Since starting his travel company Country Holidays in 1994, Chang Theng Hwee has made it his business to help discerning travellers access unique experiences in remote corners of the world. Now CEO of Scott Dunn Asia, Chang describes how luxury travel has evolved from simply providing comfort and indulgence, to personalisation and authenticity.
The term ‘luxury travel’ is frequently used, but during my 24 years of organising unforgettable experiences, its definition, as well as the preferences of affluent travellers, have changed significantly.
Take accommodation for example. When we first started the business, typically there were only two questions, “Where is the location?” and “How many stars?” Whereas today, travellers appreciate that a hotel is just one small part of their trip and are instead looking for a certain ‘wow factor’.
They want pristine wilderness experiences, insightful encounters with culture, history and heritage, all done in a unique and personal way. It is no longer simply about going to a country, it’s about how you experience the journey.
Our recently launched itinerary, Luxury Trip Safari across the Silk Road, demonstrates this philosophy well, taking travellers across the ‘-stans’ in style. The tour starts in Kyrgyzstan, which is fittingly referred to as ‘the Switzerland of Central Asia’ – where 70 percent of the country is soaring mountains and serene lakes.
From there we travel the Silk Road in a convoy of luxury Land Cruisers, passing breath-taking vistas across Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and into Tajikistan. At each stop, imagine a grand tent waiting for you beside an emerald lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks and hillside villages. There, local chefs prepare sumptuous traditional dishes, giving you the flavour of the nomadic Silk Road experience combined with plush accommodation waiting for you each night of your journey.
One of our most popular trips takes travellers to Antarctica by private plane from Cape Town. There, amongst the vast, untouched ice-covered expanse, you can witness countless emperor penguins nesting in their natural habitat. On a recent trip, our guests had the chance to ride on the front of a Zodiac inflatable boat, accompanied by a specially hired cameraman who captured vivid footage of them breaking through the ice. These journeys are often full of surprises and later, whilst the guests were having their dinner aboard a yacht, a penguin jumped out of the water to join them!
To deliver these sorts of experiences, you need to get two things right. Firstly, you must have an in-depth understanding of who your guests are and what they want. When they say ‘luxury’, what does that mean to them? What does a ‘wow’ moment look like for each individual guest? Secondly, you need to have a passion for both the destination and the type of travel in order to craft the right itinerary.
For every journey, we look out for the little details and incorporate them into our bespoke itineraries. These are places and experiences you simply cannot find on Google. In Bhutan, our guests can hike between villages in the remote yet beautiful Phobjikha Valley. There they’ll be accompanied by local guides, carefully selected by our team, who have an intimate knowledge of the geography and will take them to the most unexpected and stunning picnic areas.
Likewise, in Provence, guests can hike and enjoy hearty French countryside cooking after a good day’s excursion, followed by a restful sleep in small rustic houses. After all, it’s not about simply having Michelin Star dining every day, it’s more about authentic knowledge of a location. Japan has many of the best restaurants in the world, but there is nothing like finding that cosy local noodle store with a 150-year old legacy. It might be a simple meal, eaten amongst locals, but it’s a charming experience you simply cannot get from a starred restaurant.
Whilst San Sebastián in Spain has the highest concentration of Michelin starred restaurants in the world, we discovered an incredible restaurant by word of mouth that intentionally kept itself off Google Maps to avoid the crowds. The first time we visited, even our driver had a challenging time finding the place. When we spoke with the owner they replied, “Yes, but we are worth finding.” I don’t know if it was the chance encounter that made our guests feel as though they stumbled across something special, but word has spread and now we have customers asking to visit “The Spanish restaurant that is worth finding”.
Personally, one of my top experiences was watching my children kayaking with whales in Antartica. Another was hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro with my family and returning by helicopter, dipping in and around the views of valleys and villages. These are memories that I will never forget and ones that as a family, we continue to reminisce about together.
They say there are some experiences that money cannot buy, but with the right planning you can vastly increase your chances of having them. With today’s luxury travel, creature comforts like plush accommodation and good food are a given, so it’s no longer about which countries you visit, but how you visit them and the unique, personalised and authentic experiences you leave with.