G Adventures Bruce Poon Tip on Joe Exotic, problem tourism and pandemic travel one year on


‘The travel industry does to travellers what the Tiger King did to tigers’: G Adventures’ Bruce Poon Tip reflects on a year without travel. Photo / Netflix

G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip says he experienced last year in the same way that “crash test dummy” experiences a windscreen.

He had grown G Adventures from a student enterprise into the world’s largest small-group adventure company. After 30 years of acceleration, life was a rhythm of airports, expansion and exploration.

Then it all came to a messy, unexpected halt. Cancellations, an office exodus and finally layoffs.

After a flurry of violent activity, on March 16 2020 the company went into hibernation.
What followed was a lot of soul searching; a long year in the desert at his makeshift home office in Toronto. Two months into which he published the book “Unlearn: The year the world stood still”.

“It began as one of those ‘everything is going to be alright’ letters that every company was writing at the time. But I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I didn’t know ‘everything was going to be alright’.”

G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip's last overseas trip was to Auckland. That was a year ago. Photo / File
G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip’s last overseas trip was to Auckland. That was a year ago. Photo / File

Just a year earlier Bruce had been in Auckland, celebrating the A Force For Good summit. Sat across from me, Bruce was in town for a celebration of travel and the fact that a full tenth of the world relied on travel and tourism for their livelihoods. Far more than a tenth in the developing world, in the places which used to be G’s bread and butter.

G and the other speakers were at their zenith. Bruce never expected it was the last overseas trip he would take for a year.

Or, perhaps it was denial?

“[Covid] was a joke in every interview I did,” he says, recounting the trip to Auckland. Making an appearance on TVNZ Breakfast, “there was a bit on people rushing out to buy toilet roll.”

“Oh my goodness, the lack of information,” said Bruce, chastising himself for telling people not to cancel their travel. To “stay strong”, “keep calm” and “go out and see the world.”

A lot happened in the week following: the WHO declared sars-cov-2 a pandemic, New Zealand would shut its borders, the fragile nature of travel would be exposed for all to see – and I would break Bruce Poon Tip’s own record for consecutive days spent trapped in Punta Arenas, Patagonia.

It’s exhausting just to think about. So to meet again 365 days on, feels like a lifetime has passed.

Dialling into the Zoom call from his home in Canada, the travel evangelist seemed chastened by his experiences.

“It’s hard to think that 12 months later we’re still here in Lockdown.”

Like many other companies G has spent the last year recapitalising the business, extending pauses in operations – always following the “promise of pent-up demand” on return, as the restart got kicked further down the road. It was a year that tested even Bruce’s “optimism”.

Now, finally there appears to be some progress. G has delivered 100 trips since the start of the year. Rebooting tours in Europe around Mt Blanc, Morocco and Egypt the return of group tours has been slower than expected, but the first green shoots are emerging of post-pandemic travel.

Uphill battle: G Adventures has led 100 'Travel with Confidence' trips since the Pandemic. Photo / Supplied
Uphill battle: G Adventures has led 100 ‘Travel with Confidence’ trips since the Pandemic. Photo / Supplied

Still, G Adventures is in no hurry.

“I don’t think we should be fighting to ‘get back to normal’, I hate when people say that,” Just before the pandemic, I don’t think normal was a very great”.

There were a lot of mistakes. As his book points out, these were mistakes G Adventures was just as guilty of.

Tourists as caged tigers

As “head of the world’s largest small-group adventure travel company” G’s contradictory existence put them on a par with the cruise companies, airlines or accommodation providers as “one of the villains in these scenarios”.

Though well meaning – G was another company helping fill tourism destinations to the brim, driving demand for bucket list experiences and disappointing Greta Thunberg.
Similarly, it wasn’t just the travel companies behaving badly. Problem Tourists was something that many destinations had grown to expect.

Headlines of air rage, insensitive acts and bad behavior when abroad were part and symptom of what was wrong with the old “normal”.

During the lockdown the perfect metaphor for the ‘problem tourist’:

“In so many ways, the travel industry does to travellers what the Tiger King did to tigers.”
Travellers he says are “noble creatures”, with noble intentions – but they become “tourists” when packed into tight spaces and made to “behave in whatever ways earn the most profit”.

Joe Exotic might have been forever linked to travel’s “end of innocence,” as Bruce called it.
Ahead of international companies like G Adventures is a long road to recovery. However, so is the chance to rebuild with 30 years’ worth of experience and mistakes behind them.

'Travel with Confidence': G Adventures has made its first steps into post pandemic travel. Photo / Travel
‘Travel with Confidence’: G Adventures has made its first steps into post pandemic travel. Photo / Travel

Plug the “leakage”

As a global company G makes its profits from a share of the dollars spent in the communities it visits.

Economic “Leakage” describes the dollars siphoned off by a global company off every tourist transaction. Quoting a 2017 study in Bali it was shown, for every $1 spend in a 4-star-hotel, 56 cent disappeared offshore.

“As terrible as 55.31 per cent sounds, it’s not that bad a number, globally speaking,” says Bruce. However there are places where leakage exceeds 100 per cent – meaning tourism becomes a net cost to the places hosting them.

One of the biggest changes that G has seen in the last 10 years is for more of guests’ dollars to stay in the communities they visit.

Today Bruce says “an average of 93 per cent ripple score” meaning it is 93 per cent owned by local companies. Keeping more of the economic gains in the communities where travellers visit might help build back a stronger tourism infrastructures, capable of withstanding future challenges.

Taking pride in tourism

A year on, tourism may not be the same power it was at the “Force For Good” summit. After huge job losses and business closures in travel around the world, many people rightly question how those remaining operators will cope, when demand returns.

When asked about the problems facing New Zealand’s travel agencies – which lost 70 per cent of their shops since a year ago – Bruce said it represented a “huge opportunity” for the remaining travel agents. Being told to “buy a new car” was not the answer they were expecting.

The flippant answer suggested that a year might not have been quite long enough to consider all of travel’s existential problems.

However, in general Bruce sees only upsides to staying in travel and tourism.

The force might be reduced, but there’s still a lot of good to be done through overseas travel.

As Bruce reflected in the book: “Something kind of magical happens when a bunch of relatively wealthy foreigners come into a community from far away.”

The company has seen declines in trends of aging populations and a reverse of a youth exodus in the remote parts of the world, where the majority of G Adventures tours visit.
“Oohing and aahing over everyday pottery and hats and llamas: it starts to make the younger people proud of where they come from.”

What goes for local cultures and remote parts of Peru, is also true for travel.

Giving people a reason to be proud of the Tourism industry, and the good ends to which it can be put might just be the answer to an industry in despair. Rebuilding travel will be an uphill climb worthy of the Inca Trail. But at G Adventures says it will be worth it.



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