How to choose a responsible travel operator

The choice of tour operator makes all the difference not just to your enjoyment of a trip, but also to your impact on a destination © Vgajic / Getty Images

With travellers still feeling the effects and restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of travelling responsibly when we do go has never been greater.

Planning a responsible trip, however, requires a lot of research – and it remains especially difficult to find information on responsible tourism in remote destinations and developing countries. So why not recruit an operator to do the legwork?

Editor’s note: please check local travel restrictions and business opening hours before planning a trip and always follow government health advice.

‘By travelling with a tour operator that’s genuinely committed to operating responsibly, the fundamentals of supporting local communities and limiting your environmental footprint will have already been built in to your trip,’ says James Thornton, CEO of small-group tour company Intrepid Travel, known for its pioneering responsible tourism strategies (such as being the first major international travel company to remove elephant rides from its tours in 2014).

5 tips to be a sustainable traveler

If you prefer to travel independently, chances are you will still use operators for short excursions along the way. Here’s how to ensure those you travel with will help to minimise your impact on your destination.

What does it mean to travel responsibly?

‘Travelling responsibly is about demonstrating respect for the people, culture and environment you’re visiting,’ says Thornton.  Responsible travel also helps to fund environmental and cultural conservation and gives locals a reason to conserve.

‘When you take a responsible holiday you are ensuring that the money you spend benefits the local community,’ says Justin Francis, CEO of UK-based Responsible Travel, which sells tours from 400 specialist operators around the world. ‘This might mean staying in a family-owned lodge instead of a multinational chain, discovering local eateries which celebrate local cuisine as part of their culture, or going kayaking with a local guide.’

Is responsible travel possible everywhere?

While it’s widely accepted that travelling to countries that your own government forbids (typically for safety reasons) is not responsible, due in part to the strain it can put on local services. It's also crucial to follow the latest government health advice regarding travel and COVID-19. Apart from this, most responsible travel professionals claim it is possible to travel responsibly to places with poor ethical records.

‘Travelling responsibly is less about the destination but more about what you do when you get there,’ says Francis. ‘It’s possible to travel in an extremely damaging way in countries with even the greatest commitments to human rights and the environment.’

Adrienne Lee, Director of Development at the Planeterra Foundation, the not-for-profit partner of international small-group tour company G Adventures, agrees.

‘By experiencing different places, cultures and practices in the most responsible way possible, travellers can become advocates for maintaining and bettering our world when they return to their home country,’ she says. ‘Responsible travel operators are crucial in connecting travellers to business owners that are creating opportunities for many at the grassroots level.’

Masai women in traditional costume lined up during a ceremony © pierivb / Getty Images
The best tour operators help travellers connect with, and have a positive effect on, the communities they visit © pierivb / Getty Images

Responsible travel vs sustainable tourism

The jury is out as to whether these terms are mutually exclusive. Some camps argue that responsible travel goes beyond the World Tourism Organization’s definition of sustainable tourism, ensuring tourism doesn’t simply address the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities, but also pays it forward. In a nutshell, if a company is operating responsibly, it should already be operating sustainably.

Identifying responsible travel operators

In recent years, many operators have overhauled their offerings to ensure they are more responsible. Checking the operator’s website for a responsible travel or sustainable tourism policy is the easiest way to assess its credentials.

These policies typically reflect the World Tourism Organization’s definition of sustainable tourism, and may incorporate additional measures based on the company’s own research, or that of non-governmental organisations and academic bodies. Since removing elephant rides from its tours, for example, Intrepid Travel has taken measures to secure the safety of vulnerable children in communities it visits.

‘We want to create the best possible experiences for our travellers while ensuring the places we visit are impacted positively,’ says Thornton. ‘That’s why instead of including visits to schools or orphanages which pose risks to children, we’ll eat and shop at social enterprise restaurants and stores whose earnings fund programs to help keep families together.’

Many Tourists eating at Duong Dong night market in Phu Quoc island, Vietnam © AsianDream / Getty Images
Seemingly straightforward decisions such as where to eat can have a direct impact on how much money goes back into a local economy © AsianDream / Getty Images

Sustainable tourism certification is also increasing. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) accredits certification bodies – such as Ecotourism Australia and the US-based Rainforest Alliance – to certify highly sustainable operators. Travellers can look for the GSTC logo for both tour operators and accommodation.

Keep in mind, however, that not all companies can afford to make the improvements necessary to meet the required standards for certification. Randy Durband, CEO of the GSTC, recommends consumers do not overlook ‘operators that do most things "right" in terms of sustainability, and are transparent about their strengths and their weaknesses.’

Responsible tour aggregators are also on the rise. The world’s largest, Responsible Travel, vets the tours it sells against its own strict criteria, while smaller companies such as Mauritius Conscious creates bespoke itineraries using responsible travel operators it has vetted across the Indian Ocean island.

A turtle eating plastic in the sea
Being environmentally conscious is just one element of being a responsible tour operator ©Willyam Bradberry/Shutterstock

Common responsible travel practices

Some of the key practices responsible travel operators employ include:

  • Avoiding the use of wild animals for the purpose of human entertainment – such as riding elephants, walking with lions and swimming with captive dolphins – in favour of low-impact experiences such as viewing animals in the wild.
  • Cultural visits benefit local communities first, and visitors second.
  • Interactions with vulnerable children and supporting begging and child labour are avoided in favour of sustainable community tourism that keeps children safe and families together.
  • Accommodation is provided by locals rather than big chain hotels.
  • Dining experiences are based around local produce and local cultural traditions.
  • Guides (and other staff) are local, and appropriately trained, outfitted and paid for the services they provide.
  • The company takes measures to minimise its environmental impact, such as offering clients reusable alternatives to common single-use plastics like carry bags and water bottles.
  • The company gives back to the destinations it visits, such as supporting local schools or renewable energy projects.
A group of travellers walking over a suspension bridge in the jungle © Qi Yang / Getty Images
Check details and ask questions if you're unsure about a tour operator's commitment to sustainability © Qi Yang / Getty Images

Beware of greenwashing

Many travel operators around the world (especially in developing regions) market themselves as responsible, sustainable or similar without the credentials to back up their claims. When in doubt, ask questions.

‘Ask if they have a written responsible tourism policy – if it is not written down then chances are it is not taken seriously,’ says Francis. ‘You can also ask them how they measure their contribution to conservation and local communities, which local charities they work with and details of the operations in the hotels and guesthouses they work with.’

The same goes for tourist attractions: beware of businesses that label themselves ‘sanctuaries’ or peddle ‘ecotours’ that conflict with the responsible travel practices outlined in this article.

Taking personal responsibility

Travelling responsibly, of course, doesn’t end at choosing a responsible operator.

‘Everyone has a responsibility to be the best traveller they can be,’ says Lee. ‘Researching local customs before you leave home, packing to reduce your environmental footprint, connecting with local people on the road, and avoiding single-use plastics along the way is a great start.’

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This article was first published July 2018 and was last updated September 2020.

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