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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Founder of travel firm G Adventures says the future is bright but different for tourism after COVID-19


The global tourism industry directly contributed $2.6 trillion to the global GDP in 2017. That’s about 3.2 per cent of the world’s economy, as more than 1.3 billion people spent money while traveling somewhere that year.

Last year Toronto-based G Adventures was responsible for a chunk of those trips, as the company took more than 200,000 people on more than 750 different tour packages to more than 100 countries last year.

The business has grown briskly over its three decades in existence, to the point where the company now bills itself as the largest independent small group adventure travel company in the world.

But the company has been hit hard like many others during the pandemic, with bookings down 90 per cent.

CEO Bruce Poon Tip has spent his quarantine time writing a free e-book in which he shares his views about the future of the travel industry. In Unlearn, The Year The Earth Stood Still, he writes that the pandemic presents an opportunity for travelers and the tourism industry to change for the better.

He spoke with CBC News recently about what he sees for tourism, post-COVID.

What made you want to write the book and what impact do you hope it will have?

“It started out [as] a love letter or an ode to travelers, because, when everything stopped, I started missing travel. Travel can be a transformative experience not just for the traveler, but in supporting communities around the world. As I kept writing, it just became a bigger story about what the potential we have as an industry. Because all travel companies are kind of at zero right now we have an opportunity to rethink and reset the industry.”

What does the new normal for travel look like after COVID-19?

“I think travel is gone a bit awry and people are … more concerned about amenities. The destination has become irrelevant — with the rise of cruises and all inclusive hotels so you can supply more amenities, whether it’s more restaurants or Broadway shows, indoor ziplining, wave pools, indoor go-kart tracks, all kinds of things that they’re offering as amenities.

People are living differently at home, we’re living more sustainably at home. [But] somehow we think it’s OK to disconnect our values when we travel, because we’re going to another country. And it’s my hope that there’s a tipping point where people match those values … to where you want to go and how you want to do it. And then when you’re [at your] destination, it’s about having a positive impact in every way — the whole idea of community tourism.

You go there, pay for local restaurants, local hotels where you shop and pay in-hand for services, as opposed to staying in a compound that consumes mass amounts of natural resources, when people outside of those walls don’t have access to clean drinking water or medical care.”

How important will community tourism be for countries that are underdeveloped?

“I think it’s going to play a major part, returning to a lot of those small scale businesses and operations and transportation companies, accommodation companies, restaurants.

I think that there’ll be a shift.

A 2012 photo of G Adventures CEO Bruce Poon Tip in Ecuador on a trip to an Amazon jungle village called Tena. He’s participating in a cleansing ritual with a shaman named Delfin, a local who’s worked with the company for 30 years.

I can’t see many people wanting to send their 80-year-old parents on a cruise at the moment. And even if a small part of that market changes how they travel, it’s a massive impact on a niche market, like our style of travel, and these kind of small scale businesses.

Starting to grow the size of that market, will allow the community tourism concept to just grow and, and have more people benefit and get more people invested in tourism.

What can big hotels, cruise lines and airlines learn from this pandemic?

“I hope most of them learn that the mindset of the traveler is changing, and this might expedite that change. It’s been identified in everyone’s surveys [that] people are wanting more sustainability, they want a more responsible travel. They want to know what companies are doing.

It’s not about having a corporate social responsibility program that you add on to your company to show that you’re doing some good things as a business but it’s actually actually an intrinsic change to your business model. At the highest level of decision making, these things are taken into consideration and the values of your business matter. How people connect to a brand is a values match more than just a price point.”

Poon Tip says it the cruise industry will have to change the way it does business after being walloped by COVID-19. (Philippine Coast Guard/The Associated Press)

What does the future look like for you guys at G Adventures?

I think we’ll be stronger on the other side.

Like every travel company, we’re in hibernation mode at the moment. we’re waiting for people to return to traveling. We’re starting to see bookings come back and people are starting to think about traveling in the future. It’s about being ready. We will return to full strength depending on so many factors — whether it is a vaccine, whether it’s a cure, whether … this goes on for another year, two years. We have to be prepared for every inevitability.”

Why do you think the travel industry is going to make a comeback?

“I think that people have a carnal desire or a need to travel. Our ancestors risked their lives to travel. To be the first to discover the world was round and not flat or be the first to the north and south pole. I think we are born explorers and somewhere along the way society makes tourists.

There will never be a time that people won’t have that burning desire to travel. There’s been many times we’ve been forced to pause but there’s always a pent up demand right after. It makes us feel it makes us feel alive. It gives you the appreciation of where you come from, and helps you find your place in the universe. I don’t think that’s going to go away anytime soon.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity.

 



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