“Do people really need more inspiration to travel? They
should start staying home more, learn more about their neighbors and give the
planet a chance to heal.”
That sentiment was written by “Lola” in the comments section
of a New York Times travel blog under a blurb announcing the publication of
Geoffrey Kent’s autobiography, “Safari: Memoir of a Worldwide Travel Pioneer”
It’s hard to argue against the admonitions of either “love
thy neighbor” or “protect thy planet,” but I doubt many would agree with Lola
that it’s an either/or proposition in regard to travel. It’s entirely possible
to support these virtues and take a vacation.
But the fact that Kent, the CEO of Abercrombie & Kent,
would inspire such a reaction is not completely surprising. His life combines
adventure, over-the-top luxury, environmentalism, celebrity, exploration,
wowing the uber-wealthy, innovation and business shrewdness.
He can speak passionately — and advocate effectively — on
behalf of endangered animals and concurrently ensure that his one-percenter
passengers never feel threatened. I do not doubt that he is careful, always, to
recycle his guests’ empty tins of caviar.
Kent does not appear to exhibit the guilt that privilege
sometimes engenders, and that is in many ways what makes him a fascinating
personality. He will raise environmentalist eyebrows by flying a private jet
full of millionaires to, quite literally, the ends of the earth, but then make
a point to provide a platform for one of his billionaire guests, Ted Turner, to
underscore the need for sustainable practices before a collection of global
CEOs assembled by the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Last week, I had lunch with Kent at Steve Wynn’s Encore in
Las Vegas on the day of Kent’s book launch party at Virtuoso Travel Week. He
had recently been quoted in several media outlets, including this one, for his
reaction to the shooting of Cecil the lion and had recounted his feelings after
being encouraged to hunt an elephant at the age of 15. Killing the animal, he
said, horrified him and turned him against shooting wildlife with anything
other than a camera.
He loves to tell first-person stories involving the global
social elite; he regaled me with a tale about being called to arrange a plane
on short notice for a stranded Bill Clinton and Sting so they could try to
complete a trip to Borneo to see orangutans.
But he also demonstrates sensitivity to the complex problems
ordinary Africans face in preserving their wildlife. “It has to start from the
bottom up, not us telling them what to do,” he said.
He can rightfully take credit for helping to protect
Uganda’s gorilla population in a scheme that also funnels about a million
dollars a year to local communities, and he worked with fellow Kenyan and
former classmate Richard Leakey, the anthropologist, to outlaw hunting in Kenya
To accomplish that, he points out, there had to be an
alternative income source from wildlife: tourism. As a result, “not much was
missed when hunting was banned,” he said.
So take that, Lola.
While Kent’s concern for animals is authentic, he does not
pretend it is entirely altruistic.
“It’s possible that in 10 years, we will lose all the
rhinos,” he said. “Cheetah will be next. Wild dogs are on the edge. Elephants,
maybe 20 years. Lions are being poisoned and killed. If you go to Masai Mara
[National Park in Kenya], and all you see is cattle and an occasional elephant,
the safari business is dead.”
As for Africans, he said, “We need to look at wildlife like
the Saudis look at oil. People still poach rhinos and get away with it, but if
someone came and started pumping oil in Saudi Arabia without permission — well,
it just couldn’t happen. That’s how African governments need to look at their
Animals are central to his business, he continued: “Where
will A&K expand next? Wherever there is wildlife. Think of it this way: Why
did Steve Wynn go to Macau? It’s where gamblers are. It’s the same principle.”
It’s easy for people in the centers of American and European
commerce and arts to feel a bit chauvinistic about their importance, but it has
always struck me that people living in seemingly remote corners of the world
can make a huge impact. James Norman Hall caught the world’s attention when,
living in isolated Tahiti, he published “Mutiny on the Bounty” in 1932. And his
son Conrad, raised in French Polynesia, became a multi-Oscar-winning
Kent is among Kenyans of a certain age who have made a
worldwide impact; Leaky and primatologist Jane Goodall are among the others. We
discussed why this might be, and Kent concluded that post-colonial events were
likely the catalyst.
“Richard [Leaky] and I had family farms that were taken
away,” he said. “If not for that, I might have lived happily and anonymously as
The paradoxes embodied in Geoffrey Kent — unapologetic bon
vivant/spokesperson for endangered animals/first-mover in fragile territory/environmentalist/peerless
self-promoter — will likely continue to spur reactions such as Lola’s.
But her concern for the planet, which I believe is shared by
a rising percentage of the population, demands attention and respect from the
industry. If she challenged your autobiography, how would your life and
practices stand up?
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and
follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/awtravelweekly.