Pacific Discovery is an educational organization and a labor of love.

Since its inception in 2001, Pacific Discovery has taken more than 2,000 students and many faculty-led groups on our experiential journeys. We value our incredible team of experienced, qualified and passionate Program Instructors. We have an excellent safety record, comprehensive safety management systems and a database of alumni, parents, advisers and faculty, who are happy to be contacted by you, to discuss their experience.

Pacific Discovery has undergone independent safety accreditations with American Gap Association (USA), Year Out Group (UK), and OutdoorsMark (NZ).

Our summer, semester and gap year programs are grounded in the philosophy of experiential education, where learning is facilitated and hands-on. Our programs are overland journeys, blending cultural immersion, personal and leadership development, volunteer and community service projects, experiential education, wilderness exploration and optional transferable academic credit. Our Mission is to offer the world’s best experiential programs - providing insights into our increasingly global society, developing empathy for other cultures, furthering understanding of international issues, heightening appreciation for the earth’s wild places, and assisting you to stretch and grow.

Our story

We, Rachel Sanson and Scott Burnett, founded Pacific Discovery in 2001, utilizing experience gained through working in environmental and outdoor education, teaching, tourism, grass-roots community development and extensive travels. We envisioned offering deeply meaningful programs where students would gain new insights and ways of thinking about our world, through educational journeys, that were ethically sound, ensured a positive outcome for host communities, and a lower impact on the environment.

Initially based in Oregon, we relocated Pacific Discovery's home to New Zealand in 2005 to raise our family.

Today, Pacific Discovery runs 25+ programs annually. We continue to be a small and personal organization that strives to offer authentic, inspiring and pivotal experiences.

As directors, we remain passionately and personally involved in all aspects of the program, from answering phone and email enquiries, to researching, developing and evaluating programs. We even manage to get out and lead programs from time to time. This means you have a very personalized experience and can trust that we are always focused on providing you with an inspiring and safe journey with Pacific Discovery.

Pacific Discovery is the vision of Scott Burnett and Rachel Sanson but we have had an enormous amount of support, mentorship and encouragement from many people. It's been a real team effort. To our fantastic team, brilliant in-country colleagues and friends, and to our wonderful program alumni - a huge and heartfelt THANK YOU!

Visit our Gallery of Appreciation to see a group photo from every Pacific Discovery program.

 

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Eli with Khun Lek, founder of the Elephant Nature Park, Thailand

“You will grow in ways you'd never imagine. You will learn what you never could inside a classroom. Come for the adventure, you will get so much more.” Pacific discovery is more than a tour company. It's a close family embodied with the true spirit of travel. This adventure is unique in that it doesn't fall under any particular category. One day you’re relaxing on a cruise ship in Ha Long Bay, the next you’re trekking through the Laotian jungle and spending the night with a native hill tribe. The variety of activities offered on this trip is incredible. Each day of the itinerary is thoughtfully planned. You can tell that Rachel and Scott really care about the experience they are providing for their participants. This program offers a great balance between group and independent travel. The perfect ratio of structured activities, to free time, to explore and make the trip our own. Many participants feel comfortable enough after the trip to extend their stay, traveling either with someone they met on the trip or independently. I spent a week learning Thai massage, living in Bangkok and went on a ten day silent meditation retreat. PD was more than helpful with preparations such as my visa extension paperwork. I remember before leaving to go on the program I was at REI and had a question about a whether I needed something and they responded to my email while I was still in the store. This is only one example of their passion and dedication. I'm bringing home a deep understanding of Southeast Asian culture, great memories, and friendships that will last a lifetime.” Read more Eli Susman, 2014
Middlebury College

What sets Pacific Discovery apart?

    • Goals - The focus of our programs is assisting students to become more confident, capable and self-reliant, empathetic, environmentally aware, and develop a global perspective. We endeavor to do this without telling students what to think or do. Instead by taking students out of familiar surrounds, putting them in challenging situations and exposing them to different ideas about the world, and through the hands-on nature of the program, and the shared perspective of the entire group, students will be supported to grow and develop along their own unique path.
    • Passion - The Founders of Pacific Discovery are intimately involved in the day-to-day operations. We believe that our enthusiasm for what we do results in a more powerful, professional and personalized program experience for each student.
    • Integrity - We have personally researched, and work directly with, every accommodation, activity and transport provider, as well as every community and service project our groups undertake. These personal relationships result in surety of the program experience for our students and a better outcome, as local providers value the ongoing relationship they have with us and we reduce the barriers to communication and feedback.
    • Personalized - We work with each student and family to ensure students gain as much as they can from their program experience. Rachel and Scott, the program directors are accessible to families and students.
    • Program Design - Our programs are meticulously researched, designed and each program departure is a very special and unique experience. Learn more about Program Design.
    • A Journey - Each of our programs is a deliberate journey of discovery and the various program experiences link and flow together incredibly well.
    • Duration - Our semester programs are 9 weeks duration - a few weeks shorter than a standard 12 week academic semester. Our reasoning for this is that we fit a lot into our programs and meet our programming objectives in 9 weeks. We feel that a longer duration is not necessary and does not meaningfully alter the depth of experience or learning gained from our programs. An additional benefit is that students have time to do their own independent experience or travel at the end of the program, building on skills they have developed during the program.
    • Structure - Some organizations advertise a sample itinerary and then have their Program Instructors make the arrangements just before, or even during the program. We expect our Program Instructors to focus on the students’ educational journey during the program and not be distracted by logistics. We make the majority of program arrangements and payments ahead of time so that the group are able to complete the scheduled itinerary and so that the instructors can focus their attention upon their group.
    • 24/7 support – During programs, students and families are provided with a 24 hour free-call number, that is answered by one of the HQ team, who is on hand to facilitate communication and assist with any issue that occurs.
    • Safety - We have an exemplary safety record, and student welfare is our core focus. We have personally visited, assessed and maintain an ongoing relationship with every service project, activity, accommodation and transport provider that we use. Our Program Instructors are trained in safety assessment and management. We also teach and empower our students to assess and manage risk, so they take on some personal responsibility for decisions around their safety during the program. Learn more about our Safety and Risk Management protocols.
    • Accreditation - Pacific Discovery holds American GAP Association (AGA) accreditation. This is a rigorous and comprehensive accreditation of all aspects of an organizations operation from safety management, to programming, to assessing the validity and worth of service learning projects. Read more about our Accreditation.
    • Program Instructors - We employ experienced professional Program Instructors who have great people skills, extensive in-country experience and wilderness first responder (WFR) first aid qualifications. Their role is 50% leadership, logistics, and managing healthy group dynamics, and 50% teasing learning out of experiences and individually mentoring each student They are vested in ensuring the best possible program experience for each student. Meet our team.
    • Students - We treat our students as adults and encourage personal responsibility. We have high expectations of our students and provide them with the knowledge and the skills to gain as much as possible from the program and to safely pursue their personal goals within the larger structure of the program.
    • Breaking Down Barriers - We reduce the hierarchy so that communication between students and instructors is open, trusting and easy. Our Program Instructors do everything that the students do, not keeping themselves separate from the group. Instructors form a big brother/sister relationship with students. This results in better mentoring of each student, better group dynamics, and more openness, trust, and communication within the group.
    • Supportive Group Dynamics - Students are often surprised at how closely bonded they become with their group mates, how supported they feel, and how powerful this aspect of our programs is. This doesn’t happen magically and everyone on a program contributes to creating great group dynamics and facilitating this is a key focus for our Program Instructors.
    • Commitment - Since 2001 the Founding Directors, Rachel and Scott have remained personally involved in all aspects of the programs…from answering phone and email inquiries, to researching, developing and running our programs.
    • Quality of Experience - We continually refine and improve our programs. At program conclusion we do a thorough evaluation of all program elements, incorporating suggestions from our students, families, program instructors and local colleagues into future programs.
    • Affordability - Our focus is on offering incredible programs, not on how much money we can make. Our programs are very good value. In a broad comparison to similar programs, we stay in better quality accommodation, charter private transport, include more activities, have greater depth to our programming, and pay our program instructors higher rates - all while keeping our program fees comparable with those of the majority of our competitors. We do this by having stream-lined and efficient systems, keeping administration overheads low, and spending a minimal amount on marketing.
    • Ethics - Our vision is for our programs and organizational practices to have a net positive impact on the world. For us, it's about providing a more rewarding and fulfilling travel experience; being culturally sensitive and minimizing negative impacts on the environment; getting involved with local people – ensuring that our visits benefit the community, and that the local people are involved in decisions that affect their lives. We believe it's important to help conserve the world’s wild places, to travel and live sustainability, and to pay it forward. Learn more about our Philosophy.
    • Values - New Zealanders value honesty, fairness, openness, and treading lightly on the earth (broad generalization). Being an organization founded by New Zealanders, these values permeate Pacific Discovery.
Emily under Thee Lor Suu Waterfall in Thailand

“I look back now and I realize how much has changed. Not so much on the outside but on the inside there are new thoughts, ideas, new wisdoms and new attitudes towards life. The patience and compassion I found when dealing with people of different cultures and all the respect I have for the people I met along the way. Memories of landscapes more beautiful than anything I've ever imagined have been etched into my mind.” Emily Hanley, 2003
University of Maine

Why Pacific Discovery?

When we created Pacific Discovery, we were two young New Zealanders living in the United States. We were very conscious of the vast ocean between our old and new homes.

Covering 1/3 of the earth’s surface and larger than the entire combined land areas, the Pacific Ocean was named the ‘peaceful ocean’ by Spanish explorer Magellan during a voyage of discovery and the first circumnavigation of our planet in 1521.

Polynesian seafarers had earlier undertaken some of humanity’s greatest journeys of discovery over the 2,500 years preceding Magellan, as they gradually explored and settled the Pacific Ocean, voyaging from Asia to South America, to New Zealand and to Hawaii.

Magellan's voyage was an important early step in an accelerating process of making us aware of ‘our world’, a process that today is of critical importance as we stretch the capacity of our planet to provide for us all.

The name Pacific Discovery celebrates these early journeys of discovery and celebrates the journeys of discovery that our students undertake on our programs, as they deepen their understanding of our world, their understanding of themselves, and understanding the perspectives of others.

Our students undertake a Pacific (peaceful) Discovery - treading lightly on our world, learning the perspectives of others, and in the process becoming a force for peace and humanity.

Our logo incorporates a blue circle representing the Pacific Ocean. Inside this is the silhouette of two of our students. They are looking out from a peak. We love their embrace of the view and an openness to the world in all its richness, beauty and fragility. This moment encapsulates what our programs are all about.

Ellie scrambling around in a Cambodian temple ruin.

“Before I came on this trip, I'd travelled quite a bit in Asia on my own. I wasn't sure if it was worth joining a group tour rather than doing a similar trip independently. But I got so much more out of the trip than I would have otherwise.” In the past I'd spent countless hours lugging a heavy backpack in the heat looking for a place to stay, which would frequently turn out ugly or filthy or overpriced. Instead we stayed in amazing guesthouses that were much nicer than anything I ever found on my own. All the treks we did seemed less touristy and more authentic than some of the other ones available. Our leader knew all the areas really well and could suggest things to see or do, great places to eat, and worthwhile places to go out. Finally it was really wonderful to have a group of people to share everything with. I would recommend this trip to anybody interested in Southeast Asia. I would recommend this trip to anyone who has never thought about Southeast Asia. It was a totally unforgettable experience and I had the time of my life.” Read more Ellie Laird, 2006
Bryn Mawr College

Pacific Discovery is an educational organization registered and physically located in New Zealand.

We have undergone and maintain comprehensive safety and programming accreditations with

  • American Gap Association (USA)
  • Year Out Group (UK)
  • Outdoors Mark (NZ)

We are members of

forum untitled-1 Forum On Education Abroad - advancing best practice in the education abroad field
nafsa untitled-1 NAFSA - the National Association for International Educators
institute-of-international-education untitled-1 IEE - the Institute of International Education
generation-study-abroad untitled-1 Generation Study Abroad – the US government initiative to increase the opportunities for US students to study abroad
diversity-abroad untitled-1 Diversity Abroad – an initiative to support under-represented populations to study abroad
american-gap-association untitled-1 The American Gap Association
year-out-group untitled-1 The Year Out Group
everyday-ambassadors untitled-1 Everyday Ambassadors - A network of people and organizations committed to community centered international education and exchange

We maintain

  • An independently audited safety management system.
  • An independently audited sustainability policy.
  • Comprehensive public liability insurance.
  • Experienced and well-educated Program Instructors who hold relevant tertiary qualifications, Wilderness First Responder (WFR) first aid qualification, and are trained in our leadership, experiential education, facilitation, risk assessment and safety management systems.
  • A database of alumni who have travelled with us, and alumni families, and university and gap year advisors, who are happy to be contacted to discuss their (or their son or daughter's) experience with Pacific Discovery.
  • Program payments are held in a bank trust account till disbursement, meaning that in the event of financial default of Pacific Discovery, student program payments would be protected from creditors.

Did You Know?

  • Annually we run a number of customized programs for high school and university groups. Contact us if you are interested in an educational program for your students.
  • Our Directors speak at conferences and are on the ethics and standards committees for the American Gap Association (AGA).
  • National Geographic nominated Pacific Discovery among the ‘top 100 travel companies on earth' in 2008 and again in 2009.
Catherine at school in Cambodia

“I have known Scott and Rachel for several years, and I can recommend them in the strongest positive terms. In my opinion, they run the most impressive student-oriented programs available anywhere. I have led numerous study abroad programs and worked with many other companies over the years, so I am most confident in this assessment.” I worked with Pacific Discovery extensively in the planning, development, and implementation of a Texas State School of Social Work study abroad program to Cambodia and Thailand in winter 2007-2008. This was a three-week in-country program involving fifteen students. I was immediately impressed with Pacific Discovery by their excellent, extensive website, and their quick and professional response to my initial inquiries. They were very attentive to the details of the trip as well as responding to my needs. They gained my full confidence very quickly. Our planning time was shorter than desirable, but they were able to make it all happen very efficiently and effectively. They handled every aspect of the program from start to finish without any problems of any kind, and I truly enjoyed their pleasant, friendly attitude.Scott was our tour leader, and the students really loved him. I appreciated that he not only managed the logistics of the program so well, but also greatly enhanced the academic quality with his extensive knowledge of Southeast Asia, particularly the history and contemporary culture of Cambodia and Thailand. In addition, Pacific Discovery arranged for several very unique learning opportunities, such as staying with a wonderful family in a village, visiting local schools to interact with students and donate books, volunteering at non-governmental social service agencies, and touring an ecologically-based nature preserve.I can say that Scott and Rachel changed our lives through this amazing adventure.” Read more Catherine Hawkins, Ph.D.
Professor of Social Work
Honorary Professor of International Studies
Texas State University-San Marcos