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Keep it real

Experience Travel explains to PQ how true sustainable tourism means good business all round.

Jetting off to exotic destinations might not be the most sustainable way to take a break, but one travel company specialising in south-east Asia has done more than its bit to plough money and support back into the communities it works with – and has found that doing so makes good business sense.

Experience Travel Group is a specialist tour operator offering bespoke adventures in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and south-east Asia. The clue’s in the name: this company isn’t your usual travel outfit – instead the focus is on the experience of everyone involved, from guides and local suppliers to clients and their families. The idea is to allow the world’s most passionate travellers to experience enriching holidays that benefit everyone.

experience-travel-2The company was founded by Tom Armstrong and Sam Clark in 2004. Tom originally went to Sri Lanka as an English teacher in 1999 and was immediately smitten; Sam went to visit a few times and was equally seduced, so they decided to explore the country more deeply. Their travels coincided with further explorations throughout Asia – a region they still find infinitely fascinating and mesmerising. This deep love, respect and commitment has become part of Experience Travel’s DNA: everything’s done from the heart – but this has also created some curveballs from a business point of view.

When the tsunami hit in 2004 – the same year Experience Travel launched – Tom was in Wennappuwa, Sri Lanka. ‘We were lucky in that the town we were living in was not badly affected’, he tells PQ. ‘However, we had our first ever clients on tour at the time and they had a narrow escape at Unawatuna beach, an area that was devastated. We had to rescue them in person by motorbike and were immediately drawn into the relief and regeneration effort on a wider scale.’

The majority of Sri Lanka’s coastline was devastated by the tsunami, and the knock-on effects were felt on every level throughout the country. For Experience Travel, this meant that the formal opening of the business was postponed by a year to enable Sam and Tom to form an aid foundation and work full time on recovery and rehabilitation projects, which were supported by their own fundraising efforts. By the end they had a registered charity in the UK and had worked tirelessly with a great team of volunteers in fields such as relief, medical care, sanitation, housing and livelihood creation.

The financial impact of dropping a new business and switching all attention to the support of local communities was a severe one, but Tom explains that, for those who were there and considered Sri Lanka to be their home, there was simply no choice. ‘The business was temporarily derailed and at times the outlook seemed very bleak’, he says. ‘However, I now like to look back on all the things we learned about the country and ourselves during this period and appreciate how they actually strengthened us all as individuals and as a company. When we got back to focusing on tourism and sharing all the positive facets of the country, we were better prepared than ever before.’

While the simple task of getting to Asia has obvious environmental impacts, Tom believes that, in this increasingly global world, the importance of tourism as an income stream should not be underestimated. ‘In a very simplistic sense, if everyone stopped flying tomorrow the consequences would be overwhelming and devastating on low-income countries in Asia that rely heavily on tourism’, he told PQ. ‘If long-haul tourism were only undertaken by travellers who didn’t care, there would be no incentive for people to take care of the local environment, develop tours that take people out of their comfort zone, spread the wealth and support local communities.’

This kind of travel can also provide the incentive to preserve areas of wilderness. Burma, for example, has huge tracts of currently untouched land which are real wildlife havens –­ but they’re also prime targets for developing palm oil plantations that could have devastating consequences for local wildlife in areas including Malaysian Borneo and Sumatra. Figureheads such as the great Aung San Suu Kyi recognise that, in the long term, theses natural habitats are an invaluable resource for tourism and much more besides. Passionate travellers who care about the environment provide a vital financial incentive to conserve areas that may otherwise be devastated for alternative financial gains. The monetary clout of tourism means the sector has immense power to preserve and protect.

experience-travel-3Tom doesn’t feel Experience Travel Group’s focus on sustainability makes the business more challenging to run; he thinks balancing the needs of western tourists with the realities of local and authentic travel is a bigger challenge for a sustainable travel company. ‘You cannot just be prescriptive about how things are done’, he says. ‘For example, many of our guests enjoy sampling local food and this is a very sustainable approach. However, in Sri Lanka this can be tricky as there is only a very limited restaurant culture. Most local places are not acceptable to all of our clients on a hygiene basis. Some are OK – some not!’ To get round this, Experience Travel arranges for the drivers to stop at safe local places and, more importantly, encourages the use of hotels that focus on proper local food and cooking classes, to provide as much information as possible so that clients can explore for themselves.

Another large issue is that clients very often want to get involved in local volunteering projects. ‘We have to be clear and say that we do not feel that volunteering and taking jobs that could be done locally is a productive way to spend your holiday’, Tom explains. Aside from taking jobs locals could do, Tom believes direct harm can be done in cases such as orphanages, where already damaged children risk further hurt by forming attachments to fleeting visitors. ‘It’s hard to explain this to good-hearted visitors who just want to contribute something during their holiday’, says Tom. ‘We try to explain that showing interest in the culture, learning some skills, spending your money widely and getting off the beaten track is an extremely positive and enjoyable way to spend your hard-earned time and money’.

Constant innovation has been key to Experience Travel Group’s success, as the company’s goal is to provide original and authentic experiences that are otherwise unavailable. ‘A lot of it comes down to how you train the guides and how much incentive they’re given to be flexible and do things on the spur of the moment’, says Tom. On the reverse of the same coin, the ‘bread and butter’ excursions also need proper planning. At Angkor Wat, for example, everyone essentially sees the same thing; Experience Travel has to ensure the guides are superb and that clients get up early to see the sites in a particular order, so they have a more rewarding experience than they’d get elsewhere. ‘It is surprisingly difficult to get guides to do something different’, says Tom. ‘People get wedded to their routines and often those routines have developed to make things easy for the individual guide, rather than the visitor or other local people.’

As well as striving to offer more on the landmark tours, Experience Travel has also pioneered very specific adventures to fill gaps in the market and offer something different. The company offers a walking tour around Colombo, which on first sight can look like a dirty, chaotic Asian city with no major sites – but scratch the surface and there is a fascinating history and a vibrant culture, which can only really be revealed on foot and with local guides. Similarly, an art tour of Saigon offers a fascinating way in to Vietnam, which can be a tricky place for a casual visitor to understand. Experience Travel Group’s food safari tours are another example of how the company has tailored its tours to benefit both the locals and the tourists. ‘Asian street food is second to none,’ explains Tom, ‘but we discovered that many of our clients were too scared to try it. We sourced a local company that could set them up in Bangkok.’ That company has gone from strength to strength and Experience Travel’s clients still love them.

Everyone involved with an Experience Travel holiday, including the guests themselves, is considered part of the same team. Collaboration is key, so communication with local employees – and, crucially, sub-contractors and local partners – is essential. ‘We work as hard as possible to ensure our guides feel part of the Experience Travel Group team – even if they are freelancers. The nature of our business means it is hard to have too many guides who don’t take freelance work in quieter periods’, says Tom. But communication isn’t always easy; the best intentions when it comes to the exchange of ideas and the venting of frustrations can be thwarted by technology. ‘There are cultural issues we have to be careful with here’, Tom explains. ‘For example, some of our best Sri Lankan chauffeur-guides are older gentlemen who don’t actually use computers – they often rely on their children to open emails and that type of thing. On the contrary, the Vietnamese guides are very high-tech – and when the government allows access to Facebook (it’s occasionally blocked for censorship reasons) they’re very enthusiastic users!’

experience-travel-4Tom believes that, in order to build a stable and lasting business relationship, it’s essential to think about the other party when you negotiate. ‘Many of the bigger operators have to answer to shareholders and the temptation comes to squeeze the local operators for a short-term profit gain’, he says. ‘In the longer term, however, it is not just bad for the local economy — it’s also bad for your guests and, ultimately, your business. Local operators are forced to rely on schemes such as commission kickbacks from shopping trips and cutting corners in order to make a decent profit. It all means that the holiday suffers.’ Experience Travel Group employs people in the local countries, and treats all its staff in the same way. ‘There are some cultural differences of course’, Tom says. ‘Never get between a Sri Lankan and their regular monthly poya day holiday. It is sacrosanct – as is the Sinhala New Year celebration!’

Tom sees everything as being interconnected through the focus on experience, rather than just ‘travel’. He’s building a company for the future – for the long term. ‘In the end, sustainable means something that lasts and we are only as good as our partners – the countries, the hotels, the suppliers and all the rest of it. We need the relationship to be win-win and that is the only way we could build an experience-based travel company from a business point of view. Furthermore, what we offer is about experiences – and genuine experience is a two-way street. It requires the input of everyone along the way. That doesn’t work if it is not sustainable as the relationship will work once but inevitably break down – by definition!’

From Tom’s experience, sustainable travel seems to be less front of mind than it was a few years ago – though clients are receptive to the message once it’s raised. For example, Experience Travel controversially removed the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage visit from its books. Almost everyone asks to visit when they enquire about a holiday – alongside Sigiriya, it’s probably Sri Lanka’s most iconic tourist attraction. ‘We stopped people going there as we had (and continue to have) grave reservations about the treatment of the elephants and the fact that it was not an ‘orphanage’ now in any sense of the word, but a tourist cash cow’, he says. The company has done the same with several other ‘wildlife’ attractions in Asia, such as the infamous tiger temples in Thailand. ‘We almost always find people incredibly receptive to this; they overwhelmingly agree to do safaris or more sustainable elephant-based attractions. We have probably lost the odd booking, but I think in business terms, the fact that we care about the country helps rather than hinders overall. In a way, that kind of forethought and knowledge is what people are paying us for.’

To find out more about Experience Travel Group and its bespoke adventures, visit their website.

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