Chilean Chronicles: A Columbia student's sustainability odyssey

“Chile has taught me a lifetime worth of knowledge,” says Columbia College junior Harrison Gerson in this firsthand account.

October 03, 2023

My name is Harrison Gerson. I am a third-year in Columbia College studying Sustainable Development, my passions lie in environmental policy, tourism, and multilingualism. Ensuring that environmental tourism sustains local communities, supports biodiversity, and reduces its carbon footprint is key for achieving global partnerships and mitigating climate change. Summer 2023, I had the opportunity to pursue leadership-in-action in this field through the Laidlaw Scholars Program, and I chose Chile to be my focus because of the rich biodiversity, Spanish language, and Columbia Global Centers connection.

I have had the unique honor and privilege of engaging with four Columbia Global Centers over the past year (Nairobi, Amman, Paris, and Santiago), and I plan to travel to the Tunis Center in January with the Kraft Global Fellowship. The Columbia Global Centers system has provided me with so many new experiences, and I look forward to sharing their message and contributing to enhancing their environmental impact.

In December 2022, I connected with the Santiago Center, explained my interests in pursuing sustainable tourism projects within Chile, and Programming Officer Chris Molinari connected me with the Chilean Tourism Business Federation (FEDETUR), based in Santiago, and with Patagonia Camp hotel near the city of Puerto Natales. After months of planning and meeting with both organizations on Zoom, I would spend the majority of my two months on a sustainability framework for FEDETUR and then head south to Patagonia Camp to develop sustainability recommendations for the hotel.

Logistically, CGC | Santiago made me feel comfortable when preparing and during my stay in Chile. The Global Center helped me pick a suitable neighborhood and understand some of the street smarts and culture of metropolitan Santiago. I am grateful for the support of the team, and I look forward to keeping in touch with Carla, Vivi, and Chris.

In Valparaíso

During my time with FEDETUR, I created a sustainability guide for tourism businesses to measure and reduce their carbon footprint, become environmental ambassadors, and understand offsets, circularity, and renewable energy. I also presented the carbon footprint for an event that FEDETUR is co-hosting with the Adventure Travel Trade Association. Working with FEDETUR exposed me to the vast diversity in the Chilean environment and tourism. I had the opportunity to influence and learn from tourism leaders, from the deserts of the Atacama to the Chilean Antarctic expeditions. I met with businesses big and small, from Latam, the largest airline of the continent, to small tour businesses. The experience also exposed me to Chilean governmental authorities, including Minister of Environment – and Columbia alumna – Maisa Rojas, and Undersecretary of Tourism Verónica Pardo. Understanding regional identities and Chilean nationalism through the tourism industry really impressed me, and seeing the different international versus domestic tourist flow and marketing was quite exciting.

At Patagonia Camp.

With Patagonia Camp, Tripadvisor’s #1 Out-of-the-Ordinary Hotel in the world, an eco-lodge in Torres del Paine National Park, the natural beauty and isolation of the region completely blew me away. In the Región de Magallanes y la Antártica Chilena, I was much closer to Antarctica than Santiago, which boggled me. With Patagonia Camp, I explored recommendations that the team is beginning to enact. During my time in Patagonia, the hotel team exposed me to beautiful pumas, rheas, flamingos, woodpeckers, foxes, and guanacos, and I learned so much about the Magallanes region modern culture; beyond the mate, the estancia ranch system, and the boina hat, I discovered a community of friendly faces and strong environmentalism.

At ECLAC (the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean)

In both locations, my perspective as a young college student from the United States created a great advantage for the teams, as my mind ideates and develops recommendations embedding the environmental and community development, which has been historically sidelined in the tourism industry.

Chile has taught me a lifetime's worth of knowledge. The country inspires me with its political awareness and activity, and we could learn from the Chilean ability to have meaningful, open conversations about life and national identity in informal settings. My accommodation host in Santiago had taken me in like family, and the Santiago Center's staff and my coworkers treated me with so much kindness. I had the fortune to understand Chilean life so closely and hope to return soon. ¡Viva Chile!

In Puerto Natales.