The 2023 AFAR Travel Vanguard

Celebrating seven companies that are changing the travel industry in bigger, better, and more human-focused ways.

Distant view of mountainous area around Punakha River Lodge in Bhutan

Out of nearly 130 nominees this year, we selected seven honorees that put people—and the planet—first.

Photo by Matt Dutile Creative

Launched in 2016, the AFAR Travel Vanguard celebrates organizations that are making travel a force for good. Out of nearly 130 nominees this year, we selected seven honorees, including a nonprofit working to bring back an ancient wilderness, a luxury cruise line pioneering new green technologies, and a hotel brand that prioritizes art and artists.

Read on to learn more about these seven changemakers.

Left: two women sitting near a wall. Right: People paddling down a river in a long canoe.

From left: A Ngäbe woman teaches a visitor to stitch a chácara bag; Travelers take a canoe along Panama’s Chagres River to visit the Emberá community.

Courtesy of Visit Panama

Panama Tourism

For empowering local communities through tourism

Panama is helping travelers experience the country beyond its stunning beaches, popular surf spots, and eponymous canal. Included in the nation’s Sustainable Tourism Master Plan 2020–2025 are projects to reduce carbon emissions, protect marine environments, and educate travelers about their impact. But it is Panama’s work with its Indigenous communities that is perhaps the most groundbreaking.

In 2022, a consortium of government agencies and nonprofits launched SOSTUR (a portmanteau of turismo sostenible, Spanish for “sustainable tourism”), a network that connects travelers directly with pilot projects in 10 communities across the country. “Before SOSTUR, these communities didn’t have access to the tourism market, so this allows them to develop their own tourism strategy that works for them,” says Fernando Fondevila, the CEO of PROMTUR, an organization that promotes tourism in Panama.

Through SOSTUR, a traveler can, for example, book a tour to Bonllik, a dense jungle landscape located along the border with Costa Rica. There, the Naso people, in what is considered to be the last Indigenous monarchy of the Americas, have designed a tourism experience that introduces visitors to their culture on their own terms. Guests can participate in the harvesting of cacao and bananas while learning how their hosts have maintained their heritage despite centuries of colonial violence.

SOSTUR experiences begin with community buy-in. For a trip to be listed on the platform, local hosts first need to agree to terms and be involved in designing the activity. “From the transportation, to the moment that a visitor arrives, to the accommodations in which they are staying, to the guides bringing them on the journey, to the groups cooking and teaching visitors about their community,” says Annie Young, president of SOSTUR, “everyone is involved in the process.”

Interior of a guest room at Punakha River Lodge, with wood ceiling and wall of windows

The area around the Punakha River Lodge includes rice terraces, chili fields, and views of the Himalayas.

Courtesy of andBeyond


For translating its conservation-minded mission to new corners of the world

Since 1991, the tour and lodging company andBeyond has championed a model of tourism that places the traveler at the center of an interconnected system, one that links the land, local communities, and wildlife. The company has grown gradually—from one safari property in South Africa to 25 lodges across six African countries—and expanded its conservation reach every time. Today, its properties preserve more than a million acres of wilderness.

In recent years, andBeyond has started looking farther afield. After opening Vira Vira, a lodge in Chile’s Lake District, in 2018, the company turned its attention to Asia. Its Punakha River Lodge, a small collection of suites and luxury tents, debuted in September 2023 on the banks of the Mo Chhu River. Bhutan—where the government has long been a global leader in conservation through a model of high-value, low-volume tourism—might seem like an odd choice for a company that usually operates in countries where wild spaces are under greater threat. But Nicole Robinson, andBeyond’s chief marketing officer, explains that the goal here was for guests to experience Bhutan’s commitment firsthand.

“What we really want is that [our guests’] travel also makes them rethink their place in the world and how they live when they get home,” Robinson says. “There’s so much to learn from seeing what the Bhutanese value and how that plays out across the country.”

It wouldn’t be an andBeyond project without some element of supporting the host community. Around 80 percent of the staff come from the nearby areas, and Robinson says that most are new to the hospitality industry. Introducing new employment opportunities—especially in an industry that offers room for growth—can have ripple effects beyond the lodge. In addition, the company limits the environmental footprint of Punakha and employs local architectural styles that blend seamlessly with the surroundings.

“We want to leave our world a better place, which obviously includes the land and wildlife,” Robinson says. “But it also means our guests and our staff—we must be leaving them in a better place, too.”

 Eric and Lynnette Dodson laughing together over tea in Baltimore

Cuples Tea House, owned by Eric and Lynnette Dodson (pictured), participates in Baltimore’s Warm Welcome program.

Photo by Scott Suchman

Visit Baltimore

For giving the key to the city . . . to everyone

After a pandemic and a racial reckoning, as travel tiptoed back toward normalcy, the city of Baltimore saw an opportunity. Not everyone felt they could just pretend the last few years hadn’t happened. “When it comes to travel in the United States, the reality is that there are destinations where many individuals still feel unwelcome or even unsafe while visiting,” says Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city’s official tourism board.

So in 2021, Visit Baltimore unveiled the Warm Welcome program, which seeks to tell all visitors, regardless of who they are, that the city is a place for them. To date, more than 80 hotels, restaurants, museums, and other tourism establishments have signed up to participate in the program. It requires that they make a pledge to follow a set of inclusive principles, such as speaking up when witnessing an act of discrimination. But it isn’t enough to make a promise. To be part of the program, businesses must also offer mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion training courses, designed by subject-matter experts from across Baltimore.

Once they’re approved, businesses can advertise through storefront stickers that they are a program member, giving travelers of color, the LGBTQ community, and others renewed confidence to explore the city.

An exhibition space at 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky, with several artworks

The 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky, includes works by Chinese and South African artists.

Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

21c Museum Hotels

For using art to spark conversations across the United States

The first 21c Museum Hotel opened in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2006, when Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson were looking for a home for their extensive art collection and a way to give back to their hometown. What started out as a single hotel-museum hybrid crystallized into a mission that extends beyond the scope of most hospitality brands: to simultaneously revitalize historic buildings, celebrate unsung cities, empower artists, and inspire social change.

Today, 21c operates eight hotels, which are themselves works of art. Durham, North Carolina’s outpost is in the Hill Building, an art deco standout from the 1930s. The company’s latest addition in St. Louis, Missouri, is housed in a 95-year-old, 10-story, Renaissance revival–style YMCA. All of the hotels devote a significant portion of their communal spaces to art exhibitions and community events.

Art shows are open to the public and touch on themes that resonate with locals and visitors alike. For instance, 21c curated a show of Indigenous artists in Cincinnati, and one in Chicago that explored pay inequity. The brand also partners with Artadia, a nonprofit that supports artists through unrestricted financial awards. By offering grants in cities where the company has hotels, 21c hopes to elevate and draw attention to artists outside the usual art-world locations.

“It gives great exposure and opportunities to these artists and gets the word out that there is a vibrant visual culture happening in all of these cities,” says Alice Gray Stites, 21c Museum Hotels’ chief curator and museum director. “It reinforces the idea that we are a multivenue museum, because the award will happen in each city and there will be more opportunities for cross-pollination between these artists.”

Gardens by the Bay's Cloud Forest, a contemporary greenhouse, with several masked visitors

Gardens by the Bay is the first destination in Singapore to join EarthCheck, which facilitates sustainable practices.

Photo by Amrita Chandradas

Singapore Tourism Board

For making an entire city see green

In 2023, Singapore became the first country certified as a sustainable destination by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), which has developed a set of strict environmental, economic, and cultural criteria. (It was also the first country to apply.) The Southeast Asian island nation has, in recent years, made a massive push to transform its urban landscape into a “city in nature,” where lush parks and gardens cover the spaces between skyscrapers—or even along buildings’ facades. You’ll find hotel roofs blanketed in solar panels, restaurants making efforts to reduce their waste, and green corridors that connect parks.

“As a small city-state, our resources are limited,” says Rachel Loh, a senior vice president of the Singapore Tourism Board. “Over time, we have found innovative ways to function as a society through efforts such as vertical farming, which is growing crops in stacked layers to maximize food production without needing a lot of farmland.”

The GSTC certification is a testament to the success of Singapore’s own Green Plan, launched in February 2021 with the bold goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The Singapore Tourism Board has played a vital role in bringing that mission into the travel sector by introducing sustainability-focused training programs for tourism professionals; aligning hotels, airlines, and conference organizers behind concrete emissions targets; and spearheading the campaign for GSTC certification.

Along with the overarching efforts of the Singaporean government and the Singapore Tourism Board, individual hospitality businesses are also doing their part. The ParkRoyal Collection Pickering, for example, has taken on a “hotel-in-a-garden” concept, with dense greenery along its balconies and 262 solar panels. The Pan Pacific Orchard, opened in June 2023, is the city’s first zero-waste hotel.

While travelers will benefit from cleaner air and more green space, Loh says it’s important to keep in mind the benefits for Singaporeans. “Sustainable tourism also considers the well-being of local communities and their cultural heritage,” she notes. “It promotes respectful engagement with local traditions, supports local economies, and creates opportunities for community development.”

A hillside that's being reforested with trees by the Dundreggan Rewilding Centre

The Dundreggan Rewilding Centre connects visitors to nature through a range of hands-on experiences.

Photo by Paul Campbell

Trees for Life

For bringing back the world’s wild places

Thousands of years ago, the Scottish Highlands were blanketed by Caledonian forest, with endemic wolves, red squirrels, and beavers thriving under its canopy. Today, due to the effects of climate change, habitat destruction, and the introduction of non-native plant species, just 2 percent of that forest remains. Trees for Life is a rewilding charity established in 1993 with the mission to restore the ancient forests, part of a global rewilding movement that seeks to bring back local ecosystems that have all but vanished. The organization has planted almost 2 million native trees and reintroduced red squirrels, among other accomplishments.

In April 2023, the group opened the Dundreggan Rewilding Centre just south of Inverness on 10,000 acres of woodland that were once royal hunting grounds. Guests can wander a network of trails through hundreds of thousands of replanted pines and willows; take a guided walk to learn how the return of native flora can help bring back populations of golden eagle, beaver, and lynx; or attend a lecture about the insects in the region.

The organization’s CEO, Steve Micklewright, says the Dundreggan Rewilding Centre allows for a more tangible link between tourism and the natural world. “We’ve built a building which is mainly about getting people outside,” Micklewright says, adding that they also offer lodging options to those interested in multiday volunteer opportunities such as tree planting or wildlife surveying. “People travel for an experience and to expand their mind. You can have a holiday where you can give something back to nature.”

Trees can take hundreds of years to grow, so rewilding requires patience. The center is an embodiment of what people can achieve in the short term, too. “We need to think of this work as a kind of partnership with nature rather than feeling that we are stewards or custodians of the natural world,” Micklewright says. “If we disappeared tomorrow, everything would be fine. The reason we have to restore nature really is for us, for human existence.”

A person putting towels out on lounge chairs on a Ponant ship.

The Ponant ship Le Commandant Charcot features a sunroom in the spa with floor-to-ceiling windows.

Courtesy of Ponant/Gilles Trillard

Ponant Cruises

For pairing deep exploration with sustainability

In 2022, Le Commandant Charcot, the latest ship from the French company Ponant, proved its adventure bona fides by becoming the first luxury passenger ship to bring guests to the geographic North Pole. That it did so while safe-guarding the fragile environment made the sailing a game changer for expedition cruising.

With its 123 plush cabins, fine dining options, and spa, the Charcot has all the trappings of a high-end ship. Under the hood is even more impressive: It is the world’s first luxury icebreaker of its class to run on a combination of electric battery power, liquefied natural gas, and low-sulfur gas oil. In all, that translates to 25 percent lower carbon emissions, and up to a 95 percent reduction in the fine-particle emissions that come from more conventional fuel sources.

The ship’s development was part of Ponant’s investment of more than $1 billion in green technologies, such as hybrid batteries and low-emission fuel. The company’s CEO for the Americas, Navin Sawhney, says that part of Ponant’s commitment to a green future for expedition cruises is its direct support of scientific research. The Charcot can journey to areas that are cost-prohibitive to many scientific teams that otherwise wouldn’t have transport that meets the technical requirements for traveling in extreme conditions. By hitching a ride on tourism ships, scientists can reduce the monumental costs of visiting the polar regions. Passengers, meanwhile, get to learn about the latest in ecological, geological, and climate-based research firsthand from those scientists.

In 2022, the Charcot hosted 29 scientific expeditions, with researchers working out of its two onboard laboratories. “This ship exemplifies our commitment to discovering and learning more about the oceans, but we’re also actively working to preserve the environment through that new knowledge,” Sawhney says.

Sebastian Modak is a journalist based in New York. In the past, he’s toured the world as a drummer, spent a year in Botswana documenting the local hip-hop scene, and, in 2019, was the New York Times 52 Places Traveler.
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