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How to choose a responsible tour operator

written by
Byron Niarra Travel
Byron Thomas

According to a 2021 American Express Global Travel Trends report, which spoke to consumers around the world, 68% of travellers are looking for sustainability-friendly travel brands. It also found that 72% are passionate about travelling to destinations to boost tourism revenue and the local economy.

We hardly need the stats to know that responsible travel is here to stay. The travel industry is awash with sustainable, regenerative, transformative, positive impact, responsible and purpose-driven themes. So much so that it can dilute the message. Making an educated decision about where to spend your hard-earned cash has never seemed more complicated. It's also more critical than ever.

Researching which travel experiences, places to stay, trips, and tours positively impact is time-consuming. Yes, there are checklists and certifications to help point you in the right direction, but determining what's responsible is nuanced. It relies on context, local knowledge, and sometimes years of experience. Finding a tour operator or travel designer that you trust to do this for you can be a gamechanger.

There are a few key components to look for when selecting a responsible tour operator. Look for a company that is aware of the social and environmental problems the world faces and what role travel plays in exasperating and solving them. Without awareness, there's unlikely to be meaningful solutions. By acknowledging challenges and limitations, a business and its employees are much more likely to overcome them.

Here are ten traits to look for in a responsible operator:

1. Prioritising locally owned hosts, experiences and accommodations 

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, for every US$100 spent by a tourist on holiday to a developing country, only US$5 remains in the host community.

This phenomenon is known as tourism's 'leakage' problem. The problem is often supply chains funnelling funds overseas, for example, via foreign-owned hotel chains, accommodations and restaurants, reliance on international suppliers and brands, non-local ground handlers and operators and even non-local guides and employees.

The most responsible tour operators work hard behind the scenes to reduce leakage on their trips. This starts with a preference for local businesses, suppliers and employees. By scrutinising supply chains, operators can help to create a ripple effect of positive change. For example, the operator chooses a locally owned hotel, which uses local suppliers, providing more jobs and income to the area. Gradually, the tourist's income spreads throughout the broader destination, raising the socioeconomic conditions for everyone. Some operators or accommodations may even help locals take a more significant chunk of the tourism pie by offering enterprise initiatives training and support.

This local approach is not only the best way for tourism to become more sustainable and equitable but leads to infinitely better experiences. Tackling tourism's leakage problem requires time and commitment, but the result is a trip embedded in a place that genuinely empowers people.

2. The how is more important than the where

Like Costa Rica and Scandinavia, some destinations have solid environmental credentials and human rights, making them an obvious choice for a responsible trip. However, the most enlightened travel operators know that it's less about where you travel to but how you travel. Responsible travel is a mindset that can (and must) be applied to anywhere in the world.

3. Proud to specialise 

Understanding local infrastructure, recognising environmental and social challenges, and identifying local suppliers and hosts that care for their employees and destination as much as their guests can require years of experience. Curating a travel itinerary that does good can't happen overnight. Therefore, the most responsible operators tend to specialise and be honest if a region or destination isn't somewhere they have existing relationships.

4. Reducing the negative, maximising the positive

It's no secret that travel can take its toll both environmentally and socially, from the traffic snaking through national parks, to the golf greens of water-stressed destinations and local backlash against mass tourism in places like Venice. Reducing negative impact while travelling is no longer nice to have, it's essential for the future of the destinations we love to explore.

Responsible tour operators embrace the challenge with integrity, action and ambition. Initiatives will include reducing carbon emissions at an operational (in the office) and trip level, avoiding over visited areas of natural importance, and respecting the environmental and social conditions specific to each destination.

But responsible travel is no longer solely about reducing adverse impact. It's about supporting and championing solutions to environmental problems while advocating for change. One of the most effective ways travel can help solve our climate and biodiversity crises is by contributing to community-led conservation projects. The right kind of travel can protect and regenerate ecosystems while supporting local communities in a sustainable way.

5. Embracing the power of travel to transform

‘Transformational travel’ is more than a marketing phrase and more than simply adding yoga and meditation to an itinerary. A responsible travel company will think about a trip’s potential to transform both guest and destination and look for ways to maximise both.

As Jake Hubert, founder of the Transformational Travel Council (TTC), says, 'Travel, at its purest, shifts perspectives, unleashes imagination, inspires understanding and cultivates empathy, which in turn promises peace.' For TTC, this personal transformation and connection between guest and destination, client and local, can shift attitudes on a global scale. Responsible operators are equally happy to think big and ask how a trip will have a lasting impact on the hosts, clients, and the wider destination.

6. Fostering respect 

When planning or booking a trip, it can be surprisingly easy to think only of your needs and not consider what the experience looks or feels like on the other side of the coin. Likewise, the travel industry's supply chain can mean that those selling the travel experience (operators) have the power to undermine those creating it (hosts). When there is embedded respect between operator and host, the sales channels and a destination, this is much less likely to happen. The most responsible travel experiences are mutually beneficial.  

For example, community tourism is a win-win when done well, but it can lead to exploitation when poorly done. The simple rule of engagement is that if a situation isn't comfortable at home, it isn't comfortable abroad either. Interactions with local people should always be two-way rather than voyeuristic. Community and cultural tourism experiences are best when created by or at least in consultation with the community, not on their behalf.

7. Encouraging travellers to go slow 

Going slow is synonymous with sustainability because it is not only less carbon-intensive, but it facilitates a deeper understanding of places we travel to. By turning away from the journeys carved up by convenience, speed and ease, we're more likely to avoid overtourism, explore the lesser-known, and foster a more genuine connection with people and place.

Going slow is no longer just about how we get around, it's also a mindset. For luxury travel, this means avoiding resort hopping and recognising the benefits of staying in one place for longer. It's only then that travellers have space and time to develop connections with a landscape or culture on a more meaningful level. Often, slowing down also provides the break from normality we need to reset and head into the world anew.

8. Looking beyond the bucket list 

From Venice to the Grand Canyon, 'places you must see before you die' became choked with visitors. Infrastructure either couldn't cope or became so targeted at visitors, local lives suffered. For many of these places, Covid-19 provided the reset needed to develop a tourism strategy that puts local needs before visitor numbers.

Responsible tour operators avoid list ticking. They know that travel is at its best when clients forge connections with a place and people, often when least expected. Such magic is impossible to contrive, but it's easier to come by in less chartered territory or by experiencing a well-trodden destination in a new way.

9. Providing transparency

The rise of the conscious consumer has also led to greenwashing, where products or companies provide misleading information about their environmental or social credentials. Businesses that want to bring about genuine change don't just shout about their positive impact; they act and are transparent about everything they do. This might be through a sustainability policy or impact report crammed with the facts and figures behind achievements and targets.

Similarly, tour operators can contribute towards genuine change by providing a transparent fee structure. This helps travellers understand where money goes and proves that the operator isn't hiding anything from partners on the ground. Being open about where your money goes also incentivises an operator to do everything it can to make its business fair and equitable, tackling tourism's leakage problem rather than contributing to it.  

10. Seeking continual improvement 

Finally, any business sincere about doing good knows that sustainability is a continuous journey of improvement. The commitment and change happening in the travel industry right now is just the tip of the iceberg.

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