How Tour Operators Can Drive Profitability with Positive Social Impact

Our industry needs to reimagine sustainable travel as a means to increasing profitability. Here’s how one bike tour operator is doing just that.

Reading Time: 5 minutes 40 seconds

If you cringe at the mention of the word “sustainability” (albeit while feeling slightly guilty), you are not alone. 

Although we know it’s increasingly what travelers want… 

  • 69% of travelers are actively seeking sustainable travel options, according to a recent study by the World Travel and Trade Council (WTTC) and Trip.com,
  • 62% of travelers under 35 avoid tourism activities they perceive to be not responsible, Arival’s data shows, 
  • three quarters of affluent ($125,000+ household income) travelers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable trips, the same WTTC study found,   

…it’s still a tough sell for operators who are understandably focused on the multitude of competing priorities that go along with running a successful business. 

For Anne de Jong, founder of The Good Tourism Institute, sustainability is a bit of a bad word because “sustainability has the stigma of charity: that it’s not okay to be profitable.” In principle, sustainability seems like a good thing to do; in practice it’s often difficult to have it all.

“Sustainability has the stigma of charity: that it’s not okay to be profitable.”

-Anne de Jong, Good Tourism Institute

Some operators, though, have found a way to build profitable businesses by putting sustainable tourism not just in their FAQs, but at the core of everything they do. 

Giving Wheels to Profitability + Positive Impact in Morocco

Enter Cantal Bakker, who has found a way to have it all with Pikala Bikes, a successful and growing enterprise that offers travelers unique, off-the-beaten-path bike tours in Marrakech, Morocco, while employing local youth and funding a variety of community-based social projects. 

Originally from The Netherlands, Bakker stumbled onto the idea when trying to rent a bike on a trip to Morocco in 2015, and discovering there were virtually no bike tour or rental companies. When she finally managed to get on a bike, “all the dynamics in Marrakech completely changed,” she shares, “it was like Marrakech flipped and suddenly it opened up.” 

Cantal Bakker shares the story of how Pikala Bikes got started

Seeing the authentic side of the city was both fascinating and challenging, as it came hand-in-hand with an awareness of the social challenges, such as air pollution and youth unemployment. The experience inspired Bakker — who didn’t have a background in tourism — to return to Marrakech the following year and start a bike tour company. 

Although setting up a social enterprise in an unfamiliar city was a “very bumpy ride,” Pikala Bikes is now a growing company that employs over 50 local youth, and trains them with the necessary skills to lead tours around the city. 

A young Pikala Bikes tour guide leads an “off-the-beaten-path” tour for travelers | Roshan Adhihetty / Pikala Bikes

The increased demand for authentic experiences has travelers flocking to her. “It’s in the air, tourists are looking for a more authentic experience in the first place,” she shares. “Marrakech has a lot of traditional guides that go around the city and take you to bazaars and you buy your carpet… we’re not into that. You go with a young person who explains about their lives, family, school, and ambitions, it’s very personal. That authenticity is also something that really attracts tourists to do the tour with us.”

“It’s in the air, tourists are looking for a more authentic experience,”

— Cantal Bakker, Pikala Bikes 

If employing youth as tour guides isn’t enough, Pikala Bikes has been profitable enough to fund multiple social projects, including bike lessons for local girls and women as a “soft form of empowerment,” bike (and wheelchair) maintenance lessons for local youth including kids with disabilities, running bike safety clinics and campaigns, and even lobbying the local government to increase bicycle infrastructure in the city and enhance bike-friendly public spaces. 

A road safety campaign for kids in the local community | Pikala Bikes

The projects are funded about 70% from the commercial side of the business — which in addition to tours now also includes a bicycle delivery service and bicycle cafe — with the TUI Care Foundation also pitching in to help Pikala expand to new cities. 

For Bakker, the experience speaks to the power of tourism: “tourism can also really be a trigger for change.”

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So How Can Other Operators Do “Good Tourism?”

You don’t have to start a bike tour in Morocco to have a positive impact (although if you want to, Pikala is looking for more people to get involved as they expand with new locations and new ideas). 

The Good Tourism Institute helps operators implement sustainable (or “good”) tourism in a way that adds value to tour and activity companies as well as the traveler’s experience, increasing profitability and having a positive impact. 

The key to “good tourism” is in “finding what works for your business and what works for your travelers,” according to Anne de Jong. “Sustainability is not something that is one-size-fits-all,” she explains, and neither is it “something you should just do because it’s the right thing… It’s something you should do because it would really make your business better, more successful, more profitable. 

Anne de Jong explains the the “three Ps” or “triple bottom line” of sustainability | The Good Tourism Institute

Then, making that value clear and attractive to travelers through your marketing, in a way that communicates not just “we are a sustainable business” but “this adds value to your experience.” 

Because “in the end the traveler is not paying 4,000 euros to go to Africa so these kids can go to school,” explains de Jong. “They’re going to Africa because they want to go on a really cool holiday there. So even though it’s important to think about what the benefit could be, it should always also be in favor of the traveler.”

Profitability From Positive Impact, Cycling for Good at Arival 360 | Berlin

Anne de Jong will be leading a workshop at Arival 360 | Berlin along with Peigi Rodan from withlocals to walk operators through five key steps tour and experience operators can take to design amazing, authentic experiences that enrich and delight guests, deliver a positive impact on local communities and drive more profitability for their business. Cantal Bakker will also be at Arival on the main stage to share the Pikala Bikes story. 

Anne de Jong
Sustainable tourism consultant
Good Tourism Institute

Cantal Bakker
Founder
Pikala Bikes

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Header photo: Roshan Adhihetty / Pikala Bikes

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