Photo by Scott Suchman
These nine individuals are harnessing the power of travel to make a difference in the world.
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Every year, AFAR recognizes the people who are helping travelers have deeper, richer, and more meaningful experiences. The nine visionaries who make up our Travel Vanguard 2018 are shaping the future of travel, and in the process, they’re also helping to make the world a better place for the next generation. They include Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan, who is reaching a global audience with his sustainability message; Evita Robinson, founder of Nomadness Travel Tribe, a spokesperson for underrepresented minority travelers; and celebrity chef José Andrés, who through his relief work has created a new model for how we help countries in need. The members of our Travel Vanguard inspire both travelers and travel industry leaders to engage with the world in a more conscious, responsible, and connected way—read on to learn more.
José Andrés may be a renowned chef with 31 restaurants and three Spanish-language and two English-language cookbooks, but he comes from humble roots: The Mieres del Camino–born, Maryland-residing restaurateur’s parents were both nurses. “They didn’t make a lot of money, but they taught me what it meant to give to others at the most critical times,” Andrés says.
That sense of selflessness was so deeply ingrained in Andrés that when a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, he knew he couldn’t just sit around and watch the bad news unfold on TV. Within weeks he was in Port-au-Prince on the first of dozens of trips he would make to the island. Those experiences inspired Andrés to launch World Central Kitchen (WCK), a nonprofit specializing in humanitarian food aid and culinary education. In the years since, he has volunteered his time, cooking talent, and myriad resources to feed people after natural disasters in Texas, Florida, Hawaii, New York, Guatemala, and most notably, Puerto Rico.
Andrés landed in San Juan five days after Hurricane Maria put the island through a meteorological shredder in 2017. “The electricity, grocery stores, banks—everything was offline,” he recalls. Working with local organizers, WCK helped feed communities, starting with paella that they made in the parking lot of chef Jose Enrique’s restaurant, and a week later, massive pots of the Puerto Rican stew sancocho outside a San Juan stadium. “A plate of food does so much more than just fill your stomach,” Andrés says. “It fills you with hope.”
“A plate of food does so much more than just fill your stomach. It fills you with hope.”
Over the last decade, Andrés has become a tireless advocate for human rights—not just marshaling relief efforts in the wake of natural disasters but also challenging Trump’s travel ban and, on Twitter, rallying behind women, immigrants, and other marginalized groups. The James Beard Foundation declared him 2018’s Humanitarian of the Year. “I am driven by the same thing that pushes many of us—the desire to see a better world for ourselves, for our children, and for many generations after,” he says. “I’ve spent many years feeding the few at my restaurants, and now am I working to understand what it means to feed the many.”
The chef has written a book, We Fed an Island, about his experience in Puerto Rico and how the WCK team mobilized so quickly after the storm. Andrés hopes it will serve as a blueprint for others and provide a new model for disaster relief. He even ponders the possibility of running for office. “We can all be doing something!” he says. “I am not wired any differently than anyone else is; I just have training as a cook, which gives me a very specific and useful skill.” As a traveler, Andrés says, you have more power than you think.
“People should visit Puerto Rico again to help the tourism industry. The country is back up and running—this is the time to support it.”
When Bermuda’s government reestablished a ban on same-sex marriage in February 2018, Kevin Dallas watched the international backlash unfold.
“I guess I’m canceling my trip. Anyone else?” tweeted Ellen DeGeneres after the law was passed.
Prior to the vote, Dallas, the CEO of the Bermuda Tourism Authority, had warned the legislature of the potential consequences, speaking his mind even if it might cost him his job. In a public letter, he wrote: “While it’s not possible to project the precise ramifications of a yes vote for Bermuda, we are confident the impact will be negative. . . . We should send a message that Bermuda continually and permanently lives up to its well-earned reputation as a warm, friendly, and welcoming destination.”
This was the first major international challenge Dallas, a native Bermudian, had faced in his role. In 2016, he had returned home with his partner to head the 21-square-mile island’s newly created tourism authority—in part to promote Bermuda as a welcoming place for travelers of all orientations. The island was fresh off the America’s Cup, experiencing record tourism, and had joined much of the rest of the world in embracing LGBT rights—at least until the vote.
“For a small island in the middle of nowhere, disengaging doesn’t help at all.”
Even now, Dallas is quick to point out that compared to most of the Caribbean, Bermuda has a progressive record on gay rights. The destination is an outlier in the region, where same-sex relations are illegal in at least seven countries—a legacy of British colonial laws. Much of the region retains antigay attitudes: In 2015, a mob shouting slurs stoned to death a young gay man in Jamaica. By contrast, homosexual conduct has been legal in Bermuda since 1994.
“Over the space of less than 30 years, [Bermuda] has come a very long way,” Dallas says.
There’s still a lot of on-the-ground support for the LGBTQ community, he adds. Among the local efforts to promote openness and inclusiveness is a directory of gay-friendly businesses published by the Rainbow Alliance of Bermuda. Participants include the Hamilton Princess Hotel, which has hosted events for OUTBermuda, the charity that challenged restoring the marriage ban. OUTBermuda also has the support of Carnival Cruises, which registers many of its ships on the island and filed an affidavit in support of OUTBermuda’s lawsuit. In June, the Bermuda Supreme Court sided with OUTBermuda, though the government appealed the ruling soon after. Nevertheless, “it feels like we are getting somewhere,” Dallas says, who has continued to speak out in support of gay rights.
As the chief promoter of the island’s tourism sector, which is critical to the economy, Dallas also continues to advocate for travel to Bermuda. The conversation, however uncomfortable, needs to continue, he says—and gay travelers can help keep the issue front and center. “For a small place in the middle of nowhere, disengaging doesn’t help at all,” Dallas says. “We’ve always been believers in the transformative power of travel.”
Austin’s South Congress Avenue was more than down on its luck when Liz Lambert spotted a seafoam-green, terra-cotta−roofed roadside motel in desperate need of TLC. “There wasn’t a car on the street back then—it was dicey,” she says. “People didn’t go down there at night.”
And now, 23 years after she scooped up the 24-room flophouse, the Hotel San José is a celebrity bolt-hole: an Instagram-perfect mix of polished concrete floors, custom-made Technicolor serape robes, and leafy courtyards. Lambert, a former criminal prosecutor in Manhattan, is now a hotelier and interior designer with seven hotels, each of which exemplifies her trademark concept: They mirror their locales, from their minibar snacks to the music playing in the lobby. “We really strive to be reflective of the place we’re in,” Lambert says. “We stop and listen to the place, and look around, and try to have that [experience] woven into the fabric of our hotels. You know where you are. It feels authentic to the town.”
“We really strive to be reflective of the place we’re in. We stop and listen to the place . . . and try to have that [experience] woven into the fabric of our hotels.”
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Among the hotels included in Bunkhouse, her umbrella company: the 21-acre El Cosmico in Marfa, Texas, where you can bed down in a 22-foot-wide tepee to fully experience the otherworldly atmosphere of the high plains, and Hotel San Cristóbal Baja in Todos Santos, Mexico, where guest rooms have coconut fiber beds, in a nod to the surrounding palm trees, and some include sunken outdoor soaking tubs that face the shimmering Pacific. In 2015, Bunkhouse began a partnership with Standard International, a hotel group that now owns 51 percent of Lambert’s business, a move that has allowed her to expand to cities she’s had her eye on. (Coming soon: New Orleans and Atlanta.)
Lambert’s tailor-made worlds are a tribute to her beliefs about the point of travel in general—to seek out experiences that allow you to walk a mile in the shoes of a local. “In our current political climate, not just here in the States but across the world, we have a really deep fear of others and things that aren’t known to us,” she says. “The more you travel, the more you can’t just stay in that small place.”
With every Lindblad Expeditions trip to wild and untouched places, Sven Lindblad intends to turn travelers into conservationists.
“When you see the glaciers, and see the polar bears, and have a conversation about how climate is changing, it enters your psyche in a personal way,” says Lindblad, the CEO of Lindblad Expeditions, an adventure cruise company. “You’re more receptive [to understanding] that these ideas matter.” Observing the natural world is part of Lindblad’s DNA: He traveled often with his father, Lars-Eric, who took the world’s first travelers to Antarctica in 1966. A decade later, when Sven launched his own travel company, his vision to give travelers a hands-on experience of the science behind conservation helped to shape the ecotourism industry of today.
“When you see the glaciers, and see the polar bears, and have a conversation about how climate is changing, it enters your psyche in a personal way."
Lindblad Expeditions’ small ships enlist travelers in the effort to preserve the world’s most fragile places. Aboard one of the company’s 13 vessels, guests track the underwater songs of whales and watch researchers document melting glaciers. With high-tech gear, travelers become citizen scientists who count seabird nests and measure the depth of atoll channels. “Being able to deploy tools helps our understanding,” Lindblad says. “We’re engaging our guests as active participants, enhancing our local conservation efforts.”
Lindblad formed a strategic alliance with National Geographic in 2004, and it has helped to raise awareness and funds ($15 million to date) for research and conservation projects around the world. Five Lindblad Expeditions ships fly the National Geographic flag and carry researchers, photographers, writers, and videographers, who travel alongside guests. The partnership also supports Pristine Seas, a program that creates protected marine reserves in remote areas such as the Pitcairn Islands in Oceania and the Seychelles off Africa. The goal of Pristine Seas: to fully protect 10 percent of the world’s oceans from pollution and overfishing by 2020.
Lindblad knows that tourism has an impact on the environment. He admits it’s a delicate balancing act: “We keep our guest numbers down quite a bit. But there are no perfect answers. People are not going to stop flying. They won’t stop being curious. They want to understand the world better.”
—Christine H. O’Toole
The biggest aha moment of Bruce Poon Tip’s life struck when he was 22, in the unlikeliest of places: on the side of a bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand. “I remember seeing so many people coming out of resorts in air-conditioned buses,” he says. “I realized these people weren’t experiencing the real Thailand. They were shielded and not being exposed to the local culture and community.”
Poon Tip returned home to Calgary with a mission to redefine the group tour for travelers looking to engage all their senses, go off the beaten path, and meet locals along the way. In 1990 he moved to Toronto and created a company that sought a happy medium between impersonal mega-coach tours and immersive (but shoestring) backpacking trips. He maxed out two credit cards to found GAP Adventures—renamed G Adventures in 2011—a group tour company that now has 28 offices worldwide and serves more than 200,000 travelers annually. With his 2017 acquisition of the British travel brands Travelsphere, Just You, Page & Moy, and Swan Hellenic, he is poised to take the experientially driven ethos of G Adventures mainstream.
“I remember seeing so many people coming out of resorts in air-conditioned buses.... These people weren’t experiencing the real Thailand.”
The company aims to create a sustainable tourism model that leaves a positive impact on G Adventures’ destinations. To that end, Poon Tip founded the Planeterra Foundation, a nonprofit group that couples socially responsible enterprises with global tourism markets. Currently, 65 percent of G Adventures’ guests experience a Planeterra Foundation–supported project on their trip, and Poon Tip plans to increase that to more than 90 percent by 2020. Experiences include visiting garment weavers at a cooperative in the Sacred Valley of Peru outside Cuzco, or cooking noodles with former street youth in Hoi An, Vietnam. Travelers to Kathmandu, Nepal, might make momo dumplings and have a thali lunch with the women of the Sisterhood of Survivors, who have escaped human trafficking and forced labor. They now work as paralegals who advocate for other victims and educate Nepalese villagers on how to prevent future trafficking.
Poon Tip, who immigrated to Calgary as a child from Trinidad and Tobago, encourages people to travel with their values in mind. “In the Western world, we have a privilege to travel,” he says. “We shouldn’t live one way at home, where we’re recycling and eating organic, but then book a cruise or resort where people outside the walls don’t have access to medical care and we turn a blind eye.”
Adds Poon Tip: “If done right, travel can be the greatest form of wealth redistribution the world has ever seen.”
When Evita Robinson was teaching English in Japan back in 2009, she remembers kids running down the hallway at elementary schools in Niigata and skidding to a halt when they saw her. “I was the first black person many of these students had ever seen in real life,” Robinson recalls. “Their universe just slowed down. Like, Oh my god . . . what is going on here?! I was a Martian to them.”
This was hardly the first experience with “otherness” for Robinson, a young African American woman. “Being black, you’re always hyper-sensitive,” she says. “‘[You’re always thinking] OK, what are my surroundings? Are there any other black people in the room?’ It’s in our subconscious, because we have to deal with it every day.” Her time in Japan, however, was the first long-term expat experience where Robinson felt empowered to change the narrative. That year, Robinson made it her goal for every student to walk away from her class knowing “if they see other black people, in their own country or abroad, that we’re not these negative media depictions and stereotypes.”
Experiences like these—coupled with her desire to find “a community of people who looked like me and had the same background as me, but who also had travel as a priority”—led Robinson in 2011, at age 27, to start the Nomadness Travel Tribe, a Facebook group that has snowballed into an influential travel community and lifestyle brand for millennials of color. “I didn’t go into this to create a business,” she says. “I just knew that, as a black woman, there was a niche in the market that I needed to have filled. So I answered my own call.”
“I didn’t go into this to create a business. I just knew that, as a black woman, there was a niche in the market that I needed to have filled. So I answered my own call.”
When she created Nomadness, the only membership requirement was a passport with one international stamp. Three weeks after launching, the newly christened Nomadness Travel Tribe held its first meetup at a hookah bar in New York’s East Village. “I didn’t know these people, they didn’t know me—and yet almost 40 people showed up,” Robinson says. “I was looking at everybody conversing and laughing, and I remember thinking, This is amazing—to bring a community together like this. This is powerful.”
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The Tribe quickly went from trading stories about the road to actually traveling together. The first group excursion was to Bocas del Toro, Panama; since then, Robinson has curated more than 30 international trips, which are so popular they sometimes sell out in minutes. (Coming up next: South Africa, Zanzibar, and Tokyo.) Why travel with Tribe? Members “just want to relax, have fun, and be amongst people who they know aren’t judging them,” Robinson explains. “The draw is traveling for authentic local experiences with a like-minded community.”
Seven years in, the Tribe has ballooned to more than 20,000 members, and Robinson wears many hats. She leads most of the group trips, gives TED Talks exploring what domestic travel is like for African Americans, and is coproducing a web series, The Nomadness Project, with Issa Rae of Insecure and Awkward Black Girl, documenting the Tribe’s adventures abroad and what it’s like to be an expat of color. She also tours the United States giving speeches to major brands and tourism boards, because she wants the industry to take diversity seriously.
Often, she says, this starts with taking a long, hard look in the mirror. “If you don’t have somebody of color working at your destination who can help you navigate this conversation and show you where you’re lacking, you’re already behind the eight ball,” Robinson says . “It starts with hiring practices and trickles down from there.”
M. Sanjayan has walked across the Namib desert, paraglided with Egyptian vultures in the Himalayas, and helped transport an orphaned baby elephant to a Kenyan sanctuary. But what excites him the most about his work is the chance to share his virtual-reality goggles.
“When local Indonesian community leaders put on those goggles and swim with the rays, it opens their eyes to [preserving] coral reefs,” says Sanjayan, who uses one name, in accord with Sri Lankan custom. “And it’s equally possible to share that experience with Wall Street.”
The CEO of Conservation International (CI), which oversees environmental preservation projects in more than 30 countries, Sanjayan thinks of himself as natureʼs ambassador to the global public. His strategy: Use new media to tell compelling stories about why protecting the planet should be a priority for all of us, whether weʼre travelers, potential donors, or villagers living near a remote place in peril. In addition to his VR filmmaking, the well-known conservation scientist has also hosted documentaries for PBS, BBC, Discovery, and Showtime.
“On a global scale, we are the first generation that can see what’s coming. We have the ability to predict what’s happening to the planet in a precise manner.”
Sanjayan believes indigenous communities are the ultimate custodians of nature, which is why so many of his projects focus on enabling locals to benefit from preservation and tourism efforts. He points to CI’s work in Kenya’s Northern Rangelands, where community-driven tourism is protecting endangered species and stimulating the local economy.
“Travelers directly help the 25,000 Samburu people who live there and own two lodges, and over $250,000 a year goes into a community fund for school fees, transportation, water, and medical care.”
Over the next five years, CI is supporting an effort with the Xingu people of the Amazon to gather and plant seeds for 70,000 trees; local families earn about $172 for each hectare reforested.
Detailed, real-time natural and social science data have created an unprecedented opportunity, according to Sanjayan. “On a global scale, we are the first generation that can see what’s coming,” he says. “We have the ability to predict what’s happening to the planet in a precise manner. It would be incredibly selfish if we didn’t act.”
—Christine H. O’Toole
Gillian Tans wants Booking.com to be more than a site for travel transactions. Since she was named CEO two years ago, she has transformed the 22-year-old company’s mindset. “We changed our mission,” she says. “[We want] to empower people to experience the world.”
For visitors to Booking.com, that means that in addition to the typical hotel listings, they’ll also find local highlights (such as beaches and under-the-radar landmarks) and a wider range of lodging options, such as farm stays and luxury tents.
“[We want] to empower people to experience the world.”
But more work is happening behind the scenes, where Tans is helping to shape our future travel experiences. “When we changed our mission,” Tans explains, “we actively thought about how we can make sure the world remains worth exploring.” That means protecting the environment, encouraging ethical travel, and making travel accessible to more people. Last year, Tans launched Booking Booster, a program to support small startups that focus on sustainable travel. Companies accepted into the program get funding for a year as well as hands-on training at Booking.com’s Amsterdam headquarters on how to scale up their businesses. The most recent Booster winners include companies that recycle plastic into building materials, manage food waste, and provide travel experiences for people with disabilities.
Booking.com is a tech company as well as a travel company, and Tans knows firsthand the challenges women in tech face. So she’s also working to smooth their path. “Women need role models,” Tans says, who has been with the company since 2002. In 2017, Booking.com rolled out a scholarship program for women pursuing technology at Oxford and at universities in the Netherlands. If the program is successful, Tans wants to expand to other countries. Last March, Booking.com hosted the inaugural TechPlaymaker Awards to celebrate women making an impact in the tech industry. “Women can share their own experiences and their own stories,” she says. “This makes them realize they’re not by themselves. Seeing other women with success helps them build confidence.”
Who knows? The next generation of travel experiences could be shaped by the next Gillian Tans.
With its Beaux-Arts exterior and rich, Old World decor, the NoMad hotel in New York attracts a well-heeled crowd for classic cocktails sipped in plush banquettes. The affordable Freehand Chicago draws local creatives to its altarlike, candlelit bar. Movers and thinkers flock to the Line D.C. to listen to the in-house radio station and take fitness classes from local trainer Graham King. And in London, residents and travelers rub elbows in one of the ten restaurants—yes, ten—at the Ned, a former bank. There’s a common thread to these diverse hotels: the visionary insight of Andrew Zobler. “It is very important to us that our hotels are a part of the community,” Zobler says. “They’re all a response to place.”
When Zobler founded the Sydell Group more than a decade ago, he wanted to create hotels that embrace the history of their buildings and their neighborhoods and, by doing so, become places where locals and travelers alike want to spend their time.
“It is very important to us that our hotels are a part of the community. They’re all a response to place.”
The Sydell Group’s design trademark is repurposing old buildings in ways that preserve historic character without feeling like museums. “I love old things,” Zobler says, a passion he traces back to childhood trips to Europe with his grandmother, Sydell, the company’s namesake. Sydell, a New York antique dealer, taught her grandson the art of bargaining, treated him to stays at grand dame hotels, and showed him what it means to have taste. “I like patina, I like history, I like narrative,” he says. “All those things conspire around older buildings.”
Zobler also has a knack for picking strong partners and allowing them creative control. Chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara, the culinary team at the NoMad New York, made the hotel a dining destination. Mixologists Gabe Orta and Elad Zvi run the Broken Shaker bars at the four Freehand hotels, and in 2015 the Miami outpost was named Best American Hotel Bar by Tales of the Cocktail, a conference and festival for those in the spirits industry. “We let them have their own story and tell it their own way,” Zobler says. “It’s about bringing lots of interesting people together who add to the experience.”
His ultimate goal: to create a kind of modern melting pot. “Travelers are enriched when they are engaged in the local scene,” he says, “and surrounded by not only other travelers.”
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