New Orleans resident Jared Sternberg, 30, started Gondwana Ecotours in 2013, the same year he graduated from Tulane University Law School in that city. He studied environmental and human rights with the idea of helping indigenous and underserved populations preserve land and resources, but after completing service work in locations including Ghana, Ecuador, Alaska and Nicaragua, Sternberg became convinced that tourism could achieve the same goals. This year, Gondwana offered trips to six destinations on three continents. (The name Gondwana refers to an ancient land mass.)
Below are edited excerpts from an interview with Sternberg.
Q: What inspired the switch from law to tourism?
A: After I saw the movie "Crude," about the huge lawsuit by Ecuadoreans against Chevron over contaminating the Amazon Basin, I wanted to do an internship with an Ecuadorean law firm, but everyone turned me down because I didn't have enough experience. I ended up volunteering with the Achuar tribe in the Amazon, which decided ecotourism was the form of development that was right for them. They built Kapawi Ecolodge to protect part of the rain forest and share their culture with visitors. I'm a nature geek and traveled a lot with my family, but I'd never thought about doing anything in tourism. After being with the Achuar, it just clicked, and I saw the power that tourism can have as a positive force, not only economically but emotionally.
Q: How did you get the business off the ground?
A: Starting out, everyone told me it would never work. One guy said, "There's only one Backroads for every 5,000 new tour companies," not that I want to be that big, but it was a good dose of reality. I started with places I'd lived and volunteered, where I knew guides and lodges. We had four trips in 2014, with 24 people, and this year we ran 25 trips for more than 200 people.
Q: Travel itself uses resources. How do you mitigate that?
A: One thing I do is pay carbon offsets for my guests' flights. I hope next year to start offsetting the entire trip, from start to finish. A small thing we do that sends out a big message is we provide everyone with a refillable water bottle for the trip. If we have to buy water, we buy jugs. We also try to recycle.
Q: How do you share your principles within the trip offerings?
A: In Alaska, for instance, we work with a family that has an off-the-grid sustainable homestead and uses rescue dogs for sledding. We bring people to their house, which I think is more effective than bringing an environmental nonprofit to the B&B for a lecture. We also work with a lot of nonprofit groups and hope to start our own nonprofit foundation. For our tours to Rwanda, we're working with Aspire Rwanda. The women there are learning vocational skills, including cooking. They're going to take our group to the market, we'll buy ingredients for a meal, and they'll teach us how to cook some local dishes. So along with us donating money, my guests will become aware of issues women face in Africa, and the Rwandan women will be able to demonstrate their skills.
Q: Do you have a donation formula?
A: So far I've donated about 10 percent of my profits. My goal isn't to say a percentage, but to do what I think is right for a specific trip.
Q: What has been your biggest disappointment?
A: Ironically, it's that I can't seem to attract a lot of people to the Amazon trip, which includes time with the Achuar tribe. Having been there and seeing how special it is and not being able to deliver more tourists there — that hurts. I'm just going to keep trying.