Stay at White Desert in Antarctica to explore the continent's ice tunnels.

Treading Lightly

BY DON NICHOLS | Photo by Martin Hartley

The United Nations has declared 2017 the year of sustainable tourism. You might be asking what some of your best options are if you want to embrace this type of responsible travel. To help you out, we turned to Matthew Upchurch, the chairman and CEO of Virtuoso, one of the leading networks specializing in luxury and experiential travel, with more than 11,400 luxury travel advisers in the U.S. and across the globe. We asked this bona fide expert where he would most like to travel next - for leisure, not work - with this idea of sustainability in mind. Here, his personal wish list for him and his family, and they'll be fortunate enough to experience at least two of the destinations this year. Maybe your paths will soon cross with Upchurch or his clan somewhere in the world - or maybe even out of it.

"It's the only continent I've not visited. We have great cruise partners that call on the White Continent, and it's one of the best and most accessible ways to explore and enjoy this fascinating corner of the globe. But White Desert, a small community of huts recently refurbed to become more luxury focused, has me ready to make the trek. White Desert has to fly in all materials and provisions from Cape Town, and the same goes for cleanup after guests leave; all waste is flown back out, which ensures they operate on a zero-impact policy."

Some of White Desert's other sustainability practices: Uses photovoltaic solar power to charge laptops, satellite phones, and cameras. Has solar heaters for the hot-water system and experimental solar-powered air heaters for heating all pods.

What he'd do there: "Exploring the surroundings is reason enough to go, but I'm tempted by the overnight excursion to the South Pole, which includes a prop plane ride, plus a trek in some daunting temperatures. You can even mark the occasion with a special Bremont timepiece engraved with the date you made the visit. That's a pretty cool souvenir!"

About White Desert: Operates in November and December of each year - January and February, weather permitting - and accommodates 12 guests in six fiberglass pods recently upgraded with luxury fabric headboards, Saarinen chairs, fur throws, and extended en suite bathrooms. Guests gather in two other pods - a dining room and a combination lounge and library.

411: From $10,400. 011-44-7740-423571;

(going there this year)
"My family's must-see beach destination in 2017 is the Brando on Tetiaroa island in French Polynesia. Marlon Brando bought this private island in 1967 after filming Mutiny on the Bounty nearby. As his personal home, he was drawn to it because he felt closer to nature, and he dedicated his time and resources to preserving the island's natural beauty, biodiversity, and cultural heritage, making it the model for sustainability. The resort upholds Brando's vision."

Some of the Brando's sustainability practices: Has implemented an array of eco-friendly innovations, including a seawater air-conditioning system that uses cold water from the ocean's depths to cool all of the resort's buildings, reducing energy demands by nearly 70 percent. Also, has built an eco-station on the island at which scientists lead research into sustainable interdependence.  

What he'll do there: "With two active boys who are learning to love the outdoors, we're looking forward to trying snorkeling and paddleboarding on these still-pristine waters."

411: From $2,544. 011-689-40-866-300;

"Without question, suborbital space sits at the top of my wish list. I became a Virgin Galactic ‘Founder' in 2006, which effectively means I will be one of the first 84 people to enjoy this experience when it begins operation. I'm not a thrill-seeker or a Trekkie, but I am a huge advocate of the pioneering spirit and that's exactly what Galactic embodies. Everyone who has ventured into space - fewer than 600 people - has said that seeing the Earth's curvature from that vantage point changes your life; suddenly it brings the Earth's fragility into very clear focus. The ability to see it for myself has been a driving factor in my decision to participate in suborbital space tourism. As a travel enthusiast, I can't think of anything better than going to infinity and beyond."

Some of Virgin Galactic's sustainability practices: More environmentally friendly launches than traditional space launches because they're air launches, not ground ones, and therefore require less fuel and produce fewer emissions. Virgin Galactic's ultimate mission includes not only transporting passengers but payload such as satellites for other organizations, which reduces the number of launches and the overall environmental impact that comes with them.

What he'll do there:
"As passengers, we will experience two or three minutes of weightlessness, and in total silence, since they will cut off the engines during this part of the flight. The craft's cabin is designed so that all you do is unbuckle the seat belt, and then you can float around and look out the large windows. While two or three minutes may not seem like a long time, I've done a Zero-G flight where you get 20 to 30 seconds of weightlessness during each parabola, and loved it. This will feel like a far longer amount of time."

411: From $250,000.

(going there this year)
"Last year I met with Rory Hunter in Hong Kong and was captivated by the vision he and his wife, Melita, share for Song Saa. They set out to ensure their slice of heaven in Cambodia's Koh Rong Archipelago was one of the world's most sustainably sound resorts in the world, and they've done it! Song Saa sets new standards in environmental protection for sustainability, community development, and luxury accommodations."

Some of Song Saa's sustainability practices: Has created Cambodia's first marine reserve, with income alternatives developed to replace locals' lost revenue opportunities in that area. Built a solid-waste management facility in the largest settlement nearest the resort; the facility includes a sorting area for recyclable materials, composting area for organic wastes, and a well supplying water to clean equipment.

What he'll do there: "My kids are most excited for the rain-forest encounter and marine safari, both of which highlight the natural beauty of the islands and surrounding area. My wife, Jessica, and I are passionate about the sunrise yoga and the traditional Buddhist blessing ceremony they've arranged with local monks on our behalf. Both create a sense of peace and appreciation."

411: From $1,098. 011-855-23-989-012;

Sustainable tourism isn't just about addressing environmental issues. It's also about respecting the needs of local communities and helping locals thrive along with their cultures and traditions. That's why these destinations also make Upchurch's must-experience list.

"Africa has held a piece of my soul since my father purchased Percival Tours and helped open up tourism in Africa during the early 1960s. I was fortunate enough to spend many of my childhood summers there, even being made an honorary policeman by the village force in Kasane, Botswana, at age 11.

"In 2013, Jessica and I helped establish the Virtuoso-Upchurch Learning Centre, a facility dedicated to special- needs children outside of Nairobi, Kenya, and a project developed through one of our partners, Micato Safaris, and its AmericaShare charity. Tourism, at its core, has the ability to help raise up people. AmericaShare is a prime example of cultural sustainability because you have to support the people of that land in order for tourism to successfully continue. Micato's community support combined with the research, conservation, and anti-poaching efforts of some of our partners, such as Wilderness Safaris, work in tandem to make sure that both the people and the continent's wildlife are protected and allowed to prosper."

What he'd do there: "I'm eager for my kids to experience the diversity of people, cultures, and wildlife that southern and eastern Africa offer. Wilderness Safaris operates some of Africa's eco-friendliest camps, and whether it's watching the parade of elephants as they trek to their watering hole past its Kings Pool camp in Botswana or witnessing the great wildebeest migration in Kenya, Wilderness ensures its guests have a front-row seat. They say, ‘You leave Africa, but it never leaves you.' It's true and I'm excited for my kids to feel it, too. It will be the loudest silence they've ever heard!"

"The capital is close to my heart; I spent my first 12 years here, and it helped shape who I am today. I have a deep appreciation for the people, their pride, and their culture, and I was happy when UNESCO chose to designate the cuisine of Mexico as part of its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Mexico City, in particular, is enjoying a thriving culinary scene and is now home to some of the world's best restaurants."

On the Upchurch dining list: "Quintonil from chef Jorge Vallejo, which grows herbs, flowers, and infusions on its rooftop and vegetables in nearby Xochilmilco, Hidalgo, and Estado de México; and chef Eduardo Garcia's Maximo Bistrot Local, which uses fresh ingredients selected daily from local markets. Both chefs embrace the farm-to-table concept; not because it's trendy, but because it's the best means of preparing and preserving dishes that represent their country."


As Virtuoso's top exec, Upchurch often fields the same question when people first meet him: Given the explosion of travel websites, aren't travel agents a dying breed? He counters such a claim with stats like these:
• Virtuoso's network of advisers booked $15.5 billion of travel in 2016, up from $14 billion in 2015
• Virtuoso saw a 26 percent increase in its number of advisers between 2014 and 2015.

Upchurch offers up a litany of reasons it pays to use an adviser, including:
• An adviser has access to rates, special amenities, and products not available to the public. Virtuoso values the amenities it has negotiated for its clients at $450 per stay.
• Even though fees are now common in the industry, using an adviser will likely still save you money because of the special rates a network such as Virtuoso negotiates, save you time, and deliver greater value.
• An adviser will help you devise a Plan B if something goes wrong on a trip, ensuring you waste a minimum of your precious vacation time.


"Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities." - United Nations World Travel Organization

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