Why did you decide to study Sustainable Tourism in Kleve?
I realized very early that travelling is my passion: discovering new countries, learning about languages, cultures and traditions is what led me to enroll first at the University of Passau for cultural and economic studies. Soon I realized that the university’s approach was too theoretical for my individual needs. While researching more applied universities and study courses I came across HSRW in Kleve, which at that time was offering Germany’s first bachelor’s degree in Sustainable Tourism. That sounded very interesting to me, so I applied.
What was the topic of your thesis? Any interesting results?
In my 6th semester, I went abroad for an internship on an island in East Indonesia called Flores. Over the past few years, this island had become a booming tourism destination in Indonesia, which is why I decided to conduct my research there. My topic focused specifically on waste management in the tourism industry on Flores. I am not sure if the topic and results were so interesting for readers, but personally I gained a very good understanding of the local governmental structure, met inspiring individuals and organizations and began to understand the bigger picture. I am still in touch with – and even work with – some of the people I met during the process, so for my purposes I would say the overall result was very interesting.
Last year, you co-founded the social enterprise “Wise Steps Travel” in Indonesia. Please tell us about the path you took to this career after graduating.
It was indeed quite a journey for me and it becomes more than just a career at this point. Indonesia was the first Asian country I’ve ever visited. I stayed in a very small town in the mountainous region of Flores with a local family for six months. Honestly, it took me a while to adjust to the different living standards, food, culture, language etc., but I embraced it and it allowed me to really experience local life. I learned the language enough within a few months to communicate a bit, as English was usually not possible.
At the time, I was working with a local travel agency. One day we went to Bali to the national Bali & Beyond Travel Fair. There my boss introduced me to someone who, at that time, was the supervisor of a woman who would later become my wife. Here the career story becomes more of a personal one.
I will skip the details, but 2015 was quite eventful for me. I finished my studies, moved to Indonesia, got married and found a job in an NGO that focuses on women’s empowerment through skills education in tourism in Bali. It wasn’t the best job, but I learned many things and, more importantly, I was able to build a solid network.
After a few months, I realized I needed something more professional and that’s when I started at Buffalo Tours, a DMC that operates in eleven Asian countries. Over a period of two years I became the Business Development & Product Manager as well as an Advisor for Responsible Tourism, helping the company to be more responsible in their daily operations: i.e. avoiding waste, reducing emissions and reinvesting in personnel development.
At the same time, my wife was working at a big Swiss NGO to develop educational training in tourism. After many long discussions, we came to the conclusion that NGO’s are, in many cases, inefficient in their use of resources and most businesses are too profit oriented to really make any changes. That’s when we decided to create a social travel enterprise where we would be in control of our positive and negative impacts towards local communities and the environment and still generate enough profits to make a living. Wise Steps Travel was born in November 2017 and both my wife and I resigned from our other jobs in December 2017.
Can you describe how it felt when you made the decision to start your own business?
We both always dreamed of having our own company where we could support others and protect the environment. When we finally made the decision, it was exciting but also a bit scary as it was new to us and there was a lot to learn. Luckily, we had a lot of support from friends and family, we took part in a six-month social entrepreneurship course to learn the ropes and set up quickly, and we attended the ITB (international tourism expo) in Berlin in March. I like to think that’s the point when we really became entrepreneurs.
What is the idea behind Wise Steps Travel?
The idea behind Wise Steps Travel is to change the travel industry in Indonesia. A bit ambitious, but it’s something we care deeply about so we have to try. One of Indonesia’s biggest industries is Tourism Marketing. Visitor targets are often quantity, not quality based, which leads to uncontrolled and mismanaged mass tourism at many destinations. This results in an undeniably negative local impact, for example in the form of habitat destruction, social unrest and other emerging problems that are difficult to reverse. Consequently, if there is no change, the Indonesian tourism industry will literally destroy itself.
Wise Steps Travel wants to provide incredible but responsible experiences to show that this approach can increase positive impacts and reduce negative impacts while still generating profit. Our goal is to prove that responsible tourism actually enhances personal experiences and we want to inspire others to follow suit. Obviously, our clients come first (though not at the expense of our responsibilities to locals and the environment) but so far, feedback has been fantastic.
Can you tell us more about your average day?
A big part of my time goes into responding to emails, preparing itineraries and organizing tours and experiences. Besides that, we are still setting up our standard operating procedures, systems (i.e. bookkeeping software), work flows, key performance indicators etc. As we have multiple business units, we are still working on individual business plans and marketing strategies, too. Apart from that I am always looking for new collaboration opportunities and I develop new products and write monthly articles for our website.
Which challenges do you face as an entrepreneur?
I think what makes it interesting and challenging at the same time is the scope of knowledge (theoretical and practical) that you need to have. Especially in the beginning you don’t have the resources to hire professionals, so you’re forced to do everything on your own: web development & SEO strategies, financial management, local taxation rules, partnerships agreements, insurance, local suppliers, responsible standards, marketing, etc.
As an entrepreneur, you need to be knowledgeable and you need to be willing to learn, constantly. That can be straining and exhausting. In my opinion, a very important way to restore your energy is passion. If you’re only involved with short projects, that’s fine, but starting a business is a marathon and in the long run you need to be utterly convinced about what you are doing to be successful.
Do you plan on staying in Indonesia permanently?
I’m not sure yet. One reason for building our own company was to be more flexible, not just time-wise, but also location-wise. For now, our plans are to stay and focus on growing our business. Maybe someday we’ll be able to connect our ideas to Germany. Who knows? We’ll see what the future holds.