The words “ecotourism” and “responsible tourism” usually evoke a fair amount of skepticism in me. Tourism – especially in developing countries – can bring a lot of money to a country, but usually only a small minority benefits from this money, while the tourists put an extra pressure on the country’s resources. Most ecotourism providers differ little from this, but there are of course exceptions. One of the most inspiring exceptions I have encountered so far is Fundacion En Via, a Mexican non-profit organisation that uses tourism as a way to fund its program of microfinance and education in order to lift rural women, families and whole communities out of poverty.
En Via works in the villages surrounding Oaxaca city, providing microloans to rural businesswomen and village tours for tourists. Oaxaca is the second poorest state in Mexico, and even though the state receives a fair amount of tourism, the money from tourism only benefits a small minority of the population. What En Via does is spreading the benefits of tourism, in the process empowering women, improving the well-being of families, strengthening rural communities and countering migration to the cities.
En Via’s system of microloans
Fundacion En Via started in 2008 and is mainly run by volunteers. En Via’s microloan program currently serves 6 villages and 300 women in the Tlatelolco Valley to the east of Oaxaca city. The organisation is founded on the believe that people living in poverty have the skills, motivation and the work ethic to create businesses and livelihood, but lack the necessary finances.
En Via only gives microloans to women. Studies have shown that women are more likely to make investments that will benefit their family, and so En Via’s loans benefit whole families and communities, and most husbands can see this and support their wives. By making it easier to start businesses, microloans also promote small businesses, which divides the money better throughout communities, thus reducing poverty.
It is very easy to get microloans in Mexico, but the interest rates are very high, averaging 70%. En Via is not trying to make a profit but to empower women and so their loans are interest-free. Any woman with a business plan can get an initial loan of 1500 pesos (approximately 75 USD), and once this loan has been paid back the borrower can apply for gradually increasing loans. The program spreads through word of mouth, even between different villages, and no advertising in needed on behalf of En Via. In fact, one of En Via’s biggest challenges is that the program is growing too fast and women have to be put on waiting lists.
En Via holds a weekly meeting in each village, where the borrowers come to make their payments and new women can express interest in joining the program. All the borrowers have their own individual loans, but in order to be accepted into the program a woman has to form a group with three other borrowers she knows. If one person in the group fails to make their minimum payment, all three are punished with a fine. This system of group pressure ensures that En Via receives it payments, as the women don’t want to let their partners down.
En Via does more than just providing microloans, however. The organisation also gives English lessons – free for the whole community – and occasionally classes on other topics like computer skills and healthcare. The borrowers also have to attend a monthly business class, where the women learn about things like branding, marketing and budgeting. The women are encouraged to get to known their community in order to see what kind of businesses and strategies work best in the local context.
En Via tours and their impact
Non-profit orgaisations are always looking for donations, and the founders of En Via saw the potential of tourism as source of donations. They got their inspiration from slum tourism, but wanted to do something less exploitative. The result was the bi-weekly En Via tours that take tourists to the villages to meet En Via’s borrowers. These tours are the main source of funding for En Via’s microloans and courses. I also participated in one of these tours, and we visited two villages, Teotitlan del Valle and San Sebastian Abasolo, and three borrowers in each village.
Participating in a tour is something each borrower needs to do before getting a new loan. The women know the purpose of the tour is not to sell but to fund their loans, and so the women are grateful to the tourists simply for being there, and there is no pressure to buy things. The women also get new ideas and confidence when they see that people from all over the world are interested in their businesses.
The village of Teotitlan is known for its tradition of rug weaving, and many of En Via’s borrowers in Teotitlan are also weavers. During the tour we visited two of these women, Silvia and Guadeloupe. Silvia told us how she used to work for someone else, but when she realized that he was paying her very little and keeping the profits to himself, she decided to leave and start her own business.
In Abasolo we visited a mother and daughter duo who joined En Via’s program at the same time but have their own businesses and loans. 19-year-old Karen is one of En Via’s youngest borrowers, and she has her own beauty salon, using the loans to pay for equipment. Her mother Adriana sells lotions, make up and other beauty products by catalog, and she collaborates with her daughter by having a stand in her salon.
The other two women we visited were Amelia, a baker, and Gabriela, an animal breeder. As tourists, we could see clearly where the money we paid for the tour was going. Even the restaurant where we had lunch was owned by a borrower, Isabella. We could hear from the women how they had used their loans and what they had learned from the compulsory business classes. At the same time we learned about life in the villages, traditional crafts and local food, but on a more personal level than on regular tours.
One of the topics discussed with the women was children. The women want their children to learn their skills, but actually they want them to do something else with their lives. A big step in this change is education, and thanks to their businesses, En Via’s borrowers are able to keep their children in school for longer. This result shows that when done correctly, responsible tourism can truly lift people out of poverty and give them new opportunities in life.