What if you could holiday in far-flung corners of the planet, experiencing unforgettable sights beyond your wildest imagination, and at the same time leave a significant positive impact to the local community?
Andy Booth, founder and CEO of ABOUTAsia Travel, told Blue & Green Tomorrow how you can do just that.
Based in Cambodia, ABOUTAsia is a tour operator that aims to provide visitors with memorable, meaningful and tailor-made holidays, while ensuring that their travels improve the lives of the local children through education.
Remarkably, 100% of the profits generated from ABOUTAsia Travel holidaymakers are donated to its charitable arm, ABOUTAsia Schools. The funds are then used to upgrade and enhance local schooling.
Booth spoke about charity and sustainability, as well as what he thought the future holds for responsible tourism in south-east Asia and elsewhere.
Tell us about ABOUTAsia Travel’s mission and how your organisation came to be.
ABOUTAsia Travel is only one part of the organisation, the other being ABOUTAsia Schools. The effort in Cambodia grew out of my desire to promote and support children’s education from the proceeds of a commercial enterprise. It just so happens that the best opportunity in Siem Reap is tourism related.
Having visited Angkor Wat on holiday some years earlier, I understood that tourism was not well done in Cambodia, that it was fast growing and that too little of the overall benefit of international tourism seemed to reach the Khmer people. I was determined to help people experience the temples of Angkor in a far better way, go on to discover some of the wonders of this country and make a profit which I could use for supporting local education.
What motivates you to do what you do?
Without education, it is difficult to envisage a population improving their living or social conditions. My own chances in life came from the twin influence of caring parents and the opportunity provided by one of the best educations in the world. Growing up on a sheep farm in rural England, I attended the local state school. It was good enough, though, to provide the chance to get to Oxford University and this in turn opened doors which lead to me being in a position to bring opportunity to so many more people.
Why did you choose to set up a travel company in Cambodia rather than other nations in south-east Asia?
Given the troubled past of Cambodia through the 1970s and 80s, the country lags in a number of respects. It is rich in assets yet poor in the ability to use those assets for the benefit of its people. Infrastructure and tourism improve year by year and the sheer numbers of visitors rise year on year.
Tourism is relatively young and underdeveloped providing opportunities for the visitor to experience the country and its people in a genuine unaffected manner. It also provides opportunity to those who are prepared to spend the time and effort to develop better visitor experiences.
The first thing one notices, however, about Cambodia is the genuine warmth and openness of the people. Rationale aside, this had a significant influence on why I chose to dedicate myself to helping these people.
Who are your clients and where do they come from?
Our services and attention to detail are best appreciated by independent travellers, couples, family groups and groups of friends. We like getting our guests out into the countryside, wading through streams and back gardens, discovering temples away from the coachloads of tourists. Yet we enjoy seeing them delighted by the surprise comfort and refinement of our country house, for example out in the rice paddies, miles from the nearest electricity.
Our market reach is wide and the origin of our guests is diverse. The largest market for us is the US, but even that is less than 20% of the whole. Europeans feature highly as do Australians and ex-pats from regional centres such as Hong Kong and Singapore.
Profits accrued by ABOUTAsia Travel help fund volunteers and educational programmes for ABOUTAsia Schools. Can you explain more?
All of the profits of ABOUTAsia Travel, yes 100%, are used for to further education in Cambodia. There are major programmes supplying classroom consumables, school uniforms and repairing the fabric of the schools. English language is a key focus of our attention as it opens up opportunities for the young adults to find promising jobs in the tourism industry.
To this end, we run a free volunteering programme that supports the English teaching in many schools and we also employ teachers full-time to provide English language classes in dozens of primary schools.
How do you as a tour operator promote sustainability and minimise your impact on the environment?
We are arguably the ultimate responsible tourism company as all of our benefits go back to the local economy, either through the schools or through wages to locally based employees and fees to local service suppliers. Over time, the linkage between the environment and tourist attractions benefiting the local economy is reinforced, motivating people to protect the source of their livelihood.
We promote diversification of the concentration of tourism away from the honeypot sites of the archaeological park towards lesser visited sites, thereby reducing the impact of the sheer footfall at the most popular sites.
How do your tours compare to other responsible tour operators in the region?
I know of no other tour specialist that is so focussed with such effort and resources on a single country. We live, work and play just 2 miles from Angkor Wat itself so have a depth of knowledge as a true local. Coupled with forward thinking management and investment in systems, we are able to customise travel to a degree few can match and at a price and value that none can match. The result is a level of service and guest experience which is outstanding.
Apart from your own efforts, have you seen any other significant developments in responsible and sustainable tourism in Asia?
It is almost a prerequisite now for travel companies to have responsible credentials. Some are genuine in their efforts but many are somewhat cynical in their claims, for example often asking their guests to contribute to social projects without significantly dipping into their own profits.
What are the most popular tours that you offer?
Close to 100% of visitors to Cambodia set out to see the monuments of Angkor. Our most popular tour is our Single Magical Day which aims to get you around all of the key sites while avoiding the worst of the tourist crowds. Our special interest tours are many and various. Probably my favourite is to bring my guests out to experience the best of the Cambodian countryside through our Countryside Senses tours. There are places I can bring visitors where little has changed in 1,000 years yet they can relax in a wonderful environment, meet the friendliest people and perhaps even reflect on what brings people real happiness.
What projects are you currently working on for ABOUTAsia Travel?
We continue to develop and extend our Countryside Senses tours and have recently built a beautiful traditional villa where our guests can enjoy sundowner cocktails or have dinner prepared by a wonderful chef we bring into the house from Siem Reap. Sampling our 11 dish classic or 17 dish celebratory menus by candlelight, knowing that you are so far away from the town, the nearest tourist and even miles from mains electricity is a very special experience.
We have almost completed our VIP boat, also aimed at destination dining.
My guidebook, the first purpose designed field guide to the temples for the mainstream visitor, will be published early in the new year.
What are the biggest challenges facing responsible tour operators in Cambodia?
Political unrest from time to time in the region. Corruption. The lack of an independent system or body for recognising and helping the tourist identify which are the real responsible operators and which only play lip service. Everyone claims to be a responsible operator nowadays but who would really achieve a five star rating for such?
Recently we won recognition from both Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure magazines for our outstanding ability to bring the benefits of tourism back to local communities. While these awards are terrific, I would still love to see an independent rating system for ‘responsibility’ akin to the comfort and facilities rating stars awarded to hotels.
What do you hope to have achieved in the next decade?
My aim is to educate 250,000 children. So far we support schools covering 53,000 children so we have a good way to go. It is also my aim to get visitors to think just a little about their own place in the world. As a good friend of mine coined: life changing travel and travel changing lives.