Joker and Anders Reizen’s offer consists of sustainable trips with a healthy dose of adventure for young and old. The social responsibility aspect is handled by the subsidiaries ViaVia Tourism Academy and Karavaan. Greet Huybrechts, the sustainability coordinator, has witnessed the transformation of Joker into a tour operator with nine branches in Flanders, proudly bearing a Travelife certificate.
Greet Huybrechts receives us at Joker’s head office. The inviting open work landscape a stone’s throw from Mechelen railway station looks like a pleasant place to work. Started as a small tour operator, Joker today employs more than 60 people. Greet tells how it all started. “In 1968, a number of Leuven economics students travelled to Moscow by bus. On the way, they were confronted with the Cold War and the Iron Curtain. In Poland and Czechoslovakia at the time, among others, it was rumbling”.
“The desire to continue travelling arises on that journey. That’s why in 1971 they founded the travel guide organisation vzw Jest (Youth and Student Tourism), the predecessor of Karavaan vzw, which now has 400 guides. In 1981, 36 Jest escorts collect the necessary capital to keep travel organisation Joker afloat. Today, 83% of the shares are still in the hands of the original founders. Joker does not depend on other big players or internationals. The four original pillars – meeting, openness, amazement and equality – are as topical as they were at the very beginning. At the request of the founder of Anders Reizen, who retires in 2001, Joker takes over the company. Anders Reizen does exist on its own and retains its own identity. The organisation specialises in walking tours”.
Today, Joker offers a range of group tours, together accounting for about 3000 participants per year. “Joker Adventure is a tailor-made formula for adventurers of all ages. For young people aged 18 to 26 there is the Go-26 programme, for those over 46 there is the Cape 46 brochure. Citytrippers will also get their money’s worth with the Joker CityMix. Joker Snow, SportWeg and Cooking trips complete the offer. In addition, you can also come to Joker for individual trips, group trips in international company and trips with the Dutch tour operator Sawadee.
In 1995, the very first ViaVia Joker Travel Café opened its doors in Heverlee, followed by one in Yogyakarta (Indonesia) and 14 other Travel Cafés on 4 continents. They form a network of meeting places all over the world for the local population and the individual traveller.
“Tourism can act as a lever for the local economy and is a powerful weapon in the fight against poverty, one of the Millennium Development Goals. For this reason, and to spread our knowledge about sustainable tourism, we established Living Stone Dialogue – the current ViaVia Tourism Academy – in 2001,” Greet explains. “Among other things, we offer training on interculturalism, innovative tourism, management and the development of a tourism policy for governments. For example, a colleague recently travelled to Mozambique to develop a fully-fledged training course on tourism. I am responsible for part of the projects in the North. Among other things, I coordinate the Sustainable and Innovative Tourism Learning Network, with which we address all teachers of the Dutch-speaking Bachelor of Tourism and Hotel Management on the one hand and all teachers of the 41 secondary tourism schools on the other. Every year, we organise a minimum of three thematic study days. Some of the themes of previous study days are sustainable tourism as a marketing and communication tool, innovative regional products and employment, and sustainable festivals. We also manage a digital platform on which we want to provide as much material as possible”.
For the tenth and twentieth anniversaries of Joker and Karavaan respectively, the Project Fund has been established. For each customer Joker donates a certain amount to the fund, Karavaan donates a percentage of the membership fee. “The Projects Fund has financed a wide variety of projects, often on the advice of the travel guides themselves. In many cases they have helped establish museums on the spot to preserve certain traditions. In Bolivia, our escorts have set up a literacy project for miners’ women. There were also projects to improve working conditions for the porters who assist tourists in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania”.
Since 2010, the project fund has refocused on its core business: the tourism product and the training of tour guides. “That is why we have expanded the Project Fund with the ViaVia Tourism Academy and the Travel Cafés. Travel guides trained by the Academy, in turn, train travel guides as well as local tour operators. Since 2002, for example, we have been organising a Joker Go-26 trip together with the Professional Tourguide School (PROTS) in the Tanzanian city of Arusha. The whole trip is accompanied by Tanzanian students as part of their internship. The participants also spend a long weekend with Tanzanian families. The cooperation with PROTS will be elaborated from 2014 onwards. It is the intention that in the future there will be a mutual training in which experience and knowledge will be exchanged”.
Via Via Tourism Academy is also active in Mechelen home base in the field of awareness raising and information: until the end of 2014, the organisation and the city will put their shoulders to the intercultural project Café Herman. “Via this non-profit organisation, we focus on entrepreneurs of immigrant origin in Mechelen. After all, many of them soon give up their business. The main reason for this is that they are often unaware of the various information channels. That is why we provide them with information: how to work in a customer-oriented, innovative, sustainable and so on. Because they, too, can use their business as a trump card for the city as a tourist attraction”.
Planet, people, profit & pleasure
“I am convinced that we can achieve great things through this route”, emphasises the Sustainability Coordinator. “Our training courses and the impact we have in raising awareness about sustainability give Joker its individuality and uniqueness. All forms of tourism should be as sustainable as possible, but of course sustainability does not exist. It is always a balancing act between the four P’s, Planet, People, Profit and Pleasure. In one decision, one ‘P’ outweighs the other. You can only speak of sustainable tourism if the government, the media, education, the local population, the tourist, the travel sector and NGOs are on the same wavelength and work together”.
In January, Joker was the first Belgian tour operator to receive a Travelife certificate praising both internal and external sustainability policies. This international recognition, based on the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC), was drawn up in consultation with the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). “In order to obtain this certificate, we had to prove, on the basis of a voluminous dossier, that we meet more than 150 sustainability criteria. This makes us realise that we have already achieved a great deal, but that there is still a lot of room for improvement. Moreover, more and more inhabitants of emerging countries are starting to travel, and it would be good if they could tackle this in the most sustainable way possible. That is why I think it is so important that large tour operators are also working on sustainability.