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The Global Greening of Empire Tours: Eco-Initiatives to Better the Travel Industry

Steven Garcia’s world-wide company is setting the standard for sustainability in travel

By Tyler Shepherd

Stock photo of a stage door sign
(Image: Empire Tours and Productions)

Few things match the wonder you feel when exploring a new city, country, or continent. But all too often, tourism has a negative environmental impact that goes further than you could imagine. Steven Garcia, CEO of Empire Tours and Productions, aims to change that.

Empire Tours and Productions now has operations in New York City, New Orleans, Chicago, London, Amsterdam, Austin, Appalachia, Wisconsin and Charleston — and it’s slated to expand deeper into Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and beyond. But Steven’s venture into the world of high-end tourism started when his wife moved to Taiwan to teach English.

Garcia set up shop with tours in Hong Kong and Taipei, but his favorite project was a lowkey hostel. “I started this hostel on the east coast of Taiwan,” he says. “It looks like Hawaii, and it’s really beautiful. We were bringing in Westerners from Hong Kong. I would meet them at the train station in Taipei, put them on the fastest tilt train in the world at the time, and they would literally be in the rainforest in an Aboriginal village by nine o’clock at night.”

Partnering with Community

One of the key parts of this venture’s success was Garcia’s partnership with local people. “We built a school in the village, and the village people worked there with our people. They took people river tracing. China has these gorgeous, rounded mountains. It’s really beautiful. We also did music festivals out there.”

“Then, the Aboriginal kids would come out every night. They had traditional dress, and they would do dances and songs. Then, they would roast Aboriginal food like boar. On Sunday, they’d go fishing off the reef.”

Steven’s son has autism, and at the time, he couldn’t get the care he needed in Taiwan. The family headed back to New Orleans, where Steven hit the ground running with high-end tourism. “In the first year, in 2010 or 2011, we did seven figures,” he says.

The time Steven spent in China still served him well — he was able to convince Chinese citizens to come visit the Big Easy.

“We’d go to China a bunch and bring in Chinese tour groups. I used to spend like 25 days straight in China and just go to different cities every other day to these big travel conventions. I would go speak — and I did presentations in Mandarin — and say, ‘Come to New Orleans.’”

Steven eventually sold the company in New Orleans and headed to Chicago, where he and his wife knew they could secure better care for their son. It was there that he built the company he owns today.

Environmental goals and supporting workers

Through Empire Tours, Steven remains committed to making a difference in the environment and impoverished communities.

“I looked for a safer way to offer sustainable and responsible tourism without overwhelming those places,” he says. “So 90% of our tours are walking tours. It’s a healthier way. Then, also, it’s better for the environment. Imagine — we could be running 10 big buses a day, all day long.”

Even the vehicles the company operates are going green. Steven is making environmentally friendly modifications to newly acquired bus companies, and he’s also overseeing the conversion of diesel boats to electric.

In addition to offering luxury tours, Empire Tours also owns a network of high-end resorts listed on home-share apps. These destinations present more opportunities to enrich local communities and the environment as a whole.

Through his partnerships with AirBnb, he has created unique experiences, and now boasts 2,600 5-star reviews on the platform.

“We employ some of the poorest people in the country,” he says. “We employ local — we’re an economic driver in these communities. We did it like an opportunity zone in Appalachia where they’ve had big drug problems. Everything in Appalachia on our properties is built with repurposed barn wood. We employ the Amish, formerly incarcerated individuals and we have an apprenticeship program for the youth.”

“When it comes to preserving and respecting the environment, I believe in leading by example,” Steven says. “It makes you feel good that you’re doing something for the environment.”

Combining Tourism and Education

Many of the structures Empire uses come from eco-friendly materials. “We have Serenity Lodges, two huge log mansions on the Mississippi River in Wisconsin totalling over 20,000 square feet. It’s open for  weddings and corporate events, and the whole thing’s done of logs that were saved from California forest fires.”

Educating people — and inspiring them to take steps to protect the environment — is critical to the success of conservation efforts. Steven hopes that visitors to his properties will find a new way to connect with the natural world.

“All the Airbnbs are about getting back to nature,” he says. “At the Wisconsin place, there’s world-class bird wildlife. There are eagles everywhere. We have bird books on ecosystem sustainability. And then, people will list what birds they saw.”

Why the focus on sustainability? Steven’s passion for respecting and preserving the environment predates his success as a businessman.

“I’ve always been real hippie, you know,” he says. “That eco hustle is the first one I ever did.”

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