Interview with Amala's chief destinations planner: What the job entails and why circumnavigating is the way to travel
A journey awaits
There are some holidays that could be made a lot more accessible with a trusty travel service paving the way. We're talking about Amala Destinations, bagging a portfolio that includes personalised itineraries to Bhutan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and a round trip around Europe.
Who's behind the legwork and curating our definition of an adventure? Elgin Xiao is one of them. As chief destinations planner, Xiao is your man to plot out your journey — be it activities, sights, meals and a cushy duvet to rest your head when night falls.
A veteran planner comes with the responsibility of travelling avidly — in pursuit of mapping out routes and making connections. Xiao has flown into the frozen lands of Arctic Lapland, fluttered in propeller planes to the remote island of Sumba and floated in a hot air balloon over the plains of Sigiriya. Sounds like a dream job, in our opinion. But is there really such a thing as one? We had to know — from the horse's mouth — along with other travelling must-haves and insightful tips in prep for our future escapades.
I understand you're not the biggest fan of flying. How did you end up doing what you're doing?
I'm not the best person to fly. I get very nervous, very angsty and it takes a lot to calm me down. But it's a neccessary evil. It happened years ago when I did my exchange overseas in Sweden and that really opened my eyes. The different cultures, places, architectures, urban landscapes etc. So that got me hooked.
What are the qualities you need to have as a planner?
To be a planner, you need to be careful. It's alot more than just having a good sense of direction. You need to know places as well as how to deal with people. Because for us, we meet many people, and everyone is looking for something different. We need to learn how to manage expectations for someone who's looking for an urban adventure versus one who wants something abit more adventurous and outdoorsy. Everyone has their own expectations and it's about learning how to manage them. For example, someone might say they have a budget of SGD400 per night, but if you translate it to Euros, you can't get anything luxurious at that price range.
Is there any downside to your job at all? Because it does sound like a dream job.
A part of our job is about marketing — getting people to know the company and the wonderful places that we go. The stories that we tell people do have to match up in terms of the real experiences. But what people don't see is that, with these trips that we go on, there are a lot of meetings and inspections involved. Add to that jet lag plus all the other calls you get from clients, even in the middle of the night because of time difference.
Amala does itineraries that encompasses circumnavigating. Why would you recommend it as compared to booking a flight?
You don't really see much on a plane. Whereas if you're hiking, walking, self-driving, taking the train... there's so much you can observe around you. You take things a little bit slower. You get to meet and interact with people on the ground, and that really open your eyes to different experiences as opposed to just flying.
The journey matters as well, as with the destination.
As they say, sometimes it's not about the destination, but about the journey. And that's what we [Amala Destinations] truly believe. We don't just believe in ticking off checklists or bucket lists. We don't pursue where everyone's going right now or what's trending but we do believe in creating meaningful local experiences. You meet people on the ground who can show you things that are local. I guess it's also about sustainability; we try to focus alot on experiences that preserve culture and help the environment.
With sustainability becoming a huge buzzword in our lifestyle, where can we travel that is eco-friendly?
There are countries that have better eco-practices than others. In terms of hotels, I think the Six Senses. They do alot of eco-practices. I was at Six Senses Laamu in the Maldives a couple of years ago, and they've got their own recycling centre.
Mongolia is also another destination that Amala is really focusing on right now. We do this thing called the 360 degrees camps — the camps that are set up have a low impact to the environment. You don't get electricity or fire, but these camps have minimal waste and can be easily moved around.
What's the craziest thing you've ever done on a trip?
Kissing wolves? [Laughs] There is this nature park in Norway, where you can enter the enclosure of the wolves. They are brought up in the park so they're not afraid of humans. You get to see the wolf pack, the hierarchy and the dominance. I got a kiss from a wolf, and I thought that was a very special experience.
What are the essentials to pack when you're embarking on an adventure?
Always be prepared for the weather especially when you go to Europe or countries like Mongolia. Make sure you have something warm, something to keep you dry, good footwear because you might walk a lot. And don't forget other important stuff like moisturiser, lip balm and, of course, your phone. Make sure someone knows where you're going — like an emergency contact.