Responsible Initiatives

December 23, 2009

rtcover_borderFinally, the RT Audit report for 2009 is done! We have a record of the successes of the initiatives we have been working so far in terms of responsibility. This excercise has also helped us bring out some of the dirty laundry and helped us learn where we can make improvements.

Feel free to download a copy of this report, have a read, make comments / suggestions. We are welcome to feedback and / or criticism. There is one thing we know. This will go a long way in us living up to one of our important company values - continued excellence.

It has been exhausting, the biggest learning being that even a small, young organisation, committed to responsibility, has a difficult time making the nescessary adjustments, required for systems to be put in place for the collection of data to cover indicators of social responsibility. Reaching here, of course, is tremendously fulfilling though!

We are committed to do this excercise on a regular basis, measuring how we fare based on standards that we set for ourselves!

Download a copy of the report here (1.6mb)

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The audit was conducted by socialtours, and independently verified by Jenefer Bobbin, whose audit notes are presented as footnotes.

Suppliers

Services & Suppliers

We have made the decision not to vertically integrate but to subcontract all services required to local qualified Nepalese companies. {footnote} All companies listed in the 'Services & Supplier' database were noted as Nepali owned. Two randomly selected companies were spot-checked and both were confirmed to be Nepali owned. {/footnote} This ensures a greater financial spread and channels more money back into the local economy.  We also guarantee that all suppliers are paid upfront and/or on time. {footnote} Only one company’s payment schedule has been recorded so far. It was shown that the average delay in payment was 14 days, with the longest delay being 65 days. This delay was on a flight booking that was booked 2 months in advance therefore even though the invoice was raised, payment was not due until the flight took place (standard practice for internal flights in Nepal). Two randomly selected payment delays were cross-checked by the auditor using the corresponding invoices and receipts. {/footnote}

The only vertical integration we have ever done is one that was essential– the start of socialtreks.com, the trekking arm of the company. Whereas we outsource every other tourism activity, trekking is one activity that is integral to tourism in Nepal, and is one that would be impractical to outsource.

Billing and payment schedules vary greatly by suppliers, and an analysis of the most complicated of them, air ticketing, where international flights need immediate payment on booking, and local flights are paid after the flight has taken place, shows that the average delay is two weeks.

We develop long-term partnerships {footnote} socialtours.com were unable to prove this. {/footnote} to establish long-lasting economically stable relationships within the local community. Through these relationships we encourage our stakeholders to adopt similar responsible tourism practices.  By enlisting the help of our clients, we keep a watchful eye to ensure they are not acting irresponsibly.{footnote} This information is not being recorded. {/footnote}

hotelsVirtually, every partnership we have developed, be it with hotels, home-stays, guides, rafting companies, specialist activity providers, has grown over the years, providing stable long-term incomes for the partners. The annual spend on suppliers has grown by 162% from 2007/08 to 2008/09. We also monitor the activity of the partners, sanctioning business from the non-performers, e.g. one of the hotels, after receiving too many complaints of poor service from hotel staff. A more detailed look at responsible practices is yet to be done.

spread

Our promotion of home-stays has also had its effects over the years. Whilst hotels are ahead in growth, at about 90.68%, home-stays have also increased by 78.66%. It has to be said that this however, is not only possible through promotion but there has also been an increase in demand. Home-stays have generally increased due to the growth of the voluntourism sector of the business, where long-term stays are not practical in hotels.


Other examples of the spread of income, development of partnerships and long-term income flows can be seen by the increase in flow of income to our ticketing partners, A1 Excursions, by 220.45% and to our transport suppliers, New Highway, by 45.90%.

annualspend


SOCIALTOURS OPEN HOUSE: Educating partners in Nepal

khajaIn September 2009, we embarked on a new process of educating our partners by inviting them to an open house. Not only did this give us the opportunity of letting them know how much we value them but also allowed us to showcase our advanced in operating responsibly. Over 100 people participated, covering most of our partners in Nepal. A tour of the offices showed everyone what we are doing in terms of making our offices responsible, and explained some of practices that we are promoting (see appropriate section below). We also served some delicious local cuisine from Khaja Ghar, a small family run Newari snack joint next to the office.

Trips

Development of Tours and Treks

When developing a tour or trek all environmental, social and economic issues are taken into consideration. We take lengths never to develop a tour or trek that will have a detrimental effect on the environment.

Our tours and treks focus on local practices, such as meditation and Yoga. We promote local traditions, local food and encourage home-stay visits to enhance cultural preservation.
{footnote} Out of four signature trips only three are displayed on the homepage of the website – http://www.socialtours.com.  The auditor could not find the trip ‘A Responsible Peek into Nepal’.{/footnote}

Over the years, we have moved away from promoting mainstream trekking to focusing on self-developed trips. Some of these trips we have developed, or adapted, are slowing becoming our signature trips, and a conscious focus on the promotion of these trips is yielding results.

yoga

 

Our top four signature trips are:

1. Trekking for Health - Focuses on combining Yoga with trekking.
2. A Responsible Peek into Nepal - Focuses on home-stays and educating travellers on responsible travel.
3. Tamang Heritage Trek - Focuses on tradition and community tourism.
4. Shamanism Trek - Focuses on the conservation through promotion of Shamanism in Nepal.

We aim to ensure that our operations do not disrupt or lead to the displacement of local people.  We only run small group trips that are within a scale appropriate for local conditions and operate within the limits set by local infrastructure and carrying capacity.{footnote} The auditor viewed the passenger lists for 2007/08 & 2008/09 and it was noted that all groups were well below 6 members, apart from two school groups of 15 and 18. Two randomly selected entries on the passenger lists were cross-checked with the corresponding booking forms.{/footnote}

Group size rarely exceeds six people, the only exceptions being school groups (generally two groups every year, each with approximately 15 members). The exceptions are in place for two reasons – the request of the client and also the fact that school groups are homogeneous and easier to control and manage with little detrimental effect.

 


ChildReach International, UK: Over the last year we have organised two charity treks, including 26 and 15 participants. ChildReach has expressed an interest to increase arrivals in 2010 to 300 students. We have arranged for this large number to be split into at least 20 smaller groups, with staggered arrival dates spread throughout 2010. This will drastically reduce the impact of their trek, taking place in the Everest Region of Nepal.



We aim to provide travellers enriching experiences through the promotion of culturally immersive activities such as volunteering, and support travellers to make meaningful contributions into the communities through travel philanthropy.
{footnote} The auditor witnessed the ‘New Project Donation’ database listing all items purchased with volunteers’ donations. The separate bank account has already been audited with the UK counterpart; however, it was reinforced by the auditor being shown proof in the form of a separate chequebook.{/footnote}

In the past few years, we have seen an increase in the number of volunteers we have facilitated. Carefully planned placements and well prepared volunteers ensure that the experience is fruitful, for both the volunteer and the community alike. A well-designed project can ensure that there are long-term benefits to the community on top of the volunteer's time and money.

volunteers

In 2008 and 2009, we managed over NPR 1,955,000 worth of volunteer donations for SAMATA School and OCCED orphanage given by 73 volunteers - 37 into SAMATA and 36 into OCCED. These donations were used for a variety of needs, selected by the volunteers and approved by the projects. Each donation is received into a separate account and documented for transparency purposes.

 


FEEDBACK FROM PROJECT
“Volunteer program facilitated by social tours have been a very helpful project in our organization.  We are being much more benefited by this project especially the children as they come to identify about the peoples of different culture. And they have developed a team work sense within themselves. Social tours being a leading tours and trekking agency has supported us in many ways may be it in on time and efficient financial transactions or in volunteer placement. It has proved itself to be a best agency for foreigners and has very nicely maintained its corporate social responsibility as well.”

We wish all the best for its social tours crew to make further efforts to stand unique in the society.

Haribole Badal. President, OCCED/Nepal
www.occed.org

Spreading the Word

Spreading the Word

We encourage our clients through our team members {footnote} Two randomly selected client feedback forms, which ask a series of question on RT, were chosen by the auditor to ensure the client was briefed. It must be noted that not all clients fill out feedback forms.{/footnote}, guides {footnote} Two randomly selected client feedback forms, which ask a series of question on RT, were chosen by the auditor to ensure the client was briefed during the trek. It must be noted that not all clients fill out feedback forms. {/footnote} and literature {footnote} Two randomly selected clients were chosen by the auditor to ensure that they received responsible tourism literature pre-departure. {/footnote} to act in a responsible way.  We aim to educate them in ways to minimise their impact on the environment and local community and to give them an insight and understanding of the host destination.

We aim to educate every single one of our clients on travelling responsibly in Nepal at various stages of their booking and trip.


All clients who book their trip on-line will receive a pre-departure packet prior to arrival, including;

1. our responsible tourism policy,
2. our guidelines to travelling responsibly in Nepal,
3. gear list,
4. a detailed trip itinerary, and
5. general country information.

For those who book their trip locally, they will receive a leaflet on travelling responsibly in Nepal along with their detailed trip itinerary.

briefingAll our clients are given detailed trip briefing in country, which emphasises on responsibility issues along with trip details, safety etc. Saying that, over the past few years, we had lost sight of the emphasis on travelling responsibly. However, since August 2009, this has been taken up in earnest again, ensuring that every traveller receives a full briefing on being a responsible traveller. A “sit-in” training process is in place to ensure all staff in charge of the briefings are trained on all aspects of the briefing. The success of this will be monitored through the client feedback but will take time to accumulate. We aim to formalise and record these sit in trainings in the staff database.

Prior to August 2009, clients receiving responsible travel information during their trek was dependent on which guide they were allocated. However, since the first formal responsible tourism training for guides was held on 29th August 2009 we are getting positive feedback on information received as seen from the client feedback form. Again, the success of this will take time to monitor.

On Treks

On the Trek

Home-stays and small family-run lodges are used in preference over camping to ensures money is invested straight back into the local community.
{footnote}This statement self audits itself. Each guide is given a budget for a trek, which would financially not stretch to cover chain lodges, as they are more expensive than the average lodge and home stay. socialtours.com has run one camping trip within the last year due to being run in an area with no lodges.{/footnote}

We have yet to create a system to quantify the home-stay verses family-run lodges' income chains. However, the mere fact that almost all of our trip use family-run lodges in the mountains is testimony enough that we focus on a conscious effort to use home-stays and family-run lodges over camping treks.

Ever since we started, we have never focussed on operating tented treks, the only cases being:

1. In 2006, we ran a tented trek in the Annapurna region for a client who had a severe gluten allergy and was not confident of eating food in lodges.

2. In 2006, we ran a tented trek for a German School Group in the Bhote Koshi valley, in an area where there are no lodges. We did it again for the same group in 2008, for Panch Pokhari trek and in 2009 for the Bhairab Kunda trek, all areas with no lodges.


All food is purchased from the local villages unless this cannot be provided in a sustainable manner.

Our clients are encouraged to support local income generation by using Nepalese owned services and village owned shops, stalls and restaurants.
{footnote}Two randomly selected client feedback forms, which ask how much the client spends whilst on trek, were chosen by the auditor to ensure the client was encouraged to buy locally. It must be noted that not all clients fill out feedback forms. {/footnote}

We maintain data on the amount of money spent in each trek. This over the past two financial years, shows a total growth of 15%, while the average spend per trekker went up by 27%. These percentages demonstrates that we are spending more in the local trekking areas per client, but with inflation at 14% it is partly accountable for the increase.

economicspend

 


Spreading the Tourism Dollar
There is a conscious effort towards putting money into the hands of local establishments. Several international companies promote camped treks in the mountains of Nepal as being more responsible as it does not put pressure on sparse energy and food resources. We differ from this approach. We believe the first priority is to put money into the local economy. After this need is fulfilled to some extent, it is easier to talk and enforce environmental protection.



We ensure all waste is disposed of in the correct manner for the area we are in. For National Parks this is in the provided waste reciprocals and for off-the-beaten track treks it is brought back to the start of the trail.

Personnel

Staff, Guides and Porters

All staff members are Nepalese and from a range of ethnic backgrounds {footnote}This was visually confirmed by the auditor when visiting the office to complete the audit on the 21st December 2009.{/footnote}.  We do not discriminate on gender or age.{footnote}The male/female ratio was visually confirmed by the auditor when visiting the office to complete the audit on the 21st December 2009 and can be compared from a previous visit one-year prior. Salaries for a male and a female member of staff at similar levels yet in different departments were seen to be the same and this was cross-checked with both members of staff.{/footnote}

Staffing Record

Male    Female    Total    Average Age    Ethnic Backgrounds
2007/08    4    1    5    29.5    Sherpa, Brahmin, Chhetri, Newar   
2008/09    6    2    8    28.5    Sherpa, Brahmin, Chhetri, Newar


There is no differentiation in salaries between male and female staff. Staff of a similar level are paid a similar salary and receive similar benefits. We believe in transparency and everyone knows what everyone else earns. All company accounts are accessible to all members of staff and account statements are regularly circulated to all members of staff. We are also making good improvements in the male to female ratio in the office.

We provide regular and ongoing training, in the principles and practices of responsible tourism, to both our staff in the office and those employed out of the office.{footnote}Training sessions for the office-based staff are currently not logged therefore it is impossible to audit. Training sessions for the trekking guides have been held on the 29th August 2009 and the 13th & 14th December 2009. This can be proved by the 'Trekking Guides' database and also verified with food receipts for the lunches provided. There was no evidence of city guides being trained.{/footnote}

socialtours.com practice of responsible tourism is highly dependent on the six values that the company is based on.

pdpEvery staff meeting is started with the six company values as a good way to imprint and internalise these values, on which each and every responsible tourism policy element is based. This is an ongoing process of layering in the values amongst all staff members. Formal staff training on responsible tourism practices is yet to be conducted at socialtours.com but all new recruits to the team are given an in-depth session on the company beliefs and its commitment to responsible tourism.

Training on responsible tourism practice has started with the guides, both city guides and trekking guides. Training documents and reports are also made available on the website.

10% of the company's profits go directly into employee benefits. {footnote}This is worked out as the difference between lunch at a local restaurant and the cost in the canteen. It includes electricity, gas, rent, and utilities for the canteen. The calculations for this were outlined to the auditor alongside the audit of annual energy consumption. {/footnote}

We have not been up to the mark on this aspect of our policy. Employee welfare has only risen from 3.1% in 2007/08 to 5.4% in 2008/09; the main culprit being the lack of staff training. We have addresses this as a priority this year by running a Professional Development Programme where all staff attended a two day adventure based rope and activities course focussed on improving communications and team spirit.

Our guides and porters are exceptional people and we do our utmost to protect them from exploitation.{footnote}The auditor witnessed trek insurance documentation and also individual faxes to the insurance company detailing staff members on each trek.

Two randomly selected 'Guides Budget Sheets' were selected. One for the Annapurna region and one for the Everest region to ensure guides are paid a fair salary. Both guides were paid average salaries and both guides signed the sheets to confirm payment was received prior to the trek.

The auditor saw 17 porter receipts covering 19 porters. These receipts include porter salaries and weights carried. It must be realized that all weights are an estimate by the porter and are signed under the scrutiny of the guide therefore cannot be considered 100% accurate. Ten porters carried in excess of 20 kg, the average weight was 20.6 kg and the heaviest was 25kg.

It is to be noted that porter salaries, as with loads carries, are signed under the scrutiny of the guide who is in charge of paying the porter. The porter signs these amounts as correct. Two randomly selected porter receipts were checked to ensure both porters were paid an average salary and both porters signed these sheets to confirm payment was received.

The average porter to trekker ratio was not yet recorded but the male to female guide ratio was audited and the auditor had the pleasure of meeting the one female guide during the audit process!{/footnote}

Since the beginning of 2009, a porter receipt system and guide database has been put in place, recording all payments, to minimise the possibility exploitation. We recommend a 1:2 porter to trekker ration, we get many single travellers too where the ratio is 1:1. The average porter to trekker ratio calculated from our trip records is 1:1.7

socialtours.com recommends that a porter's load is no more than 20 kilos, while the recommended weight by the Trekking Agents Association of Nepal is 30 kilos. We like to keep a lower average; this can be an important safety device, as a porter can quickly share his load and act as a runner, or even carry a trekker down a mountain in cases of emergency.

We provide insurance for all our guides and porters in case of accident during the trek. We have taken out an insurance policy with Himalayan General Insurance for this, which is updated annually.

We are working with one female guide bringing our guide male female ratio to 17:1

All members of the team are treated as equals.  Respect for individuals is an important part of the business and this extends to all people who work with us.

This is a principle that is difficult to quantify, except from our practice of non-differentiation between age, gender, ethnicity etc. as can be seen from staffing records above.

Office

The Office

We aim to run our office in an environmentally friendly manner by decorating and furnishing it with fair-trade products and locally produced furniture{footnote}It was visually confirmed by the auditor that local products were used for decoration when visiting the office to complete the audit on the 21st December 2009.{/footnote}, using energy saving bulbs, recycling{footnote}The auditor witnesses the calculation for reduction on the 'Final Audit' database and cross-checked this through the paper recycling receipts for 2008/2009.{/footnote} as much waste as possible and keeping electricity{footnote}The auditor witnesses the calculation for reduction on the 'Final Audit' database and cross-checked this through the electricity bills for 2008/2009.{/footnote}, gas{footnote}The auditor witnesses the calculation for increase on the 'Final Audit' database and cross-checked this through the gas receipts for 2008/2009.{/footnote} and water{footnote}Water was not possible to audit due to being included in the rent.{/footnote} consumption to a bare minimum.

Local Produce: We have refitted our office with locally produced tables, lamps, shades, curtains, carpets etc. all purchased either locally with producers or with fair trade shops. We purchase locally grown organic coffee and locally produced tea for the office and all produce used in the canteen is purchased from the local traders.


electricityElectricity: Our electricity consumption per staff member in the office over the last two years has reduced by approximately 35%. This can be accounted for by the change in the lighting system, from regular bulbs to energy saving incandescent bulbs. We also discourage working at night, when electricity is used the most. It has yet to be established how much of this change is accounted by the power failures in Kathmandu!

Gas: During the same period however, our gas usage per staff member has increased from 0.37 cylinders per person to 0.54 cylinders per person. After a short enquiry, it was concluded that this increase is probably due to more people being invited to eat at our canteen, who were not being accounted for. A system is now in place to record every person who eats at the canteen, so our gas consumption per person can be calculated with more accuracy.

Water: Measuring the water consumption for the office is impossible due to its inclusion into our rent. The consumption is minimal as we do not use the cistern in the toilet, instead using a bucket and a mug, drastically reducing water wastage when flushing- difficult to calculate though!

Waste: The only waste that can be easily calculated is paper. Since keeping records, we have estimated that we have sent over 60 kilos of paper to be recycled by Jamarko, our recycling partners in Nepal. More accurate records need to be maintained. However, this is not balanced by what we buy back in recycled paper from Jamarko, mainly because we can only use that paper for visiting cards.

Plastic bags sometimes come into the company via the supplies that we purchase. They are either reused for packaging waste (which eventually gets recycled by pickers), or given away to Khaja Ghar, the Newari snack shop, so that they can reuse it in their packaging. This is difficult to estimate in numbers. We also have purchased a cloth bag for the purchases, so that the use to plastic itself is reduced.

Organic waste is not recycled at the moment. However, a plan is in place to obtain a composting bin, which will ensure the recycling of organic waste from the canteen.

We do not produce glossy brochures; instead we rely on electronic means to distribute our promotional literature.  All business cards & presentation albums are produced from recycled paper.

We constantly remind our staff about environmental practices through verbal and written notices.

Philanthropy

Philanthropy

We provide financial support to local economic, developmental and environmental projects giving back to the community that is supporting our business.

All members of staff are entitled to a specified amount of work time to pursue their own charitable projects. {footnote}The philanthropy activities are broken-down into two parts: the subsidistion of Antardristi and Namaste Nepal and staff hours converted into a monetary value. The subsidistion was seen through the 'Final Audit' database and cross-checked with the utilities bills. The staff hours are not accurately logged and are more of an estimation therefore there is no way of auditing these figures. {/footnote}


Our philanthropic activity in the past two financial years has accounted for 10.6% and 13.5% of our profits in 2007/08 and 2008/09 respectively. This can be broken down into the subsidisation of expenses for two charities housed in our building and staff time approved for social work. We also provide direct donations from time to time, but maintaining records of this is too complicated.

philanthropy

Notes

Notes

1. The Nepali fiscal year runs from mid-July to mid-July. This report compares the practices and financial records of the financial years, 2007/08 and 2008/09.
2. Some of the stories used in this report encompass the total number of years socialtours has been in existence, and are not necessarily limited to the financial periods mentioned above.

Acknowledgement

We are deeply grateful for the five months of work put in by Jenefer Bobbin in 2008, going through our policies, developing indicators and putting systems in place which has led to the collection of data that has resulted in this report. We are also grateful that she took the time, during her holiday in Nepal this year, to sit with us and audit the report. It could not have been done without her.

We are also grateful to Prof. Harold Goodwin, who guided the process.

Of course, this could not be possible without the commitment and work put in by the team at socialtours.com A big thanks has to go to the entire team for making this happen.

Kathmandu
December 2009

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