You’ve heard it here before: Travel can change the world. And in a year filled with bad news, it’s great to have something to celebrate. The 17 winners of Travel + Leisure’s 2009 Global Vision Awards—from the globe-spanning Walt Disney Corporation to a one-man tour company in South Africa—are transforming, in ways large and small, not only how we travel, but also the way we think about the world. Read on for the latest and best efforts at cultural preservation, environmental conservation, and community-building through tourism.
Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar
With a 4,500-work collection that spans 13 centuries and three continents, this ambitious new museum is setting a precedent for cultural celebration and preservation in a region known more for its sometimes extravagant embrace of the future. Housed in an I. M. Pei–designed building, the museum’s diverse holdings reflect the history and vitality of the Islamic world: 10th-century gold-inked North African Korans, bejeweled vases from 14th-century Egypt, Ottoman swords, and Iraqi earthenware. Together they add up to one of the premier collections of Islamic art—and testify to Qatar’s status as one of the 21st century’s emerging culture capitals. mia.org.qa.
Koiyaki Guiding School, Masai Mara, Kenya
Despite being the inhabitants of one of the original international wildlife destinations, the Masai have traditionally remained on the fringe of the tourism industry. To engage locals in the travel sector and involve them in the stewardship of their land, the Koiyaki Guiding School opened in 2005, training community youths to become professional safari guides. Since then, 101 students have received diplomas, and more than 80 percent of those have found employment in Kenya. koiyaki.com.
This small nonprofit is on a mission to help the women of Peru’s Patacancha Valley preserve their rich textile tradtion through workshops and seminars focused on maintaining their techniques for weaving and creating these elaborate, ritualistic fabrics. It’s also raising the profile of the textiles, organizing tours and homestay programs for travelers, and selling the fabrics in a new store in Ollantaytambo, near the starting point of the Inca Trail. awamaki.org.
GAP Adventures, Toronto
As the world’s largest adventure-travel company, Canada-based GAP Adventures takes more than 90,000 people on over 1,000 different trips each year. Just as impressively, GAP has used this enormous reach to make its nonprofit arm, Planeterra, into an extraordinarily effective community-building entity. Since 2003, Planeterra has spent more than $500,000 on projects that include investing in rural cataract-surgery clinics in Tibet, establishing a women’s weaving collective in Peru, and purchasing a boat to bring Ecuadorean students on field trips to the Galápagos Islands. Meanwhile, hundreds of travelers have taken to the road on Planeterra-run voluntourism trips that embody the company’s mission to promote environmental responsibility and a connection to locals. planeterra.org.
Rainforest Alliance, New York City
Who sets the bar for green travel? The answer: The Rainforest Alliance. This month, under the auspices of the United Nations, the nonprofit’s Sustainable Tourism Program launches an umbrella certification initiative giving hotels, cruise lines, and operators a set of baseline criteria that define exactly what sustainability means—and giving travelers who book rooms or tours with accredited companies the assurance that their dollars are going to businesses that are truly green. rainforest-alliance.org.
Sala Baï, Cambodia
Though the hospitality industry is a driving force in Cambodia’s economy, access to lucrative tourism-related jobs remains limited—especially for the country’s younger generation. The Sala Baï hotel school, in Siem Reap, works to close the gap by annually selecting 100 underprivileged youths for a fully funded, 11-month program that trains students in front office, housekeeping, cooking, and restaurant service and culminates in four-month-long internships at partner hotels. To date, all 605 students, 65 percent of whom are female, have graduated and found jobs—proof that education and opportunity can change lives. salabai.com.
Qianlong Garden, Beijing
For much of the 20th century the exquisite interiors of the two-acre Qianlong Garden, built between 1771 and 1776 and tucked within Beijing’s legendary Forbidden City, lay hidden from view and slowly disintegrating. Today they are being saved, thanks to a unique 17-year-long restoration partnership between Beijing’s Palace Museum and the World Monuments Fund. Employing experts and artisans skilled in highly specialized and increasingly rarefied crafts (lantern making; bamboo carving; silk embroidery), the project has already completed work on the 18th-century Juanqinzhai pavilion, and has plans to restore all of the garden’s buildings and courtyards in the coming years. wmf.org.
Southern Foodways Alliance, Oxford, Mississippi
An exuberant champion of Southern food culture—from its barbecue pit masters and bourbon distilleries to its butterscotch-pie breakfasts and deviled-eggs competitions—the Southern Foodways Alliance celebrates and records the region’s diverse gastronomic landscape through documentary films, books, and not-for-the-calorie-shy field trips and events. The Alliance’s food-trails program, which has mapped a Tamale Trail through the Mississippi Delta, a Barbecue Trail in the Southeast, and Boudin and Gumbo Trails across Louisiana, introduces travelers to the small-scale producers and off-the-beaten path restaurants that are the soul of Southern cuisine. southernfoodways.com.
Asia Transpacific Journeys, Boulder, Colorado
When Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in May 2008, killing an estimated 140,000 people and devastating the Irrawaddy Delta, the Asia Transpacific Foundation, the charitable arm of tour operator Asia Transpacific Journeys, was there to help survivors with access to purified drinking water via simple clay filters. The foundation’s nimble response, which saved countless lives, was an outgrowth of its campaign to teach locals in northern Thailand and Burma how to make these filters, providing them with both clean water and a source of income. The foundation now operates four water-filter factories and has brought better hygiene and sanitation to some 450,000 people in Burma alone. asiatranspacific.com.
Northern Great Plains Restoration, United States
Though it may seem that our continent’s largest grassland, the Northern Great Plains, has little in common with the Namibian desert, the areas are, in fact, intrinsically linked. In 2007, when the Nebraska-based Grassland Foundation was searching for a conservation model for the largely unprotected area in the States, it looked to Namibia’s successes in harnessing ecotourism for wildlife preservation. The project began sending ranchers and conservationists alike to Africa on study tours: the first step in building a viable tourism infrastructure in the Great Plains. grasslandfoundation.org and www.worldwildlife.org.
The Walt Disney Company
When the company behind the Happiest Place on Earth makes a commitment to becoming completely carbon neutral (and reaching 50 percent of that goal by 2012), it’s more than a step in the right direction. It’s a far-reaching plan that’s guaranteed to change the landscape for mega-corporations around the world. In the past year, Disney has pledged to reduce its solid waste by 50 percent by 2013, conserve millions of gallons of water, invest in renewable energy, and step up its eco-educational programs for students—proof that companies can be forward-thinking, sustainable, and profitable all at once. Disney.com/responsibility
Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia
Just two hours from Siem Reap and Angkor Wat lies the lesser-known—but no less majestic—stone temple complex of Banteay Chhmar. Commissioned in the 12th century by the Khmer king Jayavarman VII, the site in recent years has fallen victim to vandalism, looting, and disrepair. Since 2008, Global Heritage Fund, a conservancy based in Palo Alto, California, has led efforts to stabilize the complex and its elaborate bas-relief galleries. The nonprofit’s mission is dual: protect one of Cambodia’s great historic treasures and engage the neighboring community by employing Khmer specialists and developing a model for sustainable tourism in the area. globalheritagefund.org.
EcoVentura, Galápagos Islands
This small Ecuadorean cruise company is charting a new course for travel to Darwin’s famous islands. Not only was it one of the first to attain the Rainforest Alliance’s stringent Smart Voyager eco-certification, but it’s introduced initiatives to conserve the area’s biodiversity, funded university scholarships for local students, offset 100 percent of its carbon emissions, and, most recently, committed to converting its fleet to hybrid energy boats by 2015. ecoventura.com.
Element Hotels, United States
By now we’ve seen plenty of properties that use reclaimed woods and renewable energy, incorporate natural light and recycled materials in guest rooms, and place vegetable gardens on rooftops and near bike paths. Yet what impresses us the most about Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ new eco-hotel brand is the company’s commitment to achieving LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council at all of its properties (currently six are open, with 28 more in the works). Element also serves as an important green laboratory, testing sustainable innovations that may find their way into future Elements—and any of Starwood’s 1,000 other hotels worldwide. starwoodhotels.com.
Spear of the Nation, Johannesburg, South Africa
A tour guide and amateur historian who first visited Johannesburg’s impoverished townships in the 1990’s as a peacekeeper, Robin Binckes has since devoted himself to bringing attention—and travelers—to the often-overlooked township of Alexandra, in the city’s north, through his company, Spear of the Nation. It’s a tribute to his passion that his global clients are frequently inspired to give back, and with their donations, Binckes has been able to build and run a day-care center, sponsor the care of local AIDS orphans, and even establish an area soccer team. spearofthenation.co.za.
Sassi di Matera Albergo Diffuso, Italy
Daniele Kihlgren, philanthropist, entrepreneur, and budding hotelier, is on a mission to save Italy’s forgotten heritage, one inn at a time. It started with the rustic but stylish Sextantio Albergo Diffuso—Kihlgren’s attempt to bring tourism (and money) back to the neglected medieval hamlet in Abruzzo where the inn is located. His latest project is even more ambitious: carefully transform the abandoned cave dwellings of the UNESCO World Heritage site Sassi di Matera, in Basilicata, into guest rooms, creating a living museum that allows travelers unparalleled access to the region and its rich history. sextantio.it.
Vane Farm Sanctuary, Scotland
Thirty Miles from Edinburgh, on the North Sea, lies a blossoming, 20-acre meadow filled with ponds, trails, and wildlife—including thousands of bumblebees. The new sanctuary, the first of its kind to be completely devoted to the pollinators, was established by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust for the endangered insects, which are crucial to the world’s environmental health as keystone pollinators. The experiment is working: Now more than 10,000 bumblebees flitter around the park, as visitors bird-watch and hike through the serene Scottish preserve. rspb.org.uk.
Executive chef and co-owner of New York restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns
“The revival of Qianlong Garden—which uses new techniques and traditional artisanship—shows you can’t restore the past without keeping an eye toward the future.”
President of the World Monuments Fund
“It is thrilling to see a hotel chain with big plans for expansion achieving LEED status. Element proves to the entire industry that it can be done.”
Cofounder of the adventure-travel company Butterfield & Robinson
“The sheer magnitude of what Walt Disney has undertaken provides a fine example of a corporation leading global efforts to become more sustainable.”
Céline Simone Cousteau
Contributor to PBS’s Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures, spokeswoman for La Prairie, and ambassador to the Clean Up the World Campaign
“The Rainforest Alliance is changing the baseline definition for an entire industry standard—a bold step in making sure the criteria for sustainable tourism is universal.”
Founder of Charity: Water, dedicated to bringing clean water to developing nations
“Asia Transpacific has made a huge impact in what I believe is the most important issue facing us today—access to clean and safe drinking water.”
Chief creative officer of Bruce Mau Design and founder of George Brown College’s Institute Without Boundaries, in Toronto
“Sassi di Matera’s guests can experience both the culture of the past as well as the intelligence of sustainable design.”
Dr. Joseph E. Stiglitz
Nobel Prize–winning economist, Columbia University professor, and chair of the Committee on Global Thought
“The Northern Great Plains project is an impressive example of America learning from best practices abroad.”
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Director and producer, most recently of the award-winning documentary Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love, about the Senegalese singer
“Awamaki has made preservation economically viable and saved an endangered art from global obscurity.”