Big Interview: Responsible tourism on the brink, claims G Adventures boss

Big Interview: Responsible tourism on the brink, claims G Adventures boss

The sector has reached a tipping point to go mainstream Bruce Poon Tip, founder of the world's largest independently owned adventure operator, tells Juliet Dennis.

Responsible tourism has 
reached a “tipping point” in the industry, according to G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip.

He should know. As founder of what is now the world’s largest independently-owned adventure tour operator, he has always been passionate about responsible tourism, making it a central part of how the business operates in a way many travel companies have yet to even attempt.

He believes the issue is now on the verge of becoming mainstream in the industry, with most consumers choosing to travel responsibly if given the choice.

Poon Tip admits price remains the key factor, with most UK consumers widely recognised to leave their sustainable values at home when they book a holiday.

Yet he says: “I am sure 90% of the people who walk into travel agencies are motivated by the best deal, but if two options are put in front of them and one is sustainable, almost all of them will choose the sustainable option. We are at that tipping point.”

That’s where travel agents become important, he argues – to help holidaymakers make the switch to a sustainable holiday choice.

“Agents are the focal point of the sales process. It’s about educating consumers – it doesn’t involve any more effort from them, they don’t have to volunteer once on holiday or do anything,” he says.

“It’s up to the agent to guide people. Customers just know they want to go to the Galapagos Islands, for example.”

Poon Tip’s passion for helping communities where his customers go on holiday and broadening consumers’ understanding of these destinations is indirectly behind his latest global initiative, codenamed the G Project. The company is urging agents and consumers to think of social or environmental projects for 
their own communities, with 
the winner receiving $25,000 
for their scheme.

The fact the company has attracted such a high-profile line-up of judges for the project – including Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler, humanitarian Jane Goodall and Braulio Dias, assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and the UN executive secretary on biological diversity – shows how seriously the issue of responsible tourism is being taken.

Poon Tip doesn’t even call his business a tour operator or travel company any more. “We are no longer a travel business. We view ourselves as a social enterprise. We fund 40 projects – a lot through donations made by our travellers.”

G Adventures, founded 22 years ago, carries nearly 150,000 passengers a year, a third of whom travel out of the UK. In 2003 it set up the non-profit-making Planeterra Foundation to develop sustainable community projects connected with tourism.

It also claimed a coup recently when it became the only operator selected to work with the Multilateral Investment Fund on a $1 million partnership to develop five projects in communities traditionally excluded from tourism.

The company’s decision to do more than just send tourists abroad is part of what Poon Tip describes as a responsible tourism “movement”. It hopes to blaze a trail for other travel firms to follow.

“Our goal is to influence the industry. Ultimately, it’s about getting people on holiday and doing it in a sustainable way.

“We want to convert and change their minds, and give them a greater understanding of the world. There is a difference between saying it and it being at the core of your company’s philosophy.”

It is not easy for every company to approach responsible tourism in the same way, he concedes, but he is convinced larger corporate travel companies can do more.

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