22 AUG 2018: A new global travel association – headquartered in Canada – wants to raise the stake on standards for the trade that will benefit tour operators, travel agents and consumers. Travel Industry Today sat down with the alliance’s board of directors’ chair Thanushka Nanayakkara, whose day job is CEO of Canadian tour company NARAT Inc., to dig a little deeper.

The objective of the Alliance of Pioneer Travel Operators is to “raise product service standards for consumers’ ties by strengthening trade relations” and to “introduce trade partners to qualitative practices cumulatively cultivated through APTO members' expansive operational expertise, extending the buyer’s qualitative experience.”

Travel Industry Today: What is APTO and how many members have been admitted since forming in June?

Thanushka Nanayakkara: APTO members carry the distinction of being the oldest established and therein most experienced inbound operators working within the worldwide travel industry. APTO members are considered to have pioneered commercial tourism within their respective countries and have been in existence since the inception of global commercial tourism, with many of the company founders regarded as patriarchs of their countries’ tourism industries.

Members may possess a diverse asset portfolio substantiating the companies’ activities, of coach and ground transportation fleets, leisure property, cruise vessel operation, airline operation, and represent a sizeable portion of the tour operator market in those destinations. There is a growing list of over 30 members representing all major world travel regions.

How did the global alliance come to be headquartered in Canada?

Toronto was selected as APTO headquarters due to a number of mitigating reasons, chief amongst these that Canada has a stable social-economic environment, respected international reputation and a dynamic multicultural society conducive to an organization collectively representing international travel and tourism entities.

Do members fit any particular profile (e.g. adventure operator)? And how does a member qualify?

Members must be verifiably identifiable as “pioneers in travel operation” with a long-standing documented history facilitating the development of the tourism of a particular destination.

An initial member application may be made through the APTO website. A review based on Company Establishment, Product Quality and Service [is conducted] and in many cases companies are financially assessed and support from National Tourism Authority required to be admitted. Members must then abide by the APTO code of business practice to remain in good standing.

APTO members are predominantly categorized in General Interest Tour (GIT) operations, however travel operators who specialize in adventure, eco tourism, cultural tourism and religious tourism, among other specialty segments, may join. Companies serving in the travel trade that do not meet qualification to become full members may apply to become allied members, who gain access to APTO data and research resources.

There are plenty of other travel associations out there, how is APTO different?

There are other travel associations that have a global presence, however these invariably represent travel agencies in the travel marketplace. APTO represents travel operators – those organizations working in the travel industry that cater to the production and operation of tourism product. There is lack of umbrella organizations representing this community, with most foreign travel operators instead joining national operator associations like the USTOA out of necessity.

And why do you call the alliance “the first of its kind” and how will it “set the gold standard” for the industry?

It’s the first alliance of its kind exclusively made up of recognized pioneers of inbound tourism. The objective of APTO is to cultivate a high standard of operation in the travel operator community, contingent on operational experience and expertise of which operators would aspire to meet.

APTO takes aim at destination management companies (DMCs) and an “increased proliferation of misinformation” in the marketplace. Why do you believe the two are related?

The description is not taking aim, but the affirmation of prevalent marketplace conditions that, in part, led to the emergence of APTO. Many APTO members act in capacities of Destination Management Companies for various countries, but each year the market is flooded with questionable tour operators that come into existence worldwide. Many operators do not meet the fiscal and logistical requirements to conduct reliable and safe operations and lack knowledge and expertise, potentially placing travellers at risk and opening legal and liability concerns for outbound operators and wholesalers that transact through the service providers. APTO ensures its members are professionals so that consumers and trade do not have to.

In today’s globalized information era, the verification processes in ascertaining an accurate standing of a tour operator becomes increasingly convoluted. Online reviews are increasingly manipulated to advance certain companies over competition and have little or no regulation. Travel transactions are also not limited today within local hegemonies and globalized in nature by the Internet.

Travel operators that provide a tour product and have no tangible operational experience of the service destination also reduce the overall quality of the product for the traveller, or provide a sub-standard product by not having the requisite ground operational expertise.

You also mention that consumers are facing “complexity in the marketplace.” How so, and how does APTO propose to circumvent that?

The supply chain from supplier to customer is complex involving a number of variables that may impact the effectiveness of the ultimate product. It is often not easy to maintain a uniform quality standard throughout the process. [But] companies admitted to APTO are monitored over several criteria of operational requirements and APTO additionally aims to expand product experience through trade education and trade tools that benefit the customer.

Additionally, with consumers increasingly making travel purchases through companies that engage in ethical tourism practice, APTO makes the choices easily identifiable through promoting a sustainable tourism work approach amongst its membership. APTO ultimately intends on being a resource to find quality companies for authentic tour products and holidays.

Are there other benefits to consumers that APTO can provide?

Travellers making reservations through APTO members have peace of mind that their travel investment are made with companies that meet a raised operational standard, have a long service history coupled with unmatched destination expertise.

Consumer “initiatives” are planned. What kind and does APTO aspire to be an authoritative sanctioning body like TICO in Ontario?

Consumer awareness material and promotion will be created in cooperation with the international travel trade, as well as APTO having a presence in leading travel expos. Other awareness initiatives are also being created and will be announced in the near future.

APTO does not aspire to be an authoritative sanctioning body. It provides advocacy and supports and advances legacy travel operator interests toward the benefit of consumers globally through its organization.

How will APTO help the travel agents and how can the trade engage with the alliance?

APTO values the existing supplier-product distribution network and is committed to supporting the travel agency and wholesaler community. We will pursue a trade-inclusive approach, imbuing destination knowledge through in-destination education programs, specialist workshops and APTO certification programs with professional development incentives crafted for the trade.

Through APTO consumer awareness initiatives, consumers will identify business that aligns with the expertise standards of APTO. Travel agents would also have access to a database of Canadian tour wholesalers affiliated with APTO.

When will these kinds of initiatives begin and how will they be funded?

Trade development initiatives will start this year and be supported by APTO, its members, travel industry partners and national tourism authorities.

How does one contact APTO?

For contact information the trade can visit www.Alliance-PTO.org.

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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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