Now is a good time to point out the discrepancy between intended impact and actual impact. Those founders had good intentions, but there was a disconnect between intention and result, and that disconnect was a function of their lack of understanding. They didn’t understand the ground conditions, and when you don’t understand the context of your actions, those actions will never have the results you’d like them to have.

So that’s the first lesson we learned: You have to learn before you can help. You have to understand before you can effect the change you desire. And more to my point from the travel industry perspective, this was an example of voluntourism at its worst, and unfortunately, at its most typical.

This voluntourism approach is ineffective both for development and for responsible tourism. It breeds the mentality: “Let’s go abroad and fix a problem.” I want to know, Why? Why take people’s efforts to improve the world and relegate them to a week or two of vacation?

When we bait travelers with the idea that they can save the world on vacation, we commit two sins:

One: We practice unsustainable development. This is the one-off “I dug a ditch!” brand of tourism.


Two: We promote the idea that changing the world is leisure, not lifestyle. We’re saying, “For one to two weeks per year, you can do good.”

Now remember that this is a case study, a study of mistakes and gradual progress. It took a long while for PEPY Tours to challenge that premise: the premise that says responsible tourism equals volunteering. Recall that our first trip was built around a brick-and-mortar project. And for the first few years of operation we called our participants ‘volunteers.’

What it took was on-the-ground experience; what it took was observation of impacts and critical reflection of our methods before we had the knowledge and confidence to challenge the pervasive notion that we, as foreigners, were the ones who could bring change to Cambodia. This mentality was presumptuous and, again, paternalistic.

The change has been gradual, and is continual, in our tours. A ten-day vacation is not the time to cram in a year’s worth of world-saving. Instead, we now focus on learning. Through home stays, readings, discussions, and visits to partner nonprofits and social ventures, PEPY Tours now creates experiences for travelers to get inspired by Cambodians’ efforts to help themselves, experiences for travelers to learn and to think differently about sustainable development, and to become motivated to take up their own causes in their everyday lives.

We’ve got you for ten days? We’re going to use that time to educate you, to motivate you, so you’ll be inspired to dedicate the other three hundred fifty-five days of the year doing your own world-changing.

Why this focus on education? Put simply: because it’s worked for us as an organization. When PEPY pretended already to have the solutions, we didn’t have the impact we hoped for. It was only after adopting the mindset of presuming not to know, the mindset of needing to ask questions, that we came to challenge the premises of aid and voluntourism.

We had been a voluntourism operator creating scenarios that would get the most possible tourists on our tours. We assumed, again with good intentions, that the greater our income, the greater our impact would be. We had it backward. When we were chasing income, we were putting little effort into the quality of our impact, and we were no different from the mainstream. We were no outliers. We’ve found that when we focus instead on the quality of our impact, the income follows. I can think of three reasons why.

First, travelers rate their experience based on impact.

Second, creating negative impact will lead to losing partners in the long run—and it’ll be the partners you need the most.

Third, high impact tours attract the kind of travelers we want. They donate and they spread the word because they identify with what we do and why we do it.

And on the topic of attracting the right travelers, we have a say in who we get. When we cover our websites with images and phrases that attract misery tourists—photos, for example, that depict third-world inhabitants as helpless and sad, and without dignity—that’s a cheap and exploitative way to attract participants, and guess what kind of participants you’ll get.

Another part of honest marketing is our fee structure. For transparency’s sake, a couple years ago we implemented a two-part fee structure. It’s very straightforward. The two costs of the trip are totally separate. There’s the trip fee, which covers overhead—accommodation, guides, and so on. Then there’s the fundraising requirement, one hundred percent of which goes directly to PEPY’s ongoing development programs, programs that will continue long after the participant has gone back home. We don’t see this transparency much in our industry.

So what do our trips look like now, if we don’t do standard volunteer tourism? A couple examples:

Rather than painting a school, our participants will spend their time learning about education in Cambodia by observing and interacting with our peer-to-peer problem-solving clubs.

And rather than visiting an orphanage to snap photos of poor kids, we’ll cycle to different villages to visit and learn from Cambodians who are working to improve their standard of living, to preserve the family unit in their communities and thus prevent the need for petting zoo-type orphanages in the first place.

We’re not the only ones attuned to this evolution of philanthropy in tourism, but again, change takes time. Things can be built or given away quickly, but changing attitudes and actions requires patience—requires persistence.

It’s happening slowly, but there is evidence of progress. One good sign I’ve noticed is the gradual shift we’re seeing in the popular jargon of our industry. The hot-button word ‘voluntourism’ is being chipped away at by terms like ‘responsible tourism’—terms that don’t carry the old implications of voluntourism. There is a caveat: any SEO expert today will say you still need the V-word on your site. And for now, that’s correct. But as terms like voluntourism lose purchase, so does the mentality they encourage, because SEO keywords compete in a zero-sum popularity contest.

This has been a very brief and incomplete glimpse at PEPY Tours. I’d like to leave you with a parable that I’m borrowing from the novelist David Foster Wallace, in order to communicate the take-away message here.

There are two young fish in the sea. They’re hanging out, just chit-chatting, when this very old, wise fish swims up to them and says, “Morning boys! How’s the water?” Then he swims away, and the two young fish are stunned. They stare after him, unsure of what to say. And after a long, silent moment, one young fish says to the other, “What the hell is water?”

PEPY Tours was nominated to speak about success, to share its secrets. But PEPY Tours is not that wise old fish. We don’t have all the answers—we’re not complacent. And I’ll bet anyone claiming to have all the answers has simply stopped asking themselves the tough questions, the questions that make us rethink, adapt, and improve. Let’s not waste our time looking for wise old fish, for gurus, and let’s also not think of ourselves that way, for the mentality of the guru in our industry is fundamentally pessimistic. This mentality says, “We couldn’t possibly be doing things any better.”

No, instead, let’s rally to the fact that we can always do better. We are travel providers, and there is no upper limit to how well we can help others experience the world. And this, I think, is the kind of healthy mindset that will grow our industry in the right direction. Thank you.


Thank you, Eric, for a phenomenal talk!

  • Milby24

    Yes, Eric, it was a phenomenal talk. Your insights as to how PEPY can appeal to the outside world were certainly well thought-out and realistic, not just pipe dreams. I am proud of your work in Cambodia and I’m sure the folks at PEPY are, also.

  • Anna B.

    Awesome Eric!!! Hope this is only the start of the many inspiring speeches you will write and/or deliver!

  • Noah

    That was great! Taught me so much about voluntourism, I’d heard about it before but never really got the why or how of these programs.