When travellers meet locals, both worlds can benefit

Anne Brobyn is/was a social worker. Her turf was inner city Toronto. Her clients were street kids. With her childhood lived in Etobicoke, and her training as a social worker preparing her to listen and respond, she felt somehow she was missing an element that could make a difference.

When Anne holidayed, she went to the Caribbean. She went off the typical tourist route, she met the people, she absorbed the culture. And she fell in love with St Vincent in the Grenadines. There are 32 countries in the Caribbean and Anne travelled many of them, each destination adding to the fabric of language and culture and connection that she loved.

Back in Toronto’s inner city streets, with its young, lost souls, Anne found her social work more effective because of her Caribbean travel and her understanding of the culture of so many of the young people she worked with.

She started talking to other child and youth workers, explaining the results of her work due to her broadened cultural understanding. Other social workers asked to come along, to share her Caribbean experience. She took them. She took as many who wanted to come. Lush vegetation, rich with the red of the hibiscus flower, local foods, local people… it wasn’t long before Anne realized that tourism could contribute to these countries as much as it gave to its travellers… and Hibiscus Tours International was born.

Like all good things, it began to snowball… nurses, health care workers, social workers, professionals all continued to register for her travel programs. They brought their friends. Humber College contacted Anne to teach in their social work programs. Life on the streets was exhausting her. She was a single parent with a young son. She decided to become a sustainable tourism service full time.

Anne believes it is possible to provide travel opportunities where people give as much as they take from a country. It is possible to leave the glitzy foreign-owned streets and shops and get inside the ‘real’ country, meet its ‘real’ people, eat their food, see their sites, and take accommodation owned by people native to the country you’re in. That, for Anne, is sustainable tourism.

She put considerable energy into developing local experts who could lead groups, and who specialized in specific aspects of a tour. She could (and did) find and pay people whose livelihoods were made on these islands. She linked her program to the University of the West Indies. At one point she moved full time to live and work in the Caribbean.

“Everything I do is sustainable tourism devbelopment. It has to help the local people; it has to be least damaging to culture and the land as possible. A percentage of every tour goes to a charity in the destination. I expanded the program beyond St Vincent first to Trinidad and Tobago for a birding program. Then I did a walking and history program in Barbados and a marine biology program in Grenada. And a hiking and nature program in Dominica.” Anne became the biggest tour operator in St Vincent. She brought hundreds of people to this island, for field trips, site visiting, and cultural opportunities. She used only local hoteliers, ate only locally grown food, and used only local transportation. Every thing she did had to contribute to the local economy.

When the Elder Hostel organization asked Anne to include her programs in their itineraries, her business took off. Others wanted to learn how to lead programs. She taught them. Others wanted to learn how to do everything that Anne was doing. She opened The Travel School as part of Hibiscus Tours International. She hired staff. In a way, she was franchising what she had developed, as she taught people how to do what she was doing.

Interest, and travellers, seemed limitless. The Elder Hostel connection, with travel programs for seniors, pushed her business to a new level with travel schools in seven cities across North America. She experimented for awhile with programs in Europe… a wine tour in Italy, art tours in Spain, but European travel is different and expectations are much more expensive. And Europe hadn’t captured Anne’s heart as the Caribbean had.

She moved her energies back to the Caribbean.

And then 9/11 struck and the world changed. Americans–a bulk of Anne’s customer base–stopped travelling.

Anne adjusted, and took a two-year contract with the Caribbean Tourism Association in Toronto. The job and Anne were a perfect fit and she travelled the country, educating travel agencies and tour operators about the Caribbean. It increased her knowledge of the Caribbean even further.

The contract complete, Anne re-activated Hibiscus… the travel industry was beginning to recover, and Anne re-met a friend she’d known 30 years earlier at a high school reunion. Wedding bells tolled, and she took the plunge last November and joined her new husband in Barrie and brought Hibiscus to a new home.

Anne was quick to join the tourism program at Georgian College, where she does some teaching and program development. She continues to believe in and support cultural, sustainable tourism and serves on boards of directors of organizations devoted to betterment of the countries they visit and work in.

The international community has recognized Anne’s incredible contribution, economically and culturally, to the Caribbean world. The United Nations International Institute for Peace and Tourism chose Anne as one of eight world wide recipients of its achievement award. Anne has spoken to that organization at annual meetings in Montreal and Glasgow, Scotland.

She feels blessed as she looks at the web of activity, opportunity and contribution her work has given to her. Indeed, the world is blessed by the concept of sustainable tourism.

Barrie is blessed to have one of its newest citizens be a person who saw a need and filled it… with compassion and conviction.

Thanks, Anne.