Meet the 2012 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year

National Geographic Adventurers of the Year On Monday of this week, National Geographic announced their list of the 2012 Adventurers of the Year, bestowing the honor on eleven men and women who have pushed the envelope in their particular fields over the past 12 months. This year’s group includes mountaineers, a professional surfer, a long distance hiker, a mountain biker, and more.

Several of the names on the list will certainly be familiar to Gadling readers. For instance, we told you about Jennifer Pharr Davis when she set her new speed record on the Appalachian Trail a few months back and we took note of climber Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner when she summited K2 in August, ending her quest to become the first woman to climb the highest peaks in the world without the use of supplemental oxygen. We even told you about Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa and Sano Babu Sunuwar, the two men who paraglided off the summit of Everest last spring. Others earning Adventurer of the Year status include mountaineer Cory Richards, who became the first person to climb Gasherbrum II in the winter and snowboarder Travis Rice, who rode some of the toughest mountains in the world, in style no less. To view the entire list of winners and read more about their exploits, click here.

With the announcement of these recipients, Nat Geo has also opened an online poll that allows you and I to weigh in on who we think deserves the most recognition for their accomplishments this past year. Readers are encouraged to vote everyday until the poll closes on January 18, 2012. Then, in February, they’ll announce the winner of the 2012 People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year Award as well. Click here to cast your vote for your favorite adventurer.

Finally, to catch these men and women in action, check out the online photo gallery that National Geographic has put together to highlight their selections. Not only are they fantastic photos, they also capture the winners in their natural habitats, namely mountains, oceans, forests, and so on.

Congratulations to all the winners.

[Photo courtesy of Cory Richards]

Controversy over Condé Nast Traveler’s World Savers Awards

The popular magazine Condé Nast Traveler hosts the annual World Savers Awards to recognize the efforts of hotels, airlines, tour and cruise companies that give something back through their environmental or social programs. But one recipient of the 2010 award is attracting controversy over its actions.

Wilderness Safaris won this year’s award in the Health Initiatives category for its HIV/AIDS program, which includes the construction of clinics in South Africa, Zambia, and Malawi. Now Survival International, which supports the rights of indigenous peoples, says Wilderness Safaris falls short of its image as positive force in the community.

It points to its new luxury lodge, the Kalahari Plains Camp, set on the traditional lands of the Bushmen in Botswana. The lodge boasts a bar and swimming pool while the Bushmen have to walk for miles to get water. The local people used to have a well, but the government capped it when it kicked the Bushmen off the land in 2002. Survival International and the Bushmen went to court and won the right for the Bushmen to return to their lands, but the government still won’t allow them to reopen the well.

Wilderness Safaris says providing water isn’t their responsibility, but Survival International points out that they constructed a well near one of their resorts in Zimbabwe in order to attract more wildlife.

How much responsibility does a resort have to the local community? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

[Photo courtesy Ian Beatty]

Hostel World names world’s best hostels

TripAdvisor recently released its list of the best and worst in the hotel industry. Now it’s the hostel industry’s turn. Hostel World just announced the winners of the “Hoscars“, their annual ranking of the world’s best and worst hostels, rated by cleanliness, location, staff, fun, security, and character.

Over 20,000 properties around the world were eligible for the awards, yet because most of the 900,000 or so Hostel World users who may have voted are from Europe, the world’s best top ten seems to be a bit skewed geographically. All ten are located in Europe. Five of the top ten are located in Portugal.

This year’s winner, The Traveller’s House in Lisbon, won last year as well and is the first hostel to win two years in a row.

In other locations – the US, Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania – the top three hostels are listed. Additional awards were given out for categories such as best location, most fun, best character, most improved, cleanest, most secure, best small/large hotel, and best chain.

[via Guardian]

Virgin America: Financials prove service makes a difference

We’ve all gotten used to bailing out airlines that can’t figure out how to take care of their paying customers, operate profitably or otherwise get their respective acts together. And, there really isn’t much hope of this situation changing. To be an airline, in general, is to be dysfunctional … until you look at the new entrant, Virgin America. The privately held carrier announced on Friday that its revenue surged 38.3 percent from the third quarter of 2008 to the third quarter of 2009.

The airline has amassed a collection of awards to back up its commitment to customer service, including “Best Domestic Airline” in Travel + Leisure‘s 2009 World’s Best Awards and “Best Business/First Class” among domestic airlines in Condé Nast Traveler‘s 2009 Business Travel Poll. And, the fact that the 1,500-person company is adding jobs in this market — beating both the recession and its worsened form in the travel business — suggests that it is possible for an airline to not just survive but actually succeed.

David Cush, Virgin America’s President and CEO, says, “Despite an uncertain economic climate since our 2007 launch, we’re pleased to report steady and strong financial performance and our first quarterly operating profit.” He adds, “At a time when flyers are more discerning than ever, it is clear that our low fares, award-winning guest service and innovative amenities continue to convert a growing network of loyal travelers. We look forward to bringing our unique value proposition to more travelers as we grow in 2010 and beyond. ”

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But, enough of the soft stuff — let’s turn to the numbers. That’s where you’ll find the truth in these matters. Cost containment and operational efficiency helped Virgin America post a record load factor of 86.6 percent, an increase of 5.2 percentage points year-over-year. Costs per available seat mile were pushed down 33.9 percent (24.4 percent ex-fuel), and operating income swung from a $54 million loss in the third quarter of 2008 to a $5.1 million gain this year. Along the way, Virgin America realized a mishandled baggage rate of 1.18 per thousand — three times better than the industry average. And, it attained an on-time rate of 87.2 percent.

Sorry to go “quant” and dwell on the numbers a bit, but they speak to a common theme here at Gadling: whether the airlines are doomed to fail … and be propped up by the government taxpayers and fail again … and so on. Virgin America’s proved that an airline can amass 1.1 million loyalty program members and fly 5.8 million passengers in just over two years and still find a way to get into the black. There is probably market share gain in this airline’s future, but it is making a big mistake: by not screwing up, it’s taking a pass on all the free money the feds are more than willing to give to an industry that refuses to help itself.

The Pierre spends $100 million for five diamonds

It took $100 million in renovations, but The Pierre is now open … an occasion celebrated almost immediately with a AAA rating of Five Diamonds. The Pierre is now among only 113 hotels in North America and the Caribbean. Set just up from the corner of Central Park South and Fifth Ave and with amazing views of the park, The Pierre is inches from any luxury offering you could possibly want.

Heiko Kuenstle, the hotel’s general manager, says, “We are honored to receive this award in our first year of re-opening,” which he describes as “a tribute to our staff and our pursuit of excellence.” Kuenstle continues, “Our determination, from the moment we took over management of this hotel in 2005, has always been to be recognized as among the very best hotels in New York — which of course is tantamount to ranking among the world’s best. We say that with a full understanding that our job now only gets harder and that is to live up to the five diamond rating, every day and in every interaction with every guest.”

The Pierre is a Taj Hotels property, and Raymond Brickson, CEO and managing director of the parent company, is obviously psyched about the news. “Taj has always prided itself on running some of the best hotels in Asia,” he notes, “a fact that has repeatedly been acknowledged in international ranking going back decades. In India, our home base, Taj has always been synonymous with the very best.” Brickson explains, “We are just delighted with this AAA Five-Diamond award because it is an acknowledgment that Taj style and ongoing pursuit of excellence have been successfully transferred to North America.”