As part of Virtuoso’s ongoing commitment to sustainable travel, we’re profiling the experts and trendsetters making a difference in responsible tourism. Here, a conversation with Ashish Sanghrajka, the president of Big Five Tours & Expeditions, a family-owned worldwide tour company with a focus on culture, wildlife, and adventure.
Ashish Sanghrajka’s children have spotted jaguars in Colombia, hiked to waterfalls in Peru, scaled a volcano in Guatemala, and are gearing up for a trip to Morocco. Not bad for a 12-year-old and a 7-year-old. Sanghrajka grew up in the travel business – his family founded Big Five Tours & Expeditions in 1973 – so it’s no surprise that he’s raising his own children to be global citizens as well. “There’s an element of giving back on every single trip we take,” he says. “Not to teach our kids humility – that goes without saying – but to show them the power they have in their hands if they just look around.”
Big Five keeps sustainability at the heart of all of its trips, which are currently offered in 44 countries. The company also operates the Spirit of Big Five Foundation, which was established after Sanghrajka wanted to formalize the responsible tourism concepts his family has supported since 1973. “Long before the foundation, my father tried to get travelers to stop smoking on safari,” Sanghrajka says. “Brushfires aside, the larger issue was the animals eating the butts. He educated travelers on what was happening.” Today, Big Five Tours & Expeditions continues to perpetuate this sustainable legacy.
Below, Sanghrajka discusses overtourism, giving back, and Big Five’s most popular and emerging adventure-travel destinations.
Tell us more about the Spirit of Big Five Foundation and the projects it supports.
It’s 90 percent funded by family endowment. One-hundred percent of proceeds go to where they need to be. We have two really active, regional projects we support. The first is the Awamaki nonprofit organization in Peru, where we’re helping empower women in Andean communities. When the women arrive, they usually don’t know how to read or write. We work with the organization to help teach them how to earn money through weaving and then land contract work with hotels and stores in major cities. For every dollar given to Awamaki, $4 of income is generated.
In northern Sri Lanka – a country that’s only been living in peace for less than 15 years – there’s a bit of a lost generation that went through the civil war. We work with a youth development program that teaches young people applicable skills and helps them find local travel and tourism jobs.
What’s the biggest threat to travel and tourism right now?
Overtourism is today’s major issue – look at things like the defacing of Angkor Wat or the closing of an entire island [Boracay] off the coast of the Philippines. Overtourism happens because of a few reasons: First, the commoditization of travel in certain areas makes travel feel more like an entitlement than a privilege. A destination then shifts its focus from the quality of visitors to the quantity of them, because of unrealistic metrics placed on them.
Local guides, locally owned hotels and restaurants, and the local community suffer from overtourism the most. When the caliber of travelers drops, shortcuts are taken in terms of pollution control, plastic use, and fair local wages. As a result, local communities become disenfranchised and no longer hold the same high standards we depend on them for. Destinations like these are supposed to be what we aspire to, not what we’re entitled to.
What do you see as the solution for overtourism?
Respecting fair pricing and focusing on quality over quantity can lead to controlled tourism numbers, but, most importantly local citizens must have a seat at the table. There has to be a sense of ownership from all sides, both domestic and foreign. Tour companies must be aware of who they’re sending to a destination and not be afraid to say no to the wrong client. Countries may also want to think about putting a hard cap on how many visitors arrive each year, and be aware of what the limits of their infrastructure are – and not be afraid to stick to those. Local communities must be respected and included in this process.
Which destinations are Big Five travelers seeking out?
Colombia is our fastest-growing destination – we have our own offices in Bogota and Cartagena. Tourism is now the country’s second largest export after oil (and just ahead of coffee). There are new attractions opening, including a place to glamp an hour from Medellín. We have a chief guide there, Julio, who is always exploring. We’ve recently launched tours in Ethiopia, and we’re watching it very closely. Everyone has returned completely blown away. Our most popular destinations are South Africa and Peru.
We like to pick new lanes in destinations that we know, such as Namibia, Kenya, and India. We don’t actively promote Uluru in Australia, because we prefer to send people to more authentic Outback settings. Places where, without tourism, locals would go work in big cities and their communities would decline. In India, all of our itineraries must include a national park (there are more than 40 in the country) to ensure that local communities see a benefit. We want to preserve our integrity in how we proceed in each destination.