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Elephants in the Masai Mara

An Interview with Anne Loehr by
The International Ecotourism Society

Interview by Patricia Carrington, TIES

View the original article - Click Here

Anne Loehr, Eco-resorts
Anne Loehr is the American Director of Eco-resorts an inbound tour operator based in Kenya that specializes in tailor-made, eco-friendly East African safaris. Anne was dragged to Kenya by her husband & business partner Neel Inamdar for a two-year contract. Ten years later, she calls Kenya her home, but spends 4-6 months every year in the U.S., promoting Eco-resorts and East African ecotourism. Earlier in her career, she managed and directed hotels and restaurants in the U.S., France and Kenya. Her favorite community work is with the Children of the Rising Sun Home orphans near Malindi, Kenya.

Describe your project and why tourists find it to be an interesting experience.

We (Neel, Melinda, and I) are actually hoteliers by profession. We were running hotels all over the world and they were generally very successful mass-market hotels and on the side was our environmental and community work. Working in the schools and working in the villages. We did it (the side work) because we believed in it.

Then we found that was we had the highest repeat guest ratio in the country (Kenya)-over 60% of the people came back every year. We found out it was because of all the community work we were doing. We had sponsored a child; we had built a classroom. Guests had helped with these projects and they wanted to come back and see them. So we started working with that and then we started working with the environment side and got the same kind of results. Then we sold everything because we wanted to get out of the mass market business and into ecotourism. We took some time off. We traveled around and saw what other countries were doing with ecotourism. Then we came back to Kenya.

Eco-resorts sells ecofriendly adventure holiday packages for East Africa. But we also do a lot more in terms of working with TIES, working with Kenya Tourism Board and working with the Ecotourism Society of Kenya to promote ecotourism.

We are probably one of the few companies that specialize in cultural introduction, not just wildlife. People really like that. We have 6 itineraries right now-one you live in a village, for as many days as you want, people love that one. Another is a volunteer vacation—guests spend half their time working in an orphanage and then the rest of their time on safari. My favorite is our art safari-you actually go and learn art from a master artist and then at the end you have an art exhibit. The local artists come and critique your work. All of the itineraries have that same premise on local culture. It is not just you going to see their homes; it is working with them and getting involved.

Educational trips it is what people want now. People love it because they really want to go on safari, but they also want to make a difference.

Why did you choose Kenya?

Well Kenya is our home. Neel, my husband is Kenyan, and I consider myself Kenyan. And when I say I am going home, I talk about going to Kenya. Also, from what I've seen, I really do believe that Kenya is ahead of the pack in ecotourism. A lot of people are actually looking towards Kenya to see what is going on in terms of community-based tourism. A lot of people are talking about it now. A lot of people are coming to see how it works in Kenya. So it just makes sense to keep pushing things along in terms of community based tourism

What makes your project unique?

I think what makes us unique is our cultural immersion. We also have a factor called mix and match. We do set trips but what customers usually say is: I want 4 days on that trip, 3 days on that trip, etc. and we put it together, we do it all the time. People really like that. In terms of what I do, I would say very few commercial companies have someone like me that goes out there fulltime and just focuses on ecotourism. I am talking to anyone I can get my hands on about ecotourism. And it is not necessarily just for Eco-resorts it is for ecotourism.

What led you to undertake an ecotourism project?

Neel is an honorary warden in the Kenyan wildlife service. If he could be, he would be out in bush and protecting wildlife all day. Wildlife has always been his passion and that kind of rubbed off on me. For me it was always the community. I was always involved in the orphanages, so the two kind of mixed together and a lot of our friends at hotel school are on Wall Street and working for large hotel chains and we knew from the beginning that was not what we wanted to do. And I've known ever since I was a kid that all I ever wanted to do was travel. I was ready to get out and see the world. So I think Neel and I rubbed off on each other. Once you get out there you will understand, you cannot live there and not fall in love with the wildlife. And not realize that the environment is really falling apart. It is slowing coming back because of ecotourism, but unless ecotourism keeps going, it is just going to fall apart.

What are some defining moments?

A defining moment for me was when we were able to take kids from the orphanage I work at on safari last year. We took only ten of them, because that is all the money we had available. Most Kenyans never go to a game park because they can't afford it. Most Kenyans have never seen a lion or an elephant. That's the whole problem in Kenya they look at wildlife as a threat because the elephants are trampling their farms. For us to be able to take ten kids on safari, I mean their faces. I can't even describe the opportunity they had. That was a real highlight for me to be able to do that with them.

Challenges?

I am an outsider. I'm an American and I will always be an outsider no matter what, even though I speak the language. I just don't understand the African mentality sometimes. I've butted my head against the wall and you know, Neel will walk in and because he grew up there, he can just say a few things and of a sudden things are turned around. So that is always frustrating and I need to put my Americanism behind me.

Corruption is another challenge, although it is not that big of a deal. It is frustrating sometimes, when you are trying to make a difference, no matter you do, the government just sits on everything.

How has ecotourism changed your life?

I probably could never ever work for a company that does not have an eco-policy. It just would not even happen.

I guess ecotourism becomes part of your blood. Everywhere you go, you look into the wildlife and you look into the communities. When you are an electrician, you can walk in and check the electricity and see what needs to be fixed. When you are an ecotourist, you can go anywhere in the world and get a feeling of what the people are thinking, what is the community like. It just becomes a part of your life.

Who has influenced you the most?

The local Kenyans. I have learned so much from them and I am constantly learning so much more. They have nothing. They make a dollar a day and live in mud huts, and they come out impeccably dressed, uniforms always pressed and they are always happy. They never complain. I have learned humility. They never let anything get them down. They never give up. They always have dignity. The strength of the Kenyan women is just unbelievable.

In terms of more European influences: Anita Roddick from The Body Shop, Ben and Jerry, they really influenced me when I was in college. In terms of environmental stuff probably David Western. I've never meant anyone like him in my life. He was just amazing.

Is there such a thing as ideal ecotourism?

No. I think it changes for every destination, even within a country, it is going to change.

I guess that is what I like about ecotourism—it is always evolving. You need to go to other parts of the world to see what's going on. Whereas a big hotel chain is always the same everywhere. That is not the case with the ecotourism.

Can travelers really make a difference?

Absolutely, other wise I would not be doing this. I really believe they are going to make a difference on an ecotour, whether they realize it or not, because a percentage of their trip costs goes towards conservation and education. And the tourists can go home and tell people and spread the word. And make small changes at home, like recycling, which could make a change globally.

What should they look for in a travel experience?

When they go, they should look at pre-departure information about the culture. They should ask how much money is going back to the community. They should ask how much money is staying in country. They should ask a lot of questions about the guides-are they local guides. When they are there, ask more questions about what is proper, what is not proper for the culture. Ask to see the local areas, to see where the money is going. And then when you go home, spread the word, talk about it and try to change a few things-drive less, recycle, conserve water.

Interview by Patricia Carrington, TIES

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