Earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria, Morocco and Afghanistan, floods in Libya, global conflict and humanitarian crises at a scale that defies words. For many, 2023 has left us feeling helpless, wondering what we can realistically do amidst unimaginable devastation and loss. Moreover, with the impacts of climate change mounting, these crises will only continue to rise.

However, at Intrepid Travel, we’ve quickly learnt that to tackle the biggest challenges of our time we will need robust networks that leverage global capabilities and resources, alongside critical on-the-ground, local knowledge and action. We’ve also learnt to turn to the power of human connection in the face of crises.

As a global travel business operating in over 100 countries, not a month goes by where Intrepid Travel isn’t directly responding to and managing a major event. From civil unrest to natural disasters, our teams are used to thinking on their feet to find solutions that keep our customers and teams safe, that protect our travellers’ once-in-a-lifetime experience, and maintain our ability to operate a sustainable business.

When a magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit Morocco on 8 September 2023, the most deadly quake in more than six decades for the country, we knew immediately this would require a major operational response. Morocco is one of Intrepid’s most popular destinations and at the time of the earthquake we had more than 600 customers, plus more than 90 team members, on the ground.

The first hours after a disaster are critical. Our teams needed to account for everyone on a trip to ensure their safety. They’re diverting itineraries and finding alternative accommodation not only for those 600 on the ground but the hundreds of booked travellers due to arrive in the coming days. They’re fielding calls from concerned loved ones back home. For our Moroccan team members, they were also juggling concerns and responsibilities for their own families and wider communities.

At this stage, our Marrakech team also quickly made contact with two of the Intrepid Foundation’s local partners in Morocco: Education for All and High Atlas Foundation. And this earthquake, as we quickly learnt, had hit their core. Education for All provides education to girls living in remote villages in the High Atlas region, an area where it is estimated 80% of girls are illiterate. Located in some of the worst affected parts of Morocco, all six of their boarding houses sustained damages. Devastatingly, they had lost a student in the earthquake. The High Atlas Foundation, which focuses on sustainable agricultural practices for Muslim farming communities and women, was likewise impacted by the earthquake.

However, it was also at this moment where the Intrepid team witnessed the incredible capability, resourcefulness and flexibility that local organisations can leverage in times of crises.

Damage following the 2023 Morocco earthquake. Image credit: Sanae Benaadim, High Atlas Foundation.

High Atlas Foundation’s distinctive community-led development model pivoted overnight to community-led rebuilding and recovery. Operating in the epicentre of the earthquake, they leaned on their strength in connecting with remote villages to be among the first responders providing water, tents and warm clothing to survivors in some of the toughest to reach parts of this mountainous region. Education for All also offered relief grants and free counselling to those affected in their community, as well as finding alternative accommodation to enable girls to return to education as quickly as possible.

It was also at this moment that we simultaneously witnessed the incredible impact that a robust combination of global and local networks can have when mobilised together. We quickly learnt from our staff on the ground that – and this speaks volumes about Intrepid’s customers and the broader community – within hours of the news breaking they were repeatedly fielding the same question from partners and relatives abroad: “How can I help?”

Knowing that we must respond immediately, and with the infrastructure of a global business behind us, in just over 24 hours after the earthquake struck we were able to launch an emergency fundraising appeal for High Atlas Foundation and Education for All, directing much needed financial resources to the worst hit regions of Morocco.

The support we witnessed from Intrepid’s global network of customers, suppliers, staff, industry collaborators and competitors was extraordinary. The Conscious Travel Foundation held a travel industry event in London asking the sector to consider how they can be helpful in a crisis and raising money for the appeal. Luxury Hotels of the World donated US$25,000 and matched all staff donations. Flight Centre, Canva Foundation, Luxury Escapes and Topdeck Travel all stepped in with generous financial support. In just two months we have collectively raised AU$650,000 towards community-led recovery efforts in the High Atlas region.

Ultimately, this experience has opened our eyes to how we can be helpful – as a foundation, a business and a sector. Education for All and High Atlas Foundation have longstanding relationships with our Morocco team – identified by our local staff for their leadership and impact. And this couldn’t have been more evident in the face of crises. Our local teams and knowledge allowed our donors to be the first responders, despite the Moroccan government restricting foreign aid from most jurisdictions and international NGOs.

And it is also this local connection that was necessary to give travellers the confidence to travel again. Within days it was clear that Morocco was a safe destination; the earthquake had mainly affected two areas – parts of the Marrakech medina and the High Atlas region – but many other parts of the vast and beautiful country were unaffected. Critically, it was our local team giving a voice to the small family businesses, reminding us all that the people of Morocco depended on tourism for their livelihoods.

There is no question that in times of crisis humans want to help one another. In these moments there is no competition. We watched the global travel sector come together.

Indeed, isn’t that what travel is all about – to inspire us to look beyond differences and seek out connection and community?

Biheng Zhang is the General Manager of The Intrepid Foundation, the not-for-profit arm of Intrepid Travel. Experienced in fundraising and philanthropy, she is passionate about tackling social inequality through a global lens. A keen traveller, Biheng has seen first-hand the power of travel to inspire change for a better future.

The Intrepid Foundation was established in 2002 and empowers travellers to make real impact in the communities they visit. With Intrepid’s local knowledge and teams on the ground, they support carefully chosen partners to make a positive impact and create solutions on important issues. This ensures that our travellers’ donations aren’t just about giving back but giving responsibly – impactfully – where it’s really needed.

*Feature image credit: Market in Marrakech, Alex Azabache/Upsplash.