Natural Habitat Adventures is not your typical travel company. Offering everything from swimming with sea lions at the Galapagos Islands, following East Africa’s Great Migration, or looking for polar bears in the Arctic, a trip with Nat Hab is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Known for its unique itineraries, the Colorado-based organization is also the world’s first travel company to be 100 percent carbon neutral, and is committed to being “the leader in the field of conservation travel.”
Ben Bressler founded Natural Habitat Adventures in 1985, and has since built a company that proves that travel and sustainability can go hand in hand. Over the years, Bressler has worked to “utilize adventure travel to build support for the fight against climate change,” and it shows in the company’s initiatives as well as the Natural Habitat Foundation, which supports projects in areas where wildlife is threatened. Nat Hab is consistently mentioned as one of the best companies to work for by Outside magazine, and regularly receives awards for their trips and sustainability efforts.
We talked with Bressler via email about his ambitions in starting the business and how it has changed his life.
I started Nat Hab back in 1985 because I couldn’t find a job. Seriously! I was right out of college, teaching at a prep school back in New Hampshire and took a group of students skiing in Colorado one year. I earned a little cash from that trip and came up with the wild idea to start an adventure travel business. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I knew I loved being out in nature and I knew I wasn’t really cut out to do anything else. I quit my teaching job that summer and got a job driving a garbage truck at an amusement park so I could save $600 to publish (aka photocopy) a brochure I made on a typewriter. Needless to say, it took many years to get the company off the ground.
Nat Hab’s sustainability ethos was something that emerged and grew over time. It’s important for the company to be sustainable because we’re providing employment for local people who are able to earn a living by protecting their natural resources and their wildlife. And that’s true not only in places like Africa and Central America, but also through employing staff in Nat Hab’s Boulder, Colorado headquarters. Providing work to young people with a passion for nature, travel, and conservation is one of the driving elements in my work. And that’s the key to making sure natural habitats and their wild residents continue to exist all around the planet—Nat Hab’s reason for being.
I ran a few more small adventures for students during the very early years, but in 1987 I received a call from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) that would cement wildlife conservation as the central focus to Nat Hab. The IFAW had heard about my little travel business and approached me about operating helicopter-based expedition trips to see baby harp seals in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. The trips were designed to replace seal-hunting income with seal-watching income, a system devised in the early days of ecotourism. This sounded great to me. I had always loved adventure travel, and though I hadn’t quite yet uncovered my inner environmentalist by this time, I did find it cool to be helping the harp seals.
Eleven months later, I took my first group to maritime Quebec to see baby harp seal pups. All in all, we had 330 passengers from 11 different countries who joined us in the Canadian subarctic in the middle of the winter that year.
My favorite travel memory in the world is tracking mountain gorillas in Uganda. My wife and I went there for our honeymoon, and just a few years back I was able to return, this time with my son, Cole. There is nothing on earth like hiking through the jungle with the best trackers on earth, and then coming upon a family of gorillas in the forest. They are incredible creatures, and we are so fortunate to have had the chance to sit with them at eye level!
There are several factors we consider when choosing accommodations to work with. To us, luxury is defined as much by proximity to wildlife as by superlative comfort and amenities. We also seek out accommodations that are remote and away from the crowds, with a very high level of service and overall quality. It’s also important to us that our suppliers share our conservation values. Uniqueness is also key, and we try to avoid (when possible) larger chain accommodations and instead choose those that are smaller with local character.
Of course there are many benefits of ecotourism and we aren’t suggesting that people stop traveling, but it’s no secret that travel-related activities have a significant carbon footprint.
Eliminating the damage we do to the planet through travel-related activities would be a huge victory in the battle against climate change, so in 2006 we decided to pay to offset 100% of the greenhouse gases emitted from our trips. In being the first travel company to do so, we hoped our model would encourage other travel businesses to do so as well.
Our goal isn’t simply to be the most culturally and environmentally responsible tour operator in the world, but to challenge other travel-related businesses to raise their standards as well. We collaborate with our partners to share our successes and failures, and we regularly participate in industry conferences to promote best practices.
If we can inspire others—partners and competitors alike (as well as our guests, of course)—to raise their sustainability standards, then we’ve achieved this goal.
Running the first harp seal tours in Nat Hab’s early days is what really changed my life. Like I mentioned above, it was the harp seals that awoke my inner environmentalist. The travelers who joined us that winter were dedicated wildlife enthusiasts, who had for years donated money, written letters, and protested to help protect cuddly, white harp seal pups.
They were expecting the experience of a lifetime. It dawned on me that it was now my responsibility to provide it to them.
Seeing the passion and tears of joy on those travelers’ faces the moment they laid eyes on their first harp seal—that’s what made me realize the powerful impact ecotourism could have and how important this work was.
The Foundation acts as a natural extension of the company’s conservation ethos, creating opportunities for deeper engagement and stewardship with our host communities and environments. We believe it’s our duty to do all we can to contribute to the ongoing success of our hosts—the animals and people alike. After all, our travelers have experienced so much inspiration and enjoyment from the natural world—the Natural Habitat Foundation is our way of giving back to our planet and its inhabitants.
I moved the company from New Jersey to Boulder in 1994 to attract a more adventure-and nature-oriented staff, and because Boulder better embodied our company’s conservation values.
Boulder residents and businesses tend to love nature and the outdoors because of the city’s proximity to the mountains, hiking and biking trails, and open spaces. Because of its collective appreciation for nature, Boulder goes to great lengths to protect it. For instance, Boulder City Council recently voted to adopt a goal of becoming a Zero Waste Community by 2025, which will require that the city divert and reuse 85 percent of all waste.
When not in the office or traveling, you can often find me playing soccer, mountain biking, or skiing. For the past few years Nat Hab has rented a company ski house for the winter, just outside of Breckenridge. It’s been awesome to have a place for employees to take advantage of the mountains and enjoy each other’s company on the weekends!
Originally written by RootsRated for Choose Colorado.
Featured image provided by Anita Ritenour