Simon Willis was a traveler and a teacher long before he became a travel company founder. In this article learn why he decided to bring his twin passions together into a unique travel business - Kagumu Adventures. For anyone who has visited South America and been moved by its beauty and also dismayed by some of tourism’s negative impacts in the region, Simon’s story and the approach he’s taking to help make things better, will be inspiring. Read on to learn more about Simon and Kagumu Adventures in this 1:1 conversation.
Tomorrow’s Air: You spent years traveling before you created Kagumu. As a journalist and teacher, what do you think came together for you in those years that made you want to create Kagumu?
Simon: I had the fortune of traveling to many countries in South America and meeting many different people from vastly different cultures. My most impactful experiences came while traveling in Colombia and Peru, visiting native communities like Quechua communities outside of Cusco and four communities living in La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia.
These experiences really opened my eyes to the impact travel could have on the environment and on communities. One example is when I visited a Quechua village close to Cusco who had been adversely affected by tourism. The communities that once traded with them now worked 100% in tourism and thus ceased their trading with local villages. This had a severe impact on the Quechua village as their resources dried up. They were forced to leave their community and seek means of income in the city of Cusco. Many residents even turned to begging. As a traveler you may be unaware of the impact of your being there and I realized it was important to show people this through educational travel.
My other major influence was meeting Lucelly Torres in the Arhuaco community in Santa Marta. Having traveled with Lucelly to her sacred town of Nabusimake I was fortunate enough to attend meetings with leaders of the community who were always discussing, often for days, the impact of humankind on the environment. This was a real eye opener for me and I thought it important to again show people how their travels impact the environment (for better or for worse) and inspire them to make more environmentally-conscious choices in the future.
And yeah, I guess having worked as a teacher I merged my experience to create these learning environments.
Tomorrow’s Air: What do you notice about Kagumu guests, have they changed much since 2015 when you began?
Simon: I think generally there is more awareness of the massive environmental impact of travel and especially from flying. I think ever since we began travelers have wanted to support the local economy and work with locals but it's the environmental outlook that has changed. Regarding a thirst for travel, I think the pandemic has heightened people’s desire to experience new places. I think it has also made travelers more resilient and willing to take the plunge and travel to countries that might be less secure due to political unrest for example. We work primarily in Latin America so we have seen our fair share over the past couple of years.
Tomorrow’s Air: Kagumu's sustainability strategy is so comprehensive, touching on all the aspects that matter when it comes to sustainable travel - from community hiring to emissions measurement to sustainable food sourcing and of course contributing to carbon dioxide removal technologies. What's your advice to other companies at the start of this journey?
Simon: I’d say the mission you set from day one is vital. I have seen companies, not just in travel, try to include certain sustainable practices in their business model years after starting as a let’s say pure for-profit company. It doesn't seem genuine, it seems reactive rather than actually wanting to work to do good. The key is the message from the outset and the commitment to maintaining a sustainable focus, even when times get hard. This will also help you employ people who align to this view. I can’t tell you how important it is to have everyone in an organization committed to a philosophy and aim and this will very quickly translate to your customers and your brand.
Tomorrow’s Air: What’s your top advice for someone considering a trip to Latin America in the near future?
Tomorrow's Air is thrilled to have Kagumu in its collective, since 2023 Simon and his team have included an investment in clean air for every traveler. Learn more about Kagumu Adventures