GoAbroad Interview

Rachel Wilson - CEO & Co-Founder

Rachel Wilson - CEO & Co-Founder

Rachel graduated from Texas State University in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in geography, environmental resource management, and horticulture. During her undergraduate studies, she began leading volunteer trips with her friend Lauren, and they both fell in love with the idea of traveling with a purpose. It didn’t take long for the two of them to establish Las Olas Travel. Now pursuing her master’s in international sustainable tourism at the University of North Texas and CATIE in Costa Rica, Rachel has been doing research on the benefits and host community perceptions of volunteer tourism. She loves working hands on in all of Las Olas Travel volunteer projects and looks forward to every new wave of change the organization can create.

Las Olas Travel is in its infancy, so to speak. What inspired you to found the organization back in 2015?

Lauren and I started leading volunteer trips together to Costa Rica in 2013. We both coordinated and attended the trips, participating in all volunteer work as well. I really fell in love with traveling and seeing the world around me, but even more than that, I fell in love with the ability to help communities while traveling. It’s one thing to travel and experience a new place, but it’s another thing altogether to become a part of these global communities, work alongside the locals, and integrate yourself into a new and exciting culture.

I was highly involved in volunteer work during my undergraduate degree, I was even the president of a volunteer organization on campus. My passion was mainly in environmental activism and the importance of healthy ecosystems. The ability to take this passion and other people’s love of volunteer work abroad really ignited something in me and what inspired Lauren and I to create Las Olas Travel.

Girl driving a boat
Boat driving in Texas

Why is Las Olas Travel unique from other organizations?

Las Olas Travel is unique for a few reasons. Besides being a woman owned, created, and operated company, we have designed every aspect of our business on the values of sustainability. This is what I’m pursuing my master’s in international sustainable tourism, and this is what makes Las Olas Travel so different than the other volunteer companies out there. When we say we focus in sustainability we mean that all of our programs and trips are designed in a way that can benefit the local life, economy, and environment.

We really believe that responsible travel is the future of the travel industry because people are more aware of global social/environmental issues and have the desire to do something about it. This is why we are more than just a company, we are a movement of conscious, sustainable travelers.

How did you select both Nicaragua and Costa Rica as destinations for Las Olas Travel programs?

During our undergrad, Lauren worked in the study abroad office and even completed her study abroad in Costa Rica. When she graduated and I was still a freshman, she packed up and moved to Costa Rica and never came back. Lauren is easily my biggest inspiration in life and I’m grateful to have such an amazing business partner.

We led our first trip to Costa Rica, this is where our passion for responsible, volunteer travel started. We traveled around Costa Rica together to hand pick the volunteer projects for Las Olas Travel that needed the help, were operated in a humane, sustainable way, and where we could make a real difference. We then traveled together to Nicaragua and did the same thing.

Today, we have lots of ideas and dreams of expanding to a number of new destinations and countries in the future and are working hard to make those dreams come true.

Las Olas Travel founders in Costa Rica
Lauren (my business partner) and me in Costa Rica

What makes Las Olas Travel programs different from other programs in these destinations?

Since we are a small company, about seven people, we are able to offer a customer service unlike any other companies. We build personal relationships with our volunteers, we work alongside them, and we make sure that their experience is everything they want and more. We are able to challenge our volunteers to understand the complex issues in the communities we work in and help them realize the impact they can make in the world. Larger companies just can’t build real, deep connections and relationships with volunteers, but Las Olas can.

Eco-tourism is becoming an increasingly popular topic in the travel industry. How do you ensure trips with Las Olas Travel are “sustainable”?

Sustainability is the interconnectedness of social responsibility, building local economies, and protecting the natural environments of the destinations visited.

All of our volunteer projects were hand selected by Lauren and me based on this criteria. For example, when we work with exotic animal rehabilitation, we are working with a sanctuary that operates sustainably (buys local produce or grows it, recycles, composts, etc.) and is dedicated to the release of the healthy animals into their natural habitat.

Our accommodation and meal arrangements are all locally sourced, meaning that whether the volunteer stays with a family or in a group house the local economy is benefited in some way. The same goes for transportation arrangements.

We have projects working in reforestation and planting new trees in areas that desperately need it, but more than that, we work in educating the locals about environmental issues, recycling, littering, etc. In regards to social responsibility, we work with many of the local community members and we educate our volunteers in cultural sensitivity and realizing that we are there to help, not control, and that we are not experts, just volunteers. I think the educational component is a very important part of the programs we coordinate.

Rachel Wilson, co-founder of Las Olas Travel, in Puerto Rico
Culebra, Puerto Rico

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring eco-tourists beginning their search for travel opportunities abroad?

RESEARCH! Always look into to the companies, people, and projects you want to work with. Make sure that they are who they say they are and that they are doing the work they claim. Being an informed tourist is a great quality! Experiences abroad can be life-changing and can really change you in ways you never would have expected, but be smart.

In your own travels, how do you try to be more eco-friendly?

I’m a little bit excessive when it comes to being eco-friendly. I’ve done or at least tried it all! I even had a vermiculture compost bin in my small two bedroom apartment during my undergrad (yes, this is a bin with worms to break down food waste!).

When traveling, it’s important to be mindful of your impact in other communities around the world. Things you can do at home, you can do abroad. When I grocery shop in Nicaragua, I bring my own bag, even if it’s just my backpack. When I have trash, I’ll hold it and walk for miles to find a trash can before throwing it on the ground. ALWAYS RECYCLE!

Just be mindful, conscious, and considerate of the natural environment around you and realize that the world belongs to all of us and we are all tasked with the responsibility of taking care of it. It’s a big task and we have to work together as a global community.

What do you think the biggest benefit of volunteer tourism is?

There are so many benefits of volunteer tourism! Besides the obvious benefits to the volunteer, I think one that has been really cool to watch happen is this idea of cross-cultural understanding. In simple terms, it’s this idea of sharing and learning about other cultures and building relationships with different types of people. When we can understand the perspective of other people, our sensitivity increases and we are able to interact better with other cultures.

The first trip Lauren and I led to Costa Rica, we brought 15 students as volunteers for two weeks working in a variety of projects. It was truly incredible to see the reactions of students who had never left the country before volunteering in Costa Rica. These students were able to grow immensely in just two weeks and began to cultivate a global perspective.

Girl hiking in Nicaragua
Nicaragua reforestation project

You’re currently earning your master’s degree in international sustainable tourism. How do you hope to use this degree to further Las Olas Travel’s mission?

Everything I’ve been researching and learning throughout my master’s studies has inspired me to continue improving and building the mission and vision of Las Olas Travel. Academia has a very interested perspective to offer to the travel industry as a whole and integrating sustainability into travel is a relatively new concept. The mass tourism industry is HUGE, but largely unconcerned with sustainability issues.

There is a huge trend of travelers who are more aware of global issues about the environment or social/political factors and these people want to do more than just travel. This is the future of the travel industry: people who love to travel and have a desire to make a difference in the world. This is where Las Olas Travel is able to combine the adventure of travel with the compassion of volunteering.

What do you hope to accomplish in 2017?

2017 has already been a great year! We have been growing more than we ever have in the past! We are offering scholarships for our programs this summer through a partnership with Milieu de la Moda, a friend of mine’s company that is dedicated to raising funds for students to travel. We have applied to participate in the Booking.com booster program for entrepreneurs in the sustainable tourism industry, which could be an incredible opportunity for us if we are accepted. 2017 still has a lot to bring us and we are all very excited to see how are waves of change can grow!