Team Select's Amy recently had the opportunity to speak to the travel legend and founder of G Adventures, Bruce Poon Tip, discussing the inspiration behind the leading adventure travel company, sustainability, his work with the Planeterra Foundation, and the importance of educating women and children in developing countries.

Read our exclusive interview to find out more!

Backpacking, two credit cards, and a big idea

Most people come back from a trip with perhaps a suntan (or sun burn, if you’re like me), tons of photos, and fridge magnets or shot glasses. Bruce Poon Tip returned from a trip to Asia in 1990 with an idea. Inspired and determined, he maxed out two credit cards, and from such small, humble beginnings, flash forward almost thirty years, and his company now hosts 200,000 travellers a year on over 700 tours to 100 different countries, encompassing all seven continents. He’s since been inducted into the Social Venture Network Hall of Fame, and the British Travel and Hospitality Hall of Fame, and published two books (one of which has a Foreword written by no less than the Dalai Lama himself!), and addressed the United Nations, and the World Bank. Most recently, he gave the keynote speech at the third annual ATAS (Association of Touring and Adventure Suppliers) Conference in Manchester, and it was at this conference that I not only got the opportunity to hear him speak, but to interview him myself.

G Adventures – the company which Bruce founded after his return from Asia – is not just like any other travel company. Bruce’s idea was to bridge the gap between backpacking and mainstream travel, whilst connecting travellers with local people. Such an idea was revolutionary back in 1990, when travel options weren’t as broad as they are today; ‘you either took an all-inclusive, or a cruise, or you got a Lonely Planet and you did it yourself. And I didn’t necessarily want to do that [back-packing], but I was forced to do that.’ Whilst travelling, ‘I saw all these people that were isolated through the windows of glass, staying in Best Western Hotels or Hilton Hotels, not really seeing the culture and community, and I just knew that there were other people…that think the same way, that didn’t want to go backpacking, but wanted the cultural immersion type experience.’ It was an ‘Eureka moment’ for the young entrepreneur. This desire to offer authentic, experiential travel was about a quarter of a century ahead of the curve, as in the last few years ‘authentic’ or ‘immersive’ experiences have become the hot buzzwords of travel, but this was something that Bruce was focussing on from the very beginning of G Adventures!

During his keynote speech, Bruce described the early 1990s as a ‘tipping point’. Seemingly continuing with the notoriously materialistic excesses of the ‘Yuppie’ 80ies, cruise ships were becoming bigger, all-inclusive resorts ever more popular, and destinations were becoming irrelevant, and more like amenities; thanks to the reassuring walls of resorts, there wasn’t even any need to leave the enclave and go near the locals! Not only did Bruce want to offer the ‘cultural immersion type experience’ to those, like him, that didn’t necessarily want to go back-packing, he also felt strongly that there was a need to transcend travel.

Since then, G Adventures have grown exponentially; not only do they boast 11 different kinds of tours, ranging from ‘Classic’ to Family, Marine, Active, Rail, and even ‘Wellness’ (to name just a few), they have a partnership with National Geographic, and own a touring division (Travelsphere and Just You). Despite this significant growth, ‘we still have the same kind of philosophy, we follow the same values that we did when starting.’

A vehicle for Change

Image credit: G Adventures

Bruce believed that travel could be a force for good. In his book Looptail, he described the tourism industry at the time as ‘ass-backwards’, with operators ‘doing everything in their power to create a Western environment, which to me defeats the entire purpose of going to another country in the first place.’ Worse still, he considered the set-up to be detrimental to local economies; ‘Western tourists would come to developing countries only to spend their time in a swank bus, with a Western tour guide, staying in Western-owned hotels’ or staying in inclusive resorts which were also developing shopping plazas on the resorts so that there was no need to either interact with locals or contribute to the local economy. In Looptail, he described how ‘the locals watched foreign companies use up massive amounts of natural resources to build their fortresses, while the people living on the other side of the walls in some areas had no access to clean drinking water – not to mention their own coastal beaches.’ He saw all these faults, and he decided that travel not only could be used for good, but that he would use travel for good, believing that it could be a fantastic vehicle for wealth redistribution. By using local resources – from local guides, local drivers, to local hotels and local restaurants – instead of Western companies, it was a simple case of turning the existing model on its head, and simultaneously contributed directly to local economies whilst offering travellers the chance to connect with locals! It was the ultimate win-win for both travellers and locals. The very idea of changing people’s lives has always been at the core of G Adventures, but it looks to improve the lives of both locals and customers. Last year, G Adventures unveiled their ‘Ripple Score,’ which they developed with Sustainable Travel International and Planeterra, to indicate how much of a tour’s local expenditure remained in the local economy; on average, a G Adventures’ tour gives an impressive 93% back to the local economy. As Bruce said to me, ‘when you decide to travel with us…we think it’s a commitment, almost like a pledge to travel with us, because we’re a movement in changing the way people look at travel.’

When asked about what he felt was most special about G Adventures, Bruce replied ‘I would have to say our people. So, our culture is a very big part of our brand. Our people deliver excellence, we demand excellence from our people, and our customers appreciate that. And the way our culture defines and attracts and retains great people, but also our customers relate to it, because we feel the people who travel with us relate to us as people, not just a brand. So that’s what I think what’s special.’ I’ve met various people employed by G Adventures, from all over the world, some whose jobs are to engage with the travel trade, as well as some of their tour leaders, and I’ve always been struck by a common passion, enthusiasm, commitment, and conviction of G Adventures’ values. Without exception, they’ve been committed to sharing the principles of travel as a force for good and delivering great experiences. Bruce might be the Founder of G Adventures, but he isn’t the CEO; he gave up his CEO title, and gave it to all customer-facing employees, although he typically gave the CEO title his own unique twist, changing it to Chief Experience Officer.

The Power of Planeterra

However, that’s not the only thing that makes G Adventures stand out. In 2003, Bruce decided to up the ante with his desire to use travel for wealth redistribution, founding the Planeterra Foundation, G Adventures’ non-profit partner, although their first community projects dated back to 1996. G Adventures’ work with Planeterra has proved to be ‘ground-breaking’ in ‘changing the way government agencies work with private sector companies’. In 2015, G Adventures announced an ambitious ’50 in 5’ Project to celebrate their 25th birthday, seeking to develop 50 community projects across the world within the next five years. They achieved this goal within a few years, and currently have 75 community helping projects around the world, and they’re pushing to have 100 by the end of 2020. Travellers with G Adventures can experience these community projects on many of their trips, from being met by one of the female drivers from the ‘Women On Wheels’ initiative in Delhi at the start of their India tour, to joining an ‘Oodles of Noodles’ class in Hoi An, which helps children living in the streets of Vietnam by training them in working and running a restaurant, giving them the skills to graduate with top International Culinary Arts Certificates. When I went on the Inca Journey with G Adventures on my own holiday a couple of years ago, I saw firsthand how two of the Planeterra projects in the Sacred Valley have empowered the local women, and positively contributed to their local economy. Thanks to the women’s weaving co-operative, they’ve seen the introduction of electricity and paving to their village, and can send their children off to university, and are the first generation in the community to be completely literate in Spanish. The Foundation work with Planeterra is what Bruce is most proud of; ‘that group works really hard, they’re always squeezed for resources, and they deliver outstanding customer experiences first and foremost, whilst targeting poverty alleviation [and] wealth distribution on the ground, which is a clear differentiator and why travellers come to us and return. That good stuff is part of the greatest work that we’ve done, and some of my proudest moments.’ The works carried out by Planeterra have benefited over 59,000 people so far.

A lot of the community helping projects particularly focus on empowering and educating women and children. For Bruce, this is crucial for changing the world, and ensuring sustainability and climate change. Sustainability, climate change, and environmental issues might be some of the big issues of today, but – just as he was with tapping in to the desire for authentic experiences – Bruce has long been ahead of the curve, and the desire for sustainability was another of the earliest guiding forces for G Adventures. While single-use plastics and climate change have become huge issues recently, Bruce believes that it is important to get educated about defining sustainability, warning that ‘how you combat those things [climate change and sustainability] aren’t necessarily just about reducing plastics or planting more trees. There’s a whole…change that needs to happen, and one of the greatest ways to fight climate change and to improve the environment is the education of girls and young women in developing countries who are the main influencers in their families.’ Having been a global leader in sustainability and social entrepreneurship for so long, Bruce spoke eloquently and passionately about the subject, pointing out that it was important to look at the education of women and children, rather than simply looking at things such as water bottles that could be marketed to relate to consumers, ‘because sustainability is about poverty alleviation, you know, it’s wealth redistribution, it’s about creating job opportunities, and lifting people out of extreme poverty. And that will have a much greater impact on the planet, the environment, climate change, everything, than a lot of the other things combined!’ He hoped that there would be a ‘tipping point’ when people started to ‘just scratch the surface a little bit deeper’ and look into how sustainability is defined.

Since the very beginning, G Adventures have thought differently, and offered something different. Responsible travel has always been at their heart, and their innovative approach to travel has enriched the lives of both travellers and local communities. Travelling with G Adventures gives you the opportunity to really experience a destination, and whilst you take home a lasting impression of the destination visited, you leave a positive, rather than detrimental impact. G Adventures proudly proclaim that 'we love changing people's lives', whether it's the 2,000 people employed in one of the 28 offices around the world, the CEOs on the ground, the local businesses and communities they work with, or the 200,000 travellers who join them every year. Travel is not only used as a vehicle for change by giving back to local communities by actively engaging with local businesses and employing local people, and redistributing some of the wealth that way, travel in itself can be a transformative experience for the traveller. I'll never forget some of the words Washi, my CEO on the first part of my Inca Journey, said about how you're never quite the same as you were when you first boarded your flight to your trip, because you have now gained a new perspective, having immersed yourself in a new and different destination. It's certainly something I've always believed. G Adventures have also incorporated community helping projects into their trips, which has proved to be another win-win for both travellers and locals, empowering and educating people in developing countries, enabling them to become self-sufficient, whilst delivering memorable, authentic experiences for travellers. The experiences of travellers are also of vital importance to Poon Tip and G Adventures, and the commitment to delivering exceptional services - perhaps a more traditional value - is as much a core value of G Adventures as the importance of changing people's lives through travel.

‘We think we’re extremely different to everybody, even though there’s a lot of green-washing that happens in our industry, but what we do is very different, and we will look into everything that we do, and we promise you that you’ll have the best experience and the data shows that you’re highly likely to return and never travel with anyone else again!’

If you would like to find out more about G Adventures, contact our dedicated travel specialists today!

01234 326 778

sales@selecttravelholidays.co.uk

Watch the interview in full

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