Ecotourism Leader Steven Garcia On The Importance Of Environmental Stewardship

“Travel shouldn’t be just about seeing new places. It should also be about cherishing the sanctity of the places we explore.”

(Steven Garcia)

Presented by APG

Timeless rags-to-riches stories have captivated generations, serving as a powerful reminder that dreams can, indeed, come true, despite the odds. One such story belongs to seasoned entrepreneur Steven Garcia. As the CEO of the renowned Empire Tours and Productions, he’s made a name for himself in the ecotourism industry as one of its most forward-thinking leaders.

From the bustling streets of Chicago, Charleston, New York, and soon Austin to the enchanting nature of Wisconsin and the Appalachia region, Garcia has, in many ways, endeavored to redefine the tourism narrative. 

Currently, as he is preparing for a transatlantic expansion with his eyes set on London, Amsterdam, and Berlin, Garcia is driven to expand Empire Tours’ offers of eco-friendly tours to Europe.

It’s a giant leap forward made even greater when considering Garcia’s winding path of victories and pitfalls. He was born and raised in New Orleans, where his family lived hand-to-mouth. His mother, a teacher, and his father, who was a waiter, worked extremely hard, but money was always tight.

When he was 12, Garcia took his first steps in the hospitality industry, shucking oysters for just $4 an hour.

“I worked to save money for things I dreamed about buying, like polo shirts.” Garcia shares. “I paid my way through college working in the industry. It helped me find my footing and instilled me with a sense of purpose and responsibility.”

Garcia’s life took a turn after graduating from college when he decided to move to Taiwan with his wife to teach English. Garcia reveals he was instantly taken by the beauty of Taiwan and the city of Tamsui. But more importantly, his arrival there marked one of the biggest turning points of his life.

“It had barely been three hours since we arrived. I was on the subway, completely smitten, when these two Westerners got on the train, spotted me, and asked me in a thick, Detroit accent what I was doing there.”

Impressed with the knowledge Garcia had accumulated before arrival and shared with them, the affluent couple suggested he try leading walking tours. He was hesitant at first, but the prospect of earning money while sharing his love for history with other people excited him, so he took the offer.

Soon, Garcia had a solid influx of wealthy customers coming in from Hong Kong. He became interested in eco-tourism and started a company, building a hostel in an aboriginal village on the island’s east coast.

“Customers would fly in on a Friday from Hong Kong, and I’d meet them at the train station in Taipei. They had the fastest train in the world at the time, so by nine o’clock that night, my clients would be in the tropical rainforest or on the beach,” he shares.

However, not long passed before Garcia had to pivot again. His son was diagnosed with autism, and he chose to sell his company and move back to New Orleans with his family. 

Back home, Garcia reflected on his life and his work. He had gained immense experience in high-end tourism, and as he walked the city’s streets, watching buses pick guests up from hotels like the Ritz-Carlton, he had an idea.

It wasn’t long before he built another business, reaching seven figures in revenue within the first year. He would travel to China to travel conventions and attract affluent visitors to New Orleans, turning his venture into a small empire.

His Gangsters and Ghosts company also started to organize events for celebrities, going as far as introducing a wristband system for VIP access to selected bars throughout New Orleans’ French Quarters.

But despite his success in elevating New Orleans’ tourism sector, the city lacked the quality of service for Garcia’s son. Upon thorough research, he found a palace that was home to the top autism research center in the world—Chicago.

The move to Chicago also marked the rise of Empire Tours and Productions. Competition in the tourism sector in Chicago was relentless, but Garcia was equally determined. After selling his business in New Orleans, he laid the groundwork for the Chicago Ghosts and Gangsters Tour, another walking tour venture that saw immediate success.

What followed was an addition of electric boat and food tours in Chicago, as well as an expansion to Charleston and New York, where Empire Tours’ offered the same exciting and, most importantly, environmentally-conscious adventures.

“Based on our visitor numbers for our walking tours, we discovered our company alone has eliminated over 5,000 hours of bus carbon emissions a year,” he reveals.

The positive environmental effects of walking tours cannot be overstated. By eliminating vehicular travel, they not only minimize carbon emissions but also decrease the strain on cities’ infrastructure. Additionally, they’re also a much healthier option for the visitors themselves.

Pushing the sustainability movement forward, Garcia has also partnered up with Airbnb. Nestled in the heart of Wisconsin and Ohio lay Garcia’s glamping cabins made from repurposed forest firewood sourced in California, with Serenity Lodge serving as the perfect example of the beauty and the power of reclaimed materials.

Moreover, Empire Tours also features 16 electric-run, sustainable restaurants on their tours in Chicago and New York as a way to keep on supporting their eco-conscious philosophy. 

Looking ahead, as he prepares to step foot into Europe, Garcia reveals this branch is set to also provide cycling tours, another environmentally-friendly travel option that will allow visitors not just to exercise but also connect with the cities they want to explore more deeply.

As he says, “Travel shouldn’t be just about seeing new places. It should also be about cherishing the sanctity of the places we explore.”