Richard A. Shepard, Director Vesselka Consulting Ltd
Some projects / teams have integrated well the fact that to move forward, to evolve only united as a team the goals will be achieve. Some programs actually incorporate sustainable goals that not only allow the community but also to the country’s economy to grow and really improve their environment and standard of living. Projects / programs like this, I have discovered one and every discussion with its participants make discover their enthusiasm, and their serious investment. Discover this project through the program’s director Richard A. Shepard.
MissBlue: How did the idea of the Black Sea Program for Rural Sustainable Tourism come up?
Richard A. Shepard: This is actually a long story. Back in 2003 I was the Regional Director of the Eurasia Foundation responsible for providing small grants to non-profits, NGOs and other forms of associations in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. One of our mandates was to support local economic development and in 2003 we wanted to find a unique niche. The result was a small grant pilot program to support “Green” Tourism in all three countries. Ukraine in particular had a strong, grass roots movement to develop ecological programs in a variety of areas – one of which was tourism. Although we provided support in Belarus – a difficult target – and Moldova, we concentrated on Ukraine because of the strong growth potential in the sector. In Ukraine, we provided a total of $35,000 in small grants averaging $5,000 to about six NGOs who were to use the money to provide training and business support to the private sector involved in eco-tourism. That does not sound like a lot of money – but it was at the time and the result was the formation of 4 new companies and about 30 new jobs – not bad for the money spent.
After the pilot we planned a regional program much like the one that we are implementing today. We tried to convince our major donor to allow us to expand the program as well as approaching other donors for funding. Unfortunately, the major donor to Eurasia at the time felt that tourism was frivolous despite the cost/benefit that was clear from the pilot.
I left Eurasia at the end of 2003 and pursued other endeavors and, as a matter of fact, only using Kyiv as a base – spending four years from 2005 in Africa, Central Asia and the Gulf region.
If you look at our web site, you’ll read why we formed Vesselka Consulting in 2010 and our first internal goal was to resurrect the Black Sea Rural Sustainable Tourism Program as our own, self- financed program not dependent on donor funds with the consequent strings attached. We determined to take our time and build the program very gradually and sustainably – including from the standpoint of its for-profit concept – for both Vesselka and the participants in the program. Nothing is sustainable without funds and we do not consider donor funding sustainable.
So, here we are today, growing the program slowly. Also –the companies formed back in 2003? They are still in business and the principle NGO is now our partner in Ukraine.
MB: What are the main problems are you facing?
RS: We consider our problems to be challenges to overcome. For example, a major challenge is finding a way to create a sense of community in societies that are not accustomed to working in groups. This is an issue that requires time and results to overcome. We don’t take an academic approach by preaching theory. People can read that themselves. We try to show that cooperation in an association, for example, can benefit an entire community – not just individuals. Associated with this challenge was a misinterpretation of what we were doing. This was a failure on our part to adequately explain the program. Most participants thought this was just another donor program with a fixed term. It took some time to explain how the program governance would operate and that this was an integrated business venture – not a stand-alone, three year donor project which collapses as the money runs out. That was part of our sustainability equation – we all had to have a revenue stream for sustainability.
The second challenge is, of course, funding. Because we are funding the program at this time ourselves, we are under pressure to show a return on our investment. This tends to preclude standard donor funding, replacing it with sponsors (who are carefully vetted) and contributions from individuals and companies. As the program moves forward, we expect the funding pressure to decrease as profits for participants and ourselves grow. At the same time, we will have a new web portal that will take all reservations for our participants, process payments and include a percentage for special fund that will be established with a UK based no-profit to provide micro-grants to participating communities.
MB: Speaking about individualism, how did you find a way to make people change attitude?
RS: We believe that example is the best teacher. Of course, standard training and a certain amount of academic approaches are necessary, but the simple fact is that if we can convince one person in one community to take a leadership role then his or her economic success in developing an ecologically sensitive and sustainable business will draw others into the program. Change is hard without concrete examples of success.
MB: How can sustainable tourism help communities in facing an economic crisis?
RS: Sustainable tourism is only one component that a community can use to reduce the impact of an economic crisis. A frequently used term these days is “resilience”. Some think that resilience is the opposite of being fragile and means “bouncing back” from adversity. But that is not enough. The legendary phoenix was resilient – rising from its own ashes to take its original form. To deal with any adverse event, economic or otherwise, it is not enough to be resilient, to come back to where one was. It is necessary to be anti-fragile – to come back in a better situation. Sustainability should make the community anti-fragile. We believe that for some communities, one way to become anti-fragile is to take advantage of environmental, economic and cultural strengths through sustainable tourism.
It is easy to understand that a community needs to support itself economically. Our participants understand that they need to source goods and services locally as much as possible and to also identify businesses that are not currently operating that could be established by a local entrepreneur. One of the simplest examples took place in Turkey where a small bakery was established to serve local needs so that they did not need to travel to the nearest city to buy bread. There is a multiplier effect to rural community development that helps create jobs and innovative ideas to support economic growth. To be anti-fragile.
MB: Will you extend to other countries than the one in the Black Sea Region?
RAS: The program core originally only included Ukraine and Turkey but within a few months we received interest from Georgia which we could not ignore. Our target is to develop the program for two years, learning lessons and remaining flexible, and then expand it to Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova. However, as members of The International Ecotourism Society we are steadily building a niche for our services to work in sustainable tourism world-wide.
MB: Has the network community platform open, can people find out the first proposed destinations?
RS: We are working on the web portal now. The first step is to visit some of the destinations and make an assessment and then launch a pilot travel package at a reduced cost to get feedback from adventurous travelers who will also be able to help. Part of the initial package will be our volunteer tourism package which will be tightly controlled and vetted to avoid the problems that have been associated with volunteer tourism. We are anticipating going on line with the first offerings by the end of August.
MB: Have you an advice for people who want to change or make change?
RS: Work slowly, be ready to adjust to changed circumstances and don’t be afraid to drop a process if it is not working. The people on the ground where you live and work must be involved. Avoid the tendency to fall back on “kits” or one size fits all approaches.
The hardest part is funding – you’ll find that some funders – donors in particular – have a vision set in concrete not only of what should be done but how to do it. That is rarely a good way to go. Remember also, that it may not be change which people are looking for – they simply may not be making the best use of their energies and resources and may simply not see what they can offer since they may take many things for granted. Above all, it’s necessary to persevere.
Thank you so much Richard A. Shepard for your time and insight.
Vesselka Consulting is an independent international organization offering a broad range of professional services. They design and implement initiatives that achieve results and make a difference in commercial and agricultural investments, land administration and management, sustainable tourism and capacity building for public and private sector organizations.
They have partnered with other consulting firms implementing international donor funded projects, but their ability to work with the private sector to promote public – private ventures and assist with private sector investment planning also permits to the company to design and implement their own programs with flexibility, such as The Black Sea Sustainable Rural Tourism Program.