“For me, Gaia is about walking the talk, joining the dots between the beautiful venues and activities that operators have developed worldwide and the people who would enjoy and benefit from those experiences. At the same time, we wish to contribute towards making travel a more conscious industry worldwide” – Joanna Tomkins, Founder of Gaia Conscious Travel
Gaia Conscious Travel is an international online travel agency geared at the ever-increasing community of mindful travelers. Founded in 2016 by Joanna Tompkins, Gaia Conscious Travel offers a unique selection of travel experiences that enhances the traveler’s sense of connection with the social or natural environment visited and with themselves. Each travel experience is classified and searchable in categories and also placed under three main collections: People, Nature and Life.
I had the opportunity to interview Gaia’s founder, Joanna, to learn more about the mission behind Gaia Conscious Travel. Here is what she has to say.
Me: Tell me more about your background. You were born in the UK, moved to France and travel has always been a huge part of your life. What has traveling the world taught you?
Joanna: Besides the UK and France, I also lived for 15 years in Spain. Now I have been living in South Africa for 8 years. Life traveling versus holiday traveling has made me flexible, especially as I have travelled from North to South. It has taught me that there is not one way to do things. The industrialised world’s thought patterns have told us that maximization is intelligent, that profitability is the only way, but more ancient cultures are wiser as they have a quintessential and emotional intelligence that allows Gaia to thrive and all beings to be at their fullest. That I have learned from moving South.
On a personal level, at times one can live in the present moment, absorbing past experiences, quietly watch things unfold. On the other hand, when the vibration is high and the life cycle is right, we can dream high and manifest energetically to make things evolve positively for the beautiful planet that we live on. We have the freedom of choice, the responsibility to live that dance.
Me: When did you start Gaia Conscious Travel and what was the inspiration behind it?
Joanna: I could see that there is a gap between what people talk about and their deepest concerns, around their spirituality, their health, their feeling of belonging, etc, on the one hand, and the travel options available. I believe that we can travel taking those life goals with us, gaining more consciousness as we travel and having a more positive impact on the places we visit.
Me: What does the name Gaia mean?
Joanna: In Greek mythology Gaia was the mother goddess who presided over the earth. More recently, the Gaia hypothesis, developed by scientists in the 1970s also known as Gaia theory or Gaia principle, proposes that “organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet. Basically, all is connected.
Me: What differentiates you from other travel organizations? (i.e. Describe your focus on conscious travel and your conscious travel principles).
- People: Travel that respects culture and traditions and fosters authentic interaction and greater understanding between travelers and hosts and travel that has financial benefits for the host community and operates on the principles of fair trade.
- Nature: Travel that minimizes negative environmental impacts and, where possible, makes positive contributions to the conservation of biodiversity, wilderness, natural and human heritage.
- Life: Travel mindfully at all times, living every moment in the present and sharing your consciousness with others
Traveling by the conscious travel ethos is one of the most direct and personal ways you can make a difference to some of the biggest issues affecting our world: poverty and peace. Be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem – and have the time of your life doing it.
In a nutshell “conscious travel” for us is a bit like soulful ecotourism. We focus on Experiences with a capital E, as travel can really allow us to exacerbate our senses and give and receive fully, stripping off our routines and the trips and traps of our daily lives.
We are developing a catalogue of Experiences, starting in Africa – where the first travelers also originated! – and gradually adding new destinations.
But we also work on tailor-made itineraries, which allow us to cater to the travel goals of individual like-minded travelers. We are an agency, so we are not directly operators of our tours, but we have a personal contact with the operators of all the venues and the accommodations that we include.
Me: Why did you decide to categorize your trips based on three main collections: People, Nature and Life? And what are some examples of trips you offer in each Collection?
Our Experiences with a capital E will allow you to connect fully with Nature, People or your inner self (Life). Those are our 3 Collections. So if you are going on an immersion hike through some of the wonders of Pondoland in South Africa for example your trip will fall under Nature, if you are volunteering with Desert Elephants in Namibia, your project will fall under Life, simply because we classify volunteering as a Life Experience, as well as a Thai Massage course for example, as it directly encourages your personal growth. And if you are going to engage in a grassroots community experience in Angola, it will be a People Experience. Our Collections are there to make the site navigation more captivating and colourful. But most importantly we have a number of descriptive “Categories” that you can search through, such as Wilderness-Camping-Hiking, Yoga-Meditation-Spiritual, or Courses and Training, to name a few. So, on the site, you can search for Experiences via destination, category, date, Collection and by keyword too.
Me: What countries do you work in?
Joanna: We connect traveler’s to experiences in 11 African countries (Angola, Botswana, Ghana, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe). We also are slowing expanding to other continents.
Me: How do you find your tours and what kind of research is involved to ensure that the operators provide sustainable, ethical and responsible tourism?
Joanna: We send out an extensive questionnaire to our suppliers to make sure that they adhere to our conscious principles. When we research suppliers we start by finding those suppliers that place the focus on sustainability and social responsibility very high and then we engage in long term conversation with them. We always ask for feedback from the supplier and the traveller each and every time they travel with them. And if there is ay need for amendments we take action.
We have a network of Gaia Conscious Travel ambassadors in different areas where we are prospecting suppliers, and suggestions from our own network of conscious travelers are often also a very good source of suggestions for future networking.
Me: I see that each experience also gives back through an associated project. Can you tell me a little bit more about how it works and provide a few examples?
Joanna: One of the questions that we ask our suppliers in our questionnaire is if they work closely with associations in their area, or if they choose to give back to any particular project on a corporate level. We may then follow their suggestion, and offer our guests to support that project too, once we have established contact with the project managers and verified their sustainability. For example, our Drakensberg Hike supports the “Pack for a Purpose” initiative, offering a list of extra items to pack for the local school. Or our Pondoland Nature and Culture Trail will suggest that you pay an optional donation to the NGO “Sustain the Wild Coast”. SWC locally promotes sustainable livelihoods that conserve, rehabilitate and protect the natural environment that provides the ecosystem services on which rural people depend.
Me: What kind of feedback have you received from past participants on your tours?
Joanna: Feedback has been excellent, and the travelers are most grateful for an organization where they can feel a higher sense of purpose and a stronger sense of belonging. We systematically request reviews from our clients and have a new online system that is being put in place now. We will be launching our new website in the next few weeks, so look out for some change!
About Joanna, Founder of Gaia Conscious Travel
For Joanna Tomkins, life is travel and trying to be increasingly conscious of people and nature around, as well as life within. Born in the UK, her parents moved to France when she was 5, where she grew up in different regions. When she was 20, she moved to Spain to study business and to later work for small cultural enterprises.
She worked for over 10 years in the childrens’ animation and documentary industries, and at the same time she studied sculpture in various media, ceramics and theatre set design. Whilst in Madrid, she launched a music events agenda, revamped and run a historical tea shop and started a plastic artists’ association!
Always inclined to broadening horizons, she continued travelling whenever possible until finally she decided to quit her life in Barcelona to go travelling in Southern Africa as a tour guide. During that same period, she produced and directed her documentary Rainbow Nation 2010, which was a great television success in Spain and was also shown in other countries around the world. After finally settling down in Cape Town, she founded her own tour operator and bed & breakfast in 2009 and on a personal level focused on a more healthy and conscious lifestyle for her and her 2 children. 2016 saw the birth of Gaia Conscious Travel in the village of Scarborough, between pristine beaches and mountains and amidst a very conscious community.