A hundred years ago, nature-oriented travel to places like tropical Africa and Asia was often associated with big game hunting. Today cameras have mostly replaced guns as nature-lovers travel to the far-reaches of the globe to see wildlife, experience rugged mountains, and explore remote beaches.
But nature-based travel isn’t necessarily ecotourism — there can be detrimental social and environmental impacts from tourism. While most people associate these problems with mass-market tourism, they can also result from low-volume, high-end travel that fails to respect local customs, supports abusive practices, or encourages wantonly wasteful resource consumption.
However it doesn’t have to be that way. Travel can be a transformative experience, going beyond merely witnessing the sights and sounds of a place. Travel can bring awareness about social and environmental issues, generate benefits for local communities, and spur people to directly support, and even participate in, humanitarian and conservation projects.
Epic Road, a high-end adventure travel company based in New York, embraces this approach. The company partners with non-profit organizations to integrate educational and philanthropic elements to its trips.
“We like to create journeys that focus on exploration and enjoyment while blending in experiences that can broaden our clients’ perspective of humanity and the environment,” the company states on its web site. “Epic Road handpicks exceptional non-profit organizations to partner with to create meaningful and transformative travel.”
In a May conversation with co-founder Marc Chafiian, Mongabay.com learned about Epic Road’s approach to travel.
Mongabay.com: What’s your background and what led you to start Epic Road?
Marc Chafiian: I have a 15-year background in investment management. When I wasn’t working, I traveled as much as possible to fill my curiosity. I realized quickly that the best parts of my adventures were the clarifying moments related to active conservation. Shark tagging, measuring glacial retreat in the Arctic, and satellite tagging giant 600 lb. leatherback turtles in the name of conservation. I was humbled by the beauty and upset by the reality that our children might not get a chance to experience any of it. I was fortunate to participate alongside passionate scientists and receive a live education about the reality of the issues (mass extinctions, plastic garbage destroying our oceans, climate change). There is something different about someone telling you that plastic bags are killing marine life and staring at a majestic turtle the size of two sumo wrestlers and learning that they are endangered because of us. That was it for me; those experiences galvanized me into action. How could it not? I wanted to share these experiences with others so they too would be inspired and join the conservation movement to help determine our collective future.
Mongabay.com: Who is your typical client?
Marc Chafiian: Epic Road’s travelers are passionate open-minded people who love the planet and are looking for luxury experiential travel that goes deeper. Our clients yearn for travel that excites them but also quenches their curiosity and perhaps inspires them. Epic Road’s thought-provoking humanitarian and conservation initiatives provide the opportunity to enrich our traveler’s lives and at the same time it’s all about an adventure. We have multi-generational clients who bring the whole family, couples and friends looking for a luxury safari, and newlyweds seeking a once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon safari that is adventurous and out-of-the-box. We also work with socially conscious companies and charities that want to connect supporters in the US with their international projects abroad or have their management teams experience authentic meaningful travel that motivates them.
Svalbard by Unni Royland
Mongabay.com: There are many luxury nature-oriented tour operators. What makes Epic Road different?
Marc Chafiian: Epic Road provides clients with transformative travel experiences to Africa and the Arctic, redefining the definition of luxury adventure travel. We learn about our client’s interests in humanitarian and conservation issues and incorporate immersive experiences on the ground to contextualize these issues and make it meaningful for all parties. The unique experiences in conservation and preservation can be much more developed then a traditional self or travel agent planned trip. The company’s ethos is to inspire, raise awareness and educate travelers through eye-opening, adventurous journeys that not only impact their lives in a meaningful way, but also create a touch point for transformation down the road. Our aspiration is for our clients to become leaders in the humanitarian and conservation movements. But we’re also all about baby steps. As we like to say at Epic Road, immersion brings inspiration, and that inspiration brings transformation.
Epic Road’s mission is to raise awareness and facilitate a heightened understanding of issues like human/wildlife conflict, species endangerment, malaria prevention, climate change, food scarcity, orphan care, and access to clean water and medical care. Epic Road’s overarching vision is to use luxury adventure travel as a vessel to raise global awareness, inspire change, and spark the fire within our clients, shaping hearts and minds that can determine our collective future.
Lion Brothers by Unni Royland
Mongabay.com: How do you select the non-profits that benefit from your tours?
Marc Chafiian: We start off seeking non-profit partners that are operating in geographical areas of interest. We personally visit and vet them and engage only those that are exceptional. They need to be doing important conservation or humanitarian work in the field and they also need to buy into the approach that the experience needs to be authentic and meaningful. We want to ensure that the focus is on exciting experiences that elevate awareness and inspire so that when our clients return home they can choose how to leverage themselves effectively.
Mongabay.com: How do you vet your local partners to ensure their operations are consistent with your values?
Marc Chafiian: We rely on awesome partners to help us book locally within each country. We don’t go anywhere we don’t know well. We start off looking at partners that have a similar ethos and then we visit them. There is no replacement for visiting your partners and engaging them. We then work closely with them to layer on Epic Road’s signature conservation and humanitarian experiences.
The Serengeti by Unni Royland
Mongabay.com: What’s your favorite destination?
Marc Chafiian: That’s a tough question. It changes all the time. Today, I’m feeling the Serengeti in Tanzania. There is nothing better then going on safari and looking out across the rolling hills and endless plains of the Serengeti. The Serengeti is the Africa of storybooks and documentaries. Wide open savannas, herds of wildebeest and big cats tracking them down. Zebras, elephants, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, giraffes and you. It’s refreshing that places like this still exist.