With misinformation and greenwashing rife in tourism, ‘Behind The Green’ takes it back to basics. Back to storytelling and human connection. Hear from visionaries behind the world’s leading sustainable travel experiences, as well as the inspiring experts who help us to REIMAGINE, RESET, and REINVENT tourism.
Interview by Rebecca Woolford
Gender equality. The forgotten ingredient in sustainable tourism.
The growing number of initiatives by travel companies addressing gender inequality by backing initiatives and empowering women warms my heart and gives me hope for the future of tourism.
Travel as a force for good begins with addressing gender inequality, and raising awareness on why tourism needs to be seen through the eyes of women and girls more often, is a worthwhile pursuit for anyone genuinely interested in ‘sustainable and conscious’ travel.
So, with the help of my friend Simon from Senderos, I jumped at the chance to sit with Mariana Caliuolo (below), an advocate for gender equality and a member of the UN’s women’s allies network. I was keen to learn more about a travel company focused on empowering women, ironically located in the epicenter of a movement in which women are fighting back to end gender-based violence.
Mariana Caliuolo from Socompa Adventure Travel
Socompa Adventure first employed Mariana on her return home from the big city in 2008. Today, she is instrumental in this sustainable-focused, community-centered travel business, adding her own flair and creativity at every turn.
Soon to be celebrating its 20th anniversary, Socompa is not just any adventure travel company (as we know there are a lot out there), they’re pioneers in adventure travel, equipped with the best team of guides you can find in the region, and are true advocates for women’s empowerment in tourism.
I hope you enjoy this insightful interview as much as I did!
Thank you, Mariana, for being here, I can’t wait to discuss a subject we’re both so passionate about gender equality. Before we get into the deeper layers of this conversation, can you tell us what led you to the tourism industry and become a key part of Socompa Travel?
“I didn’t start my career in the tourism industry, I was heading in a completely different direction…
I was studying in Buenos Aires in international relations, I was pretty much convinced I wanted to become a diplomat. I worked in Buenos Aires in the diplomatic field for many years. Whilst over there I started to engage with tourism – because when you represent any country, tourism is one of the best ways to share a culture across the globe. That’s something that I was really always attracted to, so I participated in a lot of tourism fairs representing the embassy or I went on farm trips.
I think it’s incredibly enriching for people to learn about different cultures, it makes you understand a lot of things. It brings people from around the globe together.
Living in the city, I was always missing contact with nature. Back home in Salta, there was a river creek nearby where I could take my son to see the river, put his feet in the water, and climb trees, and I just couldn’t see myself raising a kid in the city. It was just not my style, no matter how great the job or how great the pay was.
So, when I finished my degree, I decided to come back to my hometown, Salta, in Argentina. It was a real challenge because that was 15 years ago when Salta was smaller, and there were very few job opportunities.
Back home, in 2008, I was lucky to meet Fabrizio who founded Socompa adventure company, which is soon to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Starting out as an employee, Fabrizio and I are now business partners, and my passion for the tourism industry has continued to grow and grow. ” Mariana
Pictures from Socompa Adventure Travel’s transformative experiences in Argentina
What a great journey you and Fabrizio have been on together. I know from my research that sustainable and regenerative travel lies at the heart of Socompa adventure travel, could you explain a little bit about why gender inequality is such an important issue to address within the tourism industry?
“I’ve been conscious of this issue for a long time. I think it comes from my childhood…
My mother works in politics and she’s a great feminist. She was the president of a women’s movement, so I would have a group of ladies coming into our home, or I would go with her to a meeting.
Despite being little I was always very conscious of everything that was going on, and the unfairness women were experiencing.
Through university, I had a tough time because I was in the field of political science and everyone including professors was putting down the female students. I guess I was always kind of fighting all that and then as I grew older, I thought, okay, what else can we do about it?
I think it is so important that we solve this issue because it lies at the heart of sustainability.
Many people know about the sustainable development goals and the SDGs, but most people don’t know these goals came from decades of work, and influence from the International Women’s Movement, it’s an international accord signed in Beijing in 1995.
It’s a document where inspiring feminist women from around the world got together in Beijing. 1995 year marked a very strong point in history because everyone came to the discussion that we are never going to be able to solve the rest of the problems if we are not first tackling gender inequality.
If we don’t bring more women into decision-making roles and create more diversity we will keep living in a world that is half blind. We don’t have the complete picture of any of the challenges that lie ahead.
We need more women presidents, congresswomen, female architects, general managers, and engineers, giving their ideas and vision on how to do things. It will also be a good thing for men, not just women, more balance will bring about a better world.” Mariana
Behind the Green is powered by friends Weeva, an online tool transforming travel for the better.
Explore some of the most remote, and exciting places on Earth with Socompa Adventure Travel
Socompa Adventure Travel, based in Salta, has various initiatives focused on female empowerment, in what is often a male-dominated world. What does that look like, could you provide some examples?
“Back in 2021, we signed an agreement which was part of the UN program.
It’s a formal letter to show our business’s commitment to working on women’s empowerment, not only in our industry but with society in general. So, that was step one.
Then we worked for a year on an action plan that involved internal policies for our travel company. Some are already implemented, and some are ongoing.
We partnered with local universities and with the local government. And the local government, for the first time in history, implemented a program to raise awareness of gender equality within the tourism sector. The good thing was that we had participation from both men and women.
We ran a series of events with speakers. We had the first woman to do a solo female expedition across one of our highest mountains here in Argentina. She’s a very strong person, with a strong character, a strong body… strong everything. She’s amazing.
The idea was to show that women can also be mountaineers. This is important because many women still have a lot of invisible barriers.
When I go to a meeting and there are 80 men and 5 women, sometimes you’re thinking, should I be here? But you have to open the door so that other women will join in. Otherwise, this is never going to change.” Mariana
You can read more about this adventure travel company’s efforts here.
Indigenous women of Salta are working to prevent gender-based violence in their communities
If it’s okay with you, I’d like to continue to talk about gender inequality in Argentina specifically, by addressing gender-based violence. The stats are really quite scary, reports show that one Argentinian woman is killed every 32 hours. I understand this is a complex and difficult topic to talk about. Can you give us any insight to help us better understand what’s going on?
“Yes, the facts that you have shared are unfortunately true. This is what happens when you don’t have policies in place, which increases the vulnerability of women.
Poverty isolates women. Mostly they don’t have the economic means to escape violent environments and they have children to look after too. It’s a complex issue but tourism can really be a force for good in that sense, with the simple fact that you can open doors to help empower more women.
As conscious travellers, we all have to check ourselves. Where are we travelling to? Where are we staying? Which businesses are we supporting? How are the staff paid and treated?
A housekeeping lady for example might work tirelessly in an expensive hotel all day, and then go back home, wash her clothes in the river, and struggle to feed her family.
I volunteer for the UN and we have a spotlight campaign working to stop violence against women and girls. I was asked this very question: How can tourism help us solve this problem?
When you address gender equality and you work on policies for women, you’re also saving and improving children’s lives by default.
Tourism is one of the best ways in which we can bring education, training, and better salaries to women.” Mariana
And that’s why I’m so passionate about travel as a force for good, tourism (when done right) really has the power to change people’s lives for the better.
Let’s talk about Salta, Argentina, your home, and where Socompa Adventure Travel is based. With such a sparse population, I imagine there to be peace and solitude to be found. What impact do you see Salta have on its visitors?
“The Andes is a region that is the least populated in the world, because the conditions are so harsh. Guests can reconnect with both nature and themselves here. This environment helps them to hear their own thoughts by slowing down and stopping.
The region where we travel with guests is very isolated, and sometimes you can even feel like time has stopped. There is no reception, so you’re gonna stop looking at social media. It’s just you, the sky, and nature.
This simplicity has a huge impact on guests.
Sometimes it feels like we live in a world that is not real, where people worry about lots of things that aren’t really that important. The places we take guests to help them to connect with a sense of place, they come to really appreciate the sunset, the sunrise, and the beauty of nature.”
Can you tell me a little bit about the two accommodations that your guests enjoy visiting?
“Absolutely. We manage a hotel in the remote desert, which belongs to the government, it’s in a little town called El Peno. It’s very isolated, it’s about eight hours from our main office in Salta, 550 kilometers in the mountains.
We manage this hotel in a very small community. That’s a whole adventure in itself because the staff are all local to this remote place. We only got full-time electricity there one year ago. About four years ago, the government put up satellite antennas so that people in the town could have a Wi-Fi connection.
They have all started to learn everything on YouTube, how to cook etc. It was amazing to see it change!
Then we have another hotel outside of Salta, only 15 minutes away from downtown Salta. It has 10 rooms, in the countryside, so it’s a very quiet place. All the staff are local from around the village, and mostly female, including the management. The hotel has its own fruit trees. The cuisine is fantastic because they do everything homemade.” Mariana
I always ask the two same questions to my guests at the end. Could you tell us about a hotel, OR place that moved and inspired you on your travels?
“I think one of the best places that I have personally travelled to was in Colombia. It was really unexpected for me. It’s in a little mountain town called Baricharain the northwest of Colombia, which is a region of coffee-making.
It was so interesting to see how the local community created all these unique and cultural experiences. You can go and visit a papermill, for example, that is run by a woman, and everything is based on being sustainable and ecological.” Mariana
What’s next for Socompa Adventure travel?
“We are currently working on a sustainability certification. We’ve been working on it for the last two years, changing and implementing new processes to continuously improve. We’re exploring new ways to interact with the local community, in which we can raise and share their voices to become part of something much bigger.” Mariana