A Force for Good

Visionaries who harness the power of travel to make a difference

When we launched AFAR 10 years ago, we believed we could make a positive impact on the world by inspiring and guiding people to have deeper, richer, and more fulfilling travel experiences. One of the best things we’ve been able to do since then is connect with others who share that vision. In 2016, we founded the AFAR Travel Vanguard to honor individuals who are committed to making travel a force for good in the world. The Travel Vanguard has now grown into a network of people who inspire and help each other to pursue this common goal. We gather each year in New York not only to celebrate but also to share ideas, and I am so impressed with the passion all our honorees bring to their work. Read on to meet the people who are creating the travel experiences we all dream of and making sure our world remains a place worth exploring. —Greg Sullivan, AFAR Co-founder and CEO

Leadership

Photo courtesy of African Leadership University

Fred Swaniker

The founder of African Leadership University is cultivating the people who will shape the Africa of tomorrow.

Fred Swaniker wants to change your perception of Africa.

The 42-year-old Ghana native knows that for many travelers, Africa means “safari.” He also knows it can mean much more than that. The founder of African Leadership University sees a continent that lures visitors not only with its wildlife but also with cities that brim with culture and energy. His goal is to train the next generation of people who will shape that future.

“That ‘ecosystem’ they’re creating will make Africa a much more pleasurable place to visit,” he says, adding that sub-Saharan Africa will have the world’s largest workforce by 2035. “As we develop well-designed cities with good infrastructure and creative industries, you’re going to see African cities becoming much more vibrant tourist hubs.”

In 2015, African Leadership University opened its first campus on the island of Mauritius. The school offers bachelor’s and MBA programs that emphasize building skills in real-world settings. Students focus on challenges African countries face—transportation, clean water, health care, and yes, wildlife conservation—and spend summers doing rigorous internships. In 2017, a second ALU campus opened in Kigali, Rwanda, and last year, Nairobi, Kenya, welcomed the first site of ALX, which offers six-month postgraduate leadership programs out of coworking spaces. Swaniker aims to have 100 ALX sites across Africa by 2025 and, by a decade later, to have matriculated 3 million students.

Though ALU is only four years old, its students are already making a difference. Conservation student Noel Mbise is earning his MBA while working as head of research and monitoring at the Tanzania-based nonprofit Grumeti Fund, which manages conservation projects on the 350,000-acre Grumeti Reserve. Fellow student Phillip Kuvawoga, a wildlife specialist at World Wildlife Fund Zimbabwe, founded a travel company for middle-income Africans. It’s this entrepreneurial spirit that Swaniker wants to see blossom across the continent. —Heather Richardson

 

Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo

The president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises is bringing diversity and inclusion to the cruise industry. 

When Nicholine Tifuh-Azirh graduated from the Regional Maritime University in Ghana, she dreamed of working on a cruise ship. But she thought it would never happen.

“She was always told by the men at the university that she needed to go home and have babies,” recalls Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, the president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises. “After five minutes of her telling me her story, my heart broke. I said, ‘Let me see if I can help you.’”

In 2017, Lutoff-Perlo hired Tifuh-Azirh as part of the Celebrity Cadet Program, an initiative led by Lutoff-Perlo to recruit more female graduates from maritime universities around the world. Tifuh-Azirh became the first woman from Africa to become a bridge officer for a major cruise ship, the Celebrity Equinox, and in 2018, Tifuh-Azirh was promoted to second officer for the Celebrity Edge, one of the cruise line’s newest vessels. As of December 2019, that ship will be captained by Kate McCue, whom Lutoff-Perlo tapped as the first American woman to helm a mega-cruise ship back in 2015.

It’s all part of Lutoff-Perlo’s mission to bring more female leadership into a male-dominated field. She’s no stranger to smashing glass ceilings: When she assumed her current role at Celebrity Cruises in 2014, she was the first woman to lead a cruise line at its parent company, Royal Caribbean Cruises, and the first to join the company’s C-suite. Prior to her promotion, she had been the first woman to run marine operations for Royal Caribbean International.

Women now constitute 22 percent of bridge positions at Celebrity Cruises. “[We need] to get more women in at entry-level positions,” Lutoff-Perlo says, “so they can work their way up to the career or position they are interested in.” —Michelle Baran

Photo courtesy of Cruz

Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto

In the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico became a model for destination stewardship.

When Hurricane Maria blasted Puerto Rico in September 2017 with 155 mph winds and scouring rain, San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto hunkered down with 1,000 refugees in the Roberto Clemente Coliseum sports arena. As days passed, she organized cots, laundry, and medical services. She ultimately stayed for three months.

“If there were people who had to be in shelters, living in uncomfortable situations, as the mayor I had to make sure I was there with them, to care for them, give them hope, and to ensure that I was in the middle of San Juan,” she says.

As more severe natural disasters make international headlines—many in the beautiful, tropical places travelers love to visit—leaders like Cruz Soto are on the front lines. Nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans died in Hurricane Maria, which denuded trees, flooded streets, and left parts of the island without power for nearly a year. In the aftermath, Cruz Soto immediately went to work helping the island recover and focusing the world’s attention on the challenges Puerto Rico faced.

Exasperated with the failures of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a disparaging White House, she went to the media to beg for help, raising global awareness about the consequences of massive storms linked to global warming.

“Climate change is no longer something that happens to others,” she says. “We are the proof that it’s not going to happen in the future; it’s happening today.”
Cruz Soto also participated in the island-wide effort to encourage tourism and harness global goodwill into volunteer opportunities. In the first quarter of 2019, Puerto Rico reported nearly 1.7 million visitors, the highest in Puerto Rico’s history, and she encourages visitors to see the island’s resiliency for themselves.

“If you look at this as an opportunity not just to leave your money but to experience what it’s like to come out of darkness, then the stories you will hear are about strength and the incredible humanity we share,” she says. —Elaine Glusac

 

Sustainability

Photo by Jimmy Chin

Kristine McDivitt Tompkins

The cofounder of Tompkins Conservation is helping to rewild South America. 

The first time Kristine McDivitt Tompkins saw Patagonia, she felt like she had found her place. “I have a visceral connection to that landscape that is undeniable,” she says. “The wildness, vast open spaces, and wildlife lodged themselves in my heart.”

On that trip in 1990, the former CEO of the Patagonia clothing and gear company had no way of knowing how deeply entwined her heart would become with the region in southern Argentina and Chile—nor that she and her husband, the North Face cofounder Doug Tompkins, would become pioneers of grand-scale conservation there.  

Kristine is now the president of Tompkins Conservation, the charity she and Doug founded in 1992. (Tragically, Doug died in a kayaking accident in 2015.) Tompkins Conservation has collaborated with NGOs, governments, and other philanthropists to acquire, conserve, and rewild 14.2 million acres of land in Argentina and Chile. The organization has helped to expand 4 national parks and create 11 new ones in both countries, all of which are open to the public.

Kristine recalls the countless obstacles she and Doug faced working in the remote landscape: no roads, no phone service, and not least, suspicion from locals. As they bought land from ranchers, removed cattle fences and invasive species, and planted endangered flora, the Tompkinses were variously accused of creating a vast nuclear waste dump, establishing a new Jewish state, and scheming to ship the region’s water to China.

The opposition abated over time, especially in 2018, when the charity made one of the largest private land donations in history, giving 1 million acres to Chile’s national park system. 

Kristine continues to build the Tompkins’ conservation legacy. The charity has reintroduced jaguars, green-tipped macaws, and giant river otters to marshes and grasslands in Argentina and secured more than 30 million marine acres to create Argentina’s first two national marine parks. With the help of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Chilean government, and other NGOs, Tompkins Conservation has also established a fund for long-term financial support for the country’s parks. 

Kristine’s ultimate hope is to ensure that people in Chile, Argentina, and around the world understand the value of keeping land wild. 

“I’m very grateful that we can keep going,” she says. “I don’t think anybody could have imagined what happened in my life, in Doug’s life. That said, in some ways it’s not surprising that we would have taken it as far as we have.” —Sara Clemence

Photo courtesy of RefillNotLandfill

Christian de Boer & Dean McLachlan

The cofounders of Refill the World have created a plastic-free solution for thirsty travelers.

Christian de Boer has led daily team riverfront cleanups as managing director of the boutique hotel Jaya House since it opened in Siem Reap, Cambodia, three years ago. “It once took hours to pick up the rubbish; now it takes 20 minutes,” he says.

How did this vast improvement come about? And in Cambodia, no less, where garbage collection is unreliable and almost everything—even a banana—comes wrapped in plastic?

Credit goes to Refill the World, a grassroots campaign de Boer launched in partnership with Dean McLachlan, a fellow local hotelier who runs the three-room Meru Asia. The program, which has expanded internationally, aims to reduce the millions of plastic water bottles discarded annually by offering travelers reusable aluminum and stainless steel alternatives and access to refill stations.

Here’s how it works: Upon arrival, guests receive a reusable metal bottle that’s stamped with a QR code. Whenever they need a refill, they can scan the code with their smartphone and be directed to nearby bars and restaurants that provide free, safe drinking water. De Boer has partnered with more than 1,200 refill stations across Southeast Asia. “We work with privately owned businesses, where people are already serving water,” de Boer says. “It’s not a major cost to the businesses, and they see incremental revenue [by selling travelers] coffee or lunch.”

De Boer becomes passionate as he talks about the global potential for Refill the World, and he’s eager for it to expand. Tourism partners such as Asia-based outfitter Exo Travel are giving their own branded bottles with Refill the World’s QR code to guests at the start of their trips. Other notable partners, including Abercrombie & Kent, are committed to joining, and de Boer has begun talks with Heathrow Airport.

Says de Boer: “Creating this chain could really eliminate plastic in the whole traveler journey.” —Kate Appleton

Photo courtesy of Adventure Travel Trade Association

Shannon Stowell

The CEO of the Adventure Travel Trade Association is making travel more sustainable—and keeping the world a place worth exploring.

Shannon Stowell has sipped tea with locals in Kurdistan, floated in swimming holes in Brazil, and tracked tigers in India.

And as CEO of the Adventure Travel Trade Association—an international network of tour operators, travel agents, tourism boards, and accommodations—Stowell makes it his mission to ensure that his 1,400 members take travelers to these places responsibly.

“The adventure travel industry is full of people who would like to see tourism be a positive force in the world,” says Stowell, who became president in 2004, and then CEO in 2016. “Our goal at the ATTA is to really push for tourism done right.”

Under Stowell, the ATTA has increased the focus on sustainable travel practices. In June 2019, when Airbnb launched Airbnb Adventures, multiday trips hosted by locals to off-the-beaten-path areas, it turned to the ATTA for expertise, safety tips, and best practices. Some ATTA members are pioneering zero-waste trips and biofuel-powered cruises. And the ATTA’s new Climate Action Leadership Studio, a workshop on carbon offsetting, will share practical, environmentally friendly business strategies, including cutting-edge carbon recapturing techniques, with destinations and travel companies.

Stowell didn’t intend to get into travel: He started his professional life in environmental chemistry. In the 1990s, he cofounded Altrec.com, an e-commerce company for outdoor gear, and joined the ATTA as a member. There he found a community of like-minded people passionate about protecting the planet and offering travelers transformative experiences.

Now Stowell takes his message beyond his own organization. He serves on the corporate advisory council of the U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance and on the founding board of the nonprofit Adventure Travel Conservation Fund, which supports international grassroots projects that preserve cultural and natural resources. In 2018, he gave a TEDx talk that championed our ability to change the world by choosing to travel responsibly.

“[Just as] the unexamined life isn’t worth living,” Stowell says, “unexamined tourism shouldn’t be done.” —Maggie Fuller

 

Hospitality

Photo courtesy of Roman and Williams

Robin Standefer & Stephen Alesch

In designing beautiful spaces, the cofounders of Roman and Williams are connecting travelers to their destinations.

Once upon a time, the only people who hung out in hotel lobbies were tourists and business travelers—people who didn’t have a choice. Then Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch came along. As the visionary founders of Roman and Williams, the design firm behind such spaces as the Ace Hotels in New York and New Orleans, the Freehand Hotels, and the NoMad London (opening in 2020), they helped launch a new era of hospitality where even locals come to see and be seen—or at least peck away at laptops—against a stylized backdrop of vintage record players and antique curios. In short, Standefer and Alesch made hotels feel like home. 

The story of Standefer and Alesch’s partnership, which is both professional and romantic, started in early 1990s Hollywood, where they worked as production designers. The couple started working on celebrity residences after Ben Stiller, star of the 2001 hit comedy Zoolander, tasked them with reimagining his Los Angeles pad. Back then, the interior design norm was “a pseudo-zen white box,” Alesch recalls. That same milquetoast aesthetic dominated hotels, too—which really nagged at the couple. 

“Chateau Marmont [in Los Angeles] was one of the hotels we liked,” says Alesch. “The layers felt so real, because [hotelier] André [Balazs] never over-renovated it.” Standefer calls the Chateau cinematic, dreamy, transportive. The design tells a story. That inspired the couple to rethink what a hotel could and should be: above all else, human.

In 2002, Standefer and Alesch founded Roman and Williams, named for their maternal grandfathers. In addition to the Ace, they worked on other New York hospitality projects, revamping of the lobby of the Royalton Hotel and designing the Standard High Line hotel. Over the years, the firm’s portfolio has grown to encompass many more hotels and restaurants as well as cruise ships (Virgin Voyages, launching in 2020), museums (the British galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and commercial projects (the food hall for Facebook’s headquarters in San Francisco). But their most creative and transformative project yet is the Roman and Williams Guild in New York, a 7,000-square-foot brick-and-mortar store and restaurant in Soho that sells their own custom furnishings and a global grab bag of artisan-made goods. “Retail is dying because we fell asleep at the wheel,” Alesch says. “Big-box stores became so inhuman, it was easy to replace them with Amazon. But if people build stores that are comfortable and social, it could rejuvenate retail.”

For every project, they draw on a vast repertoire of design references and materials, creating an aesthetic often called eclectic. “We like to master the mix,” Standefer says. She likens good design to a good soup. “You can’t quite put your finger on every ingredient, but they all work together.” —Ashlea Halpern

Photo by TTGMedia.com

Rudi Schreiner & Kristin Karst

Amid a fast-growing industry, the cofounders of AmaWaterways have kept their cruises personalized and intimate.

Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst spent their honeymoon on the 28-passenger Zambezi Queen, one of the most luxurious vessels to ply the scenic, hippo- and croc-filled waters of Botswana’s Chobe River. “We fell in love with it,” Karst recalls. 

They weren’t just any honeymooners. They also happened to have cofounded AmaWaterways, the company that takes 85,000 travelers a year on river cruises around the world. It was only a matter of time before they established a charter agreement with the Zambezi Queen’s owners that allows Schreiner and Karst to offer AmaWaterways customers the chance to enjoy the Chobe experience they had.

That personal touch is what makes AmaWaterways stand out. Schreiner and Karst base all itineraries on the places they themselves feel deeply passionate about. The couple also tailor each of their 23 river cruise ships to their own standards, from the furniture in the staterooms to the informal, family-like atmosphere they and their staff create.

Schreiner and Karst launched AmaWaterways in 2002 with their partner, travel industry veteran Jimmy Murphy, who passed away in 2014. 

Although the company has grown considerably, Schreiner and Karst remain as closely involved as ever. It’s not uncommon for guests to run into either or both of them on one of AmaWaterways’ 700 annual sailings on the rivers of Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa. When they are onboard, you’ll find them interacting enthusiastically with passengers, sitting down to a meal with them, riding alongside them during bike tours, or giving them insider tips about the best local watering holes. 

It’s their continued hands-on approach that keeps that warm and friendly vibe alive among their staff. “If we treat the crew as our family,” Karst says, “then the crew will treat the guests as their family.” —Michelle Baran

Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines

Ben Minicucci

The president and COO of Alaska Airlines wants flyers to feel human.

Not long after he joined Alaska Airlines in 2004, Ben Minicucci, now its president and chief operating officer, joined a cluster of fellow passengers at a baggage claim carousel. As the wait for their luggage stretched past 20 minutes, he listened to the grousing around him. 

As he rose in the ranks at the airline, he never forgot it. The carrier now guarantees baggage will arrive in 20 minutes, or travelers get a $25 discount on a future flight.

This is just one way that Minicucci, a leader in a brutally competitive industry, has shaped Alaska into the compassionate carrier.

“Our values,” says Minicucci, “are about people.” 

Minicucci oversaw the 2016 merger of Alaska and Virgin America, which created the fifth-largest airline in the country. He didn’t want the airline to lose its personal touch, so he attended each of the 60 workshops the company held for its 9,000 frontline employees. The workshops empowered staff to look for ways to make flying more pleasant. That might include waiving an overweight-bag fee on an item slightly above the 50-pound limit, or changing a ticket without penalty for a traveler in an emergency. “What we want is for customers to say, ‘I know airlines aren’t perfect, but at least when something goes wrong, I’d rather be on Alaska Airlines because I know they’re going to take care of me the right way.’”

Minicucci’s leadership has brought results. For the past 12 years, Alaska has held the top spot among traditional carriers in the J.D. Power North America Airline Satisfaction Study. And frequent fliers praise its loyalty program, which bucks industry norms by rewarding travelers for miles flown rather than money spent and offers generous upgrades.

Progressive policies extend beyond customers. Last year, the airline donated $17 million to charitable programs. And its new pledge with Sisters of the Skies, a nonprofit devoted to pilot diversity, aims to increase the number of black female pilots in the next six years. “We are stronger the more diverse we are,” Minicucci says. —Elaine Glusac