Summer Spotlight: Students bring opportunity to Puerto Vallarta artisans
Tufts interns and alumni lead in microfinance-tourism business
Published: Thursday, September 6, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 6, 2012 07:09
While tourists soaked up the Mexican sun in Cancun and Acapulco this past summer, four Tufts students had a very different tourism experience. Sophomores Aidan Nguyen, Morgan Babbs, Justin Roth and Julia Stein worked as interns for Investours, a microfinance-based tourism company.
Investours, based in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, approaches tourism in a non-traditional, socially conscious way.
Small groups of tourists meet and interact with local artisans in poorer neighborhoods and the tourists and artisans exchange knowledge about each group’s culture and daily life. The revenue from the tour is used for an interest-free microloan for one of the artisans to help grow his or her business.
Active since 2008, Investours is still a young start-up, but the business remains fully active in harnessing microfinance to encourage new, socially responsible tourism.
“We have many goals, but we are really trying to use the power of microfinance and combine it with tourism to contribute to development and poverty alleviation in Mexico and Tanzania,” Chief Operating Officer Corrina Jacobs (LA ’10) said.
Investours is fairly small, with only three fulltime staff members, including Jacobs, the country director for Tanzania, and Elly Rohrer (LA ’11), the country director for Mexico. As a result, the nonprofit is heavily dependent on its interns for much of its work.
Roth’s internship responsibilities included designing a virtual marketplace for tourists to access information about the artisans, as well as gathering information about the impact of microfinance on the lives of the artisans.
“We wanted to see the tangible effects on their business and their livelihood in general, and how it improved the quality of life for their family,” he said. “So we went and interviewed probably fifteen to twenty clients, and we asked them questions about their general impressions of microfinance.”
Stein cited the improvements that microfinance has made in the lives of the artisans.
“There was this one guy, Javier, who was one of our clients, and he was a fisherman and also a chef,” she said. “He took out a microfinance loan in the beginning and paid back his dues on time, and now he’s opening a restaurant. It’s very rewarding to see our work actually helping people.”
Stein’s work included helping organize an upcoming university tour, working to promote a film called “The Microlending Film Project” (2011) and fundraising for Investours through a jewelry line run by the local artisans.
According to Jacobs, Ashwin Kaja originally conceived Investours while a student at Harvard. He saw enormous potential in combining the exciting new idea of microfinance with a form of tourism that was both educational and ethical.
Jacobs became involved while living in Boston after graduating from Tufts.
“I was working but I was still looking around for something I could do that still had the values of active citizenship, of travel [and] of being an international citizen,” she said. “So, I was really eager to do something abroad,”
Both Roth and Stein agreed that Investours draws on values unique to Tufts, such as global citizenship.
“Tufts is very international, as we know, and I think ... the fact that our two bosses were coincidentally Tufts students, shows how internationally-minded Tufts is,” Stein said, referring to Jacobs and Rohrer.
Jacobs found that the theme of active citizenship central to Tufts was a key component of the Investours’ team and for her, all the more reason to join in.
“I really feel like in all of my friends, all of my professors, the spirit of Tufts is an international one,” Jacobs said. “That’s one of the main reasons Investours really struck a chord with me, because we’re trying to create a global community that’s committed to giving back to the communities they visit.”
Roth and Stein enjoyed experiencing Mexican culture and being immersed in the Spanish language in the small town of Bucerias, close to Puerto Vallarta.
“I didn’t speak any Spanish and by the end, I could negotiate with shopkeepers and order food,” Stein, who has studied French, said.
Roth, who is pursuing a major in economics and international relations with a concentration in Latin American studies, said the experience not only improved his confidence in speaking Spanish, but also gave him opportunities to explore in addition to a newfound enthusiasm for his studies.
“That’s really what I found by interning there, a greater confidence with the Spanish language and an openness to explore everything,” he said. “I think I’m coming back with a really great experience and excitement about what I’m studying.”
Jacobs emphasized the importance of Investours as a way to bring working experience to young people in the area of microfinance tourism.
“We really want to bring back a dialogue, for students all over the country, but especially for Tufts students, about student involvement in microfinance and international development, what you can do as an undergrad and how important it is to gain real world, professional experience before you enter the workforce,” she said.