Welcome to our new member – Intercultural Outreach Initiative (IOI)
Interview with Johann Besserer, PhD – Founder and Executive Director
Tell us your story. How did Intercultural Outreach Initiative (IOI) get started?
I was born and raised in Germany, and the last thing I imagined as an undergraduate business major was that I would go to the United States and start a non-profit in Latin America. Alas, here we are.
It all began in April 2005 when I, then a Marine Affairs and Policy graduate student at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, travelled to Belize for an anthropology spring break course. The trip changed my perception of what was this world, and what I wanted to do with my life. People were so seemingly poor, they had so little but I’d never seen happier people, they were just living, and I felt like I hadn’t been somehow. It was an ‘ah-ha’ moment in the purest sense. Eager to deepen this understanding, I immediately signed up for the program’s next trip to Latin America, which happened to be to the Galapagos Islands.
At the time, sea cucumber fisheries were a high value fishery on Isabela, and there were few opportunities for work outside of this ecologically and socially harmful industry. These people need alternatives, I thought – for conservation’s and social stability’s sake. Upon returning to Miami, this idea became the topic for my thesis. The premise centred around the notion that introducing sustainable tourism, and educating local populations about sustainability and conservation, could have long-lasting, positive effects on their communities and ecosystems.
After renovating an abandoned mission in 2007 to be the dedicated headquarters for the following decade and keeping the entire organisation alive with odd jobs ranging from trucking across the United States to being a chauffeur during the Miami Superbowl in 2007, and pawning everything I owned, I realised that I needed a more sustainable source of income. I recalled how I had ended up in the Galapagos in the first place, and in the Christmas season of 2007-2008, IOI opened its doors to study abroad groups. Study abroad is now IOI’s largest and most important source of income.
What makes Intercultural Outreach Initiative (IOI) different from your competitors?
It was a deep, fundamental desire to help people and the environment, that was the basis for IOI, an organization dedicated to creating environmental stewardship in communities that support some of the most unique marine habitats on Earth. The very things that led me down the path to founding IOI, are also the aspects of our programmes that our primary supporters now appreciate the most. Conservation, education, experience, and most importantly, the invitation to change your perceptions.
What is your favourite success story from your organisation?
In each of our locations we run female empowerment programmes with our local host family mothers. After several years of work with a group of roughly 25 women we started seeing men wanting to be part of the group (which was quite a surprise in a rather conservative fishing community). Slowly, our women’s group turned into a community group with youth and men attending. The group eventually emancipated from IOI and we helped them become a full community association. Whereas they used to work “for us” or “under our guidance” in “our projects”, now they were designing and executing their own projects based out of our facilities. To put this in context – we are not trying to rid ourselves of some neo-colonial dark tendencies, but it is noteworthy that this is happening in a setting where civil society does not exist beyond a no longer existent fishing coop. While this part alone would already qualify for what I consider our greatest success in Galapagos, I knew our work really came to fruition when one of the sons of a host mom took over coordination of our turtle monitoring programme with the National Park, unpaid, out of interest and an emancipated sense of civic duty.
What can we expect to see from Intercultural Outreach Initiative (IOI) in the future?
We are internationalising our concept of promoting sustainable development in unique locations via international education and volunteer travel. Currently in Cuba and Galapagos, we aim to be in 5 locations within the next 5 years.
Which trends do you see in educational and active youth travel?
We are a small provider with a focus on sustainable development and environmental conservation in very niche locations. Thus, industry trends are hard for us to grasp. From our perspective, we’ve seen a noticeable uptick in European participants willing to pay for volunteer experiences. It used to be 85% US American but now we have about 50% participants from other continents, the biggest block being European.
How do you work to ensure the health and safety of young travellers involved with Intercultural Outreach Initiative (IOI)?
We are lucky to be in two very safe countries (Cuba and Ecuador), and within them, in the maybe safest possible locations (Isle of Youth and Galapagos). That being said, we have a big focus on participant well-being and have substantial in-house expertise on the subject. One of our key team members has over a decade of expertise in Emergency Preparation and Program Safety Protocols in the volunteering industry. And I myself, have personally written the med-evac procedures for Galapagos, for what I believe is the biggest travel insurance provider in the US.
What was your motivation to join WYSE Travel Confederation?
As our internationalisation efforts have grown, we wanted to be part of a global community to learn more about industry standards and innovation. No better place to learn about sustainable travel than the WYSE community.
What is an industry challenge your organisation is facing currently?
We have built substantial programme capacity at our volunteering programs. All programmes are dedicated to serving a larger purpose by aligning with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and have long term, impactful objectives and goals in education, social development, and conservation. While our programmes have an impeccable design and our locations are of exceptional beauty, they are also hard to reach and we are having trouble filling the capacity. We are hoping to find more/new partners through WYSE and at their industry events.
IOI is a transnational non-profit that empowers isolated communities to grow sustainably through financial and technical assistance funded by educational travel adventures.
To provide international education programs that support the education, conservation, and social development of isolated communities by assisting local institutions in sustainably handling the human-environmental intersection.
What We Do:
We strive to help establish ecological sustainability and social stability in our host communities by applying thoughtful assistance and expertise to local needs – financed by educational travel adventures.
Membership: WYSE Travel Confederation Associate Member
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