FOR GOODNESS SAKE

Andrew Booth set up ABOUTAsia in 2007 after a long career in investment banking. The Cambodian tourism company donates all of its profits to rural education and currently supports over 50,000 children in 100 schools.

How did the decision come about to set up shop in Cambodia?

During a short family vacation I realised that I had not read a novel in a decade. I knew then that my life was unbalanced. Within a few days of leaving the bank my wife and I embarked on a trip around the world. When we landed in Siem Reap the first thing we noticed was the authenticity, warmth and openness of the people. An intended five-day side trip stretched into weeks and a connection was made. I found a country rich in assets yet cash poor. Spectacular temples and charming villages boded well for international tourism but it was equally clear that most of the benefits did not reach the man on the street. I also saw that tourism was not done well, the guides all followed the same itineraries and, even back then, the key sites could get overcrowded. Here was an opportunity to make a difference.

You ended up moving to Cambodia. Was this always part of the plan?

I am not sure there was ever any grand plan. The enterprise was developed initially from Italy and Singapore until an upset with the local partner. I headed to Siem Reap at just a few hours notice with my wife’s encouragement of ‘don’t let him get away with it’ and found myself rather stuck here as I rescued the enterprise. Siem Reap is a wonderful place to work and call home. Though as a small town it misses the cultural opportunities of a large city, it still has many advantages– my morning run takes me through the woods and along the moat of Angkor Wat and my cycle route has me winding through the rice paddies at first light.

 

What, if anything, do you miss about your old city slicker London life?

There is little I miss about the investment banking lifestyle. I suspect the image of the city slicker is rarely realised in practice. The reality, at least for me, was predawn starts, walks to the train in the rain, being woken by 3am phone calls for trading instructions and rarely seeing natural light during the winter months. I do, however, miss the speed of progress. We have many more ideas here than we are able to develop at any given moment. At times I can be frustrated by how slowly we are developing and at other times I’m celebrating how very far we have come from starting on a laptop in an Internet café.

 

What other challenges did you meet setting up a business in Cambodia?

In the early years the infrastructure was terribly basic. Internet connection was expensive and slow. Corruption was endemic. After a couple of years an early local partner stole considerable funds raised for education. I was advised that pursuing him for the funds through the notorious Cambodian legal system would not be worthwhile.

 

How do you think your previous career influenced your success in this venture?

Whether through my exploits in banking or through sport I have certainly learnt that success is achieved mainly through stick-ability. If you refuse to lose then eventually you must win, right? I also learnt through science that you do not guess what is measurable, so I have set out to understand in detail the way crowds of tourists move through the archaeological park in different seasons. This has enabled us to design itineraries that avoid the worst of the flag-following tour groups.

 

What can ABOUTAsia offer the luxury-seeking traveller?

Local knowledge is key. My team and I live and work here in Siem Reap. We know the temples, countryside, lakes and villages intimately. If I recommend a restaurant or spa it is because I have tried it in person and thought it was great – not because I read it in a guidebook. There’s a big philanthropic advantage too – 100% of the profits from the tour company are given over to ABOUTAsia Schools who now support over 50,000 children in 100 schools. Not only does this give life-changing opportunities to so many children but the close connection with these communities provides opportunities to the guest which would otherwise not be available.

 

Can you tell us more about the philanthropic side of the company?

We built our first school in 2006 under Bernard Krisher’s [fellow philanthropist and founder of Cambodia Daily] initiatives of partnering private funding with money from the Asian Development Bank. Quickly we learnt that schools were being built but many were then struggling, held back by the terribly small budget for state education. Rather than add to the inventory we began to adopt existing schools, providing supplies, uniforms and other necessities. We found that the government schools only begin to teach English at secondary level, missing the key formative years of a child’s life. To fill this gap, we offer free English classes at government primary schools. To ensure our efforts our sustainable, we have created a Teacher Training Academy.

 

How has running a non-profit company matched up to any expectations you had?

I don’t run a non-profit company. I run a commercial company and elect to pass all of the profits to rural education. This is a subtle but important difference that I feel is instrumental in our long-term success. Employees of the travel company are well aware of why we are striving for success and absolutely support our educational programs but on a day-to-day basis have the mindset and culture of a commercial enterprise.

 

What would you say our readers can do on an individual level to create change on a philanthropic level?

Take even just a few moments when next planning your holiday to consider who you are spending your money with and how it will be used. I don’t believe that people ought to choose one travel company over another purely on responsible travel criteria, though. Supporting an enterprise that otherwise would not stand on its own two feet is not helpful in the long run. Once these factors are considered, however, perhaps the responsible credentials of a company can be used as a tie-breaker. Where do your dollars actually go and what benefit will they have on the local community?

 

What are your plans from here?

My aim is to educate 250,000 children so we have a good way to go. It is also my aim to get visitors to think just a little about their own place in the world.

Interview by Dominique Afacan

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16/F Chao's Building  |  143-145 Bonham Strand  |  Sheung Wan  |  Hong Kong
T: +852 33620 3157  |  F: +852 3753 1811  |  thereserve@infonation-asia.com  |  Data Policy  

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