My first trip by myself was with Gap Adventures. I went to Costa Rica and got the travel bug that still lives in my system. Since then I have been an ardent fan of Gap. They offer tours with a lot of personal time and have a strong commitment to the local people and the environment. It was my extreme pleasure then to sit down with him Bruce Poontip, the CEO, and discuss Gap adventures, tour groups, and sustainable travel with him.
Nomadic Matt: How did you start Gap Adventures?
Bruce Poontip: I started Gap Adventures in 1990 when I wanted to travel and there was only cruises, resorts or bus tours available. I put together a few tours and developed a new way of travel that combined the grassroots experience of backpacking with the comfort of a tour. There was the security of a group but the independence of backpacking. I started getting in front of anyone who would listen. It wasn’t until much later in the mid 90’s that the term Ecotourism became popular and it helped give us a name for what we were doing. Even though we didn’t fully identify with the term, it was the first time we were seen as a serious company.
Most tour companies shuffle people between destinations and have very planned schedules. Gap Adventures leaves a lot of personal time on their trips. Why is that?
Our motto from the beginning was ‘security in a group with the freedom and flexibility of independent travel.’ Treating customers like individuals was my first concern when I started Gap Adventures. I didn’t want to second-guess consumer taste and end up producing a boring experience trying to match everything to everyone in a large group. Because we were starting with the smallest group sizes in the market, it allowed us to create something that had never been done before. It was that type of innovation that really motivated me in the early stages.
Gap likes to say they are an environmental and socially responsible company. How does Gap practice sustainable and green tourism?
We do a lot. Besides having our own foundation, Planeterra.org, that is dedicated to giving back and creating projects in the areas we travel, we also do everything possible to keep to our sustainable roots. That means creating local jobs and opportunities for the people who make our tours possible and developing programs that create a positive impact in those areas. It’s about keeping our groups small and manageable and creating a community with the host countries who allow us to do what we do.
We’re about running our business in a way that respects people and the planet. That could mean Gap paying for a portion of our employee transit passes, having our offices around the world powered by wind, having four stroke engines on our ships, bleach and chemical free paper company-wide, or planting 450,000 trees to offset our corporate traveling. It runs deep with us and we have a lot of projects that are aimed at creating sustainable practices.
To what extent, do you feel that a lot of this ecotourism talk is just greenwashing?
There is a lot of greenwashing as companies try to meet the demand by consumers. At some point you have to have faith that travelers are becoming more educated and savvy about their choices, and that real change will come as the demand is created. There is no question that greenwashing is a problem, but ultimately you have to look at your own business and do what you think is right. There is evidence for the first time that consumers are willing to pay a premium for a more sustainable product, a huge sign that there is change afoot. You have to choose how you want to be seen in a changing landscape.
What can consumers do to help?
Consumers have to ask the right questions. They have to find out what companies are doing and how they are contributing to sustainability and local economies. You have to find out how companies develop their programs and how they communicate their commitment. With any great company you should be able to ask anyone, from receptionist to management, about the company’s stance on sustainability and what they are doing. Any company that is truly dedicated to sustainability at the core should have staff that knows about it.
A lot of the time, you hear ‘Tourism is bad because tourists come and ruin places.’ However, I think that the real problem is is greed. Countries have a slash and burn mentality and often don’t think about long-term growth. What do you think?
Every country is different and has their individual challenges with tourism. I find that countries that are more popular with travelers tend to care more about the conservation of their tourism assets. They are also likely to have a more developed infrastructure to manage tourists and generally have different issues to deal with. The harsh truth is that tourism cannot have zero impact; so to try and achieve that is impossible. Once that is understood, then real change can happen. The goal needs to be about conservation for future generations. You can achieve that through better business practices and by promoting more sustainable forms of tourism for the future. I am a firm believer that the benefits of tourism far outweigh the negative, because if it is done right, it can transform economies of some of the poorest countries in the world. Creating employment and the benefit of cultural exchange are often underestimated.
What benefits do you think tour groups offer over individual travel?
There is a level of security that comes with group travel. It is easy to underestimate the ease and ability of group travel into areas that would typically be very hard work to explore individually. In a group, you are also paying for the experience of a company that has properly vetted all available options and has put together an itinerary of some of the best things to see in a country. Traveling as a group is a great use of time, allowing you the chance to see more, in shorter periods of time, with less hassle, allowing you to fully enjoy your holiday. Individual travel does have its own benefits, but it is for a certain type of traveler who may find that their adventure is in the challenges of figuring things out on their own. They don’t mind language differences and have the time to do extensive research before mapping out their journey. I think both have their advantages, but we are a holiday company, so we offer people the ability to relax and enjoy the ride instead of worrying about the logistics.
What kind of travel do you do? Do you take tours or go at it alone?
I do get a chance to get out on our tours when I can. I have a young family so my travel is temporarily restricted to an extent. I love meeting other like-minded travelers, and there is something magical about a group of strangers from around the world getting together to set out on an adventure together. It doesn’t take long for a group to bond, to develop their own personality and come together to create special memories. I have never really traveled alone as it is not my idea of a holiday! I guess that is why I started Gap Adventures.
When looking for tours, what advice would you give travelers in helping them pick out a good tour company?
This is a great question. I think too many travelers are motivated by deals or price and that can lead to disaster. I think it is important that travelers identify with the company they are traveling with beyond the product or the tour. It is about relating to a company and the people that make up that company that gives you the greatest satisfaction. Knowing that you are investing in a business that shares your values and that you feel you want to be part of. It is not any different to anything you purchase and how you relate to that brand. There are many reasons you identify with brands and companies and your choice of travel company should be the same.
For more information on Bruce with can follow him on Twitter at @Brucepoontip. For more information on Gap Adventures, check out their website: