Photo Courtesy of Big Five Tours & ExpeditionsAshish Sanghrajka, almost from birth, had his DNA linked to the tourism and travel industry through his father Mahen Sanghrajka, who founded Big Five Tours & Expeditions. Initially Big Five began as a safari operator in East Africa 36 years ago, but in 1985, the Sanghrajka family and the company relocated to the United States. Since then, Big Five has opened other offices internationally, garnering multiple awards from Travel & Leisure, Virtuoso, and National Geographic Adventure and National Geographic Traveler, to name a few.
Ashish joined the family business in 2002, first as Director of the Asia product, and then as Vice President of Sales and Partner Relations, before ascending to his current post as President in 2008. In that amount of time, he has seen many changes in the industry, as Big Five has become synonymous with highly customized, boutique, eco-sensitive luxury travel experiences, those that Ashsish defines as transformatory, emotional gifts that will last in the traveler's awareness always.
I recently interviewed Ashish and asked him about the evolving and redefined meaning of luxury, and how Big Five is reflecting these cultural shifts.
JustLuxe: How do you see the idea and the reality of luxury evolving, and how has Big Five maintained its identity during this change?
Ashish Sanghrajka: Well, we know that the luxury travelers have returned, and as usual, they have demanded more of the same three things they always have: authenticity, transparency, and value. All these aspects of travel connect somehow to the emotional connection travelers are searching out when they travel. They know and we know their time is not free, so they choose us be use they know we can provide truly unique experiences within the high-end travel context.
JL: Do you believe then that a Big Five travel experience is unique in that it combines with the emotional as well as educational aspects of travel?
AS: Yes, we do. Our trips are indeed unique, and are not commodities. Right now, luxury is defined by many things: time well-spent, seamless travel experiences shared with family, the creation of great memories that can be relived throughout a lifetime — those connections are emotional. In many cases, people who call us initially have a slight idea of what they want on their trip. If they can write down three sentences, we can propose ten pages of exceptional experiences.
JL: So, say I want to go to Belize to see some Mayan ruins. What kind of high-end travel experience could you provide?
AS: Belize is an interesting choice, as we have recently been asked by the government to help them redefine much of their travel identity. As you may know, Belize has fascinating, and not often traveled to, Mayan ruins. So we have created travel experiences that include traveling to the ruins of Xunantunich, accessed by a short crossing of the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry, that leads to the temples. The entire site is about 1,400 years old, and is located on a natural limestone ridge where you can see into Guatemala. Later that day, the travelers receive spa treatments, or have a session with a genuine Mayan Shaman. Then, the next day you could go into the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, also known as the ATM tour.
You must cross three rivers, or you can tube or you can kayak, but you will eventually get to this cave, in the heart of the Belizean rainforest. This cave was a sacred place to the Maya of Belize, who first began to use the entrance during the early classic period. In later years the Maya traveled deeper into the cave to conduct their ceremonies. The ATM cave system consists of a series of chambers, ending in a large Cathedral cave where sacrificial ceremonies once took place. Then, after this you can go snorkeling and diving, as the Barrier Reef is the longest unbroken reef in the world, stretching 200 miles and spanning the entire length of the country.
JL: From just this description, it seems Big Five is narrowing, rather than expanding, the interest niche of high-end travelers. Can you discuss this?
AS: Yes, if what you mean is that our tours are not for everybody, that's correct. Those who travel these days are barraged with thousands of travel options, usually created for many people at a time. But we believe, as tour operators, if you are everything to everyone, you will be nothing to no one. We like to keep our groups small, focused, educated and excited about where they are going. We also seem to attract those with a true eco-sensitive mindset, yet those who also want the best in luxury services also.
JL: How can you do both? How can you expand a more global, eco-sensitive awareness, provide luxury amenities and service while traveling in, for example, Africa, a complex country to say the least.
AS: I was born in Kenya, and I know the issues of Africa and those who travel there. We want our travelers to sense the mystery and the cachet of not only seeing the animals, but getting to the Maasai, and learning some of what they know, as stewards of the African bush. So, many of our travelers become bush experiencers by staying in African conservancy camps, called Porini camps, run by Maasai who in turn know the African bush better than anyone. The camp within the conservancy is small and set up on the lines of the traditional safari camp, and all the Porini camps are run on environmentally sound principles, and designed to have minimum impact, with no permanent structures, using solar power for electricity and heating water with special eco-friendly sustainable charcoal briquettes.
The local Maasai work in conjunction with Porini and the local community benefits directly through education, medical clinics, and fees paid to the community trust. I am convinced that these small private conservancies offer one of the best solutions to help save Africa's wild places and the animals that inhabit them for the future generations. They offer safaris that are, by virtue of the small number of visitors at any one time, more personal and satisfying.
The camps are usually adjacent to or near a national park, which helps increase the buffer zone between the animals and the human community. What makes them even more valuable is that they work hand-in-hand with local communities, offering them real opportunities for better lives — through education, medical clinics, employment and fees paid to a community trust — while helping them to preserve the cultural integrity of tribes such as the Maasai and Samburu.
These experiences define authenticity and at the end of the day, true travel value, with eco-sensitivity, all with our trademarked White Glove Service. We believe we are helping create a new global awareness of connectedness, where no man (or woman) is an island. The history of the Maasai, the Mayan, and other civilizations is our history. In travel, the emotional, the educational and the historic experience become one: it all works together.
Belize Barton Creek Mayan Caves
Breakfast Served in a Tree, Kenya
Maasai Warriors Escort Guests on Bush Walks
Belize Ka'ana Exploring on Horseback
Reception Tent at Amboseli Porini Camp
Belize Ka'ana Fire Deck