Q&A with Big Five Tours’ President

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West Bank temple ruins
The ruins of the temples in the West Bank in Egypt with Big Five Tours & Expeditions.

Big Five Tours & Expeditions focuses on sustainable travel and getting your clients off the beaten path in destinations from Egypt to Ecuador. Recommend caught up with Big Five’s president, Ashish Sanghrajka, to learn more about new tours and what your clients can expect from the luxury tour operator.

Lane Nieset (LN): What are some of the tours and trends travel agents should know about for 2014?

Ashish Sanghrajka (AS): Something that really hit full speed last year was this push for fully sustainable programs, and we started really making headway with this five years ago in Kenya. This year we have continued that and we actually are coming out with new programs in Namibia. Our focus is taking tours off the known areas and going more in-depth this year, launching new programs in Nicaragua, and we noticed that last year there was a huge push for Panama and to go beyond the canals. We have a whole slew of programs coming out that are going beyond the canals—one, for instance, is a private culinary experience. We are going beyond Panama being a cruise stop or excursion and more into a stand-alone destination where you are really able to get involved in the history. What we are doing in Latin America is that we are seeing a place like Panama becoming the gateway to Latin America the way Hong Kong or Bangkok were in Asia.

A big push in terms of what we are focusing on in all of these years is fully sustainable travel, so we are making sure we support local culture and that whatever we are doing is protecting biodiversity, so we are going off the beaten track to areas that tours don’t normally go.

LN: Tell us more about this push toward sustainable travel and how it came about.

AS: About five or six years ago, we decided that since the definition of sustainability is moving so much, and unfortunately it is becoming an overused term, we wanted to come out and lead by example and say ‘we believe in this, we’re defining it, we have pillars to define it and we are going to create tours that abide by our own rules.’ We started doing it in Kenya by walking away from some of the larger hotel chains and national parks and focusing on some of the conservancies.

LN: What are some of the reactions you are hearing from travelers?

AS: It’s been fantastic. When we moved to conservancies in East Africa, particularly Kenya, we saw double- to triple-digit gains in terms of our tourism. And it wasn’t because we were sending more people; travelers were spending more. We noticed even through this downturn [in the economy], from 2009, our clients were spending more every year than the previous year. What we are able to do, and the response we get back, is ‘I immediately saw the difference once we got to the conservancy.’ They would go to the conservancy and have a real experience. In the case of Ecuador, what we noticed and what really changed…was that the colonization of the Galapagos is being reversed. Our clients are willing to spend more to travel to mainland Ecuador in combination with the Galapagos because they want those authentic experiences. We are now applying this across the board and a large part of it is taking risks and saying we need to get out of our comfort zone. We are right now in India planning a huge shift away from normal circuits…and general cattle herding through India to the Taj Mahal and palaces. We still include places like the Taj Mahal, but we also introduce villages.

LN: And what is the interest like in some other destinations, such as Egypt? 

AS: We are still going full steam ahead in Egypt because elections are coming up. What we are optimistic about seeing after the election is that the gates are going to open; Egypt is an area that doesn’t require a lot of marketing because there are a lot of people who want to go to Egypt. It’s no longer just about finding the best deals, it’s about doing it right. What we really are focusing on now is introducing some new areas in Egypt, not necessarily about going away from the Nile, but going out to the oasis for example, or going out to desert camps, creating more of an adventure experience. Being able to get beyond the Nile cruise and the pyramids to show people the real culture and history.

LN: Who do you find booking tours to Egypt?

AS: The people who are going to Egypt with us right now are solo travelers or elderly couples. Families are still not quite as comfortable taking their kids there yet, but obviously that will return. What’s interesting enough is that Jordan has been making a huge comeback this year, and I think tourism there is going to lead the way for Egypt to follow. I really believe that Egypt is at a turning point and will return to becoming a mainstream destination.

Rates for the 11-day Egypt and Jordan tour start at $3,980 pp. For more information, visit bigfive.com.