As Anthony Bourdain said, “Travel changes you”. True as that is, there is a growing effort within the industry to move from being changed to being the change. This is where Hong Kong-born Sean Lee-Davies comes in. As the former editor at Tatler Hong Kong, Sean is a seemingly inexhaustible person, one who makes your ten-mile morning jog look like a walk to the end of the hall!
Well-known and respected as an environmentalist (he’s tackled issues like the banning of the ivory trade in Asia and will soon be hiking Kilimanjaro with a team of celebrities and CEOs to raise funds for two charities), award-winning TV producer/director and TV presenter, Sean is on a mission to see that people travel with purpose.
Hence his Awethentic Travel retreats – like the one he held earlier this year in Koh Samui. The retreat, which focused on #TransformativeTravel, was designed to enable leaders to learn more about themselves, to become greater agents for change.
Here, Sean tells us more about his current projects, what he’s doing to help save the world, and what all travellers can do to be more sustainable.
Can you tell us a bit about Awethentic Studios and Project C:CHANGE, and what’s motivating you to lead a charge to create change?
Project C:CHANGE is a non-profit organisation that I set up in 2010 to help change consumer mindsets about the environment. At the end of the day, if you look at most of the great environmental problems, they deal with how we consume. We need to rework capitalism from the inside and find more sustainable ways of consuming; we can’t just rely on charitable acts – they won’t be fast enough to meet the immense challenges that we face in the next 20 to 30 years.
Awethentic Studio is an award-winning agency that specialises in exponential and interactive technologies such as VR/AR/AI and Avatars. We are also producing premium long and short-form content.
Two examples of the recent work we’ve created: we produced a hyper-realistic life-size avatar of Chris Pratt, the Hollywood star from Avengers, which you can activate and interact with on the Tumi Club app that we developed. Awethentic Studio also created, in tandem with Project C:CHANGE, the world’s first AR and VR exhibition based on sustainability and wildlife conservation called “Last of the Wild”. Using the power of VR and AR, visitors can experience what it’s like to dive with a Blue Whale or walk with elephants and even dive with manta rays!
Hong Kong, where you’re based, is known more for excess than environmentalism. As someone who is dedicated to saving the world, but is active in the Hong Kong scene, how do you balance these seemingly dichotomous lifestyles?
You’re absolutely correct, and this is perhaps the reason why I became an environmentalist in the first place. I used to be the editor of a well-known magazine which promotes luxury lifestyle. Seeing how unfettered consumerism in Hong Kong and Asia was directly impacting our air, our surrounding sea and the devastation wrought to the rainforests of Asia, I grew weary of promoting clearly unsustainable lifestyles.
I don’t believe charity alone can solve the problems. We need to harness businesses to bring about quick change.
Hong Kong could be a leader as one of the most sustainable smart cities in China, but alas, there is far too little leadership on environmental issues such as plastic pollution, recycling, and waste reduction. The whole identity of modern HK is built around hyper-consumerism.
It was perhaps in reaction to my time there that I created Project C:CHANGE – a way to find a third way, a “kinder form” of capitalism
What is transformative travel, and why focus on retreats?
Transformative journeys are mindful adventures where you not only have incredible experiences, but you meet new people, embrace new cultures and also learn something new about yourself which enables change so that you can be a better entrepreneur and changemaker upon your return home.
Some trips focus just on wellness, some just on conservation. We want to combine both elements in our trips, as I don’t think you can have wellness without a healthy environment and vice versa.
The hope is that you will go back and change the way that you live, or work and hopefully inspire others to do the same. Retreats are just one aspect of Awethentic Travel, and they are a great way of bringing like-minded people together. Our retreats are curated so not everyone can just apply, it has to be through a referral, or an individual has to have done something for the environment or for humanitarian purposes in the past.
How do you hope the retreats will effect change?
I believe that a retreat can’t be more than 25 people. Ideally, it would be less, and you need at least five days to really have a shift in consciousness. By creating programs which focus on mind and body well-being and is bringing in themes of sustainability and bringing those people closer to nature with incredible speakers and wellness advocates you have a great environment for transformation so that hopefully you will return with more than just photographs.
Why curate your guest list rather than make the retreats more public?
You can have the most amazing location, but if the people don’t gel, it will detract from the overall experience. We have to curate a group of people who do amazing things and inspire us, so hopefully, they will inspire others and also help connect ideas and impact investment opportunities.
What made you choose Koh Samui as the location of a recent retreat?
Unlike Phuket, it’s much less crowded, and there is also special energy about the island, which is most likely why there are many world-class wellness retreats there. Not to mention the incredible scenery, the beautiful beaches and pristine marine life. Koh Samui is a direct flight or an easy connection from Hong Kong.
How was your transformative experience on the island? What did you love and is there anything there you’d like to explore further?
One of my favourite activities on the island was the visit to the ethical elephant sanctuary where elephants have been saved from barbaric local tourism operators. It was inspiring to see how these activists cared so much about the elephants and ensuring that as much could be done as possible to their make the elephants’ lives more comfortable and humane.
Having meditation and yoga sessions at the poolside of Baan Jakawan for sunrise and sunset was truly magical with our yogi’s Rosemary Vandenbroucke and Natalie Soderstrom as well as meditation master Bryan Gates. I’d like to do more diving next time for sure!
In January, you’ll be returning to Mt. Kilimanjaro with Project C:CHANGE. You were there in 2010 as part of your Adventures to the Edge adventure/wildlife series. Why have you decided to return to this spot of the world?
Kilimanjaro is a truly transformative journey! Not only is it a physically challenging journey as you have to climb up to 19,500 feet above sea-level and risk altitude sickness at the very top but you also pass through all of the planet’s six ecosystems – from tropical rainforest at the bottom through to moorland all the way up to glacial alpine conditions at the top. Essentially, you are walking the planet in an 8-day climb traversing some of the most incredible vistas and views along the way, not to mention the mind-blowing sky starscapes at night! Inspiring individuals from all over Asia as well will be joining including celebrities and CEOs.
What are you most hoping to achieve through this adventure?
We’re not just doing this for fun. We’re all climbing to raise charitable funds for two main charities. The first is African Parks which is perhaps one of the best-run charities in Africa that creates national parks in several African countries and has had tremendous success in reducing poaching of wildlife. Project C:CHANGE will also donate funds to protect the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, one of the last remaining rainforests in Asia and the only place in the world where tigers, rhinos and elephants and great apes co-exist. This region is under severe threat from illegal logging, poaching, and of course encroachment and deforestation due to the palm oil industry. It’s the lungs of Asia, so we must do everything to protect it!
What’s one simple thing travellers can do to create change?
I think the simplest things that people can do is offset their travel with reliable carbon offset schemes which you can do online or donate to tree planting schemes. Support local charitable initiatives on the ground, for example, spending a day helping build a school or planting a coral reef or picking up plastic to you feel you’ve contributed to the actual place that you visited.
What’s one not-so-simple thing you feel travellers should be striving for?
One not so simple thing is to minimise your actual impact on your destination. What I mean by that is the amount of waste that you create locally, which can’t always be processed depending on where you are. You need to check on the operator and the hotel to make sure that you are staying at a responsibly operated establishment.
Finally, what’s the one thing you can’t travel without?
The one thing I cannot travel without is my camera – obviously! But really (and it’s quite obvious) the one thing I can’t travel without is my smartphone because really these days it’s your all-in-one swiss army knife.