Interview of Karen Vergara of Native Tours

Interview of Karen Vergara of Native Tours

Interview Karen Vergara of Native Tours explains the importance of ecotourism and why she is attending ESTC in Tampa, Florida


Interview of Karen Vergara of Native Tours

ESTC Tampa Attendee


As ESTC North America is coming up soon on January 23rd, sustainable tourism professionals are filling up registration quickly. Here TIES has interviewed Karen Vergara of Native Tours, a sustainable community-based tour operator that offers authentic excursions that foster an appreciation for environmental and cultural conservation. They believe that responsible tourism can improve the lives of travelers as well as the people and places they visit, allowing the local communities to prosper while safeguarding the rich ancestral heritage that makes them so unique and attractive. Want to meet people like Karen Vergara at ESTC North America? Register Now!


Can you tell us about your professional background and why you founded Native Tours?

I started out in education, teaching English as a Second Language in Mexico and teaching Spanish language literacy to US immigrants from Central America for 11 years. After that, I worked with Microsoft’s Latin America division for 13 years, where I acquired my business operations skills. My husband Willy is also in the technology industry, with AT&T. He’s Peruvian and we started hiking together in 2008 during my first trip to Peru. We fell in love with the indigenous people in the Andes of Cusco, who live in harmony with the “Pachamama” (“Mother Earth” in the local Quechua). We also found that separating from the herd and "unplugging" from all our gadgets created more space for reflection, serenity, and soul-feeding. For a while, we would leave behind the hectic, high-tech life for a month each year, until we made the decision to permanently realign our careers to our passion for the outdoors.


We created Native Tours for people like us. We offer the types of authentic tours that we would take, the types of projects we would support and volunteer with. We designed our adventure and nature tours to foster an appreciation for environmental conservation. We also offer travelers the chance to immerse themselves in the local culture through community-based tours, study abroad, voluntourism, and homestay options. We feel responsible tourism has a huge potential to enrich both the lives of travelers and the people and places they visit. In keeping with this goal, we donate 50% of the organization’s profits to projects and programs that protect the environment and improve living conditions in the indigenous communities where we work. The idea is that travelers can “Travel Good” by having an amazing experience that also makes a difference.


"Ayni" is a fundamental concept among the Andean people. “Mutual help” or “reciprocity” in Quechua, the concept goes beyond the literal meaning to include the exchange of energy between human beings, the natural world, and the universe. That everyone can benefit from such an exchange is the cornerstone of the Native Tours mission:


  • The traveler benefits from an authentic experience and a rich cultural exchange that will make for life-long memories.
  • Mother Nature benefits from responsible use of her natural resources, carbon offsetting, conservation education, and organizational contributions that support biodiversity protection.
  • Our indigenous communities benefit from fair compensation for sharing their traditions, thereby fostering pride in their cultural identity and heritage and providing them the means to preserve them.
  • The local workforce benefits from fair trade wages, safer working conditions, and opportunities to increase their social and economic empowerment.
  • Our partner non-profits benefit from funding for their humanitarian projects and conservation programs.
  • Our organization benefits from sustainable management, customer satisfaction, and environmental and socio-cultural policies we can feel proud of. In short, we get to do what we love, live in harmony with nature, and give back to the people and places that make Peru special to us.


When did you first hear about ecotourism?

It’s happened over time for us. In terms of “eco”, we’ve been environmentally conscious in our home for over 30 years. We recycle heavily, use 100% wind energy, buy green products, and support various organizations dedicated to the conservation of wildlife, the rainforest, and other natural resources. It was when we started hiking 7 years ago that we learned more about the “tourism” part. We hiked various parts of the ancient Qapaq Ñan (a network of trails connecting the ancient Incan empire), including the famous “Inca Trail”. As travelers surrounded by amazing landscapes like Machu Picchu, however, it seemed our tour operators were missing a huge opportunity to educate us on the Andean culture, language, and ecological impact. We were also disappointed to learn that many of our Peruvian guides, cooks, and porters were paid sub-standard wages with no medical coverage. All of this left us longing for a different, more fulfilling tour experience, so we began planning some.


With more, in-depth investigation we learned that the true definition of sustainable tourism encompasses benefits for the local people as well as the planet. In our research, we found TIES, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, the United Nations World Tourism Organization, Sustainable Travel International, and Leave No Trace to be some of the most valuable sites. We were excited to join each of these organizations and kept coming back to them as we developed our policies and processes. We’re new to the travel industry, so being able to leverage the advice of experts and other educational resources on these sites was a huge help.

Using the recommendations of these organizations, we developed the guiding principles of our social enterprise: protecting nature, preserving cultural heritage, and benefitting local communities socially and economically. We spent a year turning these sustainability principles into an operational reality in Peru:


  • Guides: We searched for professional guides who could communicate details about regional flora and fauna to help foster an appreciation for the environment. In Cusco, all our guides speak Quechua as well as Spanish and English, so they can also share insights with travelers about the language and culture.
  • Communities: We sought out the ideal villages for our community-based tours. We currently work with Amaru, Paru Paru, Huilloq, and Chichubamba. In 2016 we plan to include Chacán and Chari, partnering with non-profit Centro Bartolomé de Las Casas and its sister agency CBC Tupay, which prepares rural towns to offer community-based tourism (CBT). As we grow, we hope to sponsor CBC Tupay in the development of additional villages in the region which want to offer CBT.
  • Eco-Friendly Accommodations: We personally visited each hotel and homestay to look for the ideal balance of comfort and green practices.
  • Partners: We investigated over 40 non-profit organizations, looking for those demonstrating the most positive results. Our top choice to support is Peruvian Hearts, an organization helping young women reach their potential through education, mentorship, and leadership. Travelers can meet the Peruvian Hearts scholarship beneficiaries during their tour if they like. Their stories about those scholarships making it possible to achieve their career aspirations give me goose bumps.


What are your thoughts about ecotourism in Latin America?

From what I’ve read, without the "eco", tourism can be a double-edged sword. It can generate significant direct and indirect revenue for countries in Latin America such as Peru. The resident population can reap enormous benefits like increased family income, improved health, education, and infrastructure. It can be a great avenue for informing travelers about environmental conservation practice and preservation of culture . . . or it can wreak havoc by exploiting local labor, overburdening infrastructure, and polluting ecosystems.


We have seen evidence of this double-edged sword in Peru. We’ve seen some excellent examples, such as the educational tours and conservation projects of Inkaterra and the community-owned Posada Amazonas lodge managed in partnership with Rainforest Expeditions. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen tour operators who advertise themselves as "eco" and "responsible" without truly living up to these standards. We wanted to differentiate ourselves by backing up our claims with an industry-recognized certification program. We investigated the programs available in Latin America and chose EarthCheck for its ongoing, quantitative evaluation of an organization’s environmental and social performance against the UN Foundation's Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria. We are extremely proud to be the first agency/operator in Peru to start the certification process and we hope to encourage broader recognition of sustainability and the GSTC standards in Latin America through our example. Our longer-range plans involve sourcing from the Rainforest Alliance's and the GTSC’s lists of sustainable suppliers as we expand into Ecuador, Bolivia, Brasil, Argentina, Mexico, Panama, & Costa Rica. We are thankful for these standards bodies and their guidance on improving our sustainability efforts and locating green partners and vendors.


Why are you attending ESTC North America in Tampa Bay?

I’m especially excited to see the presentations on “Conserving, Protecting, & Sustaining Ecosystems, Places and Cultures” and “Maximizing Local Economic Benefits while Enhancing Sustainable Infrastructure Development” as well as examples of how to effectively communicate an organization’s sustainability efforts. I hope to learn about opportunities that will help define the course of our future charitable programs and projects. Additionally, I’m looking forward to connecting with others in the industry who have similar values and goals. I’m sure there is a lot we could learn from TIES and market leaders who have greater experience in the global challenges facing responsible tourism as well as the best practices to overcome them. You can never be around too many people who have “been there, done that”.


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