Under Canvas Founder Who Put Glamping on the Map in the U.S. Is Going Global

Sarah Dusek, the former CEO of Under Canvas, recently launched the sustainable safari and luxury outdoor hospitality company Few & Far. She shares the passions and learnings that have shaped her path from aid worker to regenerative hospitality entrepreneur.

 A lake surrounded by snow-covered peaks in Torres del Paine National Park, in Patagonia, Chile

Tierra Patagonia, which partners with Few & Far on outdoor adventure itineraries, leads travelers through Torres Del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile.

Adam Clark

Waking up in king-size beds next to Zion National Park. Lounging in West Elm furnishings near Yellowstone. Camping with en suite bathrooms a stone’s throw from the Grand Canyon. With the founding of Under Canvas in 2009, Sarah Dusek and her husband, Jacob Dusek, were instrumental in creating the glamping experiences now available near some of America’s most famous national parks. According to Sarah, who spent her early twenties as an aid worker in Zimbabwe, the idea behind Under Canvas was to reimagine the African safari experience in the United States with minimal water use and zero waste.

Now, having sold Under Canvas in 2018, the Duseks are full steam ahead with their next venture, Few & Far, which creates itineraries around the world that combine luxury with remote landscapes. Their aim is to run a business that leaves net-positive outcomes for the environments and communities where they operate. Trips range from tiger adventures in India and the Iberá Wetlands in Argentina to tented camp experiences in Wyoming.

The Duseks, who relocated from Montana to South Africa with their two young sons in 2019, are also hard at work on Few & Far Luvhondo, a lodge scheduled to debut at the end of 2024 in South Africa’s biodiverse Forgotten Mountains, with an aerial safari experience and an ambitious carbon-sequestration project.

The travel innovator recently sat with Afar to discuss her new venture, carbon offsets, regenerative travel, and her hope for the future of hospitality.

This interview was edited for space.

Sarah Dusek and husband, Jacob Dusek, cofounded Under Canvas in 2009 and now have launched a company focused on global trips and sustainable lodgings around the world.

Sarah Dusek and her husband, Jacob Dusek, cofounded Under Canvas in 2009.

Courtesy of Few & Far

How did you go from aid worker to cofounder and CEO of Under Canvas?

I had, as many aid workers do, hit burnout. I was exhausted but still adamantly feeling like my calling was to serve the world. Yet after a long while of working hard, we realized we didn’t make much progress. That sent me back to the drawing board thinking about whether there’s a better vehicle than an aid organization for driving innovation, solving big world problems, creating change, and moving things forward.

I realized the challenge for nonprofits is you’re constantly having to find funding, which makes it difficult to sustain long-term impact and drive change. Businesses are a much better vehicle than nonprofits because a business exists to solve a problem. When you are focused on having to be profitable, you are sustainable. I like to think of People, Planet, Profit: the three Ps. When a business is doing well, it has those three legs of a stool. All [legs] have to be strong, and one can’t be longer, otherwise you’re not in balance. Those are the kinds of businesses we need to keep building a better world.

What is the origin story of Few & Far?

We were not planning on building another travel company, but as time has gone on, all roads have led to one pathway. With Under Canvas, we were very mindful about water usage and power—everything was off the grid, with no single-use plastics and as much recycled [material] as possible. Now, however, I’m realizing we were just starting to scratch the surface [of sustainable travel]. Today we’re thinking about how we build a regenerative travel business, which means going one step further and not just emitting less or using less, but also investing. How can we be impactful in terms of the way we invest in people and the environment?

That’s taken me on an interesting journey thinking about carbon and conservation, with the idea of making an impact on local communities and managing land in a way that not only preserves and conserves, but also invests in making it even more regenerative. In our management plan, there are five or six streams, each with significant targets and benchmarks with an initial five- to seven-year plan. Carbon will be one very big thread of that, and social impact will be another. Some of that relates to job creation, and some is local economic empowerment in terms of who we buy from and do business with. Our first carbon project hit the markets in late April. We think we can do about 5 million tons of additional sequestering of carbon over the next 50 years from the one project we’re involved in so far in South Africa.

Few & Far Luvhongo Lodge is scheduled to open in South Africa's UNESCO-registered Vhembe Biosphere Reserve at the end of 2024. This guest room features wooden floors, high ceilings, a large bed, and an expansive veranda.

Few & Far Luvhongo Lodge is scheduled to open in South Africa’s UNESCO-registered Vhembe Biosphere Reserve at the end of 2024.

Courtesy of Few & Far

How did you choose the Soutpansberg Mountains in the UNESCO-registered Vhembe Biosphere Reserve for the site of your first lodge, Few & Far Luvhondo?

We came upon the Soutpansberg mountain range by accident. During COVID, my husband, who is a massive outdoor maniac and loves to be where no other people are, asked if we could find a bit of wilderness of our own. We started to look very near Cape Town, but eventually the search led us to the other side of the country up into Limpopo. He discovered this beautiful property that was about 10,000 acres, already very biodiverse with incredible wildlife, mountains, and valleys.

We started to meet the neighbors and nearby landowners and realized we’d fallen into a bigger endeavor to try to conserve the whole mountain range. Lots of very passionate advocates, environmentalists, and conservationists were involved with small properties, trying to bring them all together with this idea to drop fences and create a larger nature reserve. There were some small guest lodges and smaller hospitality experiences already in existence, but what everyone kept saying to us was that the destination is not on the map and no one knows about it.

Of course, my husband and I looked at each other and said, “Well, [as] the people in the room with experience building a big brand and helping put a name on the map—we effectively created glamping in the United States—maybe we can help put this whole region into conservation.”

Today we’re thinking about how we build a regenerative travel business, which means going one step further and not just emitting less or using less, but also investing.

What makes the lodge unique among safari camps?

One of the things I love about being on safari is obviously being able to see an extraordinary amount of wildlife, but you usually need to sit in a car for six to eight hours a day. This will not be that. We’ll do lots of hikes, lots of biking, and have a 25-mile solar-powered cable car system.

The lodge will be 30 units, so 60 beds, with a mixture of tent fabric and wooden infrastructure. For me, by far the most exciting thing is the cable car system. On it, you can silently glide through the mountain range, viewing wildlife [from] more than 80 feet high, with a guide who can move you along or backward at between 5 and 10 miles per hour. I think it’ll be another evolution that hopefully will push everyone in the industry to keep upping our game.

How will economically sustainable solutions play out at Few & Far Luvhondo?

That really means carbon initiatives for me. Few & Far Luvhondo will have its own carbon project associated with it, as we are in the process of developing and conserving a vast area of the Soutpansberg mountain range. That project will be an extraordinary safari experience and at the same time will allow guests to connect with regeneration and the rewilding of the mountain range.

We’re expecting to [sequester] just over 100,000 tons of carbon from the rewilding efforts in an area with lots of commercial agriculture that should have been conserved a long time ago. We’re protecting the huge amount of biodiversity on the mountain and restoring it to what science declares should be the standard.

Few & Far creates outdoorsy experiences under canvas in such destinations as Big Sur, California.

Few & Far creates outdoorsy experiences under canvas in such destinations as Big Sur, California.

Katie Katz

Few & Far offers itineraries with companies whose values you share, such as Singita in East and Southern Africa, Delfin Amazon Cruises in Peru, and Awasi in Chile and Argentina. What can travelers expect from a Few & Far trip?

We’ve put together numerous trips that I personally have experienced, and I can see so intimately the connection between vulnerable communities being impacted positively, beautiful travel experiences, and great environmental conservation work, happening all at the same time. Almost every day we are striving to create moments of privacy and extraordinary beauty.

It’s food and wine in extraordinary places, it’s access [to places] where no one else is going, it’s views no one else is having. It’s creating memorable, off-the-beaten-path moments in outstanding wild places. Usually, the properties we use are small, boutique, very personalized, and high-end, and they are doing extraordinary things—environmental impact initiatives, social conservation, engagement with local communities—while creating great travel experiences.

What do you think travel companies should be doing in the way of carbon offsets?

We must do two things as a planet. We need to reduce our emissions, and we have to [take] more carbon out of the atmosphere. I can do the math, and the world has to sequester 20 billion more tons of carbon a year than we currently do [to mitigate climate change). Carbon credits typically sell for $10 to $12 a ton, so that problem is technically only a $200 billion a year problem. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a lot of money. How big of a slice the travel industry could take out of that? I don’t know, but probably a massive chunk. It has been easy for travel companies to go online and buy offsets, and I think we should buy offsets. Why? Because when you buy an offset, what you’re doing is investing in a project that is attempting to sequester more carbon from the atmosphere.

We ourselves are aiming to do enough projects to offset 1 million tons of carbon, and we’re also creating new projects to sequester carbon. My husband was just in Zanzibar with our son looking at coral reefs off the coast, and we are excited for the possibility for Few & Far that there are probably many more projects for us to sink our teeth into. I love the continued synergy of a hospitality project and a carbon project coming together, [marrying] conservation and rewilding efforts to conserve fragile land.

Kathryn Romeyn is a Bali-based journalist and devoted explorer of culture, nature and design, especially throughout Asia and Africa—always with her toddler in tow.
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