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Adventures with Ethics

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/08/19; August 19, 2001.]

A Toronto-based Company Teaches the Survivor Team a Thing or Two About the Great Outdoors

Laura Pratt
National Post
August 18, 2001.

When he was in seventh grade, Bruce Poon Tip was suspended from school for pointing out to his teacher that Tibet was missing from the classroom's map of the world.

The teacher became defensive, the student wrote an outraged letter to the school board and the administration reacted by sending the outspoken youngster home for the day. "I was considered a troublemaker," Mr. Poon Tip recalls.

But he never stopped looking for Tibet. Then, on the day before his 30th birthday, on March 15, 1998, he found it. A world-weary globetrotter by then, Mr. Poon Tip had kept this destination up his sleeve. "I'd always said I didn't want to go there until I was a sophisticated traveller."

Along the route, he has cleared the path for legions of others to lay claim to the same distinction. As president and chief executive of G.A.P Adventures (the Great Adventure People, "no period after the 'P' "), Mr. Poon Tip is dedicated to the idea of offering tourists the opportunity to experience pure travel. G.A.P adventurers, says Mr. Poon Tip, realize it is a privilege, not a right, to visit any country. The Toronto-based tour operator embraces a doctrine of low-impact tourism and is fiercely committed to supporting local communities and protecting the environment its participants travel in. And, if a delayed bus or a broken down van upsets you, the Web site warns, "then maybe this isn't for you."

In a room with painted jaguars, panda bears, toucans and lemurs on the wall, around a boardroom table draped with a vast tiger and lion tablecloth, Mr. Poon Tip confides he is part of the Survivor team. During taping of the phenomenally successful television show's Australian series, G.A.P's local office managed the ground operations and was responsible for all of the company's transportation. In exchange, G.A.P secured the use of the property for spinoff tours so Survivor wannabes can pretend they are doing the real thing eating overcooked rice and conducting their own immunity challenges.

"After that, my name kept coming up," says Mr. Poon Tip. About a year ago, the show's producers called again to ask his advice about future destinations. "Survivor is really interested in perceived risk as opposed to actual risk. They want something that's fairly challenging, but don't want to put their survivors in life-threatening situations."

So, when they suggested a Survivor series set on the banks of the Amazon, Mr. Poon Tip balked. "The floors of the Amazon are alive. There are bugs. Disease. It's tropical, it's hot, it's humid. People can't sleep there. And for that period of time with no food, it would just be too dangerous."

Africa, Mr. Poon Tip advised, would be a better choice. "Kenya is the place, for sure. Visually, the Serengetti is stunning. It is a dry climate and the country is more developed as a tourism destination. They would have more facilities to be able to house the crew and the plains of Africa would be a great backdrop."

Survivor's Kenyan adventure will air this fall. In response to this attention, Mr. Poon Tip felt compelled to start watching the show. (He had not been watching, he admits, because he does not watch much television.)

"I understand the craze for reality television. It falls in line with my company offering reality travel. People want real experiences these days. They don't want fluff. For too long, people's vacations have been filled with fluff."

The seed for fluff-free trips was planted 11 years ago, when Mr. Poon Tip, a University of Calgary business school dropout, visited Thailand on a $10-a-day budget and stayed with local hill tribes. It was not his first taste of the country, but it was the most authentic.

"I had an impression of Thailand but that was from travel on a regular coach tour with five-star hotels and in air-conditioned buses. When I went in 1990, truly, I was disgusted by what I had thought this country was about, and what it really was about. I knew there had to be other people who would want that same genuine travel experience."

At the time, it was a novel idea. Indeed, most tour companies were more concerned with keeping people away from the local truth than they were exposing it. More than anything, says Mr. Poon Tip, the goal of the tourist trade was to create a comfortable "Western environment." His offerings, which would feature local transportation and family-run accommodation, were going to be "anti-all that."

Mr. Poon Tip was 22 when this genius struck. He was living in a garage, dodging the landlord and seriously broke. What is more, the Gulf War was on, so travel in general was considered risky. And there was not a bank in the country that shared his enthusiasm. So, he charged the whole thing to his credit card. Years later, when he won the Global Traders Award for Ethics in Action, he thanked the credit card company for being "the only one who believed in him."

G.A.P's first tour, to Ecuador, went off swimmingly. But the second one almost sank the ship.

Mr. Poon Tip's idea was to do canoe trips down the Macaw River. No one ever told him there were no canoes in Belize. After hauling the boats down from Los Angeles himself, he and his band of adventurers were met on the shores by authorities who declared they were not allowed to be in that area. The Belize government was not interested in having tourists traipsing about inland; they wanted to keep everyone on the coast. They arrested G.A.P's tour leader and stranded the tourists.

Eventually, Mr. Poon Tip struck a deal with the minister of tourism in which the tour company agreed to take a local Belizian male on every canoe. Today, a handful of other companies share the river with G.A.P, but it remains the only one whose boats are steered by locals. "We've never changed that, because it worked out so well with our philosophy of local community interaction."

Today, G.A.P has 83 employees who sell its philosophy in 21 countries worldwide. It offers more than 800 adventures to more than 100 countries. Just 20% of G.A.P's 10,000 passengers a year come from Canada. It prints 450,000 copies of its brochures in nine currency versions. Last year, gross sales were in the line of $13-million.

In June, G.A.P was included in Profit magazine's list of Canada's 100 fastest-growing companies for the fifth year in a row. It also won the government's Global Traders Award of Canada, for leadership in exporting. But the "big one," last year, says Mr. Poon Tip, was the Ethics in Action Award, which recognized his company's dedication to sustainable tourism and community development.

That commitment was further acknowledged with an invitation, for a second year running, to address the government of China in Beijing on behalf of the World Bank and UNESCO, about reserving cultural heritage.

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