FTA 2017 Routes of Faith I - Page 10

going further WALKING THE FOOTSTEPS OF HISTORY Tell me a little about one of your tours. Church: One that we launched in November 2016 was to the Sultanate of Oman. As far as tourism is concerned, it has been a very upmarket resort destination, with very few people going there. However, it’s got some wonderful historical sites: from the “beehive” tombs [at Al-Ayn] to palaces and mosques. We’ve put together a really fascinating seven-day tour. It’s everything from beaches to sinkholes to 3,000-meter mountains. It’s a really stun- ning country. It has four UNESCO sites, and we go to three of them Why did you decide to build tours around UNESCO World Heritage sites? Church: I did some work for UNESCO about 10 years ago. We were looking at the work UNESCO did: how it was funded, how they desig- nated the UNESCO World Heritage sites. And I’ve always had this very keen interest in how—once a site is accredited as a World Heritage site—that site and region changes. Is it always for the better? Or is often for the detriment of the site? There are 1,052 designated sites throughout the world. It’s also the most well-known [historical] designation in the world. It was an ideal thing for us to attach ourselves to, and if you take a country as a whole and start to look at the UNESCO sites, it gives you some sort of idea of the heritage of the country and where the culture comes from. [The sites] give you a good indication of where to start if you want to get into the country. Now, all of our tours include UNESCO World Heritage sites, however, apart from that, they all include a large number of additional archaeo- logical or historical sites as well. How do you go about selecting the sites you travel to? Church: We have selected the countries by our ability to create a tour that would be fairly unique. We might be able to get unique access, or we have knowledge of people who work for UNESCO on the ground, which helps us greatly with our guides. The actual design can take quite a long time, as long as a year or 18 months. We’ve got two or three tours lined up to launch in 2017 that we haven’t quite gotten the details correct yet, and we won’t launch them until we’re satisfied that everything is in place. We often hear that travelers want authentic, local experi- ences. What does crafting them look like for you? Church: We tend to avoid the main flow of a tourist attraction and find other ways to view it. Beehive tombs in Oman We’ve been blessed with having a number of colleagues within these areas who know the places. Their families have been there for generations, and they know the back roads. They know which gates to approach the Taj Mahal, which route to use to get to Machu Picchu. They know Stonehenge is great, but you’ll queue for two hours to get in. However, we know where there are old neolithic tombs that you can actually go in within a half-hour walk. It’s using the knowledge of our local partners. That’s what we pride ourselves on: the fact that we do keep this— and it’s a very over-used word—sustainable. We heavily rely on the local providers. Our local partners work with us to provide us with this unique access and knowledge. That’s one of the key things. As UNESCO raises the profile of these heritage sites, how do you balance that with fragility? Church: That is such a difficult question. In Agra, they’ve had smog for the last 20 years, which has been introduced by heavy traffic. So now, for a mile and a half around the Taj Mahal, you can only get there by electric vehicles. Is that a deterrent? Yes, but it’s also good for the locals. They’re no longer breathing these fumes. However, measures like that take years to clean the air. For us, the sustainability key is to use as much local enterprise as we can. We use family-run boutique hotels, which keeps money in the area’s economy and provides jobs for locals. We use local restaurants, and we actively encourage our guests to partake in local food, to keep it all in the economy. All of our guides are locally sourced, [as are] our drivers and transportation. The only thing where the money goes out of the country is with the airlines and our booking fees. Apart from that, I can confidently say, where possible, the large majority of the cost the clients are paying stays within that community they’re visiting. To learn more about Battered Suitcase visit battered-suitcase.com. Reach Richard Church at [email protected] Richard Church Battered Suitcase, a Gloucestershire, England- based tour operator and Faith Travel Association member, incorporates UNESCO World Heritage sites in its tour offerings that cover 32 countries worldwide. Gabe Webb of NTA’s Courier magazine caught up with Richard Church, the company’s founder, who shared his thoughts on packaging these iconic places and keeping his tours sustainable.