The RISE Traveler: Unpacking Conversations of Sustainable Travel

Running a Sustainable Travel Business: Conscious Travel in Costa Rica

July 18, 2023 Season 3 Episode 4
The RISE Traveler: Unpacking Conversations of Sustainable Travel
Running a Sustainable Travel Business: Conscious Travel in Costa Rica
Show Notes Transcript

As the owner of Travel with Ann Experiential, Ann Becker consults with nonprofits and small travel businesses with the goal of raising and including more diverse voices, making strategic connections, contributing fresh perspectives as well as thought leadership and counseling. Ann's extensive experience includes successfully operating experiential tours in lesser-known destinations in Costa Rica and neighboring countries.

In this interview with host Amy Hager, Ann emphasizes the significance of sustainable and thoughtful tourism, highlighting its ability to create meaningful and enduring experiences for host communities, travelers, and the environment. She discusses the importance of travel leaders to design immersive trips, enabling visitors to listen, learn, share stories, and actively support the development of sustainable communities that benefit everyone involved. Through her work, Ann aims to promote responsible travel practices and contribute to the well-being of local populations and the planet. Ann is also the Principal Strategic Advisor at RISE Travel Institute.

Host: Amy Hager - Social Media Manager at The RISE Travel Institute
Video and Audio Editing: Kate Mulvihill - Video and Podcast Producer at The RISE Travel Institute
Graphic Design: Shirley Wong - Freelance Art Director
Music: On My Way by Kevin MacLeod (License

Hello and welcome. Wherever you are in the world today, thank you for joining us for The RISE Traveler, unpacking conversations of sustainable travel. We are here to talk to eco minded and socially conscious travelers, diversity and inclusion specialists, wildlife conservationists, environmental activists, and anyone using travel as a way to uplift and inspire. Together, we will go a step beyond the Instagram-ready world of travel, and take a look at how travel can be a source of growth and development for all people in all communities. 

This podcast is an extension of the RISE Travel Institute, a 501c3 nonprofit committed to empowering young travelers through educational programs, research, study tours and scholarships. Visit to learn more. And now, here's your host, Amy Hager. 

Amy Hager
Hello, hello, wherever you are in the world today. Thank you for joining us on The RISE Traveler, unpacking conversations of sustainable travel. And we're here to really talk about how travel can be uplifting and inspiring and going a step beyond that Instagram-ready world that we kind of see and know of travel. And we really want to take a deeper look at how travel can be a source of growth and development for all people in all communities. Here at the RISE Travel Institute we're committed to empowering young travelers through educational programs, research study tours and scholarships. So if you're interested in learning more about RISE, please check us out at I'm your host, Amy Hager, welcome. 

And today, I'm so excited to have with me Ann Becker, who's also the Principal Strategic Advisor here at RISE. And she's joining me live remotely from Chicago. So Ann, thank you for spending a little time with me today.

Ann Becker
Thank you, Amy. I've seen your picture. I've listened to your podcast, but it's really a delight to see you in person. And I also want to thank you for all you do for RISE. 

Amy Hager
Oh, well thank you. I think it's again, one of the best teams I've ever been a part of, and just to see how we all come from different spaces in the world and from different backgrounds. But to come together to really uplift travel is so much fun. And you're kind of feeding into the first question that I want to ask you today. And I know that you've worn multiple hats here at RISE. So first of all, I know you're a donor and a supporter. You also did a review of our Pilot Program, and I read some of your reviews, and they were raving. So that always warms my heart. And now you're our Principal Strategic Advisor. And so I guess, I want to ask you like, why are you so dedicated to RISE and our mission?

Ann Becker
Well, I think it goes back to 2019 going into 2020, and some degree of serendipity. I had made the decision already, that February 2020 was going to be my final- after 15 years of annually leading annual women's trips in Costa Rica, I had made that decision. And I thought after that I was going to take some time back to reflect on what I had learned how I might share it more broadly, I was going to take the global sustainable tourism Council's course in sustainable tourism to kind of think about all the experiences I had had and leading trips, and how did they fit into these more or less academic frameworks. So those are my plans. But at the same time, 2020 was going to be a year of quite a bit of travel for my husband and me. We're both not fully retired, we're still not really fully retired. But we were well on the path and we had all these plans. We were going to reconnect with one longtime dear Swiss friend in Berlin, and then go hiking in Slovakia and Poland. A friend of mine and I were gonna do a hiking trip in Grand Canyon. My husband and I were going to return to Vietnam again to visit our very dear friends there. 

And we were at a point where we're very privileged to be largely retired, but with the time and the means to travel and visit with friends around the world who mean so much to us. So then, you know, everyone knows what happened in March of 2020. Shutdown, the shutdown, and I was the the GSTC program started right around then. So I was part of the first cohort of two travel people from all over the world who were participating in that. But I also was like, oh, we had put out money for all these different trips and travel experiences. And the money was coming back to us. And at the same time it was coming back to us I was seeing that there was just so much need. Not only internationally, but need in our local community from local restaurateurs. So overnight, they didn't have their business wanted to figure out how they could potentially keep their employees getting food and other things, just seniors who couldn't necessarily get out at all. 

But I also am very deeply connected with a community on the southwest coast of Costa Rica, where I spent an enormous amount of time. I know them really well. And overnight, they had no tourism. They live in an area where almost all the land is protected. So there's very little opportunity for local agriculture, And I reached out to colleagues there that run a community based organization. And I said to them, what is the most important thing you need? They said, what we really need right now is access to food, and then developing our own distribution strategy to get food in these communities, people who need them most. So I started something called the Drake Day Emergency Fund working with that local organization and also non profit in the US called Amigos of Costa Rica. I leveraged a lot of my contacts and colleagues from all my Costa Rica work and the we raised, we were able to raise in fairly short order almost $20,000, which is very, very carefully managed, distributed. It was a stepping stone to the community taking a step back and saying during this time period, what can we do to strengthen ourselves as a community? How can we come back better prepared, if and when travel does open again? So I was doing all those things. And at the same time, I met Vincie, because we ended up being part of the same committee or team for the Impact Travel Alliance. We just really connected with her, she connected with me. I was so in awe and appreciative of her vast knowledge, her incredible thoughtfulness. And I would say that the other thing was that it was really clear to me also as a longtime business owner, this was a woman who was being very thoughtful, and deliberate and planful, about how to create something for which I thought there was a need in the broader universe. And I was very appreciative of the mission, but also just how Vincie was going about to try to build a healthy, hopefully, long term sustainable nonprofit. 

So I supported a couple of scholarships for the RISE Pilot Program. Vincie said, you're more than welcome to join the program. I started the program and I thought, Oh, I'm not going to do it all. I'll just do this and this and that now. I did it all. We loved it. I felt like it was another way to take my learnings from my own work, when it was learning from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, and to continue to really learn and reflect. 

I mean, I love the systems thinking about sustainability, especially the spiritual domain. I learned a lot more about indigenous tourism, and I reflected on what had I done well, when I brought my groups to meet during certain indigenous communities in Costa Rica. I made some mistakes. So if I were to do that, again, how would I do it differently? And I'm really appreciating the complexities of the issues of wildlife and wildlife tourism, and what does it mean not just for the animals, but what are the challenges for the local community in the case of elephants, these things are all really complex. But they're fascinating. And I just love the ongoing learning element, thoughtful engagement, the encouragement to ask tough questions, the discussions around privilege and intersectionality. And just, I felt so strongly that RISE is really equipping people to be more thoughtful and engaged travelers. And it centers, which has always been a passion of mine, local people, local communities and our planet. It doesn't first and foremost center the traveler, the traveler has an important role to play, but travel does not revolve around the traveler. 

Between all that plus the fact that, you know, I've had all this business experience of my own And through that I've really worked with a lot of nonprofits, a lot of philanthropic foundations, government agencies. I just, I just thought, this is an organization that I can really put my heart and mind behind. And I hope that I can become a helpful resource and sounding board. And so that's where we are. And I think just about a year ago that Vincie and I decided to formalize this arrangement of my being the Principal Strategic Advisor. So I’m really passionate about RISE in case you can’t tell.

Amy Hager
Yeah, there's a lot of passion. But I think the beautiful thing is that it really started from nothing and has grown, right. And so for you to be here through the shifts and the change and the growth from the ground up. It's such a beautiful thing to watch being built and to be a part of being built. Yeah. And so, to tie this back to you and your story in your company, I mean, you build a company from the ground up. So what's the story behind inspiring you to start your own company? What's the mission? What do you do exactly?

Ann Becker 
I've done a lot of different things. Yeah, I mean, first, the backdrop is that I'm a very long time owner, and CEO of a full service meeting and event management company. I did that for the majority of my career, because I have a lot of background and a graduate degree that has a public policy dimension to it. I was always really interested in opportunities to work with private nonprofit organizations, philanthropic foundations, and government agencies. My passion in doing that work,  and it's kind of how I first got into it, is really the creative program design with meaningful participatory engagement. So never an event or meeting for the sake of a meeting, an event or a meeting that is purposeful and has benefit to an organization's mission and organization’s plan and really engages the participants in helping move that meeting or that work forward. So that was my particular passion. But I knew if I was going to have a full service meeting and event business, that I needed to have strong logistics management and strong marketing and selling expertise. I ran that for a very long time. And I loved it. I mean, it was a great way to get involved in all kinds of interesting, amazing people, and it was great. And at the same time, I'd say that for my, almost as long as I can remember from my international travel, my travel experiences have always been filled with homestays and deep connections. I lived with a family for a summer in Switzerland between my junior and senior year in high school. Life changing living in a little village on the shore of the Bodensee or Lake Constance on the Swiss German border. I had the privilege and really joy of studying in France in college and living in a home there where I just was able to use my French the entire time. I was able to do graduate research in the Philippines in small communities. And I've never had any desire to kind of travel where everyone else goes all the time. It's just not my thing, I guess. 

So, anyways, in 2005, my husband and I went with our younger son to Costa Rica. I heard it was a wonderful place for people to go with teenagers. There was a lot of outdoor activity, educational activity, recreation. And contrast to a lot of different things, it was a place that you could go where actually you and your teenagers actually kind of hung out together quite a bit.. And I was completely smitten. I had never been to Central America, completely smitten and I turned around and like eight weeks later, I took my mom who was then 78 back with me. Wonderful mother daughter trip. I came home and I said to my husband, I don't know what It's going to be, I don't know exactly when it's going to be, but I am going to figure out a way to go back, and obviously can't always be on vacation or whatever. I'm going to figure out a way, financially, that will enable me to go back. I didn't know if it was Spanish immersion. I didn't know I was going to be some kind of volunteer activity. But I was, I am very entrepreneurial. So it's like a whirling dervish kind of always talking to people and making calls. The long and the short of it, I was connected with a little company that was based outside Seattle that has done student trips for a long time. But their student trips involve homestays, involve spending time in local communities and a little bit of meaningful kinds of volunteer activity. And in a lot of locations that a lot of people who go to Costa Rica don't go to. 

And when I talked to one of the principals on the phone, he said, I know what you ought to do, you ought to organize a customized trip for women, and we'll help you put it together. And I think I said, what my first reaction was, literally forgive my French, why the hell should I do that? Time organizing my clients. And they said, well, and first of all, you have been telling us, you've been talking to all your women colleagues and friends. And they all say, if you come up with anything interesting, you should let them know. They said, secondly, you're clearly enamored of Costa Rica, you've been bitten by the Costa Rican bug. And thirdly, because you've had this business experience, you know how to market and sell. You know, what it takes to actually put a trip together based on similar elements to organizing meetings and events. And so those are the reasons why I think we think you should consider this. So I said, Okay, I'll think about it. Later, I called him back. And I said, All right, I'm ready to go. I've recruited my first five women.

Amy Hager   
Oh, geez. Ann you’ve wasted no time, no time.

Ann Becker
This is July of 2005. I said, it's going to be in February of 2006. It's going to be a pilot project. And that's what I'm telling everybody. If it goes well, great. Maybe I'll do it every year. If it doesn't go well, at least I've told everyone it's a pilot project. 

So that was that. It was a crazy itinerary, ridiculous, how little I really knew. But I got assigned the perfect guide who ended up being the guide I worked with for all 15 years of my leading these trips, who's become a dear friend of our family. You know, over time, we just fine tuned things. I would do a scouting trip with him. I built my network of participants, referral sources, etc. And I added in for several years coed Spanish cultural immersion trips, a lot of family and friends trips. It was great. But my goal was never to grow the company in terms of huge volume, and geographic reach. It was never about that. I figured I've already built a meetings business, I’m still doing some of the meetings business. But given where I am in my life, I wasn't like going to be building a huge full service, “we're gonna go everywhere” kind of company. Yeah, I really did want to grow it deeply. And so for me, the people connections have always been the core. And so every time I would do a scouting trip, I would meet new people, or I would revisit people that maybe we visited before and I've learned about what they were working on now. Were there new opportunities to engage my group? I would develop new collaborations because Costa Rica is a small country. And now I have a pretty strong network of colleagues and I like supporting newish endeavors in local tourism. 

So that's really what I did for 15 years. And then I just got to the point where I said, I really love this, but the fact of the matter is that it's starting to tie me down in terms of the planning, the management, in a way that I don't want to be tied down anymore. And so while I no longer lead trips, I'm still very active in the travel and tourism space. And what I've done since I finished leading trips is with Travel with Ann Experiential is I'm very committed to raising and including more diverse voices, making strategic connections, contributing fresh perspectives and thought leadership and counseling non for profits and small businesses in this space on how best to strengthen organizational capacity. So I'm like an advisor, a connector, a resource, a sounding board. I'm trying to share knowledge, that would be helpful, but also build bridges and connections that can also be helpful to others who are just at different places in the industry right now.

Amy Hager
Okay, and so with all of the trips that you've planned, and places that you've gone, and I know, you had mentioned this before, where you know, taking the pilot program kind of helped you reflect on some of the travel that you've done, and maybe it wasn't so ethical or sustainable. So what would you give for advice? Or what would you do now, when you plan a trip to make sure it's ethical and sustainable?

Ann Becker   
Okay, all right. These are the things that I would do, that I would think about planning. I mean, I would say that the first thing is just a general, the importance of being thoughtful and intentional, intentional about one's plans. Whether it's exploring, like a new neighborhood, or whether it's exploring someplace far away. I think it's really important to think about, where am I even thinking about going? How would I get there? What are the climate implications of what my travel would require? Am I going to a place? Or do I want to go to a place that even really wants visitors? How heavy is the travel footprint there already? What's the capacity of the area? Are there significant negative impacts on the environment? If I want to go to that part of the world or that country, can I choose ways to visit it that would actually- I wouldn't, I won't say lessen the footprint as opposed to maybe spread the footprint- a little equitably. For instance, in October, my husband and I were in Portugal. If you look at a lot of the media, on Portugal, but you can see it some days you think Portugal is Lisbon, Porto and the Douro Valley. Because that's quite frankly, where everyone goes, Yeah. And I just knew that that wasn't the kind of trip that made sense for us. I also knew that there are some amazing areas of Portugal, that not that many people visit, where one can spend a lot of time outdoors. I mean, we spent time in the only national park in the country, literally. And then seeing a few cows on the day that we hiked. I don't think we saw another human being. And Amy, it was stunningly beautiful. Has a complex history. 

And other places like that. Yes, did we spend a little time in Porto? Yeah. Yeah. Spend a little time in Lisbon, yeah. Actually, at the end, our Swiss friends met us and we rented an apartment there for a few days. But we didn't have like a long list of we have to do this, we have to do that. Right. An attitude of we're going to wander. Sometimes not knowing where we're going. Like one day, we just took the ferry across the river, which is a small town, and let's just, as you said, let's see where this takes us. On the spur of the moment, I went into this little shop. And I got my hair cut there, because my other friend from Switzerland periodically does that. I'm just gonna do this. My husband and I had a wonderful conversation with the shop owners and why they're in Portugal now and all that. So I don't, it wasn't a rush. It wasn't a rush. So I think that's all really important. I think spending time in the outdoors and nature. And you can see from how people talk ever since the pandemic of the increasing importance of that. I just think the opportunity to spend some time outdoors in nature. You know, it can be strictly walking, hiking, it can be a guided walk or hike to learn something about the local flora, the local fauna. That spending time feeling connected to the land, I think is really important. 

I think another thing is, like, everybody talks now about support local, support, local support local. And I think as somebody thinking to travel, you have to push, really uncover, what does support local mean in this area? You know, the front of the house, maybe local employees, but the accommodations could be owned by someone or some company right away? How much of your dollars are actually going to support employees and staying in the community? Versus what is the leakage where that money is ending up far away? I think as well, that one, where are there opportunities to engage with local people, hear their stories, but also share their stories. And again, it's like, you'll see far more push local activities, etc. And I think it's one thing to say, like in Costa Rica, we're gonna go and we're going to learn how to make tortillas or make chocolate or whatever. That is great. But there's an opportunity there that oftentimes I think travelers don't take advantage of, there's an opportunity to engage more fully with those who are the hosts of that moment in conversation. Not just about the chocolate, not just about the tortillas. But you know, tell me more about you know, when your family eats tortillas, are there times when you all come to make them together? Things like that, that really pull people out in a conversation that can be two way. And even in the last few months there have been two distinct conversations where I've said to someone when we're traveling, and the most recent was a couple of weeks ago in Colombia. This has been in both instances, they have been guides. And I said, you know, could I ask you a question, are you comfortable sharing your personal story with us? I don't ever want to assume that. One instance, the person just smiled, but he also had a few tears in his eyes. And because it was a difficult story for him to share, but he wanted to share it. And at the end, Amy, and I shared a little bit more about my story. But at the end, he gave me the most incredible hug as we were leaving the tour, and that will always, always stay with me. Even in Colombia in the town of Palenque, where there's really an incredible Afro Caribbean history, amazing story, incredible town. We have a guide that's from that community, like going back generations and even then towards the end I said to him., everything you've shared is so fantastic. Can you tell us a little bit more about you? And this smile that came across his face was so special. He talked about how he kind of been a free spirit. And it wasn't until he landed on what he wanted to do for his community. And welcome tourists to have a better understanding of the origins and the history of his community that he really felt like he found himself. So moments like this to me are incredibly important. And they are. So the connections are so valuable. And part of the reason why I think that connections are so valuable is that they bring joy, they bring joy to the person who's asked the question, and they bring joy and understanding to the person who's asking that person to respond to the question. 

So I think those things are really important. And then I think, like, my last thing I would say, is that I always try to tell people don't over book or overschedule. People look at a country like Costa Rica, or even a country like Colombia. From a US perspective, those countries look small. They, you know, geography, they may be smaller, but what it takes to get from one area to another really can be incredibly complicated. And it's better to pick just a few places or even one place, settle in, try to go deep. It's also really important just to make time to wander, as I mentioned, you know, we had done in Portugal. I have a friend who said, “Slow travel isn't about how much time you've spent, it is about the pace of the time you have.” If you have three quarters of a day somewhere, you can still have a slow travel kind of experience in terms of the attitude, and the actions that you bring to that.

Amy Hager
I love that. Well, I think that's some really great advice. And if anything that I'm hearing from you and your experience Ann, is building those deep relationships, go deep in the places that you visit, make time to wander. And really asking questions to create those quality connections is really what has helped and guided you through your company, your tours, your career, and I think is such great advice for our listeners today. Thank you so much for sharing. 

Ann Becker
My pleasure, thank you.

Amy Hager
That brings us to the end of our journey today. If you liked what you heard and would like to hear more please subscribe, like, and comment.

Here at the RISE Travel Institute, we believe travel is a powerful tool for positive, transformative change. If you are a college student planning a study abroad trip, young professional thinking about that gap year, or anyone wanting to travel the world in a sustainable way, we do encourage you to head to for more information on our educational courses.

We will be back soon with another episode. Until then, keep roaming, keep learning, and continue to be a RISE Traveler. 

This podcast is an extension of The RISE Travel Institute, a 501c3 nonprofit committed to empowering young travelers through educational programs, research, study tours, and scholarships. Visit to learn more.