The 2021 AFAR Travel Vanguard

These visionaries are a force for good in the travel industry.


Visionaries who harness the power of travel to make a positive difference.

AFAR, at its core, has always believed in the power of travel as a force for good. After an unprecedented year, our mission—to inspire, guide, and empower travelers to have enriching experiences that make a positive impact on the world—resonates more than ever. The people you’ll meet, our 2021 Travel Vanguard honorees, have spent years working to contribute to responsible, sustainable, lasting change in the travel industry. As we begin to explore again, these visionaries are fitting guides to motivate us to tour, cruise, journey, stay, hike, and meet in more conscientious and connected ways. —Katherine LaGrave

Rue Mapp

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Photo by Forest Woodward

Nature should be accessible to everyone, and the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro is helping make that vision a reality.

In 2009, Rue Mapp sat down at her computer to start a blog called Outdoor Afro, where she wrote about what had long been on her mind—the lack of Black representation in the nation’s parks, forests, and riverways.

“We needed to tell a new narrative,” says Mapp, a nature lover from her earliest days. As a child growing up in Oakland, California, Mapp spent weekends and summers on her family’s ranch 100 miles north of the city. “When you looked at images of the outdoors in magazines and in commercials, you didn’t see people who look like me,” she says. “What was missing was an empowered story that lifted up Black joy in nature, and showed Black people outside as strong, beautiful, and free.”

In 2015, after years spent working as an analyst and consultant, Mapp pivoted full time to Outdoor Afro, relaunching it as a nonprofit committed to the idea that nature should be accessible to everyone and should not be limited by race, budget, or geography. Today, led by a coalition of 100 volunteer ambassadors across the United States, Outdoor Afro has taken thousands of people into state and national parks, through white-water rapids, and down canyon chutes. It has also led more accessible experiences in urban areas, including a community walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Throughout the year, the nonprofit organizes hiking, biking, kayaking, and camping excursions for a network of nearly 50,000 people. Outdoor Afro also intends to teach every Black child in its sphere of influence to learn how to swim, by funding lessons in community pools through scholarships. According to the CDC, Black children between ages five and 19 are almost six times more likely to drown in pools than white children—fallout from Jim Crow laws that prevented generations of Black families from safe swimming places.

Since founding Outdoor Afro, Mapp has been invited to the White House to watch former President Obama sign America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, a memorandum that supports and promotes community access and conservation efforts in nature. In 2020, she hiked with Oprah Winfrey in Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park during Black History Month.

And her community grows by the day: The racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd and the surge of fervor for getting outdoors during the pandemic created spikes of interest in Outdoor Afro. Donations increased by 100 percent and Mapp grew her staff to 10 people.

While Mapp knows there’s a long way to go, she points to silver linings: More people use social media as a vehicle to speak up about Black experiences outdoors, and traditional media outlets are paying more attention to diversity in their coverage. But the true measure of success, according to Mapp, is much bigger.

“We’re in a race to the ordinary,” she says. “It’s not a big parade down Main Street, the moment that we’re working for. It’s one where we expect that everyone has equitable access to the outdoors.”

Apoorva Gandhi

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Photo by Mahesh Shantaram

Marriott International’s VP of Multicultural Affairs and Business Councils has a message: Welcome.

Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area as the son of immigrant parents, Apoorva Gandhi learned quickly that he didn’t have the “right” name or the “right” lunch food. In some cases, it was a social snub; other times, kids threw rocks at him on the playground.

“I just turned 51, and I still remember how that feels,” Gandhi says. “It gave me empathy for those who don’t feel like they belong, and for those who yearn to be included.”

These experiences shaped Gandhi’s lifelong mission: to help make people feel welcome. At first, while he was a senior consulting manager for Accenture and then a senior director for organizational capability at Marriott, his work around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) was extracurricular. But in 2010, after taking notice of Gandhi’s leadership and passion for DEI, Marriott offered him the role of VP of Multicultural Affairs and Business Councils at Marriott International.

Today, Gandhi leads external DEI strategy at the world’s largest hotel company. To help improve inclusion practices at Marriott, he is also the lead liaison with diversity advocacy partners including Out & Equal, Disability:IN, the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility, and the National Urban League. The rest of his role is internally focused within Marriott.

“It’s not about political correctness,” he says. “This is an important business initiative, especially in our industry, where welcoming all is what it’s all about. And not just for customers, but also for people who work here. It makes a difference when employees feel, ‘If I work there, I will belong. I will be welcomed.’ ”

One of Gandhi’s biggest achievements is working with his team on the expansion of Culture Day, a series of events the company launched in 2014 to help hotel staff around the world understand and cater to different types of community celebrations, from Indian weddings to Latinx quinceañeras. During 2018, demand from hotels for the program doubled and in 2019, Culture Day took place in more than 25 cities globally. In 2020, thanks in part to Gandhi’s work, DiversityInc named Marriott number one across industries on its Top 50 Companies for Diversity list.

The pandemic-related halt in travel led to furloughs and layoffs of thousands of staffers at Marriott, along with an annual loss of $267 million. Despite this, Gandhi’s work continues to grow. As the company regroups, he is more determined than ever to help drive inclusion forward at Marriott.

“We want to make sure everyone, from all walks of life, feels like we are putting people first and treating them with respect and dignity,” he says.

Mei Zhang

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Photo by @thepostcardtrail

The founder of tour company WildChina helps bring locals and travelers closer together.

Long before the global pandemic, Mei Zhang’s goal was to enable travelers to cultivate meaningful relationships with the people and landscapes of China. But as the Berkeley-based founder of WildChina watched the rift between the U.S. and her native country widen—exacerbated in the U.S. by racist language characterizing COVID-19 as the “China virus”—she saw even more opportunity to create mutual understanding.

Says Zhang: “To me, the most interesting thing about building WildChina has been fostering this kind of human-to-human contact and relationship that’s real, and not implemented or prescribed either by the government or by the Western press.”

Since 2000, Zhang has done just that, taking both international visitors and domestic travelers on immersive trips that celebrate the myriad people and cultures within China. She accomplished this by enlisting more than 200 on-the-ground guides and empowering them to go beyond the rote recitation of destination facts and to tell their personal stories. Whenever possible, WildChina ushers people behind the scenes—whether that means meeting a cheese maker in Shaxi or sitting down to a home-cooked meal with a local family.

WildChina normally brings more than 10,000 travelers to China each year, and though the pandemic slowed her operation, Zhang has kept her mission alive. For travelers, she’s hosted a series of virtual events that feature people from all corners of the country, including a farmer from Guangdong who is leading a movement in sustainability.

Through book club events with such prominent authors as Lisa See, Zhang has also facilitated timely dialogue around Chinese culture and history. She’s led virtual guide trainings within WildChina and has begun to invite other travel companies to share ideas about helping travelers make more fulfilling connections with locals.

In many ways, Zhang is hoping to impart the same feeling she had when she first realized the beauty of Yunnan, her own home province in southwest China, as a young woman living in the city of Dali. It was from there that she traveled to the western city of Zhongdian—since renamed Shangri-La—and fell in love with the grassy meadows inhabited by yaks, with the glimpses of Tibetan culture, and most of all, with the warm hospitality and reciprocal curiosity among the people she encountered.

“What [WildChina] really is about is creating life-changing experiences,” Zhang says. “We want to change your way of thinking about China, but a lot of it is changing our way of valuing our own culture and creating a sense of appreciation for the beauty in daily lives.”

Akwasi Agyeman

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Photo by Krista Rossow

The CEO of the Ghana Tourism Authority is inviting the African diaspora to explore their roots.

As a business school student at Tulane University in the early 2000s, Akwasi Agyeman saw his native Ghana everywhere: in the Afro-Caribbean rhythms he heard in city festivals, in the use of okra in gumbo, and even in the local Creole language. Yet many of the African Americans he met in New Orleans knew next to nothing about the African continent.

“I realized that these are our brothers and sisters,” Agyeman says. “I knew there was that connection, and I was curious to find a way to unlock it.”

Little did Agyeman know that in 2017, he would be called by Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo to become the CEO of the Ghana Tourism Authority and would be challenged to address that very question: How can Ghana meaningfully reconnect with the African diaspora?

In the fall of 2018, Agyeman’s biggest project was made public when President Akufo-Addo announced it at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Dubbed the Year of Return, the 2019 initiative would commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia, by inviting the African diaspora to Ghana. It was a symbolic journey for the descendants of those Africans, many of whom left for America through the forts and castles that line Ghana’s coast.

Agyeman’s team promoted a series of experiences and events around history, resilience, and culture: sobering tours of the castles, a Jamestown-to-Jamestown event that began on U.S. soil and ended in the district of the same name in Accra, and even an offer of dual citizenship for more than 100 people. They invited media outlets including the BBC and Ebony, and celebrities Lupita Nyong’o and Samuel L. Jackson visited. The effort led to an unprecedented 18 percent growth in tourism in 2019 that garnered $3.3 billion in revenue. The number of American travelers doubled, and the average number of days in country rose from 7 to 10.

The Year of Return also revealed needs for continued engagement and a better tourism infrastructure. It spurred Beyond the Return, a decade-long initiative to train more hospitality professionals, introduce e-visas, launch pilgrimage journeys called Sankofa (meaning “go back and get it”), and better connect visitors to the country’s numerous annual festivals, such as the Sabolai indie music showcase in December and the Homowo harvest celebration, typically held in August.

To Agyeman, this work is a continuation of efforts to examine history. In 1998, Ghana became the first country on the African continent to celebrate August’s Emancipation Day, which commemorates the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. In 2007, it launched the Joseph Project—named after the biblical Joseph who was sold into slavery but eventually became a freed nobleman— inviting Black travelers to explore their roots.

“We’re sincere about our attention to the African diaspora,” Agyeman says. “We are family. Let’s reconnect.”

Zita Cobb

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Photo courtesy of Fogo Island Inn

For the founder and CEO of Shorefast, empowering communities is key to sustainable travel.

In a world linked more closely than ever by business and technology, Zita Cobb sees mostly broken connections between people and places.

Cobb experienced this disconnect firsthand as a young girl on remote Fogo Island in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, where islanders had lived sustainably for hundreds of years before the onset of industrialized overfishing. Her father, an illiterate fisherman, supported his household on subsistence living and trade. As the cod population plummeted, he wondered how he would feed his family when the fishers on the boats were fishing for a living and the boat owners were operating the boats for profit. “My father kept saying, ‘I don’t understand why people fish day and night— don’t they realize they’re going to take all the fish?’ ” Cobb says. “Then he finally figured it out and said, ‘They must be turning the fish into money.’ ”

This experience inspired her and her father to want to understand more about the traditional business world; it also motivated Cobb to leave Fogo Island to pursue a career in business. But in 2006, Cobb returned to her native island to join her brothers in founding the Shorefast Foundation, a nonprofit that supports local cultural programs and businesses via charitable initiatives. One of Cobb’s biggest projects debuted in 2013, when she opened Fogo Island Inn, a minimalist, 29-room retreat. All of the inn’s profits go to Shorefast, which helps to engender more initiatives that support Fogo Island in sustainable ways—a key element of Cobb’s larger vision.

“Tourism can be an enabler of culture and place, but it needs to be community based and community led,” Cobb says. “It has to do more than just bring money to an economy. It has to work harder to support culture and to create cultural and economic dignity for the community.”

At press time, the inn remained shuttered due to the pandemic, so Shorefast has leaned more heavily on other projects—including woodshop, textile, and seafood-distribution businesses—to help sustain island residents. In many ways, the experience has been a wake-up call for Shorefast not to focus solely on tourism.

In November 2020, to help create more globally recognized, locally driven businesses that benefit destinations, Cobb launched the Community Economics Pilot, an enterprise that will apply learnings from Fogo Island to four different communities within Canada. The Community Economics Advisory Group includes Indian economist Raghuram Rajan, author of The Third Pillar, the 2019 book that helped shape the project’s goal to find balance between governments, business, and small-to-midsize rural towns, many of which have found themselves left behind in a global economy that favors large cities.

“I don’t want communities to become irrelevant the same way my dad became irrelevant,” Cobb says. “These capacities to participate in the world are what’s going to make the difference on whether a culture or a community is going to survive.”

Daniel Skjeldam

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Photo by Espen Mills

The CEO of Hurtigruten Group believes the cruise industry can help passengers become better stewards of the environment.

When Daniel Skjeldam became CEO in 2012, it was to help save Hurtigruten, the homegrown business founded in Norway in 1893, from collapsing. Two years later, with Hurtigruten once again profitable, Skjeldam made sustainable travel its core mission: because the more he joined his staff on expeditions, the more he saw the devastating effects of climate change.

“One of the biggest concerns among crew members has been the massive change happening around them,” Skjeldam says, who grew up using Hurtigruten’s coastal express ships in his native Norway. “Officers who had been sailing in the area for 30 years would say to me, ‘You know, Daniel, where we are now is where a glacier used to be.’ ”

Hurtigruten, which sails between the Arctic and Antarctic circles, stopped using heavy fuel oil—a cheap and heavily polluting fuel commonly used on cruise ships—more than a decade ago. Under Skjeldam’s leadership, Hurtigruten in 2017 partnered with the Clean Arctic Alliance to launch the HFO-Free Arctic Campaign, which works to ban the use of heavy fuel oil in Arctic shipping.

In July 2019, Skjeldam oversaw the launch of the world’s first hybrid electric– powered cruise ship, the MSRoald Amundsen. Its twin, the MS Fridtjof Nansen, followed in February 2020. (Thanks to the batteries and other green technology, both vessels are able to operate their engines at their maximum efficiency while storing power for times when an extra boost is required; this helps to reduce air pollutant emissions by 20 percent, according to Hurtigruten.) Skjeldam’s long-term goal is to operate all ships completely emission free. The company has announced plans to debut an emission-free ship as soon as possible, hopefully by 2030, and is looking into alternative energy sources such as hydrogen and biofuels made from organic waste.

To support local businesses, Hurtigruten partners with educational institutions and trains and hires staff from remote communities in the countries where its ships sail, including Greenland and Canada. Hurtigruten’s destination stewardship extends to the guest experience aboard the company’s 15 ships, where programming aims to enlighten travelers about the people and landscapes they encounter. Instead of typical cruise ship entertainment, passengers find expedition teams; instead of casinos, science centers.

The cruise industry has been criticized for its poor environmental track record, and Skjeldam knows there is work to be done before Hurtigruten can achieve its goal of operating solely emission-free ships. But he believes cruise companies can help drive innovation while providing the experiences that will inspire passengers to better protect the planet.

“We firmly believe that people take care of what they love. When you take people to experience regions like the Arctic, you send back climate ambassadors,” Skjeldam says.

Jennifer Flowers is an award-winning journalist and the senior deputy editor of AFAR.
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