Engaging People & Culture Award


Best for engaging people and culture awards a tourism business, organisation or initiative that puts the celebration of local people and their cultures at the heart of memorable tourism experiences.

Explained: The Awards are committed to the idea that vacations are better and more enjoyable when they’re organised with the local community and culture in mind, respect is a core value of responsible tourism. The Best for engaging people and culture category seeks to shine a light on the best examples of vacations which involve and celebrate local people, traditions and ways of life.

What the Judges want: Tourism providers with deep, long-standing connections and commitments to the local community, and exciting policies and practices for celebrating local cultures and ways of life.

2015 winners

gold award: Urban Adventures

Gold award: Urban Adventures
City tourism often focuses on architecture or 'attractions'. But this vacation company has put the word 'civil' back into city vacations. Because, going back to the Latin meaning of the word, we must never forget that cities are all about their citizens. And connecting tourists with citizens is what Urban Adventures is all about, with a wide variety of tours on offer - from joining Istanbul families for a Ramadam iftar feast as they break the long day's fast in the park, to cycling along the banks of Kerala's backwaters, stopping in homes for lunch and refreshments.

A division of previous Responsible Tourism Award winner Intrepid Travel, Urban Adventures offers over 200,000 experiences in 82 countries and 120 cities, and employs 800 local guides. All the itineraries are created in partnership with independent local businesses, with a view to giving the tourist an insight into real life in the city. It was founded not only to benefit local entrepreneurs around the world, but also to empower them, with Urban Adventures offering support in areas such as marketing, social media and the creation of exciting itineraries. For example, the Food Tours range from a Hoi An Food Trail to a traditional Maldives meal in a local home. These tours have helped families in off-the-tourist-trail places like Samarkand, Varna and Tehran to gain income from welcoming travelers into their home for a cooked meal. Urban Adventures is all about cultural exchange and giving tourists access to tours that are created and led by local people. People for whom human connection and sharing living heritage, be it through food, craft or music, is not only profit making but also instilling a pride of place. Making this a win win urban venture, and indeed adventure.
Silver award: Connemara Wild Escapes
This adventure company based in Letterfrack, Connemara, Ireland, has rousing quotes on each activity page. One from John Muir, hero of the national park system and environmental philosopher stands out: "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity". This company not only shares the wild mountainous magnificence of Connemara with visitors, it opens up the homes, heritage and hearts of people who live there too.

Although Connemara Wild Escapes is breaking away from the traditional tourist trail that brings coaches and car rentals around these remote parts of the west of Ireland, it is actually deeply connected with tradition per se. Getting people out of their vehicles and into communities, they offer an eclectic array of Connemara experiences, which include bogwood carving courses, storytelling evenings, West of Ireland history & story theatre, Gaelic language and Irish place name interpretation tours, Irish dance, song and traditional music tours. They don't stop there though, offering traditional cookery courses & tours, local community festivals, traditional basket weaving lessons, Aran Island cable knitting, Galway hooker sailing tours, distilling (poitin) tours, seashore & seaweed foraging tours, ancient sites and island tours. We show off some of their long list because because Connemara Wild Escapes partners with an impressive 400 local suppliers around its highlands and islands, shores and shebeens. So if you think Connemara is all about horse driven caravans or riding donkeys, think again. The region's rich heritage is treated with the respect and pride it deserves by this company and, consequently, also by its visitors.

Silver award: Felin Talgarth Mill
The proof of the success of this fine restoration of a 200 year old flour mill is not in the pudding, but in the proving. Because the first thing you smell when you come in here is the delicious scent of bread. And five years ago, before the community revived this fine example of artisanal architecture, Talgarth, in the Brecon Beacons region of Wales, was barren and bereft. Now it is baking up a storm. A superb story of heritage saving the day.

After the small welsh town of Talgarth's hospital, and main employer, closed five years ago, the community didn't lie down and die. They looked carefully at what they had left, and worked together to restore life into the town, to huge success. Their water mill had gone out of business in the 1940's and, subsequently into disrepair. With help of community applications for Lottery funding, and a devoted team of over 30 volunteers, they got the wheels turning, the mills milling and bread baking again. It is now one of the Brecon Beacons' top visitor attractions, not only for tours of the mill but also for their superb café, baking courses and other events. The timing was good in fact, with traditional milling and bread making gaining huge popularity again in the mainstream market. And all credit where it is due, in such a short time, the café also won Best Place to Eat in Wales 2015. Which, with a huge local food scene in Wales, is no easy task. The impact of this heritage revival has had a trickle-down effect in the town, which has regained its pride of place, and local shops and pubs have re-opened to cater for visitors who would have just driven past Talgarth five years ago. The Mill also employs seven people, but also depends on its invaluable and dedicated volunteer team. Just as the kitchen is the heart of any home, Felin Talgarth Mill is now the heart of Talgarth's community.

2014 winners

Gold award: Kutch Adventures, India

Gold award: Kutch Adventures, India
When you see a sponsor like the New York State Division of Tourism proudly hand over an award to a tiny Gujarati business like Kutch Adventures, it makes you realise what responsible tourism is about. We are all responsible for making this a better industry. Kutch Adventures was created out of a drive to revive the desert landscape of Gujarat, India, after its destruction in the 2001 earthquake, one of India's worst natural disasters. The community-focused business was founded by a local resident, Kuldip Gadhvi five years ago leading tours and hosting homestays for tourists.

Having worked on post-earthquake projects in the community, Kuldip Gadhvi gained good working relationships with local people, which gave him the confidence to work hand in hand with them on guided tours and creating homestays. The latter are a new concept for Kutch, with Gadhvi educating villagers about how responsible tourists were keen to get an insight into their daily activities, such as cooking, farming and artisanal skills. Although so many tourists take homestays for granted, and consider it an honour to gain an insight into other cultures' private lives and lifestyles, local people don't often appreciate the fact that their lives can be interesting to others. For them, bread making and drinking tea together is the norm. Banal. When a facilitator like Kuldip Gadhvi comes along, he injects a sense of pride in these small communities, reassuring them that visitors aren't there to mock or patronise, but to learn and enjoy what isn't banal at all for them, but beautiful and a blessing to share.

What is refreshing about this model of homestays and village visits is that it aims to help villages break away from the traditional model of commission based tours, from which the community has not benefitted financially in the past. Gadhvi reassures that visits should not be 'fast food' tourism, but a genuine engagement with village life, which includes showcasing the vast array of craft and artisanal skills for which the region is famous, such as fine leatherwork, weaving and pottery. So, there are big apples and little apples in tourism, but when it comes to engaging with people and culture in a responsible way, we create room for all to grow.
Silver award: Footsteps Eco Lodge, Gambia
You know that when you see an eco freshwater pool at an accommodation, they are the real thing, immersing themselves as best they can in environmentally responsible practices. Chlorine is so much easier, and yet nothing feels like a freshwater pool. It feels pure, natural and soothing. Which are all good metaphors for Footsteps Eco Lodge, really, a place that quietly gets on with the good work it believes in. Simply because it comes naturally to them.

The responsible realities also kick in at Footsteps when you meet members of their staff such as Lamin Bojang. Lamin is the Lodge's birding guide, but also the founder of the Gunjur Cultural Heritage Museum, located in one of the oldest and biggest villages in the Gambia. Realising that local culture such as traditional language and history was being lost, he created a museum where the history of the area has been narrated by the Gunjar people, in traditional storytelling style. Footsteps has been a major partner in making this dream come true and, in return, they have one of the best birding guides in the country available to guests. Although a day of birdwatching with Lamin turns into a day of stories, meeting people, and discovering many local treasures too. Such is the ethos of Footsteps.

Since opening in 2002, they not only built a lodge using only a local workforce, used locally bought building materials and methods but also incorporated activities that support the local communities in many ways. Such as taking a guided cycling trip with local expert Musa Fatty. It does feel like one big local family at Footsteps, really with Dodou Touray, for example, who was part of the ground building team when the lodge was built, and is now General Manager. The fifteen staff members are given a fair and way beyond the average living wage, as well as up to 21 days paid leave per year, sick pay and pension benefits. The Gunjur community is at the heart of everything they do at Footsteps, as you can see in their 'Peace of mind' policy, which gets to the point a lot more quickly than many sustainability policies which seem to be totally detached from 'people'. In terms of responsible tourism, Footsteps should really be called Giant Footsteps, although they carry their achievements so lightly, and naturally, one might also call it Silent Footsteps.

2012 winner

Winner: South Nottingham College in Partnership with The Institute of Travel and Tourism of The Gambia

Winner: South Nottingham College in Partnership with The Institute of Travel and Tourism of The Gambia
The judges were impressed by the strength of the partnership between South Nottingham College and the Institute of Travel and Tourism of The Gambia (ITTOG).

The South Nottingham College of Travel and Tourism curriculum team worked in partnership with local people to set up and run a vocational tourism education institute within the Gambia. This was staffed by Gambian students who were sponsored to study at the college in Nottingham, who subsequently returned to Gambia with the skills to train others.

Highly commended:
  • Uptuyu Adentures
  • Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between People - The Siraj Center, Palestine

Previous winners

Best contribution to conserving cultural heritage:

Winner: Agri Tourism Development Corporation, India

"The Agri Tourism Development Corporation organise tourism experiences on working farms in India. By providing vacation experiences based on local agricultural traditions, this initiative is creating job opportunities for local farmers, allowing them to diversify their livelihoods whilst preserving their way of life. The judges were impressed by the replicability of the idea, and how this primarily domestic tourism experience was helping to bring Indian tourists back into rural communities."

Highly commended:
  • Nutti Sámi Siida, Sweden
"A small Sámi owned and operated ecotourism company based in the village of Jukkasjärvi in Swedish Sápmi, Nutti Sámi Siida provides cultural experiences based on the Sámi culture and the reindeer. The cultural experience, based on key Sámi methods and traditions, provide employment during quiet times in reindeer husbandry, and incentivise young people to stay in the area instead of moving to more urban areas, preserving the unique way of life as an enjoyable tourism experience."

Winner: Booderee National Park, Australia

"Booderee is proof that a partnership between government and a marginalised community can work to protect cultural heritage through long-term conservation goals. The Park's Botanic Gardens is the only Aboriginal-owned botanic garden in existence. The judges recognised the partnership for preserving the privacy of the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community within the sanctuary zone, and using tourism to the National Park for securing their livelihoods. With 430,000 visitors a year bringing in 1.2 million Australian Dollars and with 80% of the workers Indigenous and living within the park, the future plan for the community to take over sole management of the park alone is very real."

Highly commended:
  • Under the Thatch, UK
Winner: Selena Travel LLC, Mongolia

In 2004 Mongolian inbound operator Selena Travel worked with the nomadic community in Tuv to found and establish a nomadic cultural festival, recognised by the Mongolian Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism in 2007. In 2008 the festival attracted 300 locals, nearly double the local attendance in 2007 and 65 international visitors. The festival, which would not exist without tourism, fosters the local culture. Selena Travel has worked with the nomads to develop itineraries around Gun-Galuut making a significant difference to local livelihoods.

Highly commended:
  • Rivers Fiji, Fiji
Winner: Shigar Fort - Palace Restoration Project, Pakistan

For the sensitive restoration of this historic building and its development as a hotel which has placed the property once again at the heart of the community as a cultural and economic asset bringing employment, microenterprise opportunities, and social and cultural empowerment for local men and women.

Highly commended:
  • Andaman Discoveries, Thailand
Winner: Andaman Discoveries, Thailand

For putting people first - recognising that the best custodians of cultural heritage are the people. They have worked with communities to empower them and to create a sense of place, identifying what villagers see as important, and using this information to develop tourist activities and make productive relationships with the industry.

Highly commended:
  • Go Native America, USA
  • Intrepid Travel, Australia
Written by Justin Francis
Photo credits: [Page banner: Urban Adventures]