How to select a sustainable tour operator?

The tourism industry is transforming fast. More and more tour operators are working on sustainable tourism practices to reduce their negative impact while building a greener and fairer tourism industry. They focus on creating benefits for local communities, protecting the environment by means of conservation projects, and give high priority to animal welfare.

Unfortunately, there’re still some tour operators out there with unethical and disadvantageous practices towards wildlife, nature and local communities. They don’t post their questionable intentions on banners though, making it hard for travellers to tell both types apart. I’m here to help you select a sustainable tour operator for your next trip, so your experience is both responsible and unforgettable!

Guidelines to get you started

It’s extremely important that travellers create a higher demand for sustainable tour operators to stimulate them to increase the supply, with the goal to make the whole tourism industry more sustainable! With the following guidelines, you’re able to determine if a tour operator is responsible in terms of animal welfare, local communities and environmental protection.

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1. Look on the website

Responsible tour operators mention their policies and practices on their website and share their mission and vision. Is this type of information nowhere to be found? Then you’re probably barking up the wrong tree.

2. Look for certifications

Responsible tour operators are certified by a GSTC accredited certification scheme. They have gone through an extensive sustainability process from where you can be sure they are working responsibly! Examples of reliable certification schemes are e.g. Travelife, TourCert, and Fair Trade Tourism.

3. Look for statements on carbon footprint

Responsible tour operators take measures to minimise their environmental impact and try to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible. Look for statements about reducing plastic, CO2 compensation and reforestation projects.

4. Look for animal activities

Responsible tour operators do not offer any activities or excursions with captive wildlife or animal interaction. When you see them offering elephant back riding, walking with lions or swimming with dolphins it’s safe to say they do not give high priority to animal welfare!

5. Look for statements on local benefits

Responsible tour operators benefit local communities with their tourism activities and are proud of it. Look for cultural excursions with genuine interaction with locals such as a cooking class. Also look for statements about positive impact and giving back to communities through projects.

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6. Look for collaborations with local NGOs

Responsible tour operators will not offer excursions to orphanages and schools without the involvement of official NGOs who regulates visits and ensures school children are not used as a tourist attraction. They will focus on sustainable community tourism that keeps children safe and families together.

7. Look for collaborations with local research and conservation projects

Responsible tour operators give high priority to animal welfare and environmental protection. They will work with local research and conservation projects to contribute to a futureproof tourism industry. You can support this too, so someone else can experience the same in 50 years!

8. Look at their group sizes

Responsible tour operators will not go on an excursion with large groups at the same time. They will travel in small groups to create less impact and leave more space for genuine interaction with local communities!

9. Look at the offered accommodations

Responsible tour operators will not offer you rooms in large hotel chains. They will offer travellers local small-scale accommodations and homestays so you can experience the culture and have an authentic experience.

10. Look for sustainable travellers tips

Responsible tour operators are all about sharing their knowledge and they want you to travel sustainably as well! By advising you on reducing plastic, giving back to communities and more do’s and don’ts in their country support you in leaving a positive impact.

Not clear? Ask more questions!

If it’s not clear from their website, ask them! If they are a responsible tour operator, they will be happy to answer your questions and elaborate on them! Questions to ask can relate to e.g. fair staff payment, CO2 compensation, collaborations with local communities and local suppliers, and their policies on safaris for travellers and staff. Do they prefer not to answer your sustainability-related questions, you also know enough, and you can move on to a responsible tour operator. Transparency is very important in sustainable tourism and if they have nothing to hide, they are more likely to be responsible!

Be aware of greenwashing

Even though transparency is very important, there are still some tour operators that name themselves eco-friendly or sustainable for marketing purposes. However, when looking into it you can find they are actually doing very little. The only way to conquer this problem is sustainability certification (as they are audited and verified by a third party) and extensive research like asking questions on their sustainability policy and practices.

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