East Asia with G Adventures

, October 13, 2011

Longji rice terraces

With university fees set to rocket in the UK next year, countless travel companies have been bracing themselves for a huge slump in the gap year market as a cohort of young people forgo their year out to avoid paying more for higher education. This may be no bad thing in some ways – increasingly the gap year has come to represent the worst of western tourism, typified by trips that take in little interest in local culture and arguably do more harm than good to the destination countries.

However, not everyone in the industry has subscribed to heavily reduced, high impact trips.. G Adventures was one of the first companies to bring sustainable tourism into the crowded holiday market, offering “adventure-craving travellers an alternative to the resorts, cruises and motorcoach tours”: holidays which take travellers off the beaten track for a genuine glimpse of the lives of the country’s inhabitants, and which are focused on ethical behaviour and serving the communities they visit.

Between rides across the Mongolian desert and prison escapes in Burma, Founder Bruce Poon Tip set up GAP Adventures  in 1990 with just his own two credit cards. Since then, he has become one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 and has won plaudits from National Geographic, which has described the company as the best ‘Do It All Outfitter’ on earth. In addition, the company has won the Ethics in Action Award, the Global Traders Award and the Clean Air Commute Award for five straight years.

Two years ago, my family and I became five of the 100,000 or so travellers whom G Adventures now takes every year to fascinating places all over the world, in our case Vietnam and South China. We flew to Hanoi where we were met by our bubbly and knowledgeable American tour guide, Erin, and the other five members of our group which, like all Gap travelling parties, was limited to twelve for a more authentic experience.

In the next two weeks we followed an itinerary which included the idyllic tourist hotspot of Halong Bay, before heading into China and off the beaten track to the delightful Butterfly Valley. There, surrounded by clouds of the fluttering insects and awed by the spectacular Karst landscape we were given a boat ride down the river and a glimpse of the 2,000 year old Hua Shan cliff paintings as well as witnessing traditional Chinese agricultural techniques at first hand. Another highlight was the visit to Longji – an area with spectacular rice terraces. We stayed in a small guest house perched on the side of a steep valley, layered from top to bottom with rice paddies in what without modern machinery must have been many generations’ work.

At each place we visited, we were met by local guides who had a more intimate knowledge of the area (another measure to ensure that the locals benefit from our visit). At the rice terraces, our escort – the instantly lovable Farmer Tang – was particularly memorable. Coming in at a diminutive five feet high, with an unquenchable thirst for (very) exact detail and information, he even has a fan page on Facebook! It was one of those trips where it is difficult to distinguish highlights – each and every place had its own distinct charm, and a remarkable balance was struck between the urban and rural; the well trodden and the untouched – from the bustling tourist centre of Yangshuo; to the bucolic Chenyang and its spectacular bridges; to the frankly obscure yet vibrant city of Liuzhou (with over three million people, I challenge you to find anyone who has heard of it!) and a direct insight into what life is like for the half billion Chinese who are now city dwellers.

Pastoral idyll in Chenyang

As someone who dislikes the idea of being a tourist, and is instinctively suspicious of tour groups, I was initially apprehensive about the idea of what was in some ways a package holiday. Happily though, I was won over on all counts: having Erin as our tour guide meant that we saw the best of what each place had to offer, without the struggle of finding it ourselves by trial and error, and yet at no point did it seem formulaic or rigid. Although undoubtedly the student market is one which G Adventures targets, it suited us as a family just as well, and though we are perhaps slightly more adventurous than most, we were assured we weren’t unique. The trip was certainly one of the most memorable I’ve been on and I’m sure one of the contributing factors was that sustainable tourism is not only better for the visited, but also the visitor. It was a very genuine experience of local culture, natural and unobtrusive and an excellent gateway into the world of sustainable travel.