19 Aug 2021

Keith Sproule: ‘Again and again, I see that travel can indeed be transformational.’

Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy's executive director on nature-based tourism, ‘refrigerator memories,’ consciously choosing to travel and making a difference in host countries.

Photograph of Keith Sproule

Keith Sproule manages a portfolio of strategic investments with partner communities in every country where A&K has an office.  He has served as a senior advisor to government ministries on three continents, with long- and short-term consulting assignments in southeast Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, North Africa, the Middle East and Southern Africa. 

In our age of increasing ESG, or environmental, social and governance, consciousness, why is philanthropy important for luxury travel/tourism entities like yours? 

If we expect communities living on the edge of wilderness to co-exist with wildlife, they must benefit from nature-based tourism.

Abercrombie & Kent was built on the philosophy of integrating sustainable practices into a triple bottom line of environmental, economic, and social responsibility. We believe passionately that sustainable tourism offers the best hope of protecting endangered places and ensuring local communities benefit from their natural heritage, by creating jobs, providing educational opportunities and introducing guests to projects that foster environmental stewardship, alleviate poverty and preserve cultures.

There is a dawning realisation on the part of the travel industry as a whole to protect the natural and cultural inheritance travellers want to experience, there is a need to give back.  We are definitely in the midst of a transformation toward greater equity and sustainability. We have an opportunity to fulfil a promise of benefit to the communities that host our guests. They are giving up the right to use their land to invite travellers into their communities and are making a choice to co-exist with tourists and the tourism industry.

For Abercrombie & Kent, philanthropy is part of the DNA of our company, and we have 46 projects in 24 countries to that demonstrate our commitment. Our guests want to learn about how people live in the places they visit, and our philanthropic investments make that connection, becoming an integral part of their travel experience. 

Tell us more about how you integrate those experiences into your guests' travel itineraries. 

Let me tell you about what I call ‘refrigerator memories’. Our guests think they will photograph beautiful temples or other sites on their trips and put those pictures up on their refrigerators. But the pictures that ultimately end up on their refrigerators tend to be the days they spent at the schools and health clinics we’ve built, or the bike enterprise programmes we’ve helped local communities start. We truly believe that partnering with the local communities is critical to sustain the fabric of the diverse destinations we visit.  

One of my favourite stories is about the experience of about 40 quite successful trial lawyers who travelled together to Arusha, Tanzania.  More than a decade ago, Abercrombie & Kent funded the construction of a primary school designed to meet the needs of children with special needs in the Ilboru community. We later built a secondary school and in partnership with Tanzania’s Ministry of Education, specially trained teachers work at this facility. When we brought this group of trial lawyers to the school, they saw that ladies were cooking with wood to make the morning porridge and afternoon tea. The group donated money to build a brand-new kitchen and dining hall. This was not only an amazing gesture, but I imagine that it created a lot of refrigerator memories for these lawyers. Again and again, I see that travel can indeed be transformational.   

What affect did the pandemic have on Abercrombie & Kent? 

For one thing, our guests had time to think about their values as well as the ‘bucket list’ trips they wanted to take. We found that they emerged thinking less about the thread count of the sheets and more about what the companies they choose to travel with support. The enquiries about our commitments as a travel company increased a great deal.  

During this time, we also re-positioned our philanthropic commitments to respond to pandemic needs for emergency food relief, PPE and other essentials. Our core mission to improve lives and livelihoods in the communities where our guests travel remains intact. We are committed to programmes focused on education, conservation, health, and enterprise, and the growth of economic opportunity in our partner communities. 

What advice would you give to other tour operators about their philanthropies? 

It’s fine if your commitment to giving back is a cheque. But if you are going to commit to making an investment, you have to be sure you are not doing it at just a surface level.  You can partner with other organisations or NGOs on the ground, but the fundamental emphasis needs to be the conviction to follow-through on the investment, in good times and bad. These communities welcome your guests and in return, there should be a little equity – giving back so the local community sees that tourism is a contributor to their livelihood.  

Given that, what is your advice to travellers? 

For a traveller, it’s important to choose your tour operator carefully because your choices make a difference. Consciously choose a responsible tour operator and a destination committed to sustainability, review the itinerary to ensure that you will have real engagement with your hosts. Those special moments take time and effort to design and build into an itinerary. Very rote itineraries are not going to provide this.   

How did you get your position at Abercrombie & Kent? 

I got to know Geoffrey Kent when I served as the first ecotourism advisor to the Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s. We were working on getting foreign tourists to travel into the kingdom. We stayed in touch. When I was returning to the states from Namibia, where I spent five years as the tourism business advisor to the World Wildlife Fund, we talked, and he said he had this philanthropy position available. We sat together and discussed how we would do this.   

When did you know you had a passion for travel and how did that lead to a career in it? 

I always had an innate curiosity. When I was 18, and before I went to college, I bought a People’s Express (airline) ticket to London. Soon I was on a boat to Tunisia, I hitchhiked around Europe and had some amazing adventures. My personal passion has been at the intersection of conservation, community development, economic development and tourism. I was fortunate to get a master’s degree in economics and a Fulbright scholarship to study in Belize. Along the way, I began to see how tourism could be used as a tool for economic development. 

What’s left on your bucket list for travel destinations? 

I’m curious to get to the ‘stan’ states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and so forth. I’m sad to say that I’ve never been to Bhutan or Nepal. Those are places that are definitely on my agenda.