Well known among adventure travellers and mountaineers, Gavin Bate in this interview shares his inspiring story of a tourism entrepreneur whose dedication to responsible practices started long before sustainable tourism became a mainstream topic. Learn about Gavin Bate’s successes with Adventure Alternative and the Moving Mountains Foundation, his challenges and lessons learned.
- What fascinates Gavin Bate about mountains and adventure travel;
- How his view on sustainability in tourism has changed over the years;
- Key lessons learned since he founded Adventure Alternative in 1991;
- Why he founded the Moving Mountains Trust;
- The main sustainability challenges for nature destinations;
- Current trends in adventure travel;
- Advice for travel entrepreneurs keen to do good by doing better.
Gavin, you have crossed the Sahara desert alone and climbed seven of world’s highest mountains, including six expeditions to Everest. What draws you to the mountain, and to seek adventure in Nature?
I have always felt a sense of elation at high altitude like no other and, by happy chance, I seem to perform well at very high altitudes. From a young age, I started climbing and after university, I travelled for eleven years before starting my guiding company. I was deeply influenced by climbers in the 1970s, especially British and Polish high altitude pioneers. In many ways, I have followed their aesthetic by wanting to climb alpine style and without bottled oxygen.
I enjoy the wilderness and the feeling of being close to Nature, but nowadays after my training and experience, I especially like the feeling of having the skills to live in the wilderness.
Recently, I have done some long polar trips and there is great satisfaction in just having the wherewithal to survive and perform well. I also very much enjoy the job of guiding people on mountains and sharing the knowledge I have and helping people along with their own aspirations.
Crossing the Sahara Desert on my own in six months was, and still is, the benchmark for everything I’ve done since. Many, many long solo trips and lots of mountain climbs later, I still look back to that first big trip with great happiness and satisfaction.
As an international mountain leader and expedition guide, what does sustainability in tourism mean for you? And (how) has your view of the topic changed over the years?
Most of the places I guide in professionally are places where I spent a long time during my years of travelling, and the reason I set up companies there was to give my friends jobs. I wanted to employ them on equitable terms.
Fundamentally, I wanted to tackle the inequality of employment in developing countries. I really wanted my staff to earn a good wage and get a career out of tourism, and I still think that is critical in making a destination sustainable.
I now teach sustainable tourism and my understanding of the subject is much wider. I’m very interested in the relationship between my company, the staff in the supply chain and the consumer, and who has the responsibility for changing mindsets and behaviours with regard to the impact of tourism.
I firmly believe it is up to me to educate my tourists and train my staff and to use my profit to achieve essentially a more informed experience for everyone. I also think it’s important that I justify my intentions to take tourists to a destination and consider the wider implications, to the extent of limiting numbers or just not going. These decisions are not about money or commerce, they are about people and places and the future of our world.
Why did you found the Moving Mountains Trust International Development NGO? What is it about?
At my time of travelling, I worked in various aid agencies as an aid driver and a teacher in the slums around Nairobi and also working to rehabilitate street kids. I noticed in those days that development seemed to be very short-lived.
A lot of the street kids I met were once beneficiaries of western charities, but their support had been finished and they had gone back to their community only to find they were now ostracised. I wanted Moving Mountains to be about long term development, from early childhood right the way through to adulthood and the point where those people become parents themselves. I wanted them to achieve social mobility for their own kids, and I invested in social capital over many decades.
I always knew that the cost and commitment of doing this, and the difficulty of a street kid to overcome the great barriers of the poverty trap and rise above it to succeed in life, would take a lifetime and be as hard as moving a mountain, one small achievement at a time. Similarly with changing whole communities in Nepal, so that they became thriving and developing.
Happily the phrase ‘moving mountains’ has a correlation to my own climbing expeditions, which for many years funded all the projects and programmes. I felt that my own climbing exploits meant a lot more with the motivation of raising funds for helping street kids and mountain communities.
Nowadays our key phrases in Moving Mountains are empowerment and equality, and many of the people we employ as adults were once the children I taught in the slum schools and helped to rehabilitate with their families. We are into the second generation of the MM family and it has been hugely successful.
Your speciality is high altitude mountain expeditions and responsible tourism. Taking into account the growing number of visitors to Everest and other peaks, to what extent is mountain tourism sustainable? Which are the challenges?
Growing numbers of people to climb Mount Everest is really an irrelevance, it amounts to just 500 people a year who are in the main very aware of environmental hazards caused by rubbish and so on. Compare that to over 20,000 people a year climbing Kilimanjaro or even the thousands trekking in Nepal.
Mountain tourism is entirely sustainable if there is an effort to educate the tourist and train staff. On top of that the governments and parks need to legislate and adopt strict rules and codes of conduct. American national parks do it very well and people are generally very respectful of their environment.
But still, people use disposable plastic water bottles on the trails in Nepal when boiling water and taking one bottle with you would be enough. But people are afraid of dirty water and getting an infection so it just needs a programme of education and some training of local guides and innkeepers in how to provide clean water.
Deforestation is a big issue but again easily manageable with some investment of funds to help provide alternative sources of energy and heat.
The challenges are always lack of education and lack of investment. Tackle these and the next level of challenges can be dealt with. Educated, informed people with a bit of choice that comes from some money will much more likely opt for the better sustainable solution to a problem because they do understand the value of the environment and the importance of tourism sustaining them in the future.
As adventure travel company owner and social entrepreneur, which trends do you observe which might support or hinder a better, more responsible or sustainable tourism?
There is a generational attitude which is a hindrance. I find older people, who are still company owners, much less likely or interested in changing their business model to adopt fresh thinking. This is nothing new, people don’t like change.
As a newer generation demands a much more collaborative, deconstructed approach to consumerism and of course tourism, the old guard is still clinging to the old traditional ways of doing business.
With economic survival at stake, people are less interested in making radical changes to the DNA of their company and looking at new concepts, like return on sustainable attitudes. They’re too busy keeping their ship afloat. While all around them the world is changing, and the next generation is already recreating the way we live, exist, purchase, consume and travel.
Responsible or sustainable tourism has suffered from a collective mental checkout, partly because there has been a lot of research over the past thirty years and a lot of words and phrases to describe this new concept. People became bored, complacent, argumentative and dismissive. Just like climate change.
That trend is changing now because tipping points have been reached and passed, there is now an understanding that incremental behavioural change on a global scale is what is needed, and what is actually happening.
As ever, the industry is slow to follow, but once the consumer starts to demand responsible and ethical provenance for something like tourism, then you will see the company owners changing.
So it comes back to educating people to make informed choices about their tourism, and I see a trend now towards that sort of lifestyle, one in which we endeavour to do things right and not hurt others or the planet. TED talks and many others out there have used the internet to spread the world of ideas and this change in attitude is very fast. It’s a good thing.
You are also a motivational speaker and university lecturer. In your view, what characterizes a sustainability leader? And how to become one?
I have seen a huge difference between people who lecture on sustainability in academia and those who talk about the sustainability that they deliver in their own operations or companies. There is still a gulf between the two, and therefore I would suggest that what characterises a good sustainability leader is someone who actually does it for real and has had to make the financial compromises and decisions to make it happen.
University lecturers love to theorise about sustainable tourism and pick apart all the components and build theses around esoteric aspects of the subject. In reality, every social entrepreneur is finding a practical solution to something which will still enable them to run a viable business but in a responsible way, in a way that really thinks about the future of our world.
This is why Elon Musk is so interesting. He is walking the walk and giving people visionary ideas about the future. He has no guarantees for his ventures, but he has the chutzpah to get out there and try to make it happen. I think that is motivational by its very nature of passion to action.
Sustainability leaders are fundamentally defined by their ability to see beyond the commercial bottom line and to make decisions that have defined positive future impacts. We might call that visionary now, but in the future I think people will record them as normal.
I also think modesty goes a long way, there’s really nothing worse than a big ego on a mountain or in a company.
The UN has declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. In your view, which are the main destination challenges right now regarding the sustainability of travel and tourism?
Undeniably the advances in technology with transport and the emissions associated with it. We have come a long way now with renewables and highly advanced fuel-efficient forms of travel, but I think we are still only on the cusp of that journey.
With ever increasing travel freedom for the masses comes the problem of increased accessibility to places that are not yet ready for the numbers.
There is a defined code of conduct and aim for the world in terms of sustainable development goals, including human rights and also sustainable tourism, but the issue is that it has not been accepted or rolled out completely.
My feeling is that the interconnectedness of the world online will in fact overtake all the best efforts of global organisations and governments. I’ve already seen that information about – for example – the environment and climate change are more potent through unsolicited and informal information sharing online rather than from national or international legislation.
The main destination challenge of the future I think will be the decision to manage and limit the numbers of visitors.
For example, could we ever have a situation where there is a maximum number of people visiting Venice on any one day? After all, Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon has a strict quote based on environmental limitations.
Your guiding company Adventure Alternative has been operating since 1991. Which are your key lessons or insights gained during the last 26 years?
You’re only as good as your last mistake. A lifetime of a good reputation can all be undone in a moment. So it’s vital to keep the high levels and standards and to never ever be complacent.
I’m very cynical now, which is sad because I was never cynical in my younger days. A lot of people have let me down, but I have always maintained the importance of my integrity and principles with the company I started.
Ultimately the company is a reflection of my own character and obviously my own passions for climbing, travelling and being responsible towards the world we live in. I try to keep that ethic uppermost in all that I do, but some people inevitably just let you down.
I learnt a long time ago that the important thing is never to let go of my principles and values.
Imagine you could turn back time and start all over again. Knowing what you know now about travel and sustainability, what would you do differently?
I can think of commercial decisions I made which cost me money that I now regret and in retrospect would far rather have put my money into something more meaningful. I’d definitely like to have increased my range of destinations at an earlier stage in the company life, and there are some people I employed who I wish I had never employed!
Overall though, I’m happy that I always kept my mind open to new concepts and ideas and really embraced learning about tourism and the world, and kept my company flexible enough to accommodate whole new areas of thought and opportunities.
I think travel and sustainability can be quite serious concepts, but I would like to think I’ve maintained my enjoyment of travel along the way. You have to do something you enjoy and which is fun and stimulating.
With what I know now I think I would have actively gone out and employed people with a better understanding of sustainable tourism than I had at the time. It’s taken me a while to do things right. I could have done it quicker by getting the right people on board earlier.
Sustainability and tourism marketing professionals often don’t quite speak the same language. Do you (or AA) seek active collaboration with destinations and their DMOs? How do you make sure both your clients (travellers) and local communities get the most out of your activities?
I was well aware of this dichotomy and it was one of the reasons that I invested in starting all my own DMOs with the Adventure Alternative name. The business model is really about sharing my profit to set up these companies and ensuring they all had training, salaries (rather than day rates), equipment and assistance with issues like sustainability. It cost me in the short term, but the value and return have been in the long term with a high rate of repeat business, a high rate of positive word of mouth and a very high staff loyalty.
I use my holidays to try and educate people if they want it, I think there are people who don’t just want an ‘authentic’ experience, they want a transformational one in the sense that they come back from a place knowing stuff they didn’t before and in some sense it affects the way they will think about what they do in the future.
I also integrate the communities and locals into my trips. It’s a sensible action to take and ultimately much more fun. Humans are social creatures. Put clients from one country in a village with people from another culture and background, and establish an equitable relationship between the two and it doesn’t take long for people to learn from each other and come out of the experience better people.
Your 3 bits of advice to the many passionate entrepreneurs out there, eager to develop products and services aimed at supporting sustainability in tourism?
- Define your values and ethics on paper, what it is you imagine your company to look like and to feel like, what it aims to do.
- Now convert those ethics and values into business points which make your model. This has to be specific actions that define what you do with money especially and how you manage your supply chain.
- Make sure the figures stack up with your ambitions, it has to be a viable business in order to work. You have to combine the ambitions of your vision with the realities of finance.
Thank you, Gavin.
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