An Interview with John McKenzie on the launch of GDF

13 Jul, 2011

A personal insight into the roots, motivation behind and hopes for the future of the Foundation from GDF's president.

The article is courtesy of the Local Travel Movement and is re-published here with their kind permission.

Launched today from its base in Washington, DC, the Geotourism Development Foundation (GDF) is a not-for-profit tourism-development organisation committed to elevating travel as a force for good. Mr John McKenzie of the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank Group) is the President of the GDF. He talked to the Local Travel Movement about the work of the foundation, something that he believes will make a great impact on Local Travel.

LOCAL TRAVEL MOVEMENT: Can you explain in simple terms what the GDF does?
JOHN MCKENZIE: The Geotourism Development Foundation’s aim is both for tourists to have great travel experiences and for tourism to bring more direct benefits to people and places in the destinations visited.

GDF therefore funds and supports local projects and initiatives that improve lives and habitats in the places travellers love to go. These projects and initiatives, instigated by local social entrepreneurs – including community-based groups, local nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), etc. – can have wide-ranging objectives, addressing needs, for example, in social areas like health, education and childcare; in environmental areas like wilderness, wildlife and renewable energy; and in cultural areas like music, food and handicraft.

GDF then connects these projects to tourism by enabling them to develop ‘tour product’ and by equipping them to welcome visitors and offer tours or activities. The benefit for the visitor is an interesting and enriching experience. The benefit for the project is a stream of income from its paying guests.

LTM: How does GDF make this happen?
JOHN MCKENZIE: GDF facilitates a three-way partnerships between itself, commercial tour operators and local social entrepreneurs. Each has a role to play:
* The social entrepreneurs conceive of and (with GDF funding) initiate new and interesting projects that have the potential to improve lives and places.
* The commercial tour operator, who may work with the social entrepreneur to initiate the project, provides professional tourism advice, assesses the potential of a project (and the potential travel product) within the local market, handles bookings and ensures that tours are well executed (timing, standards, logistics).
* GDF provides the platform to bring together interested parties, including tourists, tour operators and social entrepreneurs. It has the know-how and access to funding to turn an idea for a project into a tour product. The GDF also has links with the travel industry making it possible to distribute the product and make it bookable (locally and internationally) as soon as it is practical.


A student at Yachana Technical High School in Ecuador shares his knowldege of local flora with guests. The GDF project will help fund the school, providing education in sustainability and tourism to local children.

LTM: Why did GDF come about?
JOHN MCKENZIE: The idea developed from work that IFC (the private sector arm of the World Bank) started in Cambodia. Around 10 years ago, Cambodia began to open up after decades of conflict. Tourists arrived in growing numbers to visit Angkor Wat and were amazed to find two ruined civilisations, one in the stones of the temples and the other in the daily lives of the inhabitants still recovering from the Khmer Rouge genocide. Local people were in desperate poverty and the challenge IFC undertook was to find better ways for tourism to improve their lives.

The initial idea was to produce a guidebook highlighting interesting NGO projects and encouraging people to stay longer and visit them. The Stay Another Day booklet was placed in hotel rooms to raise visitor awareness. But this wasn’t enough. The NGOs lacked the facilities and itineraries to welcome visitors, and their staff needed appropriate skills.

With this in mind, a more holistic approach was developed where tourism product development and distribution expertise were married intimately with the rest of the capacity building work. This proved to be very successful.

LTM: Who are GDF’s target users or clients?
JOHN MCKENZIE: More and more people are travelling and the nature of travel is changing. A growing number of independent travellers and those travelling in small groups want more than just a holiday; they want an experience. The travel industry is also keen to cater to this fast-growing market segment. Whereas a few of these experiential travellers will seek a full-fledged and longer term volunteering type encounter with host communities, GDF believes that most of its clients will be travellers who book a range of (relaxing, adventure, cultural…) activities with visits to one or two GDF projects included in the mix.


A guest dances with children at FOMO, an orphan day care centre in Mulanje, Malawi, that is one of several facilities the GDF will support.

LTM: How do you see synergies developing between the GDF and the members of the Local Travel Movement?
JOHN MCKENZIE: GDF and the Local Travel Movement share a common vision for tourism: to experience the ‘real’ essence of a destination you need to see it through the eyes of a local. We also share the belief that when ‘local tourism’ is working well it brings lasting benefits to the people, environment, culture and economy of a place.

GDF’s partners will be local tour operators, local social entrepreneurs and local community members in each destination. In short, the Local Travel Movement is GDF’s preferred partner network. We really do hope to work closely with all the Local Travel Movement partners around the world and believe that by joining forces on this front we can make a real impact. So show support and spread the word!

LTM: The GDF concept seems to be a ‘pro-poor’ tourism initiative (one that benefits the poor). How does it GDF differ from others?
JOHN MCKENZIE: Indeed, there is a lot of encouraging work going on in this space. Some examples include voluntourism, corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives (e.g. large hotels sponsoring community projects) and donor travel (NGOs offering visits to their projects). Some work better than others, but most are one-off and limited in time. Also, much of the effort is marginal, not part of the mainstream industry. For example, many larger travel companies have foundations, but these usually give grants to NGOs whose projects have no direct link back to their activities. In contrast to this, projects funded by GDF will result in high-quality products and/or facilities these travel companies could use to develop their own experiential travel products.


In an idyllic mountainside location in the foothills of the Himalayas near Darjeeling, India, Zimba Daju and his wife provide a warm welcome to their homestay, the development of which is one of several supported by the GDF.

GDF is trying to bring pro-poor tourism (and the resulting tour products) into the mainstream, so that visits to projects are something that might feature in anyone’s travel plans. This means ‘joining the dots’ between the travel industry and the non-profit sector, and taking a systematic approach globally.

LTM: What are its key issues and opportunities that it will address?
JOHN MCKENZIE: There seem to be a few immediate opportunities:

* Many large tour operators and travel companies show their desire to do good by setting aside part of their profits to donate to community, environmental or cultural projects. Now, working with GDF, they can link some of this giving back to their core business… a step that will enhance their brand and add to their customer travel experience, as well as provide the supported project with long term income.

* For social entrepreneurs, accessing funding for projects is usually a big issue; securing donations and grants can be uncertain. GDF has a great opportunity to help complement existing funding channels with loans and with expertise in connecting product to mainstream tourism to ensure additional and regular income from tourism.

* In this age of social networks, another longterm opportunity is to develop a relationship between projects and travellers. Each project needs to develop its own community of sponsors and supporters in a way that can take on its own momentum. GDF would love to help enable this direct interaction.


On a farm in the Philippines, a visitor from Manila rides a caribou cart for the first time. Many Filipinos have little knowledge of traditional rural life, something that the GDF will help local efforts to change.

LTM: You say a key objective is to develop financially sustainable outcomes for the beneficiaries. What about the GDF? How does the GDF become financially self-supporting, or will it always rely on external funding?
JOHN MCKENZIE: Inspired by the micro-finance approach, GDF hopes to share in the longterm income streams of its beneficiaries, whilst adding value to their initiatives.

That’s why we provide loans not grants – if we lend to viable projects and help them to derive income, then it is natural that they should repay the loan. Over time, this businesslike approach not only ensures effective use of funds, but also influences the way that the projects are run and care for their customers.

LTM: How do you manage the risk that funds will not be repaid?
JOHN MCKENZIE: Trusted locals are the key. You will note that in each of the projects we have selected initially in Malawi (read more about it here), India (read more about it here), Ecuador and the Philippines, a key local partner is a proven and established local tour operator. These local tour operators both understand the tourism market in their region and the marketing and distribution channels that need to be tapped. They in turn know and work closely with local communities and other social entrepreneurs and so join the dots needed to create a win-win outcome and a product which will sell. You will understand from this why we see the Local Travel Movement as logical partners in this endevour.

LTM: Where do you see GDF five years from now? What are three measures that would spell success for you?
JOHN MCKENZIE: Today we launch with four projects; in five years time we would hope to cover the map with flags and have other exciting initiatives under way. That said, the three measures that would really spell success are:
* first, evidence of real uptake of this approach by the travel industry itself as part of mainstream tourism;
* second, tangible revenue generation, both for projects and GDF itself;
* third, evidence of uptake by travellers themselves, networks of people becoming closely involved and associated with projects over the long term.

An Interview with John McKenzie on the launch of GDF

A personal insight into the roots, motivation behind and hopes for the future of the Foundation from GDF's president.

The article is courtesy of the Local Travel Movement and is re-published here with their kind permission.

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