Q & A with Lesley Schofield, Co-Founder, All Points East, Denmead, Hampshire, UK; also has overseas offices in Thailand and Cambodia. “The Southeast Asia Travel Specialists since 1999.”
WHAT LED YOU AND YOUR BROTHER [CO-FOUNDER] MARK ORD TO SPECIALISE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA?
Mark had been living and working in Southeast Asia researching travel in the region for a number of years. By doing this, he realised he had developed an amazing network of contacts. We first established Gecko Travel which later became All Points East. And now we have these three offices – in the UK, Thailand – where Mark lives - and one in Cambodia. We believe that by specialising in an area we know and both love, we can offer the best holidays to our clients. We take travellers off the beaten track and show them the real Southeast Asia.
I have personally never found a title for this style of travel which I am 100% confident with. “Eco” often has connotations of being overtly didactic and perhaps politicized. We are offering holidays which we hope will have a benefit to those communities we visit and with whom we consider friends, not just business associates. While leading tour groups, we are able to discuss issues surrounding the environment, local communities, and sustainable travel. Most of our customers are not necessarily eco-travellers but are concerned for the places we visit, choose their holidays wisely, and are well informed prior to travel. We hope that by the nature of the way our tours are delivered, the small group approach, and being careful in our selection of hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses, we reinforce the values already held by our customers.
We usually leave choices about charitable work to our tour leaders – they are the ones who visit these communities most often and know what is needed. Our customers often express a desire to help the people they are visiting. We then focus our support around these needs.
An example would be a school we are currently supporting in Ban Yafu (a village in northern Thailand). We sent a couple hundred pounds in January (money that had been generously donated by past customers) to the tour leader who regularly visits this school. She liaised with the school and ascertained that their requirements were for warm blankets, children’s clothing, a computer and a printer. These items were purchased and delivered by her next tour group.
In another example, past donations helped to rebuild a school in Laos, decorate it, and purchase much-need play equipment for their playground. Other donations have been earmarked for helping the displaced Karen people who live in a camp on the Burmese border – and for operations to correct cleft palate birth defects in young children living in Cambodia.
This varies from country to country. We have, as you say, put our thoughts on domesticated elephants on our website. There are a few issues here – first and foremost is the welfare of these majestic creatures. All Points East never has and will never condone any mistreatment of or cruelty toward any animals. However, these elephants have been domesticated for many years; in Asia for centuries they were put to work in the logging industry. As industrialisation has advanced, there is no longer a need for elephants in the logging industry – much like we no longer depend on cart-horses for agriculture here in the UK. It is not practical to release domesticated elephants into the wild, plus there is not enough open space for them.
So, what is the solution? Our view is that a well-kept camp where the welfare of the elephants is foremost can be one viable option. We choose our destinations with much care, and we are happy to see the elephants in the most natural environments as space will permit. We do discuss the pros and cons of elephant visits with all customers prior to departure. It is optional. Those who wish to see the elephants will be given that opportunity, and for those customers who do not wish to see elephants, at no point do we force these visits upon them.
We often base our family tours on our tried-and-tested regular itineraries – if they work, why reinvent the wheel? We treat each family as a tour group on their own and offer them a privately-tailored itinerary based on their preferences. I know putting families together works for some companies, but we feel it can be a recipe for a reality TV show gone wrong. We respect a family’s desire for “quality family time” that can be a challenge back home. Having a guide helps families out in so many unexpected ways. For example, it becomes easier to get kids to sample a local Asian dish if they see it is the guide’s favourite one! We also make recommendations with respect to age appropriateness. In Cambodia, issues can arise with the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields – families with older children may appreciate learning the sad history of the Khmer Rouge regime’s horrors, but it’s not always appropriate for younger children. Moving on to the sunnier side of Southeast Asia, we usually end tours with some beach time.
We currently have three photographers. Gary is a Brit who came on a photographic assignment to Burma for “Food and Travel” magazine, loved it and rejoins us whenever he can; Jeff is a French resident of Phnom Penh, a professional photographer with a passion for getting to the real Cambodia; Chris is an American living sometimes in Thailand, sometimes in Burma, an excellent guide and photographer. All photography tour guides need to have great skills and flexibility with respect to both equipment and travellers.
YOU ALLOW TRAVELLERS ALREADY VISITING A COUNTRY TO JOIN ONE OF YOUR TOUR GROUPS, HOW DOES THAT WORK?
Anyone is welcome to join us on Day 2 of any itinerary – tours are priced with this in mind and offer a “without flight” option. Many of our customers who are not based in the UK use this option. We also offer tour extensions, and these can be taken before or after a tour. In general, we keep tours to two or three weeks in length so that people can fit the tour within their annual leave time. By offering extensions to travellers who may be retired or may just have more time available, we can serve them, too.
Difficult to say, there are so many - the first time 15 years ago I sat on the banks of the Mekong River on the night of my birthday looking across from Thailand to Laos, knowing I’d be there the following day – that was magical. The first time I saw daybreak at Angkor Wat [Cambodia]– a truly Zen moment. Taking some quiet moments to myself at the Killing Fields – emotional. But mostly I like to look ahead, and I am getting soooo excited about visiting Burma [Myanmar] this November!
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