Multimedia Reporter

Travel is often hailed as the ultimate cathartic experience. Whether we see it on the silver screen or read it between the pages of a book, we’ve heard some tale of an individual finding themselves and their purpose by embarking on a journey. But for some, this is more than just a tall fantasy. Just ask Thomas Graham and Rafael Dionisio.

Travel is universally held as the ultimate cathartic experience. Across films and books, we find countless examples of journeys that begin and end with characters exploring foreign worlds and, in so doing, find themselves. For avid travelers Thomas Graham and Rafael Dionisio, that passion for exploration paved the way to a shared adventure in the form of a startup, MAD Travel. And, fittingly, that journey began when they happened to meet on a trip.

Graham, a journalist from the United Kingdom, and Dionisio, an entrepreneur in the tourism industry, first crossed paths in 2013 on a volunteering trip for Gawad Kalinga. Dionisio had been setting up hostels across various provinces in the Philippines, but wanted to do something more meaningful. That piqued Graham’s interest.

“We thought, ‘Why not pull together our expertise?’,” Graham said. “Mine was really in storytelling and giving the outsider’s perspective on how much we have to learn from these amazing communities that we were, at the time, volunteering for. [Dionisio] obviously brought more local expertise and the community development side of what we do.”

And so Make a Difference (MAD) Travel was born.

Setting direction

Graham and Dionisio started Make a Difference Travel as a tourism platform offering tours to local destinations such as Zambales, Bataan, and Rizal.They work with marginalized communities, such as the Aetas in Yangil Village, in creating authentic experiences– from storytelling with the tribe to learning their traditional music and dances.

The firm takes a clear stance on what they mean by authentic. They take extra efforts to ensure the worlds their travelers experience aren’t just “different”, but true to the experiences of the communities they meet.

“Everything we do is aligned with their own values and vision for their community. We never dictate… ‘You should always dress in your Aeta wear because it looks more authentic for photos.’” said Romina Naňagas, communications manager. “We consult our partners and they have the right [to] say no.”

They also incorporate long-term initiatives within the tours that help foster inclusivity and sustainability among their partner communities, such as growing farms and forests in their Zambales and Bataan programs. “This is all in the backdrop of massive deforestation in the country… and the massive exclusion of countryside communities from better education, localized racism against them, [and lack of] access to water or electricity,” said Dionisio.

If it sounds like an ambitious set of goals for a tourism startup to tackle, that’s because it is. But it’s precisely the transformative role that Graham and Dionisio see travel playing in people’s lives that they feel confident in taking them on. Through MAD Travel, the two believe they can exponentially grow their advocacies through the travelers that join their programs.

Chef Chele Gonzalez, known for his acclaimed restaurants such as Gallery by Chele, started sourcing ingredients directly from some of MAD Travel’s partners. Artist Issa Barte founded Fund a Forest, a reforestation effort for Philippine forests, after being inspired by the tour’s reforestation activities. Even some members of MAD Travel’s team were former tourists, including Naňagas, who left the advertising industry to help the company.

“There are so many things that we know theoretically, and yet we don’t [understand them] until we know it on an experiential level,” said Graham. “Don’t just read about the communities, or hear a nice speech, or donate some money, but come be part of it.”

Off the beaten track

But, as with nearly every business in the tourism industry, the current COVID-19 crisis saw many of MAD Travels’ projects come to a grinding halt. Faced with the responsibility of sustaining not just their team but also their partner communities, MAD Travel has had to pivot their services—all while keeping them aligned with their vision.

Over the past few weeks, they launched a number of new programs based on the advocacies towards caring for local communities in their network. These include Feed the Farmers Today, Fund Tomorrow’s Forest, a global crowdfunding project where each purchase of a tree pays for an Aeta’s labor of planting it.

There’s also MAD Market, an online delivery service that sources produce directly from farmers and communities in areas like Benguet and Davao. They’re group is even offering an e-learning program called MAD Courses which offers training into topics such as sustainability and social enterprise.

“We identified some time ago that… we’re a platform that connects people,” said Graham. “When you look at it more broadly like that… then you see that even when tourism has dried up and we all remain pretty slow for let’s say the next six months at least, we’re now looking in a broader sense at our mission. We still believe that there’s something very special in our communities and our community partners.”

While these may not be the original services that MAD Travel planned out, the team is confident that they’re delivering on their promise of affecting change through authentic experiences—albeit through a different kind of experience.