Delphin mud ceremony (Supplied: G Adventures)
Article 26 July

The man behind G Adventures: Bruce Poon Tip interview

Founder of tour company G Adventures, Bruce Poon Tip is a leader in the sustainable travel industry. Lyn Hughes quizzed him about business, ethical tourism, and his guilty love of Disneyland...

Lyn: I really enjoyed your book Looptail: How one company changed the world which has just been launched in the UK. Most readers will already be familiar with G Adventures, but can you tell us about how the company started?

Bruce: We started in 1990, so in order to understand how we began you have to understand the landscape of the industry back then. There were few group travel companies at that time and we were bridging the gap between the mainstream operator and the backpacker. Back then, if you wanted to go on a holiday that wasn’t a package tour, a coach tour or a cruise, the choice was limited. Our original concept was about cultural immersion and putting travellers in touch with local people: we wanted to create an independent spirit, with freedom and flexibility.

You must have been a keen traveller yourself to have that idea?

What motivated me was that I didn’t want to backpack. I didn’t like the idea of backpacking, so I started thinking about creating original group trips. When I was young, my parents bought an encyclopaedia set; I would sit and read about different countries and cultures. The books really inspired me, but it was people that I wanted to see most – not necessarily the destinations.

So you had this interest in community; can you explain how you then managed to integrate that within the company?

Well, there were different phases. Originally, it was just our itineraries and how we related to communities – but since then we have added to that with the Planeterra Foundation and specific projects. We measure our success as a company through local benefit and positive impact.

In the last 10 years, social media has changed the way we communicate with our customers, how we engage with them. We took social media and created a transparency with our customers. We’re still growing 40% as a company, we’ve grown 40% every month since January 2013.

Local investment and sustainable travel is at the heart of G Adventures. Can you give some examples of ways that G has helped communities around the world?

We have almost 40 projects around the world which we established to support poverty alleviation, create jobs or boost the local tourism economy. We’ve launched a restaurant in Peru where we drive 15,000 passengers for group meals, and there's a state-of-the art kitchen to train local people too.

We have a coffee cooperative in Costa Rica and community homestays in Central America; we stay local and create a better experience for our customers in homestays. We also do eye-camps in Cambodia and Tibet where we restore the vision of about 6,000 local people every year with simple cataract surgeries: the fastest way to alleviate poverty is to give people their sight back. All these projects are funded by our travellers; it isn’t just about being a travel company anymore, it's about transcending that.



Where do you think G will be in five years' time?

Well, if our history continues, we will continue growing and innovating. We’re in a heavy research and development phase right now; we have a whole department called Innovation that goes around the world finding new routes and new ways to get people around.

We were recently in Colombia consulting with the government there, and Haiti asked us to talk to them about how tourism can be a building-block for their future. We’re also working more with different government agencies to show how we can, as a private sector company and also as a social enterprise, create positive change through tourism. We have 30 full-time product developers; I don’t know any travel company that has as many as we do. For us, it's all about being a leader, while still being responsible, still being independent.

Mountain/ocean/jungle/desert – which are you and why?

I'm a bit of everything, but I have to say I am a more of a jungle guy! Our first trips in 1990 came about after I met an indigenous tribe in the rainforest, and started bringing people to stay with them in their natural environment. The head of the tribe, Delfin, and I have grown up together over the years and remain spiritual brothers. I got married in the Amazon by Delfin and his tribe and we visit each other regularly.

What was your first great travel experience?

My first great adventure was emigrating to Canada from Trinidad when I was young. In terms of my first great travel experience, it would be going to Laos in 1991. It was closed at the time. I got in by building a raft and sailing along the Mekong River. It was so magical because most of the villages and people we met along the way had never seen a foreigner before. I was travelling with a person with blond curly hair and this caused a near riot every place we stopped.

What was your favourite journey?

In 1997, I took an overland high altitude trip from Kathmandu, Nepal to Llasa, Tibet, which I document in great detail in Looptail. For many reasons, this trip is one of my favourites. It influenced the way I thought about life and my business. I also visited Bhutan and seeing how these countries governed with spirituality and happiness fascinated me. It changed my life forever.

What are your top five places worldwide?

Lately, I've been attracted to more remote locations and my list is ever changing, but my top five right now are: Antarctica; Galapagos Islands, Ecuador; Namibia; Bath, England; Cusco, Peru.

Name a special place to stay...

Quito, Ecuador. It's still relatively off the beaten path, but is an amazing place to visit, especially if you’re looking to get a feel for what South America is all about. There’s a fantastic hotel there called Cafe Cultura, it’s a small boutique hotel with the halls and rooms hand-painted to make the entire place look like an old Spanish painting.



What three items do you always pack? Why?

1. iPhone - I need to be connected most of the time and it doubles as a way to listen to music, tweet and catch up on current events.

2. Wine Gums - I’m kind of picky about my candy so I always carry it along with me!

3. Magazines - I still like the feel of a glossy magazine. I'm old school in that sense I suppose.

Which passport stamp are you proudest of?

My South Pole stamp. I travelled to the South Pole for the 100th anniversary of Amundsen’s discovery. It was a tough trip, living on ice in tents for days with temperatures reaching -60 at times. Once you get to the Pole you are not guaranteed to be allowed into the American base because they are somewhat resistant to people being their other than for scientific reasons, but I was able to convince them to let me in on New Years Eve. When I arrived I realised they are on New Zealand time for some reason and they had already brought in the New Year. So now I was meeting hungover South Pole scientists!


Bruce at the South Pole

Which passport stamp would you most like to have?

This is a tough one! I am really excited to head to the Philippines to swim with whale sharks in the fall, so I'll say Philippines at the moment. But also there places along the Trans Siberian that I would love to go to - do you get a stamp if you go to Siberia?!

What is your guilty travel pleasure?

Some people would be surprised to know that I love going to Disneyland. For me, the way Disney and its employees live their brand promise and excel at customer service is inspirational. Also, the way Disney exports its experiences is of great interest to me, as that is exactly what we do at G Adventures. I have two young kids who love to go as well but I find the flawless execution of the Disney brand amazing on so many levels. It’s more a study for me more than it is holiday.

Which do you prefer: window or aisle?

Window all the way! Fewer disturbances, which means more opportunity to sleep. I don’t like having my rest at the hands of someone else’s bladder control!

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

Someone independent and curious. I’m not good with really uptight people or people who need to much information to make a decision on where to go. I like people who can find the beauty in anything and don’t spend too much time comparing things to other things or places. We are surrounded by beautiful things everywhere we go, if we just look around and take notice.



Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

Bath, in England, really surprised me. It's a very beautiful city, particularly during the summertime. It’s so quaint and reminds me of a more traditional time. As for most disappointing I would have to say Macau, China. I think Macau might be the first place I’ve gone to ever that I really didn’t like for a variety of reasons. There was nothing there that appealed to me and the purpose, with all the gambling, I thought was just weird. I won’t be rushing to go back.

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

A big travel inspiration for me would be any of the great adventurers, who took huge risks to ensure they would discover destinations first – all in the spirit of adventure. Norwegian Roald Amundsen is one that stands out. He was in a race to be the first to get to the South Pole in 1911 and used incredibly innovative, albeit controversial methods to get there. These were the pioneers of modern travel who risked life and limb to quench the carnal need to explore and discover.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

Probably not getting out enough when I travel for business. I must have been to Australia more than 25 times and haven’t seen anything outside the major cities. When I go places for work I am focused on getting the job at hand done, but sometimes I should stop and smell the roses a bit more.

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity?

I was on the Silk Road in northern Pakistan and came across a desk maker in a small village making beautiful ornate hand-made desks. Our communication was limited to being translated by our local leader as I tried to find out how I could buy one of his desks and have him ship it to me in Canada. He told me it would cost the equivalent of about US$200 but he said he only made them to ship down to merchants in Karachi.

I said I would give him $400 if he could make me one and ship it to me, and I wrote my address on a piece of paper. He said he would do it, not knowing what it would cost or how we would do it, but he agreed. After six months the desk did not show up, so I just chalked it up to being just another travel story that didn’t work out. After a year I forgot about it completely.

It was more than two years later when I received a call from customs that a crate had arrived for me to collect at the airport. When I went to pick it up I was amazed to receive a beautiful handmade desk. When I looked down at the bill for shipping it cost more than $300 for the shipping. I looked up the shipping address and tried to call to see if I could send the additional funds, but couldn’t find out who had sent it.

I ended up calling the operator we rented the four-wheel drive Jeeps from on our trip and they had the name and number of my guide. I contacted him and asked if I could wire him the difference to get it out to the kind man. I still proudly use that desk in my home office and it is one of my most prized travel possessions.


Interested in travelling with G Adventures? See a selection of their trips here...