As the longest year of our lives finally draws to a close, we are beginning to look back through a year littered with extreme emotions. There have been far too many sad farewells, from stories of personal loss to heartfelt goodbyes with long-time colleagues, and leaving behind our lovely Selective Asia office after a period of heavy stress. Thankfully those days in March, spent urgently extracting clients from around Asia, are starting to become a distant memory. Along with the rest of our industry, we had to be quick to adapt. We shut down much of our operation, as did our partners and colleagues across Asia.
Once the dust had settled a little, we found ourselves in the previously rare position of having a lot of time for reflection. Once we began to recover from the March whirlwind and collectively adjusted to being at home, we found ourselves with the chance to take a breath and begin to understand the scale of the challenges ahead. That remarkable summer certainly helped, as did our enviable location between the South Downs National Park and the south coast - Brighton delivered, yet again.
Looking to the horizon
I am extremely proud that Selective Asia grew so much over the last decade, and of the top notch holidays that my team delivered to our very loyal client base. Nevertheless, amidst great steps forward, our direction had grown unclear. I think we lost our connection to our roots as a group of travel enthusiasts. In our efforts to innovate and lead the pack, we said yes to things that we weren’t fully behind, and became less "selective" as a result. We successfully launched new destinations, rode out one or two political storms, and as recently as January 2020 won Wanderlust Tour Operator of the Year (again), but I had hoped that this would be the year we'd turn a corner. In many ways, we did, although hardly in the way I imagined! What became very clear - thank you, hindsight - is that we would have to slow down and press reset in order to ever realise our full potential.
We've taken a good long look at where we were, where we'd gone wrong, and where we want to be. We've spent our time envisioning another way, with a different and more focussed approach. Throughout the summer we've untangled many knots in the way we operate and set ourselves some very demanding challenges for the year ahead - including making the grade as a B Corp business - the process is already well underway and whilst challenging, it feels good. We're discovering a new way forward as a smaller, leaner business with a clearer purpose and vision. For now, whilst the Maldives remains our only suitable destination for a winter escape, we’re growing increasingly confident of a fast-improving situation during the early months of 2021.
How to define "success" has been on my mind a lot in recent months, and the subject of many discussions. What are we striving for? In years gone by, we've seen good sales growth and felt successful. But I can see that in pursuing such targets, we lost our way, and lost sight of what is important.
So as a team we’ve explored, developed and adapted to new ways of working that go far beyond good etiquette on Zoom. Along with re-energising the company with a new adaptive approach, we've straightened up our focus on sustainability. We've always tried to personally travel and create holidays that would travel sustainably: as a business, our focus is now on putting genuine improvement before profits, which means we must return to being more selective. We will continue to support conservation, advocate avoiding over touristed areas where possible, reduce plastics and take responsibility for our carbon use, and work at lowering it all year round. We are committing to focusing not only on the overall environmental impact of our travel, but on concentrated action to help, be that through preserving biospheres and endangered wildlife, or contributing towards the sustainability of local communities.
I recently rewatched David Attenborough’s witness statement of the devastating damage he’s seen during his near-century of life on our planet, and it spurred both anguish and energy in me. Despite the utter destruction we’ve inflicted, what grabbed my attention was his message that it is not a lost cause. In our lifetimes, we can be the change that is so desperately needed, and could see real proof of genuine improvement. While we need wise, forward-looking leadership, we also each need to make sacrifices, but I think we’ll all be very surprised by how enjoyable some of these can be. Rewilding is clearly the way forward. Imagine if Borneo, if Brazil, could follow the lead of Costa Rica, which has returned to 50% wilds from 25% just 25 years ago. We don't have to stop travelling, but we do have to reduce the number of flights we take - just as we can still eat meat if we wish to, but far less, and it must be sustainably farmed.
True, this often means a higher cost point, and that applies to our travels, too. This isn't to say that you must stay at grander properties - far from it - but we must travel with operators that have their eyes open to the negatives, and who are genuinely focused on improving the situation.
Selective Asia began in 2006 as one man’s mission to adapt my backpacker's approach to travel for an older, busier clientele with the same core intuitions and interests. It's now being adapted, redefined and rewilded by fifteen much respected, experienced and invested team members. Wherever this next stage of the journey takes us, I’m inspired and incredibly happy to be working with such a select group of colleagues.
So, roll on next year - we’ve all had quite enough of this last one!