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Q&A: Rob Rankin Talks Sustainable Travel, Shaping Adventure Tourism in Ireland

5 Minute Read

Established in 2002, Vagabond Tours invites travelers to experience Ireland’s scenery with a fun and free-wheeling spirit from the comfort of the company’s custom-built “overland” vehicles. Like many business owners, founder and owner Rob Rankin wants to provide his guests with experiences they’ll always remember, and he’s achieved this while setting the bar for adventure travel in Ireland. Not only has Vagabond Tours become a model for sustainable travel, but Rankin has been instrumental in helping spread the message of his country’s adventurous side with the world. Always one to share what he’s learned with others in the industry, Rankin was more than happy to offer his insights with ATTA members.


Vagabond Tours caters to small groups like this one picnicking on the West Coast. © Vagabond Tours

ATTA: What is Vagabond Tours’ mission, and what sets it apart from other tour companies?

Rankin: We don’t like comparing ourselves to other tour companies. We simply aim to be very good at what we do. Like any top-class operator, we have an amazing team of guides, a strong range of products and expertise, and a very high level of customer focus.

However, there are a few things that do make our product stand out. Vagabond was the first small-group, multi-activity, and cultural tour company in Ireland. Instead of focusing on one activity, such as hiking or cycling, we combined them with other activities and also with the level of historical and cultural information you would expect on a regular coach tour. The level of detail and planning that goes into everything we do, and the constant reviewing and analysis of the results, means our product is constantly evolving.

Plus we developed our own tour vehicles, the iconic Land Rover 4X4 “Vagatrons,” to create a spirit of adventure on each tour. They were build from the chassis up, and we are the only tour company to use them. We then developed the idea further with our new Mercedes “Newtrons” which add an extra level of comfort while still retaining the adventurous spirit and the ability to go beyond the reach of mortal tours.

Also, we always have ice cream in the office on Friday. This is very important.

ATTA: How have you seen the adventure travel industry change since the founding of your company in 2002? Do you have any advice for people just stepping into the industry today?

Rankin: Vagabond Tours has definitely seen an increase in operators in the adventure tourism arena since we started in 2002. Ireland has always been an ideal destination for adventure tourism and now there are increased providers offering professional, accessible options. “Adventure tourism” is also starting to be noticed by mainstream, larger operators. Soft adventure is slowly being understood for what it truly means and is being offered to a wider audience.

My advice to anyone stepping into the industry, and starting up their own business, would be to go for it! Identify your customers and make sure to develop products you think and/or know they would like — not something you and your friends would like. Cost and price your products realistically, based on the season that applies and a reasonable occupancy level.

Get as much good advice as you can. And be prepared to say goodbye to weekends during the season for the first few years.


The Vagabond Tours guides participate in a Leave No Trace training. © Vagabond Tours

ATTA: Talk a bit about your company’s commitment to sustainable tourism. Why is this so important to you?

Rankin: Vagabond Tours of Ireland recently achieved Ecotourism Gold Level Certification by Eco-Tourism Ireland — the only Irish tour operator to achieve Gold to date. As a company, we have always been very aware of our environmental and social responsibilities. We know we are one of many caretakers of Ireland and have a responsibility to practice sustainability to ensure the landscape, Irish culture, and traditions are protected for future generations and visitors alike to enjoy and experience.

In a recent exercise with our team, being environmentally aware was universally adopted as one of our key company values.

ATTA: What can other adventure travel companies do if they, too, want to become more environmentally friendly? How can this commitment be shared with clients and customers?

Rankin: I think most adventure travel companies are already fairly environmentally friendly by nature. We always were, but we really took it a step further by going down the certification process. I would advise other companies to contact their local or national body for eco-tourism for advice. The process is useful because it can give you some end goals to focus on. Vagabond Tours is also a member of Leave No Trace Ireland, and we recommend all those involved in the tourism industry become members and practice its principles.

We certainly don’t consider ourselves to be experts on the subject by any means, but if anyone would like to see some of the measures we have taken, we have a dedicated sustainable tourism page on our website to educate guests about what we are doing to be more sustainable.

In terms of customers, our guides inform guests on tour about our sustainable policies but we also try and lead by example rather than preaching. For example, all our guides carry rubbish bags in their walking kits to pick up litter during walks. All waste on the vehicle is separated into recyclable and non-recyclable. We even have fully compostable coffee cups we give our guests on tour! Also, the guides use a waterless cleaning product on our vehicles, rather than a hose or power wash, saving hundreds of liters of water per vehicle wash.

And it works. We are getting more and more feedback about how our customers connect with our environmental policies and how the guides implement them.


The Vagabond Tours office team helps keep Ireland’s beaches clean. © Vagabond Tours

ATTA: You have also been active in developing the Ireland Association of Adventure Tourism (IAAT). How do you anticipate partnering with others in the adventure travel space will benefit Ireland as a whole, and how do you anticipate it will benefit individual tour operations?

Rankin: We are very excited here about the IAAT, and how it can bring a voice and cohesion to the Irish adventure tourism sector. As in more destinations, the sector is mainly made up of smaller companies and operators, so a unified voice will be essential to help put us on the map at home and abroad.

The organization has many aims. Among them, we hope to highlight and promote Ireland as a world-class adventure travel destination, and promote cooperation, communication, and cohesiveness within our sector. We also want to promote best practices in service and safety standards, and sustainable and responsible tourism with a drive toward ecotourism.

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