Over the pandemic, entrepreneurs Alexis Bowen and Craig Zapatka co-founded Elsewhere, a new travel company that puts destination welfare and authentic experiences first.
When the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan in February 2020, passengers and crew had no idea of the storm that was brewing. Soon, 1 in 10 employees of the global tourism industry would lose their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic: a whopping 62 million in total.
Among them were Alexis Bowen and Craig Zapatka, former employees of Evaneos, an international travel agency based in France. Rather than lament their poor luck, Bowen and Zapatka saw a rare opportunity to switch things up.
Between them, Bowen and Zapatka have nearly 20 years of experience working at major tourism agencies. Before meeting at Evaneos, they had grown disillusioned with the industry and its disregard for local communities.
“We saw that the traditional model was broken for the communities that it was engaging with,” Zapatka says. “The larger corporations were holding the microphone and speaking for the local communities, who were supposed to be, in a sense, a product.”
As the pandemic swept the globe, Bowen and Zapatka began hearing from owners of Destination Management Companies (DMCs), which provide services to major tour operators. These family-run businesses are an essential part of Bowen and Zapatka’s network for booking tours and activities. “They were hurting,” Zapatka says. “We wanted to find a way to lift them up—to let them speak for themselves.”
With the tourism industry in a liminal space, Bowen and Zapatka decided to start building the future they wanted to see. “All of these people really needed work,” Bowen says. “COVID gave us a clean slate to redefine everything.”
In April 2021, Bowen and Zapatka co-founded Elsewhere, a direct-to-local travel agency that proposes an ethical and sustainable approach to tourism. To understand how their business model is different, it’s important to understand the problem of economic leakage. According to the World Bank, local economies lose an average of 55% of tourism revenue, which instead enriches foreign corporations such as hotel conglomerates, major travel agencies, and multinational franchises. In some destinations, the numbers are even more stark; in Thailand, for example, 70% of the tourism economy actually belongs to international purveyors.
“Foreign tour operators are taking 40% margins, squeezing local suppliers, and booking the Hilton instead of a locally owned-and-operated hotel,” Bowen says. “Because of this, we have such an economic imbalance.”
The problem isn’t just economic. “The communities don’t have the autonomy to define travel in their destination,” Bowen says. “This is because the trips are being sold by somebody in, say, New York, and in New York, they’re saying, ‘This is how we want you to run the trip.’”
Foreign agencies water down the travel experience for tourists, too. “You’re having a less authentic experience because the agent [you’re booking with] probably doesn’t just sell Tanzania—they might sell all of Africa, or they might sell the entire world,” Bowen says. “You’re not having a genuine trip from somebody that’s from the destination.”
Elsewhere cuts the middleman out of the travel supply chain. As a result, the co-founders take on the role of conduits rather than travel agents. When clients book a trip through the Elsewhere platform, Bowen and Zapatka connect them to DMCs—rebranded here as local experts—who work directly with clients to craft their trips. To date, Elsewhere offers trips in 44 destinations, each serviced by local experts that Bowen and Zapatka have rigorously vetted.
“As a direct-to-consumer model, we try to take the smallest percentage possible—half of what an Airbnb platform takes,” Bowen says. “And it’s really just to keep our website running and to contribute to a few sustainability programs.” (Elsewhere offsets the carbon footprint of every trip, including international flights, via the United Nations Carbon Offset Program.) The rest of the money spent during Elsewhere trips—87% of it, according to the co-founders—goes directly to the destination.
Becoming an Elsewhere local expert isn’t easy. Candidates undergo a series of comprehensive interviews in which Zapatka and Bowen screen for three main criteria. “The first is obviously quality,” says Bowen. The experts must be licensed, insured, and certified according to their country’s guidelines and global industry standards.
“The second consideration,” Bowen says, “is their commitment and adherence to sustainable and responsible travel practices.” Local experts are required to provide documents verifying their supplier network, including the hotels, transportation services, and activity suppliers they work with. The co-founders then compare their standards with UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Transformational Travel Council. In particular, the co-founders look for legitimate transactions, fair wages, LEED-certified accommodations, activity outfitters that follow Leave No Trace principles, and a commitment to reducing over-tourism at popular attractions. They outright reject applications that include animal exploitation (like riding elephants or visiting captive marine animals) and poverty tourism. Cruise ships are avoided entirely unless they are wind-powered.
If a DMC meets these criteria, says Bowen, it can advance to the final step: “Whether I’d send my mom or my friend on a trip with them.” According to the co-founders, only 5% of DMCs that apply to be local experts make the cut.
Denise Brown and Andrea Gambino are two local experts who passed muster. Operating on the ground in Tanzania and Italy, respectively, they have long prioritized sustainable travel.
For Brown, it was the mistakes she made in her early days as a tour operator that inspired her commitment to ethical tourism. Once, a company that Brown had booked for her clients wound up taking them to a commercialized village of Maasai hunter-gathers. “There’s, like, 15 cars parked outside,” she recalled. “You go inside. They dance for you, they try to sell you some of their beadwork. They show you a small classroom and ask you for money. Then, after 20 minutes, you leave. It’s just a weird situation—you’re being asked to donate, and these people are being exploited at the same time.”
Today, Brown runs things differently. Together with a local, women-owned organization called Solar Sister, Brown and her clients help locals distribute solar-powered lights to remote Maasai tribes. “It’s nothing orchestrated, so it’s usually a surprise for the families that live there,” Brown says. “But then it turns into a beautiful experience for everyone.”
Growing up in Italy, Gambino experienced the tension between tourism and local culture firsthand. “Tourism is very important for Italy,” he says. “But mass tourism is different. In Venice, cruise ships with thousands of people dock and leave very quickly and do not give back to the community. There is a conflict between locals and the huge number of tourists that do not respect the local area.” If Gambino’s clients want to visit Venice, he shows them what it’s like to be a local. “We go out with fishermen and swim in the middle of the sea and taste the anchovies. We visit families who make regional pesto. These are unique experiences that you cannot experience yourself or if you travel with a big company.”
For Bowen and Zapatka, these are the pillars of Elsewhere. “Travel should be about remarkable experiences,” says Zapatka. “We want our local experts to be able to tell us something that we can’t find in a guidebook or on a blog.”
“They’re really able to handle anything,” added Bowen. “We have a guy in Iceland who takes people scuba diving under a glacier. It just runs the gamut, depending on what the person is looking for.”
Recently, a couple was looking for a particularly remarkable experience: a heritage trip to Portugal. “Our local expert, Tiago, personally took them on this trip, translated for them, and helped them find family members who still live in Portugal, three generations later,” says Bowen.
“That gives me goosebumps, just thinking about it,” says Zapatka.
In the end, Tiago was able to locate the church where the woman’s grandparents were married. “She was like, ‘I never would have been able to do this without you,’” says Bowen. “That’s what we’re looking for—that statement.”
So far, Elsewhere has received hundreds of trip requests. “We launched at the most interesting time,” Bowen says. “There’s finally light at the end of the tunnel. People are so ready to go.”
For her part, Brown hopes that travelers start exploring the world again with a different mindset. “We all had a lot of time to think and reconsider what we’ve done to our planet and ourselves,” she says. “After being cooped up for so long, people just want to go back out there. But I hope they don’t throw themselves into some craziness. I hope they think about where they will go and where their money will go.”