A Good Holiday
These Singapore businesses leverage tourism to drive conversations about social issues and help underprivileged communities.
BY ALYWIN CHEW
or many travellers, going on a holiday is no longer limited to dining at the best restaurants or taking selfies at national landmarks. Providing support to local communities, be it through volunteering or choosing local products and services, has been gaining traction over the past decade.
In fact, this concept of tourism has been deemed so important that the UN General Assembly designated 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
According to a report published in September 2017 by business information and analytics firm GlobalData, people are becoming increasingly aware of the need for social, economic and environmental sustainability, fuelling the growth of the sustainable tourism sector. The report, which was based on the firm’s survey conducted in the last quarter of 2016, also found that millennials are the key driver of this trend, with 41 per cent expressing interest in embarking on such getaways.
This finding is backed up by Singapore travel firm Dynasty Travel, which at end 2016 reported that its annual growth in this particular travel segment was 5 per cent.
In Singapore, there is a handful of social entrepreneurs offering travellers various means of paying it forward.
HOLIDAY FOR HOPE
In March 2018, Crib – a local social enterprise that empowers women to become entrepreneurs – held its first Holiday for Hope trip in partnership with Operation Hope Foundation (OHF), a charity organisation that does philanthropic work in Cambodia and Nepal. This saw seven families embarking on a three-day cultural tour of Siem Reap, Cambodia, for which each family donated $5,000 to OHF. Their contributions helped to fund infrastructure improvements to a local primary school, as well as support community development work in Prey Veng Province. During the trip, the families got to interact with locals and present needy families with food supplies.
The project was born when Crib’s co-founders were brainstorming for new initiatives for their charity arm, and decided on creating an opportunity for families to go on vacations where they could have meaningful interactions with locals.
Co-founder Tjin Lee, who was deeply moved during a prior experience in Cambodia, shares: “I encountered local children while on an ATV ride. They wore rags and were barefoot, yet were so friendly and joyful, playing together without toys.
“I couldn’t help but compare them to some of the children I knew in Singapore, who had everything but were not happy.
I resolved then that when I had children, I would bring them back with me, to expand their world view.”
And it seems that the first Holiday for Hope has met this purpose. Crib’s co- founder, Mei Chee, who brought her son along for the journey, shares that observing the locals’ determination to improve their circumstances gave her child a deeper understanding of the concept of privilege, as well as a desire to help the less fortunate.
Starting out, one of Lee’s biggest challenges was finding the right partner based in Cambodia. Fortunately, a contact who had previously volunteered with OHF recommended the organisation because of its good track record with empowering local communities through education, housing support and skills training.
“Once we established OHF as our charity partner, they were able to activate the right local partners to support the project, and this also helped us to overcome any barriers of language and culture,” says Lee.
Another issue faced by OHF and Crib is unpredictable funding, which they plan to tackle by hosting more trips. (The second Holiday for Hope was held in December.)
Merilyn Yap, a communications executive from OHF, shares that her organisation worked with a local charity on the most recent trip to facilitate the use of donations for repairing school blocks and purchasing water filters.
The experience, she says, gave her insights into the local culture. “The reticence of Cambodians can often be misunderstood as inaction. They may sometimes find it hard to broach topics like money, but I found that most of them are actually genial and accommodating,” Yap shares.
Ophthalmologist Claudine Pang, who attended both trips with her children, offered free eye tests to school kids there this time round.
She says her family was struck by the resilience of the Cambodians, who persevered in improving their children’s lives through education despite their limited resources. It was also interesting for them to see Singapore through the eyes of their newfound friends.
“We were showing them photos of Singapore, and they were taken aback by the fact that amid all the tall and shiny buildings, Singapore still has a surviving kampung that looks similar to their village,” says Pang.
Businessman Steven Lee was inspired to help underprivileged communities after visiting Vietnam and Cambodia in 2015. During those trips, he learnt about the problems affecting locals, including a lack of quality education and employment, and began mulling over how to help them develop sustainable businesses.
The next year, he quit his job as head of the engineering department at a tech company to found travel-based social enterprise Actxplorer. “I’ve seen how people are inspired to pay it forward when they personally witness the extent of injustice and poverty in our neighbouring countries,” he explains. And this is what drives him to raise awareness of the issues facing locals, while at the same time helping to enable them.
To this end, Actxplorer identifies the cultural offerings of communities around Southeast Asia and collaborates with locals to create authentic and safe travel experiences. The platform also works with a host of regional social enterprises to generate tourism-related jobs for locals as guides and homestay hosts.
For example, it worked with non-profit Transformational Business Network to establish a small sewing enterprise that creates jobs for mothers living in squatter settlements in Batam, Indonesia. Over in Vietnam, it collaborated with local stakeholders to develop community-based tourism and education for ethnic minority communities. Local businesses get to keep 90 per cent of the revenue generated from Actxplorer’s tours. Making the switch from a corporate job to running a social enterprise was initially trying, and Lee spent about a year building a network of like-minded organisations around the region.
“I was volunteering in Batam for some time before Actxplorer was founded, so the transition wasn’t as much of a culture shock. However, I’ve had to manage my expectations in terms of work processes, as those from different cultures have different approaches from what I am used to,” he says.
In addition, there was the challenge of tweaking the business model to meet market demands and to ensure a viable revenue stream, as well as convincing local stakeholders to believe in a foreign company. But Lee’s persistence eventually paid off. Actxplorer initially only had travel packages for Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, but now offers experiences in over 20 cities in nine countries. The packages range from a stay at a Phnom Penh town house providing employment and training to locals, to a rice farming experience in Chiang Rai, Thailand.
The partnerships with local social enterprises have been mutually beneficial. For instance, Actxplorer managed to exchange ideas on entrepreneurship with Prima Unggul Foundation (YPU) from Indonesia, which helps empower low-income communities. “Singaporeans are punctual, caring and efficient. Actxplorer has given us the opportunity to build networks in helping give Indonesian children a better future,” says Irma from YPU. But it is perhaps the on-the-ground interactions with local communities that have been most revelatory for Lee, who never fails to be impressed by the resourcefulness and positivity of the underprivileged.
“Singaporeans tend to take for granted that everything in Singapore is smooth-flowing. So instead of blaming others, we could perhaps take action, come up with solutions and make things better.”
Loh Loy Nghee, participant of Actxplorers' Batam tour
“There’s a village called Hua Tat in northern Vietnam, where the Hmong people work on farms for over 10 hours a day, earning an average household income of US$60 a month. Despite this, they are always happy and welcoming, and willing to share their traditional ways. We conducted several building projects in the village, and the people were hardworking and willing to learn,” he says. “We were also inspired by a man from Vietnam who was born without the use of his legs, but never lets his disability hinder him.
He works as a wood craftsman and even built his own three-wheeled motorbike to get him around the city to sell his wares.” Low Loy Nghee, who on one of Actxplorer’s Batam tours helped the local community, says that the experience taught him accountability. “Till we experience poverty and hardship, Singaporeans tend to take for granted that everything in Singapore is smooth-flowing. So instead of blaming others, we could perhaps take action, come up with solutions and make things better,” he says.
Beyond highlighting famous eateries and landmarks, Geylang Adventures’ excursions feature an added element of introspection.
Apart from its regular guided tours, it also connects tourists to Singapore’s migrant workers through community projects. For instance, attendees can volunteer to give foreign workers free haircuts, share snacks with them during festive occasions or sponsor the postage fees for their letters. These initiatives help to bridge the gap between locals and migrant workers, in the hope of dispelling stereotypes.
Take, for instance, the perception that all low-income migrant workers are uneducated. “You’d be surprised to find out that many of them actually have degrees,” says the company’s founder, Cai Yinzhou, who was conferred the Singapore Youth Award in 2017 for his efforts.
“I know a pair of twins from Bangladesh who were about to complete their medical degrees, but had to come to Singapore to find work and support the family when their father had a stroke,” he adds.
The idea behind Geylang Adventures came about when Cai was working on a university assignment on sustainable tourism in Tiong Bahru. The project got him thinking about the dynamics of space within Geylang, where he lives.
In an attempt to get to know his neighbourhood and its residents better, he approached a group of migrant workers one day, joining them for a game of badminton in a back alley in Geylang. He soon learnt about the predicaments they face, and how they are often misunderstood by the locals.
“Some Singaporeans have this perception that migrant workers flock to Geylang as it is a red-light district. But this is not the case – it’s just cheaper to live there,” he explains.
Determined to reshape people’s perspectives of the community, Cai set up Geylang Adventures in 2015. “During my tours, I encourage participants to reflect on how we are all part of an eco-system. It’s about framing the relationship between migrant workers and Singaporeans as an interdependent one.”
Geylang Adventurers’ efforts have even extended beyond the district. For instance, its Majulah Belanja project gathered about 100 Singaporeans to cook and dine with migrant workers at dormitories in Woodlands and Admiralty.
Though the company is managed by Cai and just one full-time employee, its enthusiasm has garnered it a following of volunteers, among whom is Philip Pang, who has been helping out since the inception of Geylang Adventures.
“The experience has allowed me to get to know people whom I otherwise would not have met on a daily basis, as well as educated me on the issues and policies that involve them,” he says.
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