When you board a ship, or a bus, join a tour group or head out solo, chances are you've used the services of some kind of travel company. And whether that's checking into a hotel by yourself or embarking on a package holiday with a group, there's always someone's vision at play behind the scenes.
It's a vision that sets your experience into motion, an imagining of how to meet your needs and desires in the best possible way. The best travel companies and operators are those with a strong, distinct direction. And more often than not, you will find that set by extraordinary characters at the top.
With this new and annual Traveller list, we celebrate the men and women who turn our travel dreams into reality. Ranging from exponents of high luxury to creators of dirt-under-your-nails adventure and eco-tourism, they might operate in different spheres, but in the Venn diagram of life, they share in common brilliant entrepreneurial minds and hearts full of passion. Passion for travel, for hospitality and for people.
They also share a drive to constantly evolve and strive for excellence, as their clients' needs and expectations change. That's why they remain at the top of their game.
These are our heroes of travel for 2017.
Lek Chailert, founder of the Elephant Nature Park.
"Lek" means "small" in Thai but Lek Chailert is a giant among conservationists. Her "no riding, minimal intervention" elephants policy has rewritten the rules about captive wild animals and entertainment in the tourist industry, encouraging major operators to remove elephant trekking from their itineraries and instead find less intrusive ways of interacting with Thailand's national symbol. In 1995, Lek established Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai Province as a haven for elephants rescued from logging, commercial trekking and street begging with another sanctuary in Phuket having opened last year. See elephantnaturepark.org or phuketelephantsanctuary.org
Perth biologist Leif Cocks has campaigned intelligently, effectively and tirelessly for the conservation of habitat and general welfare of the remarkable creatures with which he has worked for more than 30 years. With tour partner, Orangutans Odysseys, the Orangutan Project hosts tours to raise funds for conservation projects and connect people to the orangutans. See orangutan.org.au
After watching a news story in 1993 showing the horrifying plight of bears milked for their bile, Perth grandmother Mary Hutton stood outside a shopping mall collecting signatures on a petition. Nearly 25 years later, the resulting Australian charity Free the Bears Fund has rescued more than 900 bears from the illegal wildlife trade throughout South-East Asia and India, and is considered a beacon in environmental education and conservation. See freethebears.org
As the director of one of Britain's leading building conservation charities, Anna Keay is ensuring that some of Europe's most stunning historic buildings are rescued, restored and offered to travellers as unique accommodation. Keay oversees Landmark's 198 properties, including a pineapple-shaped summerhouse in central Scotland, a castle dating back to 1350 in northern England, and a fisherman's cottage on a medieval abbey site near Portofino, Italy. See landmarktrust.org.uk
Everest adventurer Tim Macartney-Snape adores the challenge of climbing mountains - most memorably when he reached the summit at the top of the world in 1984 after a pioneering expedition from the base without oxygen. "It was hard to believe we'd made it," he says. But he's always been keen to give back too, and started the non-profit Leave No Trace organisation to teach awareness about responsible outdoor travel, holding training workshops and building partnerships. See worldexpeditions.com; lnt.org.au
Since coming to Lord Howe Island in January 1980, and being captivated by the seabirds, marine environments and rainforest habitats, Ian Hutton began a journey of exploration, research and observation. His research has led to Lord Howe Island Nature Tours, offering half-day and full-day guided walks and week-long special interest tours and field-trips. He also presents four lectures weekly at the island museum and is part-time curator of the museum. "Over the years Lord Howe Island has been very good to me," Hutton says. "The island has given me the opportunity to do every day what I love doing, and I hope I've been able to give something back." See lordhowe-tours.com.au
Naturalist Terri Irwin co-starred with her late husband and Croc Hunter television personality Steve in nature documentaries and now runs the Australia Zoo on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, founded by his father. Shortly after her husband's death in 2006, she told interviewer Ray Martin: "I'll make Australia Zoo bigger. I'll make it bigger... because I promised." The zoo has since expanded, with more than 1200 animals and ambitious plans for an even bigger safari park and hotel. See australiazoo.com.au
Ask Charlie Carlow about his proudest achievements and the former corporate high flyer turned travel company head will talk conservation. His company, Wild Bush Luxury, operates two unique wilderness experiences - the South Australian 24,000-hectare former sheep station turned private wildlife conservancy, Arkaba; and Northern Territory safari lodge, Bamurru Plains, near Kakadu. At Arkaba, Carlow is proud to say, more than 360 foxes and 220 feral cats have been removed, leading to increased echidna and reptile sightings and the removal of more than 2600 goats has freed up 5.5 million kilograms of grazing for native species, leading to an increased rock wallaby population. See wildbushluxury.com
Tucked between forest, mountains and sea at the tip of Africa is a 2500-hectare piece of paradise that offers safaris with no traditional game. The award-winning Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, brainchild of Michael Lutzeyer???, is a luxury eco-resort set in a rehabilitated botanical wonderland of native fynbos, hosting a wealth of indigenous plant, bird and animal species, many endangered. English botanist David Bellamy calls it "the best example of conservation of biodiversity I have ever seen". This is ecotourism as high art - nature conservation, responsible tourism and community upliftment combined with the Lutzeyers having even built a community FIFA-grade football pitch. See grootbos.com
Although ex-pat Australian Narelle McMurtie??? now owns some of Malaysia's best-regarded boutique properties and eateries in the form of Bon Ton and Temple Tree resorts on the island of Langkawi and ChinaHouse??? in George Town, Penang, she is far prouder to have saved the lives of thousands of stray cats and dogs on the island of Langkawi. Stay at McMurtie's neighbouring properties, Bon Ton and Temple Tree, and your money will go towards her charity, LASSie, Langkawi Animal Shelter and Sanctuary. See langkawilassie.org.my
Bruce Poon Tip of G Adventures at the South Pole.
Bruce Poon Tip legendarily founded G Adventures on personal credit cards in 1990. Today it's one of the world's largest adventure travel companies. No mean feat, but to maintain a distinct ethos of meaningful and "real world" travel that gives back while sustaining that growth is herculean. This year has seen 48 new itineraries but also 15 new projects in G Adventures' Planeterra not-for-profit foundation, that creates and supports sustainable tourism enterprises for under-served communities. See gadventures.com.au
A Wilbur Smith heroine with her own private rail coach inspired Rohan Vos to start Rovos Rail, whose Pride of Africa restored Edwardian trains are among the world's most luxurious. Launched in 1989 with four paying customers, the all-inclusive trains run throughout Southern Africa, allowing rail-lovers to travel securely to beautiful but challenging places, bringing tourism dollars to economically stressed countries. Journeys include off-train excursions and game lodge stays. See rovos.com
At 14, Sue Badyari??? went on a family trip to Nepal, sparking a lifelong love affair with the region. In 1986, before computers and the internet transformed adventure travel, Badyari joined World Expeditions, working her way from the reception desk to the CEO's chair. Since taking the helm in 1999, she's grown World Expeditions into a multi-brand operator dedicated to responsible and sustainable travel with the World Expeditions Foundation becoming a pivotal fundraising portal when earthquakes hit her beloved Nepal in 2015. See worldexpeditions.com, tasmanianexpeditions.com.au, australianwalkingholidays.com, utracks.com
What is arguably the world's leading luxury travel brand was doing "authentic" and "immersive", and perhaps even "transformative" before they became modern travel buzz terms. Expensive their product is, but attention to detail and transcendent expertise is why people pay the price. A&K set the bar on luxury travel and Geoffrey Kent is the 74-going-on-50 founder of this company that began in safaris and he still likes to remain involved. Next year, he'll personally host a 50-person, A&K private round-the-world plane adventure with dazzling on-the-ground experiences, gourmet meals and fine wine. See abercrombiekent.com.au
Celebrating its 90th birthday in 2017, APT is a great Australian success story that began when a 24-year-old mechanic, Bill McGeary???, put a bus body on a truck tray and seized an opportunity to transport commuters during a tram strike. Bill's son Geoff McGeary??? joined the business in 1961 and began taking tours to the Outback. Strategic partnerships and acquisitions fuelled expansion and today Geoff McGeary - with his son, Robert McGeary, and daughter, Louise Tandy, at his side - continues to receive accolades and awards for APT, which operates cruises and tours on every continent. See aptouring.com.au
No-one, least of all Darrell Wade himself, imagined that the company he founded with his best mate, Geoff Manchester, would one day look after more than 300,000 travellers a year. Not content with being the world's largest adventure travel company, Intrepid is also a champion of sustainability and has been climate-neutral since 2010. See intrepidtravel.com
Having lived in Japan for the past three decades, Paul Christie opens the country's hidden corners up to travellers through his company's off-the-beaten-track walking tours. As an All Nippon Airways Ambassador, he also advises on the sustainable revival of Japan's countryside. See walkjapan.com
Founded on coach tours in the 1980s, today Scenic is a company that builds its own ships to give its customers a targeted experience. In 2017, Glen Moroney and his company Scenic are excited about Scenic Eclipse - the World's First Discovery Yacht - making her debut in Athens next year, promising safety and innovation never before seen in a ship of this size. As the 228-passenger luxury craft gets built in Croatia, Scenic has been granted membership to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) and Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO). See scenic.com.au
Be honest: while you dream of getting way off the beaten track and visiting remote villages in tranquil surroundings, you only want to do it if you have somewhere luxurious to sleep at night. Jamshyd Sethna??? understands, which is why he launched Shakti Himalaya, offering walking tours amid striking Himalayan scenery, with guests sleeping in luxuriously retro-fitted village houses. See shaktihimalaya.com
In a game of word association, mention expedition cruising and Lindblad Expeditions will be the first to come up. Building on the heritage of his adventure-travel pioneer father, Lars-Eric Lindblad???, Sven-Olof Lindblad??? launched Special Expeditions (now Lindblad Expeditions) in 1979, determined to inspire people to travel responsibly. Since 2004, Lindblad Expeditions has worked in partnership with National Geographic, an alliance bringing guests in direct contact with research projects. Sven's creation of the guest-supported LEX-NG Fund has granted more than $13 million to various projects. See expeditions.com
Dan Hunter, owner-chef of Brae, Birregurra. Photo: Eddie Jim
Alongside his wife and business partner, Julianne Bagnato???, Dan Hunter has taken his locally focused restaurant global. Not bad for a farmhouse outside the tiny town of Birregurra in Victoria's Otway Ranges. But this is no ordinary farm house. It's home to Good Food's top chef for 2016 and ranks number 44 in the 2017 World's Top 50 Restaurants as well as being voted Australia's number one. Brae is true destination dining. That's because Hunter brings his singular vision into every aspect of the business, from what gets planted in the kitchen garden, to the art on the walls, to what vinyl LPs are available for guest to play in the on site accommodation. And of course, the food. See braerestaurant.com
Heston Blumenthal manages to be both ubiquitous and exotic, and in so doing, has become a real force in expanding the culinary vernacular. A bona fide rock star, where other such luminaries have become better known as personalities than chefs, he's still all about the food and both Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and The Fat Duck continue to pull the punters towards Blumenthal's "multi-sensory" approach. "Food is much more powerful when it has a narrative running through it and when it engages someone emotionally," he says. "I believe everyone has a good story in them and anyone who's been to the Duck will know that I love telling stories through my cooking." See dinnerbyheston.com.au; thefatduck.co.uk
When Alla Wolf-Tasker and her husband, Allan, launched the Lake House restaurant at Daylesford outside Melbourne three decades ago, they invented destination dining in Australia. Even more impressively, they are still showing the others how it's done. Now offering luxurious rooms, a treetop spa and even a cooking school, the Lake House remains Australia's best gourmet getaway. See lakehouse.com.au
Celebrity chef, restaurateur and television presenter Rick Stein combined food with travel probably more completely than anyone had ever done before, with trips around the world accompanied by mouth-watering recipes and dishes. He also revolutionised the NSW South Coast with an old motel in Mollymook turned into the fabulous boutique foodie destination Bannisters - inspiring many more similarly stylish developments. With books accompanying each TV series, he divides his time between Sydney and Cornwall in England. See bannisters.com.au
John Morse and Djawa Burarrwanga Chairman of Lirrwi Tourism at the Garma Festival in Arnhem land.
The one feature that truly defines Australia and makes it unique in the world is its Aboriginal people, John Morse has always believed. "To have this 60,000-year-old culture here that's still strong and surviving, it's so terribly precious," he says. "Indigenous tourism is still growing too slowly but with enough support and connections, it's a great plus, as well as helping with understanding and respect." When the Federal Government handed him $20 million to revive the tourism industry after the pilots' dispute in 1989, he took the Aboriginal dance troupe Tjapukai??? on a three-week tour of Europe. Since then Morse has worked with various Aboriginal groups to help them develop and refine their tourist offerings and then to promote them. "It's a profoundly important part of my life," he says.
Andrew Williams has watched occupancy soar in the desert at Ayers Rocks Resort at Yulara in the Northern Territory. To cater to demand, the Lost Camel - used for staff and trainee accommodation since 2011 - will reopen in July as a 100-room 3.5-star hotel. So why are people flocking now? Williams points to $90 million spent on improvements, along with a repositioning of the resort to align with its location in Australia's spiritual heart with indigenous cultural experiences now woven into the guest experience and a focus on Indigenous employment (38 per cent of the resort's workforce is Indigenous). High-profile events, such as astronomy weekends and the epic landscape installation Field of Light, also play a role. See ayersrockresort.com.au
A rendering of the Vessel, designed by Thomas Heatherwick. It will be the centerpiece of the Hudson Yards development's public square. Photo: New York Times
He designed the Olympic torch for the London Games, and the Spun Chair but these days British-born Thomas Heatherwick??? has moved onto larger scale design. His work can be seen worldwide, including the new London double-decker buses, the upcoming "staircase to nowhere" in New York, 1000 Trees, a wooded development in Shanghai, and Cape Town's spectacular Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. Though one, the garden bridge over the Thames, has been halted, this is one designer (he's not a trained architect) who is changing the way we view the world. See heatherwick.com
Where would New Zealand's luxury lodges be without Virginia Fisher? The interiors queen has been fitting out the country's most luxurious accommodations since 1984, and has created many of their signature looks, from Huka Lodge's tartan blankets to the streamlined shapes and pops of colour at Matakauri Lodge. See lodgesofnz.co.nz; hukalodge.co.nz; matakaurilodge.com
The founding partner of Snohetta architects is helping to change the way we experience cities across the world. Snohetta recently transformed New York's Times Square, nearly doubling the amount of space for pedestrians. They're working on a riverwalk in Oregon and a city market in Portland. Last year's extension to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion well and truly established Snohetta as the firm to watch in large-scale public design. See snohetta.com
It's called the MONA effect: the surge in Tasmanian tourism that followed the opening of the Museum of Old and New Art. Having launched Australia's most interesting museum, David Walsh - a former professional gambler - went on to launch the MONA FOMA festival and its midwinter version, Dark MOFO. He's not done yet: next up is a five-star riverside hotel, HOMO. See mona.net.au
Romantic, sumptuous, voluptuous - these words describe the style of French designer Jacques Garcia. Garcia first created a sensation in the 1990s with his swank interiors for Hotel Costes Paris and has since decorated a slew of uniquely beautiful hotels, from La Mamounia in Marrakesh and the NoMad in New York to the hotel ranked number one in the world by Conde Nast Traveler readers, La Reserve Paris. His private home, a 17th-Century chateau in Normandy, Chateau du Champ-du-Bataille, is a showcase of his extensive collection of post-Revolution royal treasures. See studiojacquesgarcia.com; lechateauduchampdebataille.com
Even before boarding Qantas' flagship A380, you might experience the Marc Newson??? touch. Sydney-born Newson, Australia's top design export, created the airline's retro-chic first-class lounges in Sydney and Melbourne. Aboard the A380, Newson's striking aesthetic - embodied in the fluid lines of his famous Lockheed Lounge - is applied to every object from seats through to cutlery, coat hooks and carpets. Newson's latest work includes reimagining Louis Vuitton's iconic trunks as a range of lightweight rolling luggage. See marc-newson.com, qantas.com, au.louisvuitton.com
Imvelo Safari Lodges operates in Zimbabwe.
Why is Zimbabwe, despite its political and social woes, a sizzling hot safari destination? Well, it has amazing wildlife, including Africa's biggest elephant population; it has uncrowded national parks; and it also has a feel-good factor thanks to Mark Butcher's Imvelo Safari Lodges. As well as offering a range of experiences from luxury to bush camping, Imvelo works closely with local communities, leasing their land and ensuring that profits flow back them. See benchafrica.com; imvelosafarilodges.com
Hayley Baillie, daughter of entrepreneur and adventurer Dick Smith, spent her childhood exploring the world alongside her father before working on expedition ships. James Baillie's family was involved with Queensland island resorts, including Heron Island where he met a kindred spirit in Hayley. The Baillies poured their collective passion for travel and a whole lot of business smarts (James Baillie reshaped the portfolio of P&O Australian Resorts) into their own tourism venture in 2003. Lord Howe Island's Capella Lodge launched Baillie Lodges, a collection of luxury wilderness lodges that includes Kangaroo Island's Southern Ocean Lodge and the recently revamped Longitude 131 near Uluru. See baillielodges.com.au
Although hip hotelier David Seargeant retired as group managing director of QT Hotels & Resorts midyear, his legacy lives on in the playful hotel brand he launched upon an unsuspecting travelling public in 2011. With an eye for striking elements drawn from architecture, emerging art, fashion and industrial design, he created quirky destination hotels tailor-made for the Instagram era. The brand's eight-strong portfolio continues to grow, with QT Queenstown opening December 1 and another QT in the pipeline for Perth. See qthotelsandresorts.com
Few people would argue that Ian Schrager is the most influential hotelier of the past 50 years. He has built a dazzling hotel empire, starting with Morgans in New York in 1984, the first-ever boutique lifestyle hotel. Schrager is also responsible for a number of other innovations, such as the first "urban resort" (the Delano Miami and the Mondrian, West Hollywood) and "luxury for all". His hotels are characterised by strong contemporary design, great style and an unpretentious ease. See ianschragercompany.com
Love elephants? Then never, ever, ride one. Not only is the breaking-in process cruel; there are concerns that the popularity of elephant rides will lead to increased poaching of wild animals.
If you want your travel dollar to make a difference, think about where you spend it. Eating at local restaurants and staying at local accommodation, instead of choosing international chains, ups the community benefits.
Heading to Asia? Then pack your own chopsticks. Yes, really. Most cheap-and-cheerful eateries supply free-of-charge disposable chopsticks; just think how much waste that generates each year.
Amsterdam, Barcelona, Dubrovnik, Venice: some of the world's most popular tourist destinations are being loved to death. Give them - and yourself - a break, and consider alternative, less-crowded destinations.
It takes a hard heart to ignore the poverty that is rife in some destinations. However, the ugly truth is that in many countries, criminal gangs run begging rackets. Give your dollars to organised charities instead, where you know they will do good.
Help reduce the tide of plastic waste by travelling with a reusable water bottle. Not every country has drinkable tap water, of course, but you can often refill your bottle with filtered water at your hotel.
We all know that flying is bad for the planet, but only one in 10 passengers invest in carbon offsets. Another way to minimise your carbon footprint: swap the plane for the train. Japanese and European high-speed trains are great options for long-distance travel.
So simple, so brilliant. The 10 Piece Challenge encourages hikers to help remove litter along trails. Sign up at 10pieces.com.au
Here's a scary statistic: 75 per cent of the children in Cambodian orphanages aren't actually orphans. Orphanage tourism has become a big business, one that exploits some of the world's most vulnerable children. Steer clear.
The easiest way to make a difference is by choosing an operator that puts responsible travel at the heart of what they do. Intrepid Travel and World Expeditions are two good choices.
CONTRIBUTORS: Andrea Black, Elspeth Callender, Julietta Jameson, Ute Junker, Nina Karnikowski, Katrina Lobley, Julie Miller, Craig Tansley, Lee Tulloch, Kerry van der Jagt, Alison Stewart and Sue Williams.
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