Traveling in the Chaing Mai region of Northern Thailand in 1999, Christine Mackay found herself embarrassed by the type of tourism she encountered in the villages of the hill tribes.
"I give them credit for being honest," Mackay says of the offending tours' organizers. "They didn't say, 'Meet the hill tribe people,' or 'Benefit the hill tribe people.' They said, 'See the hill tribe people,' and that's exactly what we did."
Upon her return, Mackay, together with friend and fellow travel enthusiast Tammy Leland, resolved to build a better way to travel. We asked her to tell us all about it.
Green America: What does your business do?
Chris Mackay: Crooked Trails is a non-profit, community-based travel organization helping people broaden their understanding of the planet and its diverse cultures through education, community development and responsible travel. Our most popular product is our travel program to Peru.
Crooked Trails travelers building a school in Kenya.
We founded Crooked Trails in 1998 to create more environmentally and culturally sensitive travel in areas where the negative impacts of tourism were threatening the cultures and environments of popular tourist destinations or fragile regions. For the past several years, Crooked Trails, in cooperation with other non-governmental organizations, has conducted a series of travel programs in support of the indigenous peoples of Thailand, Nepal, Vietnam, Peru and India, Kenya, and most recently China. Our programs allow local communities the opportunity to develop and administer cultural exchange programs that help support their efforts to preserve and protect their environments and to confront the challenges of their rapidly changing surroundings.
What makes your company green?
Chris: Our motto is to run environmentally respectful programs. We require all participants to carry their own water filters, so we don’t use plastic bottles. We teach all our participants about how to do a low impact travel program, from using only water heated by solar panels on a trek in Nepal to homestays where only local food is served. When we support our destination communities by helping with building we use only local materials. We also purchase carbon offsets for all our participants' international flights. Of course we also recycle in the office and use recycled paper products. Our work structure in the office is very free-flowing and we allow time for our staff to travel and experience the work we do.
on top of the world.
What motivated you to start your own business?
Chris: I founded Crooked Trails with my business partner, long-time friend, and travel companion whom I had met in graduate school: Tammy Leland.
The concept for Crooked Trails came about as Tammy and I would study tourism, travel abroad, and talk over beers about how we wanted to change the world by changing the way people travel. We knew there was a better way for travelers to see host communities. It did not have to be a rapacious form of voyeurism where the traveler returned home feeling like they caught the great photo but empty and embarrassed about how they got it. We both believed that most people were longing to have the opportunity to meet and live with someone whose culture was totally foreign. We were right.
We began Crooked Trails in 1998 and our first program ran in 1999 to Thailand. Since our small beginnings, we have doubled every year and now operate in 8 countries, and we run university and school study abroad courses as well.
We created the organization to inspire environmentally and culturally sensitive travel in areas where the negative impacts of tourism were threatening the cultures and environments of popular tourist destinations. We realized quickly that our goals were educational and developmental, so we became a federally recognized non-profit so we could raise funds for some of the projects we do in our host communities. Crooked Trails also works with non-governmental organizations abroad in conducting our travel programs and service projects.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Chris: Encouraging and demanding the participants filter their own water so we don’t create garbage everywhere we go. In the end they usually get it, but it's hard at first.
What’s been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Nepal: It could
change your life...
Chris: Every time someone comes back from a program and tells me that the “trip changed their life” Also when we go back to a community we work in and a school is built or fresh water is flowing and we helped do that.
What is the most hopeful sign you have seen recently from the green economy?
Chris: More and more people want to travel responsibly and give back. I think it's encouraging that not all people want to take a cruise or sit on a beach in Mexico and not be involved with the locals. I am reading Three Cups of Tea right now. It’s a New York Times bestseller about a guy building schools in Pakistan. I have never been so inspired in my life!
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Awakening, amongst the
Thai hill tribes.
Chris: First, have part of yourself in the business. This has been key for Crooked Trails. If you came with us to Peru, for example, all the people you would meet, the families you would live with, and the NGOs you would encounter are all friends of Tammy. She has spent the past 12 years going down there and creating lasting, trusting relationships. It’s these relationships that she then turns over to our clients. The experiences we have in other countries play out in our business at home and what we offer our clients. Having ourselves in our business even plays out name in our name. The name Crooked Trails was invented to denote the idea of the road less traveled. In the end we chose it because we call it CT, and that can also stand for Chris and Tammy.
Second, work for the greater good. The reason to have your work be for the greater good is twofold. Not only is it a great thing to do, but for the simple reason that if you are only in business for the money then when your business is having a bad month and is in the red, you may give up. But if the greater good is the driving force behind your business, you will be much less likely to give up. Tammy and I spent the first four years of Crooked Trails working side jobs to make ends meet. If it had been only about the money, we would have given up long ago. So find a reason other than money to be in business, because it will drive you much further than dollars.
What’s the next green step you’re working on right now?
Chris: We just finished the Carbon Free program for our international flights. Next I want to make our domestic flights and travel carbon neutral as well.
What green product can you not live without?
Chris: All the organic cosmetics out there!
Questions from readers:
Q: It seems that m ost of your programs require a fairly high degree of physical fitness. I noticed on your Web site that you have a trip oriented to families with young children that is less strenuous. How about considering programs for the "village elders," still physically fit but not really up to treks or strenuous building activities, maybe interacting more with village elders, quieter activies, with rest time allowed? — Sandra
Chris: The only program that is too strenuous for older people is India. The aveage age of my group going to Nepal to build a school and go trekking is 60. I have an 80-year-old going with us. We have modified the trek and will take extra care so all can enjoy the program. Our trips are not adventure in nature but rather cultural. Nepal and India are the most strenuous, but like I said, I have had elders on those programs. We took at man who was 81 to India last year. He had to ride the horse into the villages at 14,000 feet but he did it.
Q: I am interested in more details as to how you introduce tourists to the people of northern Thailiand. — Nanette
Chris: We give people lots of background info so they are prepared. We also have great guides that model appropriate behavior and dress. We have a code of cultural etiquette. And most importantly we work with local NGOs who are already working with the villagers, so we don’t just come in and scare them. They are very shy by nature of outsiders.
Q: I would very much like to know about forthcoming trips and destinations. — Carolyn I'm interested in information on taking taking one of your green trips. I'm interested in Peru, but other info would be good, too. Thanks. — Martha
Chris: We will have our 2008 schedule up on our Web site by the end of summer. And our current programs are already listed on the site, with schedules through the end of 2007. We offer Peru from May to September, as that’s the best time of year to go there.