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Mon 27 Dec 2010 12:00 AM

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The green travel guru

Sustainability champion and founder of Gap Adventures, Bruce Poon Tip, says Middle East travellers want a new way to see the world, and he’s here to show them how.

The green travel guru

When it comes to the types of holiday most commonly favoured
by Middle Eastern travellers, travel agents would probably put shopping breaks,
or luxury spa resorts at the top of the list.

But Bruce Poon Tip sees a whole “untapped” market of travellers
in the region looking to see the world in a more eco-friendly fashion and experience
an ‘off-the-beaten’ track adventure, which he is keen to capitalise on.

Poon Tip is the founder and CEO of Gap Adventures – the world’s
biggest adventure travel company. He started his company in 1990 aged 23 after returning
from a backpacking tour of Asia, on a mission to
offer authentic adventures in a sustainable manner. Since then his one-man band
has grown to employ 850 people worldwide, offering adventure trips from safaris,
jungle treks and cultural experiences in every continent of the world. Over 100,000
people will travel with Gap Adventures this year. Last month he announced a deal
with MMI Travel to distribute his travel products to customers in the Middle East for the first time.

“There’s definitely a huge demand here,” he says. “There’s a
whole new younger generation here that’s looking to travel, and is curious about
seeing the world in a very different light. They want to experience culture as oppose
to just resorts or shopping.”

Travel agents will be crucial to selling the Gap Adventures product,
and Poon Tip says educating the trade is the next step to ensure that consumers
get the right message about the various tours on offer.

“With our programmes it needs a travel agent to sell it that
can talk to the customers. It’s an emerging market here so there’s a lot of education
needed. Initially we need to get out on the road and talk to all the sellers of
travel, so that when someone walks into a travel agency and they want to do something
different – if they want to go and see the Galapagos Islands,
or see Machu Pichu they can have access to that.”

While the expat market is already to some extent familiar with
the Gap Adventures product, Poon Tip says his mission is to get the local Middle East traveller on board with “a more sustainable form
of travel.”

It might be a tougher market to capture, but he believes that
the ‘group travel’ aspect of his adventure tours will appeal to the local market.

“People from this region are curious to travel with other people
from around the world. They are very interested in the groups themselves as oppose
the actual destinations. They are interested in the fact that we have people from
Norway, Australia, New Zealand
and Canada
all on our tours and the destination is almost secondary because they are very keen
to be with a group of people from around the world.”

He adds: “The idea that they can join a group of travellers in
a safe environment and do an African safari, or a train trip across Vietnam is exciting
for this generation of people. And we love having them on our groups too because
they are so new to travel and they are so excited to see the world in a way that’s
sustainable and active and adventurous.”

As well as the ‘adventurous’ aspect of his tours, Poon Tip is
also something of a green tourism pioneer and he has received  countless awards for his efforts in promoting sustainable
travel.

Gap Adventures promotes ‘green travel’ by focusing on minimising
environmental impact and protecting the destinations his travellers go into, integrating
with the local people and cultures and bringing economic benefit to local communities.

Poon Tip has been invited to explain his concept of ‘green travel’
as a keynote speaker at World Green Tourism Abu Dhabi.  The UAE does not currently feature on the Gap Adventures
itinerary, except as a stopover for those flying into other Middle Eastern destinations
such as Oman, Jordan, Syria
or even Iran.

But with Abu Dhabi
now looking to position itself as a ‘sustainability champion’ – will Gap Adventures
seek to bring more tour groups here in the future?

At this, Poon Tip looks somewhat dubious, admitting, the “Middle East has a lot of challenges when it comes to green
travel.”

“On the environmental side of green tourism – I don’t think that
at any time in the near future that kind of traveller will be attracted to a country
like Abu Dhabi because
of how it’s viewed by the outside world as being a resource intensive destination,”
he says.

However, he is keen to underline the point that, ‘green travel’
does not just have to mean eco-friendly – it also refers to cultural experiences,
or “meeting local people and having authentic travel experiences.”

“Sustainability is defined in many, many ways. Yes, the lack
of resources here and the mass development and construction could lead people to
be highly critical of the destination in terms of its environmental status. But
the ‘green traveller’ goes beyond that – 90% of green travel is about experiencing
different cultures. And this region has culture in spades.”

But surely opening up the local culture to tourists is another
aspect that could prove extremely challenging in the Gulf where locals traditionally
live quite private lives.

“The local culture here is extremely hidden,” agrees Poon Tip.
“And it’s not something people here think tourists would be interested in.”

“I think the people of the Middle East
are generally quite private people, but in order to allow tourists in you have to
expose and give some of your cultural secrets away, and truly realise the benefits
and greater understanding people have of your country if they can have that kind
of cultural experience.”

Poon Tip suggest that such cultural experiences could “start
with small, local experiences – local markets or home stay programes or having local
guides give an insider’s view on city tours as oppose to hitting shopping spots.”

Speaking of Abu Dhabi’s
commitment to become a ‘green tourism’ destination,  Poon Tip says: “I think the challenge will be for
the tourist boards to really commit to this form of travel. It’s very easy to bring
in the luxury travellers and the spa traveller – that’s obviously low hanging fruit,
but tourism boards have to be pretty committed to the concept of sustainable travel
and have to invest in it over a long period of time.”

Once travellers can experience something “authentic” in the destination,
demand from green travellers will build. “We just need a bit of commitment on the
government’s side to share cultural experiences with us, and the market will come,”
he insists. “It’s a fascinating country to a lot of travellers from around the world.”

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