Sustainability makes business sense

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 May, 2010, 12:00am

Sustainability is not only the key to ensuring the future of tourism, the world's second largest industry, but it also makes good business sense.

This was the crux of the talk given by Bruce Poon Tip, owner of Canada's largest travel company Gap Adventures, to the Royal Geographical Society of Hong Kong last week.

For those with a responsible business model, opportunities and clients will come to you, Poon Tip says.

Both the company and its chief have received numerous awards and honours over the years for giving back to the communities they travel to; and opportunities include starting a division with the Discovery Channel called Discovery Adventures.

Gap Adventures was started in 1990, based on the idea of innovation, and offers trips off-the-beaten path. The company is dedicated to giving back and creating projects in the areas it tours, which includes creating local jobs.

Some of the company's projects include a water project in Kenya; 'voluntours', which allow travellers to volunteer for a community project set up by Planeterra; Gap Adventure's non-governmental organisation; and a second trip to Tibet with 80 doctors who will perform 500 cataract surgeries in 12 days.

'We've been a pioneer in sustainable travel, but the idea of sustainability isn't always clear cut, especially when it relates to tourism,' Poon Tip says.

In 2008, 866 million tourists travelled, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization; and by 2020, that figure is predicted to top 1.6 billion travellers. Travel is cheaper, easier and faster these days, Poon Tip says. However, he asks, what is being done to make growing tourist destinations sustainable?

It needs to start with the tourism industry making better decisions about their business models, he says.

While it is impossible for big companies, such as cruise operator Royal Caribbean or Marriot, to be totally sustainable, it's a great thing to have discussions going, he says, adding that he is meeting with Royal Caribbean executives next month in Miami.

Gap Adventures follows the triple bottom-line concept, which means that people, planet and profit are all equal so that if one goes up, they all do, Poon Tip says, adding that his company grew 48 per cent during the recession, testament that his business model works.

People who book a Gap Adventures tour are more interested in the business model than the trips. The company has about 1,000 small-group tours with more than 100,000 travellers a year to all seven continents. In Asia, the idea of sustainability has yet to take hold.

'Asia is slow on the uptake for sustainability, I'm sorry to say,' Poon Tip says. Places like Thailand do well because it has the infrastructure to handle tourists, but it's the smaller more fragile places, such as Borneo, Bali, Bhutan, Nepal and North Vietnam, that don't have the infrastructure, he adds. Due to its size, Gap Adventures is for the first time looking at places they shouldn't go because they're too fragile for tourists, such as Mongolia.

Such places are good for independent travellers, but the problem is mass tourism, he says. Planeterra looks into these issues and audits some countries and Gap's operations. The company has five core values: It loves changing people's lives, leading with service, doing the right thing, embracing the bizarre and creating happiness and community.

Poon Tip followed the concept of changing people's lives with his first tour. In 1990, he wanted to find a rain forest community in the Amazon, so 'what do you do'? 'You walk in the rainforest until you find one,' Poon Tip says. He met Delphin Pauchi on that trip and has been partners with him ever since. Delphin now runs monthly tours that stay with his community and, as a result, the village has built a school and had its first graduate from university recently. This changes the lives of those in the community and the travellers, Poon Tip says. He is doing what he can, he says, but the business model of the industry needs to change. His advice to travellers: 'Just ask the question.' When booking a trip, ask anyone and everyone from receptionists and cleaners to executives, 'what do you guys do'?

If they have sustainable programs they will tell you about it because it's something to promote, he says, adding that it's a quick way to show what companies are doing and which firms doing nothing, he says. 'It's up to you,' Poon Tip says. 'The power is in the consumer.'


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