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Taking the Trip of a Lifetime With Bruce Poon Tip

By channeling tourism dollars back into the communities being visited, G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip has not only created a better way to travel, but he also has built a circular economic system that benefits underserved communities all over the world.

Photo courtesy of G Adventures

Companies, along with the people who run them, the products they make and the faces who represent them, need to stand for something good. Otherwise, the critical, woke millennials won’t work for you or consume your products—and they sure won’t be shy about shaming you on the socials. In other words, nowadays corporate values need to align with consumer values if a company is to succeed. Or so the prevailing wisdom goes.

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Of course, the prevailing wisdom of our times was not a popular theory in 1990, when a young Bruce Poon Tip maxed out two credit cards to launch his tour operator travel company, G Adventures in Toronto. 

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But mixing passion with purpose to turn a profit is the only way Bruce knows how to work. 

He developed his winning formula early: Find a hole in the market—preferably one driven by passion and purpose—and invent an innovative way to meet the demand.

When he was one of seven children living with his immigrant family in Calgary, his love of animals led him to learn about dwarf rabbits, a Dutch breed that he suspected could satisfy a growing craze for pet bunnies and solve the disappointment pet owners felt when other rabbits grew larger and not-so-cute. Bruce found an Alberta farmer who agreed to sell him two dwarf rabbits, then convinced his parents to let him put their cages in the backyard. As the male and female did what rabbits do, he biked his way around town, introducing himself and his bunnies to pet store and drugstore managers (remember when drugstores sold pets?), forging personal relationships with his vendors—and he was in business. One of the first things he did was exhibit the rabbits at a 4-H Club show (he biked there, too), where they caused a sensation and won best in show—and let him brand his pets as “award-winning.” 

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He was 12 years old. This was the second of three businesses he launched before graduating high school.

Bruce learned the importance of purpose-driven selling at 14 during his third entrepreneurial endeavor: a bookmark business. He was selling student-made bookmarks at the drugstores where the managers already knew him, but the business didn’t take off until he changed the story, adding purpose and meaning with new marketing. “If you buy these, you are helping students,” he added to the displays. The bookmarks started flying off the counters.

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Less than a decade later at 22, his passion was travel, and the hole in the market was the wide gap that existed between the two prevailing modes of travel at the time: mainstream travel, where guests were cosseted at Western-style, all-inclusive resorts and shielded from the local community, and backpacking, which required a lot of DIY resourcefulness and a willingness to rough it. There had to be a better way, he thought. One where travelers could interact in meaningful ways with locals to get a true flavor of a destination, where transportation—by canoe, tuk-tuk, local trains—could be an interesting part of the journey, and where the tourism dollars spent wouldn’t end up in a corporate office across the globe but rather would remain within the local community, helping to sustain and develop it. And that’s what he created with G Adventures.

For his first trip, he took six people to Ecuador. For his second, six more to Belize. Why these destinations? In practical terms, they were close to Canada. In travel terms, they offered variety—mountains, the Amazon, the Galapagos. In philosophical terms, “I wanted to go where other people weren’t going yet.”

Along the way, he developed relationships with locals, who agreed to welcome G Adventure travelers. In return, the revenue they received went back into their communities—resulting in new schools and health centers and improved economic prospects and giving people an alternative to having to move from their villages to seek employment in cities. 

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One of the first people he met in the Ecuadoran Amazon was a man called Delfin. He didn’t speak English, couldn’t understand why people would want to visit his community and had no interest in money. But Bruce is beguiling. And with a handshake, Delfin agreed to host travelers in his home and share his way of life. Three decades later, Delfin is still a partner, and proceeds from tourism have helped him build a local school, fight the government when they wanted to confiscate his land for oil and preserve his way of life and his culture. His son, who Bruce met as a newborn, recently graduated from university in Moscow. 

G Adventures has developed thousands of partnerships all over the world. “We were helping someone start a local business in order to create more business for us,” he wrote in his bestselling 2013 book, Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business. “And our passengers reported high rates of satisfaction with these close-to-the-community experiences. They would rave about having the opportunity to take part in their trip, as though it was a privilege, rather than something they paid for.”

In 2003, Bruce launched a nonprofit arm of G Adventures called the Planeterra Foundation, which was designed to leverage the tourism economy to benefit underserved communities all over the world. To date, Planeterra has completed more than 100 projects all over the world, such as Oodles of Noodles, a program in Vietnam that teaches at-risk street kids how to run restaurants, a partnership with Streets International. 

Bruce is especially proud of SASANE, the nonprofit founded with a $25,000 grant from G Adventures and the Planeterra Foundation to benefit Nepalese women who are victims of human trafficking. The women learn to become paralegals and then help themselves and other women. “They help police officers identify other women who are trafficked and train the police to ask the right questions,” Bruce explains. “They help women get off the street.” G Adventures travelers to Nepal get to spend time with the women, learning about their lives during cooking classes.

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In India, G travelers are picked up by Women on Wheels, a fleet driven by formerly homeless and abused women who received 18 month of training and a car through G Adventures. This in a country where women rarely drive. G trips often include a first-day city tour led by teenagers who were found in shelters and taught to be tour guides. Bruce speaks of “amazing stories of kids found at train stations when they were two or three years old. I know six of these kids who are studying through scholarships in the United States.”

Bruce doesn’t use trendy terms like ecotourism or sustainable tourism to define his work and his mission. He likes “community tourism” as a better descriptor for the circular economic system he’s created, where tourism dollars are channeled back into the communities. He’s also aware that “the world has changed in our favor. The mindset of people, the sustainability movement, the way people live at home. We have always thought for 30 years that people will match their values with their holiday time.” His gut instinct paid off. 

It all sounds almost hopelessly feel-good and kumbaya, doesn’t it? It is, but it works: Bruce leveraged those handshake agreements into a nine-figure business that has had double-digit growth for three decades. Some 200,000 travelers take more than 750 tours to 100 countries on every continent. G Adventures tours have a “G for Good” community-minded element in the trip. The pandemic took its toll, but tours have resumed in the countries where they can travel, and 2022 looks strong. G Adventures has five headquarters around the world, in Berlin, London, Melbourne, Boston and Toronto; each has won a “best places to work” award.

Bruce’s other accolades are almost an embarrassment of riches: Social Venture Network Hall of Fame (2012), Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, EY Entrepreneur of the Year (2002, 2006, 2016), British Travel and Hospitality Hall of Fame (2018), #10 on Glassdoor’s Top CEOs list (2019).

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And he’s the only person to have ever had a business book endorsed by a living god, the Dalai Lama. In the foreword to Looptail, His Holiness wrote, “Not only in his business but also in this account of his adventures, Bruce Poon Tip is making an active contribution to creating a more peaceful and happier world, while at the same time creating a model from which others can learn.”

How does he find the right balance between purpose and profits? “There’s no real way to balance it,” he says. “I can honestly say that in 30 years, I have never had to make a decision based on money. I believe that if we do everything right, we’re profitable. Profit can be organic, and we have proven that. Double-digit growth, getting the best people—it all comes if we get the community right. It’s esoteric for some people to believe, but it’s true.” 

Asked what he would advise other CEOs, he says, “Put the right things in place for people to achieve human happiness. Focus on sustained human happiness. Happy people drive performance.”

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