People-First Tourism Gives Local Micro-Entrepreneurs a Chance


By Frances Figart
Photos courtesy of Miles Clark and People-First Tourism


Would you like to learn about beekeeping and soap making in a hands-on setting? How would you enjoy being part of a woodworking seminar or an art workshop in a remote homestead surrounded by inspiring mountain views? Or perhaps you would prefer a photography tour or guided exploration of unknown waterfalls.


Not only are small-scale tourism experiences like these personalized and authentic, they are rewarding for tourists and local community members alike.


People-First Tourism is a grassroots entrepreneurship marketplace for buying and selling genuine local tourism experiences. It provides opportunities for storytellers, artists, musicians, food growers and others to share their skills, knowledge and experience, and to create dignified and sustainable livelihoods through tourism.


How P1T works


Micro-entrepreneurs are the stars of People-First Tourism (P1T). They work with the organization to develop experiences they can offer to travelers, get advice about how to market their business and set competitive rates for their services. Once the micro-entrepreneurs have their tourism product ready, they are listed on the P1T web site: The site links these small business owners with tourists who are interested in finding unique, off-the-beaten-path experiences and who want to make a positive impact on the communities they visit.


“P1T is designed to meet tourists’ desire to escape the ‘MacDisney’fied’ experiences offered by mainstream tourism by offering experiences created by locals with need for income and with the desire to speak, to share, to connect,” says P1T Executive Director Duarte Morais, an associate professor and a Tourism Extension Specialist at North Carolina State University. “P1T is almost like a dating web site – pairing up adventurous and socially conscious tourists with charismatic microentrepreneurs.”


P1T uses cell phone access and web-to-cell technology to facilitate client-to-entrepreneur communications and tour bookings. Travelers interested in supporting local economies, while at the same time having meaningful tourism experiences, can register on the P1T site and search for providers based on geographic location or type of activity.


Once a desirable provider or product is identified, travelers can fill out a reservation inquiry that is submitted via SMS to the entrepreneur’s cell phone. The travelers will receive an e-mail answer a short while later from the entrepreneur confirming availability or declining the reservation.


Meet a Few P1T Micro-Entrepreneurs…


Alicia Araya and Jim Hickey, Marshall Arts and Nitty Gritty Tour Guides

Executive Director of P1T, Duarte Morais, with Alicia Araya and Jim Hickey of Marshall Arts & Nitty Gritty Tour Guides

Executive Director of P1T, Duarte Morais, with Alicia Araya and Jim Hickey of Marshall Arts & Nitty Gritty Tour Guides


Alicia Araya moved to Madison County with her husband, Jim Hickey, in 2010 in search of a more holistic lifestyle. Originally from Santiago, Chile, she received her bachelor’s degree in studio arts from Georgia State University. West Virginia born and Harvard educated, Jim’s background is in history, journalism, photography, teaching, writing and storytelling.


Alicia’s compositions in sculpture, wood panels and traditional oil painting reflect the surrounding mountains, rivers, and other nearby natural wonders – the same elements that are the focus of Jim’s Nitty Gritty Tours, providing photography guide services and guided tours of undiscovered waterfalls throughout Madison County.


“We mainly work in the arts, though an educational component is also a huge part of our mission in life – and business,” says Alicia. “A project such as People-First Tourism is absolutely ideal for creatives such as us, not just through the loosely-structured, almost organic way in which clients come to us, but through allowing us to offer tours reflecting our variegated skill sets, free of the standardized expectations typical of tourism.”


Jim agrees and appreciates P1T’s model, which allows real people to engage markets and reap benefits at the grassroots level. “I have plenty of experience with grant-driven projects, and P1T has vastly exceeded my expectations,” he said. “Duarte and the whole crew have been punctilious about follow-up, about community engagement at the deepest level, and about listening to feedback and coming up with ways to work around problems.”


Sherrye Perry of Gypsy Bee Natural Soap Company

Sherrye Perry of Gypsy Bee Natural Soap Company

Sherrye Perry, Gypsy Bee Natural Soap Company


“The spirit of entrepreneurship is certainly alive and thriving in Western North Carolina, but in Madison County that spirit is a roaring lion awaiting recognition and acknowledgement,” says Sherrye Perry, who owns Gypsy Bee Natural Soap Company in Marshall. Sherrye hand crafts several types of luxury honey soaps and bath products from her mountain home, personally cultivating them from the hive to the bath.


For the past twelve years, Sherrye has kept bees on her property and has more recently begun to source the pure, unfiltered honey from the hives to make all-natural soaps. So when a group of North Carolina State graduate students and their professors rolled onto her mountain roads to meet with an energetic handful of entrepreneurs and share the People-First Tourism initiative, Sherrye was ready and willing.


“I was fortunate to be a part of that initial gathering,” she recalls. “Since those earliest meetings I have been the recipient of the latest research relating to building a business successfully, expanding my small business footprint, innovative marketing strategies and small business sustainability.”


Much of Sherrye’s knowledge of beekeeping was passed down from her father, who was also a beekeeper. As her luxury soap business grows, so do her two passions – helping preserve the vital role that bees play in the global food chain and maintaining a strong commitment to the development of her community.


Connie Molland, Rose Hollow Connections woodworking workshop

Connie Molland of Rose Hollow Connections

Connie Molland of Rose Hollow Connections


Raised in a family of carpenters, Connie Molland carries on this tradition from her small home studio tucked away in the beautiful mountains of Marshall.


“I’m often asked about how I got into woodworking, where I have my studio and what steps I go through to produce my cutting boards or other items,” Connie says. “Customers buying local art want to know who they’re buying from and want to be able to tell the story behind the work.”


Connie enjoys sharing her story and had a desire to offer a high-level, half-day in-depth session about woodworking. “The timing for becoming a P1T site was perfect for me,” she says. “My husband and I had just finished building a studio that has enough space to host small group (1-to-3 people) woodworking sessions.”


Now Connie looks forward to taking visitors through her journey of woodwork creation from start to finish. She says the “really cool thing” about P1T is that it provides people visiting Western North Carolina with several options for a unique, hands-on learning experience.


“Most people love to come back from a vacation and share a story about something special they did while away, and the P1T site connects them with ways to achieve this,” Connie says. “It gives me, as a host, the opportunity to share the details about my work with someone who has an interest in my craft.”


Anna Marie Hatcher, Hatcher Family Farms

Anna Marie Hatcher of Hatcher Family Farms

Anna Marie Hatcher of Hatcher Family Farms


Inspired by a passion for providing fresh, healthy meat and produce to her family and the community, Anna Marie of Hatcher Family Farms is creating a niche for her products in Robeson County.


In 2010, Anna Marie and her husband started a farm with several chickens and herbs on 40 acres of pine trees. In 2011 the chicken portion of the farm was named “Mackaela Rae’s Chickens” after the sad passing of their beloved four-month-old daughter; their first set of chicks hatched at 100 percent on the day she passed.


“When we started working with P1T, I was not sure what to expect,” Anna Marie admits. “However, they have been so wonderful. They took the time to explain how they work and have been very helpful in determining pricing and setting up our farm’s services.”


Anna Marie incubates, broods and raises a variety of chickens, ducks and guineas with plans to expand with quail, geese and turkey. The poultry products currently available to the community include chicken meat, eggs, roosters, and laying hens, which have been very successful.


“P1T took the time to listen to our farm’s story, made visits to see the farm, and were very encouraging,” she continues. “I am looking forward to working with them in the future and I am optimistic about the opportunities P1T will open for all of their entrepreneurs.”


Norma Burns, Bluebird Hill Farm, organic herbs, flowers and produce

Norma Burns of Bluebird Hill Farm

Norma Burns of Bluebird Hill Farm


Norma Burns bought Bluebird Hill farm in Bennett in 1999 and has been running it as a USDA Certified Organic farm since July 2010. She grows unique herbs, specialty vegetables, cut flowers, and native plants, and combines these products with her boundless creativity to make value-added farm crafts and food products in Chatham County.


“There are many small farmers and other entrepreneurs in out-of-the-way places in North Carolina who have great stories to tell and adventures for people to enjoy,” says Norma. “Most funding for tourism has been funneled into organizations that favor places with many established tourist destinations in close proximity to population centers. That leaves many of us out in the cold.”


Norma has developed a method of capturing natural scents and flavors from her organic products to produce teas, spices and essential oils. She sells her products through community supported agriculture memberships, and at local farmers’ markets. And now, through P1T, Norma also welcomes guests to the farm, to learn about her life, her vegetable and herb growing skills, and her recipes.


“People-First Tourism is a concept that has great potential,” she says. “The North Carolina State University students involved with P1T are wonderful and enthusiastic. They are learning important insights into the difficulties involved in getting things done in the ‘real world.’”


The people behind People-First Tourism


People-First Tourism leverages the work and insight of an eclectic group of committed faculty and students from North Carolina State University and North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Seed funding for the project was provided by North Carolina Rural Center and the Cooperative Extension provides train-the-trainer support.


Most of the program’s entrepreneur networks are in North Carolina, but the project aims for a global reach with new networks developing in South America, Europe and South Africa. Whatever the location, the main focus of the project is to enable vulnerable individuals to earn their way to self-reliance through tourism.


Throughout 10 or so years of tourism scholarship I have documented amply that in most cases the formal tourism system uses local people as passive ‘tourees’ (quaint and colorful components of the destination landscape) that bring authenticity to tourists’ experiences, while the system itself retains most of the tourism revenues,” says Duarte, originally from Portugal.


Through his studies in tourism marketing at Clemson University, Duarte learned that capacity-building investments made in vulnerable women have a much higher impact on community wellbeing than similar investments in men. Driven by a personal feminist ethic and an urge to make a positive impact through his scholarship, Duarte committed himself to finding solutions to gender inequality.


“Women, I learned, are generally the most oppressed among vulnerable communities. And yet, paradoxically, they are the most well positioned to exert improvements on community wellbeing,” he says. “I am really pleased to see that P1T is becoming a marketplace where women find access to much needed income, as well as a stage where they can showcase their skills, passions and experiences.”


Graduate student Yuchen Mao was involved with a recent field trip for identifying new P1T entrepreneurs in Madison County. “I was impressed with the entrepreneurs’ knowledge and skills in making the best of mountain resources for their livelihood,” he says. “I feel they are living in a hidden treasure,” and adds that Madison County needs to be better known in order for tourism to be an effective sustainability strategy.


“I have learned that tourism entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes and that they are driven by a number of different motivations,” says Chantell LaPan, lead graduate student on the project. “Some want to connect with the earth and preserve a rural way of life; others are looking for job flexibility that allows them to be with their families; some simply want to make a living doing what they love.”


Chantell says almost all of P1T’s micro-entrepreneurs are creative, highly ambitious and dedicated to the communities in which they live.


People-First Tourism is community focused, carving out success from a commitment to responsible tourism that allows entrepreneurs to shape their own futures. It provides the traveler – whether visiting from Athens, Alaska or Asheville – with authentic experiences offered by real local people in unique North Carolina communities.



Frances Figart has worked in the travel industry as a writer and editor in the U.S., Canada and Central America. She very recently moved to Asheville and wants to make new connections in local tourism. Learn more at


Saralyn Collins, along wtih WNC Woman, offer our Lunch & Learn Networking events again on January 16th. You'll have plenty of time to network with other local businesses, enjoy a meal together and get some great advice and information from Saralyn to help you Jump Start Your Biz Brain in 2014.
LOCATION: Four Points Sheraton Hotel (exit 240 and Merrimon) 22 Woodfin St (easy parking and access). Click here for details!

Hope to see you there!

Personal Empowerment Sigils - Your Words, Your Power - From $10
Follow Us on Twitter
Thank You Readers!

Thank you for for naming us one of the Best Free Publications in WNC for 11 years!