Justin Francis - Co-founder

Justin in the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda
Justin Francis, co-founder of Responsible Travel, on what inspired him to create the world’s first responsible tourism company.

Stories from the African bush

For founder Justin Francis, the best travel experiences he’s ever had are ones where he’s practically disappeared from the picture.

Like out tracking wildlife in Namibia with the San people, where he was literally thrust out of sight.

“I was big and clumsy and visible, so they hid me in a bush when they got near to animals,” Justin recalls. “And I was totally fine with that.”

It reminded him of his earliest travel experiences – ones of ultimate escape, exploring the Devon countryside. “I loved escaping into the wild little river valleys. They were steep-sided valleys with a little stream in the bottom, very dense and hidden away from anyone and anything. They felt like a little world of their own.” He pauses. “I like to be places where no one can see me.”

Traveling with humility

Responsible Travel has always wanted to approach travel with humility and small footprints. “Be humble because you are a guest,” says Justin. “That’s the first principle of travel – that you’re a guest in someone’s home.”

Perhaps, for Justin, it’s an antithesis to his childhood growing up in Bath, a city sometimes plagued by tourists. “I saw them as sort of zombies, drifting through a place and not really understanding or taking much in.” he says.

Yet it was because of being in Bath, with its many visitors, that Justin first took an interest in the industry. “I grew up with travel,” he says. He loves it: “It’s the thing I look forward to most in life – it’s when you get to be the purest version of yourself.”

Aged 25, Justin left his job to travel around Africa. “I spent the best part of a year there, over 100 nights camping under the stars.” As he journeyed – climbing, camping and kayaking – he met a lot of people. “But hardly anybody else who was a tourist.”

It was a formative experience. “Realising you are more similar than different, but enjoying the differences, was burnt into me by that travel experience,” says Justin. To this day, he loves the continent. “I feel a sense of connection there that I can’t properly explain… And I love going back as often as I can.”

Responsible Travel is born

In the late 1990s, Justin decided that he wanted to set up a travel company. “My dad was a children’s toy inventor and had always told me from a young age to try and work in something you love.”

With this ambition still in the back of his mind, he started out working in advertising for J. Walter Thompson, and then at The Body Shop, under visionary founder Dame Anita Roddick. Anita was a businessperson he much admired, when companies like The Body Shop, Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s were at the vanguard of a new type of business. “I loved the idea of doing good and making money rather than a choice between the two,” Justin says.

He co-founded Responsible Travel with Professor Harold Goodwin on 4 January 2000, with Anita Roddick as his first investor.

As for the doing good – well, it’s all about encouraging travelers to be better tourists. Justin sees the best travel experiences as both “exploration and “a desire to fit in”: two very different aims. Whilst the former is somewhat easy to anyone with a road map and some money, the latter is harder. “I found the best way to get closer to local ways of life and nature is to contribute something in return and that’s where the genesis of Responsible Travel comes from,” says Justin. The company was established with the aim of making sure that travelers benefitted the wildlife and communities of the places they visited.

Working partnerships

The model for Responsible Travel is that it puts customers directly in touch with one of hundreds of approved partners. “A very eclectic group of people,” says Justin, “and not many of whom are in any way in a corporate job. Most fell into travel out of passion and a desire to share the places they call home.”

A judicious humility means that Responsible Travel defers to these experts. “Why would a tourist want to speak to me about the best walking routes, when they could speak to Claire who was born in the Alps and has walked them since she was little?” says Justin.

When customers book, these bookings are declared by Responsible Travel’s partners through an honesty scheme. Honesty (and kindness) are words that are usually seen as “death in business”, Justin points out. “But we have now passed over £200m with that honesty system and what I’ve found is that if you place trust in people, they often respect it.”

Whilst most of Justin’s early travels were independent, he believes that similar experiences can be achieved in organised trips.

“What I love about our vacations is that the proximity to people and local places remains part of their DNA. But we help you get the most out of a place in a relatively short break.”

For those who don’t have the time to backpack solo around Africa, Responsible Travel’s partners can still deliver that sense of wonder and immersion. “And if you’re paying for a guide or supporting the community or nature in some way, you feel a connection to it that you wouldn’t feel if you just passed through.”

Justin in Spitsbergen

The fight for the future

But travel is changing. “There’s a battle on for the soul of travel,” says Justin. He cites the damage caused by social media, which sees people queuing to take a specific selfie shot – a performative style of travel that has more in common with the tourists of his Bath childhood than with what Responsible Travel seeks to do.

“I want to fight for real travel and experiences and for the rights of local people,” says Justin. “It’s their homes that we’re visiting.”

It’s not the only fight.

“The biggest threats globally are climate change, loss of biodiversity, inequality and war,” says Justin. “I want to do everything we can to be a low carbon, nature positive and inclusive business.”

Justin remains realistic about Responsible Travel’s efforts. “We’re not ‘sustainable’ – we’re on a journey towards it,” he says. “It’s about taking responsibility for your impacts and trying to do something about that. I’m extremely conscious of air travel and carbon emissions. At Responsible Travel we ask customers to take longer vacations, and fewer flights, and for many years we have been lobbying for fair taxation of aviation fuel and proper regulation of the aviation sector.”

From modest beginnings

The best origin stories start small, and have ambitious futures.

Justin and the Responsible Travel team recently celebrated their 200,000th customer.

Along the way, he created a scheme called Trip for a Trip, an idea Justin had after a genetic kidney condition meant he required dialysis four times a day. “I began to think about other people who can’t travel.”

The programme allows those who book with Responsible Travel to choose to send a child from a disadvantaged background for a day out as a booking gift. “Sometimes, one day or one event can be quite influential in your life,” Justin says. “And you can’t be what you can’t see – you might not realise there’s another world out there.”

Justin has been an advisor to UK Environment Ministers on business and nature. He currently chairs a digital funding marketplace, Projects for Nature, matching corporate donors with nature projects in England. He is also a director of one of Responsible Travel partners in Kenya, who operate safaris in partnership with the Maasai and Samburu indigenous communities.

The Guardian described him as ‘the great activist traveler.’