How a new platform helps sustainable tourism leaders collaborate

  • The non-profit The Sigmund project connects innovators focused on sustainability in tourism.
  • Entrepreneurs and executives can submit ideas or browse projects to find a suitable partnership.
  • The site is already facilitating successful collaborations and aims to award grants by mid-2022.
  • This article is part of a series called “Partners for a Sustainable Future”, describing innovative alliances that are driving real progress in sustainability.

The ethic behind “open source” is that the more gray matter involved in the evolution of a product, the better. Things like peer production, review, critique, and collaboration are all encouraged.

Recently a nonprofit startup The Sigmund project decided to apply this concept to tourism innovation. “The nickname we have regarding [open source] is ‘nothing mentioned, nothing gained’ “, founder Alan Elliott Merschen Insider said. “If you don’t share the idea, it will never take hold.”

Despite coming from its launch in June 2021, Project Sigmund has attracted thousands of unique visitors from over 108 countries and facilitated a dozen collaborations. For example, a Swiss-based NGO recently connected to an eco-resort in Solomon Islands through the platform, and the two companies are currently in talks to become sustainability partners.

Here’s how Mershcen started Project Sigmund, what some of the partnerships look like and what he has planned for the future.

An industry inflection point

a screenshot of the Sigmund project website

Ideas on the Sigmund Project website.

Courtesy of Project Sigmund

Merschen has been working in the travel and tourism industry for over 30 years. He founded the travel marketing company Myriad, which specializes in marketing international destinations for private and government clients on five continents. “My interest has always been the impact tourism can have on a global economy as well as on a local environment,” Merschen said.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, it decimated the industry. Before the pandemic, the sector accounted for up to 25% of all job creation in the world, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. But by 2020, more than 62 million tourism-related jobs disappeared virtually overnight.

Merschen wanted to find a way to revitalize the industry while tackling its sustainability problem – in 2016, the industry was responsible for around 5% of the world’s human-made carbon emissions, a number should increase to 5.3% by 2030. He therefore began to reflect and take the pulse of his professional network.

He found that COVID-19 paved the way for previously unthinkable partnerships. “I saw an openness and willingness to collaborate that I had never seen before, not only among complementary products but also among competitors,” said Merschen.

Based on this observation, Merchen launched a digital platform to connect innovators in the tourism industry with each other. He envisioned an open source ecosystem where entrepreneurs with an app idea could hook up with the perfect coder, for example, or where a large tourism company with a new product could identify niche distribution channels.

Merchen saw this vision come to life recently when a multinational travel company found synergy with a startup called Gozee after posting their requirements on the Sigmund project. The two organizations ended up sharing an application programming interface (API) to help customers filter sustainable travel experiences.

How it works

Named in honor of Merschen’s father, Project Sigmund went live on Father’s Day 2021 and exclusively shines a spotlight on companies with a “triple bottom line”: with an emphasis not only on the profit, but also for the benefit of people and the planet.

Before submitting an idea, users watch a short video and take a quick quiz, which assesses whether the proposed project matches the parameters of the platform. Alignment with one or more of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is obligatory.

Then innovators can officially submit their idea to a member of the Sigmund project staff. If the proposal is accepted, the innovator is invited to a call with a member of Sigmund’s team, where they discuss the idea, refine their message, and suggest potential partners.

The organization describes itself as both “high-tech and high-touch”. While the verification process is largely manual and will remain so for the foreseeable future, the platform also has built-in automation features that will help it evolve as traffic and submissions continue to increase.

Travel with a side of social good

group of women in black and white

Amina Mohamed, right, and Elizabeth discussing her photos at a Cameras for Girls workshop in Kampala, Uganda.

Daniel Moxie

Projects on the platform run the gamut when it comes to the UN SDGs. One of the collaborators currently featured on The Sigmund Project is Amina Mohamed, an Ontario entrepreneur and founder of the two Triple F Photo Tours and the association Girls cameras. Its businesses align with Fifth UN SDGs around gender equality and women’s empowerment.

“I designed my non-profit organization to give back to my home country, Uganda, and support marginalized women who strive to become journalists,” she told Insider. To support non-profit work, Mohamed has developed a separate for-profit company, Triple F, to lead “anti-tourist” photo tours that support local culture. About 10% of its revenue goes to Cameras for Girls, which is a registered charity in Canada as of fall 2021.

women on a motorcycle with a man on the back

Amina Mohamed riding a boda boda with the driver in the back in Bombo, Uganda on a Triple F photo tour.

Courtesy of Triple F Photo Tours

When COVID-19 hit, it nearly ruined his touring operation. “I had a choice to make – let this business die, or go all out and make it work,” she said. She eventually opted for Option B, venturing down several avenues to stay afloat, including posting on Triple F and Cameras for Girls on The Sigmund Project. In Mohamed’s message, she writes about finding resources to expand her women-focused photography tours in Costa Rica.

Sigmund’s team put Mohamed in touch with a reputable Toronto-based travel agency in the company’s network. In turn, the agency put Mohamed in touch with resources in Costa Rica. Thanks to the introduction, Mohamed now plans to expand Triple F’s tours of the country from February 2022, with future trips to follow.

To look forward

Thanks to contributions from an anonymous donor, the Sigmund project is fully funded for the next five years. “Everything that people do is completely free, and it will continue to be that way,” Merschen said. “We like to say that our only motto is collaboration.”

In this vein, The Sigmund Project is on the lookout for its own partnerships. The organization has entered into an agreement with NYU’s Tisch Center of Hospitality. Other notable institutions from Canada to Germany have expressed interest in getting involved. A professor has already included the site in a class assignment, requiring students to collaborate on the platform with entrepreneurs around the world.

Another upcoming goal of Project Sigmund is to provide financial support to innovators. In 2022, Merschen plans to deploy a investment grant function strike a balance between micro-finance and the big money world of venture capital.

“There is no one in the middle,” he said. “This is where we want to be.”

Another differentiator for grants, Merschen explained, is that no company will be able to get just one – innovators will need to submit proposals with at least one other entity, in line with the collaborative ethos of the platform.

The Sigmund project plans to take a little interest in companies that receive grants. “The idea is that this business will be successful / profitable, and it will share part of it with the Sigmund Foundation,” Merschen said. He clarified that all returns are immediately reinvested in the operating expenses of Sigmund and future grant recipients.

Merchen hopes this tactic will allow Project Sigmund to develop its own circular operating model. “This is how we become sustainable,” he said.


Leave A Reply