Khiri Runs Authentic and Responsible Travel in Southeast Asia
Earlier this year, the Khiri Travel Group hosted an epic 40-day, five-country tour of Mekong Region countries including Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In describing the journey, Khiri CEO Willem Niemeijer outlined some of the values that have been in the company’s DNA since it opened in 1993: “variety, going local and a liberal sprinkling of days at leisure for guests to venture out on their own." He might have also added responsibility and sustainability. “Travelers are demanding authentic experience now,” said Niemeijer, speaking at the Berlin ITB in March. “They want their travels to be sustainable as well.”
KTG has built an extensive presence with 15 offices in key locations in several Southeast Asian countries plus the Maldives and Sri Lanka. “The grassroots network that Khiri operates is really important to us,” said Kirsten Nasty, the CEO of Asia Transpacific Journeys. “All of those feet on the ground create a thorough knowledge of destination and also reliability.” Asia Transpacific partners with KTG on their Cambodia, Laos and Thailand product lines.
The authentic quality of a Khiri tour relies heavily, as all tours do, on the quality of the guides. The focus Khiri puts on this aspect is evident in the great lengths they go to in training their guides. In Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park, for instance, Khiri guides trained for two months on English skills, group leadership, knowledge of flora and fauna, safety standards, first aid, confidence building and initiative. Each guide completed 200 hours of training.
Sri Lanka represents a relatively new frontier for the company. “We are not going into a period of expanding into a lot of new destinations,” said Niemeijer. “We are more focused this year on improving and consolidating where we are already established. But Sri Lanka is a very hot destination. It offers visitors a great experience, especially in the wildlife aspect.”
KTG’s 14-day “carbon neutral luxury eco-trip” in Sri Lanka visits four national parks using ecolodges, tented camps and hybrid cars. Guests see elephants, leopards, blue whales and get to meet with villagers and forest tribesmen. In Wilpattu National Park guests stay in a tree house, which allows them to spot big cats. They take a boat safari at Gal Oya (where elephants swim from island to island in a lake). They walk with the chief of the Veddas forest dwellers to see medicinal plants, ancient hunting grounds and former cave dwellings. Another highlight is blue whale spotting from Dondra Head near Galle.
Guests stay in green-accredited eco lodges, which have embraced the principle “reduce, reuse and recycle.” Along the way, guests plant trees. For each trip, specific carbon emissions will be calculated using the carboNZero calculator verified by Enviro-Mark Solutions. "The concept of a carbon neutral tour fits perfectly with the values of the local people,” said KTG’s Sri Lanka General Manager, Ruben Derksen. “Living on an island that is so subject to climate change, they are very aware of the importance of the environment. The fact that in 500 BC Sri Lanka created the world's first wildlife sanctuary epitomizes that perfectly."
KTG is also bringing social responsibility into a niche that isn’t directly associated with sustainability. Educational Travel is a strength of the company in countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. Educational travel done well benefits both students and the host communities in for example Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar.
“The local villagers and school children benefit from the visit as the supervised pupils do useful social work such as building a house, toilet facilities or decorating a school nursery,” said Khiri Travel VP Andre van der Marck. Currently Khiri Travel has pledged that 2.5 percent of its total revenue from new educational travel group bookings that visit the region until Oct. 1 will be donated to youth development.
KTG’s Discovery programs are sample itineraries that allow for customizing. In the Central Highlands of Vietnam, one Discovery program highlights the hill tribes of Kontum and its nearby villages. The area is known as "The Space of Gong Culture" where gongs play a central cultural role in the lives of the Bahnar, Sedang, Ede Jarai and other ethnic groups. UNESCO lists this microculture as an "intangible" World Heritage experience. A night in Pleiku town allows guests to see the Rong houses of the Bahnar tribe. In Kontum, guests visit the Catholic seminary beside the black and yellow Bahnar church. The journey also includes an inspection of Dak To town, an area of many battles in the American-Vietnam War. Now there are peaceful rubber plantations with Rong houses owned by the Che minority.
The major cog in KTG’s responsibility is Khiri Reach, a non-profit foundation they founded. In March, Khiri Reach helped the Burmese town of Bagan, which only receives around 34 millimeters of rainfall between January and April each year, with a water well building campaign. The campaign is called, "Water for All in the Bagan Dry Zone." Two wells have been built in Bagan so far. Two are under construction. And at least three more are planned in 2015. The target is 10 in total.
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