The 2023 AFAR Travel Vanguard: Trailblazers Revolutionizing the World of Travel

2023-11-10 00:10:32 - Drany Macley Drany Macley, the senior editor of, brings extensive journalism background and over eight years of experience in travel writing and editing to the site, offering practical insights and first-hand knowledge through articles on innovative hotels, backed by a BA in Journalism from Ithaca College.

Embarking on a journey that goes beyond the ordinary, the AFAR Travel Vanguard takes us on a thrilling exploration of organizations that are revolutionizing the world of travel. Imagine a cruise ship pioneering green technologies, a hotel brand dedicated to empowering artists and communities, and a rewilding charity on a mission to restore ancient forests. These are just a glimpse of the remarkable stories awaiting us. Join us as we delve into the inspiring endeavors of the AFAR Travel Vanguard's seven honorees, who are turning the world of travel into a force for good. Get ready to be captivated by their groundbreaking initiatives and discover the profound impact they are making on our planet.

Left: two women sitting near a wall. Right: People paddling down a river in a long canoe.

AFAR Travel Vanguard

The AFAR Travel Vanguard, launched in 2016, celebrates organizations that are using travel as a force for good. This prestigious initiative carefully selects seven honorees, out of nearly 130 nominees each year, who are making a positive impact in the travel industry. These organizations embody the spirit of responsible and sustainable travel, as they prioritize environmental conservation, cultural preservation, and community empowerment.

Panama Tourism

Panama is setting an example for empowering local communities through tourism. As part of its Sustainable Tourism Master Plan 2020–2025, Panama is committed to reducing carbon emissions, protecting marine environments, and educating travelers about their impact. However, the most groundbreaking aspect of Panama's efforts lies in its work with Indigenous communities.

Connecting Communities through Sustainable Tourism Initiatives

Through the launch of SOSTUR (Sustainable Tourism), a network that connects travelers directly with pilot projects in 10 communities across the country, Panama is providing Indigenous communities with access to the tourism market. This innovative approach empowers these communities to develop their own tourism strategies that align with their cultural values and aspirations. By participating in SOSTUR, travelers can engage in authentic cultural experiences while directly benefiting the local communities.

Interior of a guest room at Punakha River Lodge, with wood ceiling and wall of windows

Preserving Indigenous Heritage in Bonllik

A prime example of Panama's work with Indigenous communities is the tourism experience offered by the Naso people in Bonllik, a dense jungle landscape along the border with Costa Rica. The Naso people, considered the last Indigenous monarchy of the Americas, have designed a unique tourism experience that allows visitors to immerse themselves in their culture on their own terms. Travelers can engage in activities such as participating in cacao and banana harvesting, while learning about the Naso people's resilience in the face of colonial violence.


Since 1991, andBEYOND has been a tour and lodging company that places sustainable conservation at the heart of its mission. Starting with one safari property in South Africa, andBEYOND has expanded to 25 lodges across six African countries, all focused on preserving over a million acres of wilderness.

Expanding Conservation Efforts to New Frontiers

andBEYOND's commitment to conservation has led them to explore new corners of the world. After opening their lodge in Chile's Lake District in 2018, they turned their attention to Asia, specifically Bhutan. Bhutan, known for its conservation efforts and sustainable tourism model, may seem like an unconventional choice for a company typically operating in areas threatened by human impact. However, andBEYOND aimed to showcase Bhutan's commitment by providing guests firsthand experiences of the country's conservation practices.

Fostering Local Employment and Architectural Harmony

andBEYOND ensures that their properties benefit the host communities by employing around 80% of their staff from nearby areas. By providing employment opportunities, especially in the hospitality industry, andBEYOND creates positive ripple effects beyond their lodges. To minimize their environmental footprint, the company also incorporates local architectural styles that seamlessly blend with the surrounding environments, allowing their properties to harmoniously coexist with nature.

Eric and Lynnette Dodson laughing together over tea in Baltimore

Visit Baltimore

In response to the challenges faced by both the travel industry and society as a whole, Visit Baltimore, the city's official tourism board, launched the Warm Welcome program in 2021. This initiative aims to create an inclusive environment where all visitors, regardless of their backgrounds, feel welcome and safe in Baltimore.

Promoting Inclusivity and Safety

The Warm Welcome program encourages businesses in the tourism sector to make a pledge to follow a set of inclusive principles. More than 80 hotels, restaurants, museums, and other establishments have already signed up for the program. These businesses not only commit to speaking up against discrimination but also undergo mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion training courses, designed by subject-matter experts from across Baltimore.

Fostering Confidence and Exploration

An exhibition space at 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky, with several artworks

Upon approval, businesses participating in the Warm Welcome program can advertise their membership through storefront stickers. These visual cues provide travelers of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups with renewed confidence to explore the city, knowing that these businesses are committed to their safety and well-being. The program aims to create a vibrant and inclusive tourism atmosphere that reflects the diverse fabric of Baltimore.

21c Museum Hotels

21c Museum Hotels is not your typical hotel brand. Born out of a desire to revitalize historic buildings, celebrate underappreciated cities, empower artists, and inspire social change, they are redefining the concept of hospitality.

Art-Focused Hotels and Community Engagement

At the core of 21c Museum Hotels' brand is a unique blend of hotels and museums. Their properties, scattered across different cities, devote a significant portion of their communal spaces to art exhibitions and community events. These exhibitions touch on themes that resonate with both locals and visitors, sparking conversations and facilitating cultural exchange.

Promoting and Supporting Artists

21c Museum Hotels goes beyond showcasing existing art by partnering with organizations like Artadia, a nonprofit that provides financial support to artists through unrestricted awards. By offering grants in cities where 21c has hotels, they help elevate and draw attention to artists based in less traditional art destinations. This promotes cross-pollination between artists and reinforces the idea that art and culture thrive in all corners of the world.

Singapore Tourism Board

Singapore has emerged as a global leader in sustainable tourism. The Singapore Tourism Board, in collaboration with the government's Green Plan, is dedicated to transforming Singapore into a sustainable city in harmony with nature.

Gardens by the Bay's Cloud Forest, a contemporary greenhouse, with several masked visitors

Becoming a Sustainable Destination

Singapore achieved a significant milestone by becoming the first country certified as a sustainable destination by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). The certification acknowledges Singapore's commitment to strict environmental, economic, and cultural criteria. The city-state's efforts to become a "city in nature" involve the integration of green spaces, rooftop gardens, sustainable transportation, and a focus on innovative solutions.

Pioneering Sustainability in the Hospitality Industry

The Singapore Tourism Board plays a vital role in promoting sustainability within the tourism sector. They have introduced training programs to educate tourism professionals about sustainability practices, aligned hotels and airlines with concrete emissions targets, and spearheaded the campaign for GSTC certification. Individual hospitality businesses are also making significant contributions by implementing sustainable practices, such as the ParkRoyal Collection Pickering, known for its "hotel-in-a-garden" concept, and the Pan Pacific Orchard, Singapore's first zero-waste hotel.

Trees for Life

Trees for Life is a rewilding charity in Scotland dedicated to restoring the ancient Caledonian forest that once covered the Scottish Highlands. Their mission is part of a global movement to revive local ecosystems that have almost vanished due to climate change and human intervention.

Reviving the Caledonian Forest

Thousands of years ago, the Scottish Highlands were a flourishing ecosystem, home to wolves, red squirrels, and beavers. However, today, only 2% of the Caledonian forest remains intact. Trees for Life aims to reverse this decline by planting native trees and reintroducing native species, such as the red squirrel, to their natural habitats. Through their rewilding efforts, they provide opportunities for visitors to connect with nature and actively participate in their restoration activities.

A hillside that's being reforested with trees by the Dundreggan Rewilding Centre

The Dundreggan Rewilding Centre

The Dundreggan Rewilding Centre, located on 10,000 acres of woodland that were once royal hunting grounds, serves as a hub for visitors to engage with nature. Guests can explore a network of trails, learn about the importance of native flora and fauna, and attend educational lectures that highlight the significance of biodiversity. The center also offers multiday volunteer opportunities, allowing individuals to contribute directly to tree planting and wildlife surveying efforts.

Ponant Cruises

Ponant Cruises, a French company, has taken luxury expedition cruising to new heights by combining deep exploration with sustainable practices. Their flagship vessel, Le Commandant Charcot, showcases their commitment to both adventure and environmental preservation.

Setting Sail to the North Pole

In 2022, Le Commandant Charcot made maritime history as the first luxury passenger ship to bring guests to the North Pole. This monumental achievement demonstrates Ponant's dedication to providing extraordinary experiences while safeguarding the fragile Arctic environment. The ship's design and eco-friendly features set a new standard for expedition cruising.

Supporting Scientific Research and Environmental Conservation

Ponant is not only committed to luxurious experiences but also supports scientific research and environmental conservation efforts. The ship hosts scientific expeditions, providing researchers with a platform to conduct vital studies in areas that are otherwise cost-prohibitive. These collaborations allow scientists to gather essential data and raise awareness about ecological, geological, and climate-based research among passengers. By fostering a deeper understanding of the natural world, Ponant aims to inspire a collective responsibility towards its preservation.

A person putting towels out on lounge chairs on a Ponant ship.

Embracing a New Era of Travel

In a world where travel holds the power to shape our perspectives and transform lives, the AFAR Travel Vanguard celebrates those who are leading the way towards a brighter future. Through sustainable initiatives, community empowerment, conservation efforts, and innovation, these honorees are proving that travel can be a catalyst for positive change. As we bid farewell to our journey through their remarkable stories, let us remember the impact we can make as travelers. Let us embrace a new era of travel where every adventure becomes an opportunity to create a more sustainable, inclusive, and awe-inspiring world. Together, we can embark on meaningful journeys that champion our planet, respect diverse cultures, and leave an indelible mark on our shared history. The choice is ours—let's forge ahead and shape the future of travel for generations to come.

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