New perspectives that bring growth
Above Borders is a Copenhagen-based travel company that leads tours in countries considered to be isolated and not typically travelled to by tourists. Their work is geared towards expanding new perspectives and helping people understand cultures other than the narrative that the media negatively portrays.
Can you tell me about yourself and Above Borders? And what exactly do you do?
Jonas: My name is Jonas Andersen. I’m the founder of Above Borders which is a travel company that arranges tours to some of the world’s most isolated destinations. As of now, we have tours in North Korea and Turkmenistan, with more destinations to come. It’s very important for us that all the people on our tours try to understand the country they visit, both in terms of culture and history, but also how the people’s life’s in these countries are.
Often when you hear about these countries, especially a country like North Korea, what is discussed is Kim Jong Un, nuclear weapons and brainwashed people in military parades. But there are 25 million people in this country, who all have an individual story to tell, and that is a huge part of what we want to show to people who travel with us. The stories which rarely get the chance to be told.
When we are on the tour, we try to really give people a different perspective of whatever they have seen in the media or have been told in an attempt to counter the prejudices that exist. Some people think that when they see people walking down the street in North Korea that they are just actors. Other times people see a school and assumes it is representative of all schools in this country, which is not always the case. We have to be aware of standards and how they set frameworks for our perspectives within unfamiliar countries.
What have you achieved as a company so far?
Jonas: Besides being the first Danish company travelling to these destinations with specific group tours, as a company, we have expanded the opportunities to go to these isolated nations. In 2018, North Korea had 30,000 tourists in total in which only 5,000 of them were from Europe. And of course, we are not the first one to bring tourists there, but we approach travelling from a different angle.
For our next tour in October, we will bike on some routes that tourists have never biked before in this country. Through our local partners, we are really achieving some strong partnerships and I am pretty proud of that. The same thing for Turkmenistan, a country which people have heard even less about because they do not have these nuclear weapons and are not in conflict with anyone. It is also a really isolated country with only 12,000 tourists per year, and now we will go explore that country.
What about your service is sustainable?
Jonas: The way we work with sustainability is through helping to promote isolated countries where we really believe communication is far beyond better than isolation. Some of these countries also have had a lot of issues with starvation and lack adequate financial resources, but they will not open to other politics or other market economies. And I know that it can be naive to believe one tourist can change something. However, the partnerships we make, open up possibilities for citizens to start learning about outside of their own borders.
Sometimes when the leaders of the countries communicate, fewer sanctions are being put on countries and trading between nations is opened up, which benefits every country’s economy further proving the importance of communication. Even though our tours are a small scale for one person, the more people we bring the fewer miscommunications will exist.
Why do you think sustainability is important?
Jonas: As a travel company wanting to explore, learn, and understand about the world, there needs to be a world which is actually there. Therefore, we need to improve sustainability in every way we can do because if the world is gone where should we then travel? It is when you start learning about other people and cultures that you understand that even though you think, “oh, it doesn’t matter if I do this small thing”, it will actually affect so many individuals around the world.
Is there one SDG in particular that you are connected to most?
Jonas: The one we are connected to the most is Goal 16, peace, justice, and strong institutions. And also within this is the principle that if you are communicating, creating relationships with people, then you will not go into war in the end. Helping everyone in knowing about everyone, in the long run, then I am sure that we are helping to promote these strong institutions in all sorts of ways.
In addition, we work with Goal 8, decent jobs and economic growth, where we visit a country, we really try to support local products and their culture. For example, when we visit a country, like North Korea, we really enlighten our tourists about what is being produced there and how can they support this production. Of course, sometimes it is also pretty fun to taste local beer, but it is actually also supporting that brewery in their country. And in the long run, if we bring a lot of tourists, then there needs to be some hotel or other accommodation and therefore, we will help businesses. And tourism helps, like has shown in so many countries to provide economic growth.
Do you have any tips for other companies that want to work with sustainability?
Jonas: After learning more about the SDGs we realized that some things we already do as a company are sustainable and we were just unaware of how to put a name to it. On the contrary, we realized some current practices which could easily be tweaked, and then it would be in a game-changer for sustainability.
Every trip we make, we ask people to travel from Denmark to Asia by plane which is really not good for the environment. But after further studying the SDGs, we found out a way we can compensate for this flight. So every time we send a tourist there, we have a mandatory service which partners with someone who covers the carbon footprint equivalent to that flight. Which costs some money to do, but people feel better knowing that they can reduce their carbon footprint travelling with Above Borders, and ultimately have a more sustainable impact in the long run.
My advice for other companies would be to analyze your current practices and identify where you can easily improve some small things. And then focus on the company’s long term goals relating to the SDGs, because it will be the small steps you make which will affect how you lead towards reading the bigger goals.
If you are interested in reading more about Above Borders’ work with the SDGs, see it here: Above Borders.