Is Your Tourism Good for Nature? How to Choose a Tour Operator

With a rise in ‘slow’ and ‘regenerative’ travel trends, it can feel daunting sifting through travel agents to find one genuinely committed to leaving a net positive impact on the earth. But when 40-80% of the money you spend on vacation in a developing country doesn’t stay in that country you need to choose your tour operators wisely. 

If you want to get off the beaten path and support sustainable operators, you will have to step past the first Google search. After all, visiting an overcrowded beach might not be the best post-pandemic decision. However, researching unique tour opportunities should not be a chore, so we break down how we find exciting destinations and tours below.

Look for responsible travel or sustainable tourism policies and certifications.

A responsible travel operator will publicize its commitment to the highest social and environmental standards on the market. To start, try looking for policies that discuss UN definitions of sustainable tourism, how the company works with local people or their commitment to protecting local and cultural assets. This method is an easy way to assess a company’s credentials and their level of transparency. Policies that reflect the World Tourism Organization’s definition of sustainable tourism, statements on local benefits and commitment to protecting natural and cultural assets are good signs. 

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) certifies highly sustainable operators here. You can look for the GSTC logo for both tour operators and accommodation to know whether they have passed certain benchmarks for sustainability. 

Keep an eye out for greenwashing.

It can be tricky weeding out the legitimately environmentally friendly companies and those that overemphasize their love of bamboo straws and reusing towels. Here are a few signs a company is truly committed to minimising its environmental impact: 

  • rainwater toilets 
  • eco-friendly cleaning products
  • proper insulation
  • solar panels
  • Local food offerings  

Once you arrive at the hotel, evidence of eco-friendliness can also be recycling bins in the reception area and locally sourced food on the restaurant menu.

Treating animals with respect and dignity.

In the age of social media, turning off your environmental consciousness to take a quick picture on an elephant is very tempting. But elephant rides, swimming with sharks, and playing with lion cubs are not ethical travel choices and it’s important to consider the effects beyond the cute pictures you take. 

Responsible tour operators do not offer activities with captive wildlife for animal interaction. If you are interested in wild animals, seeing them in their natural habitat with groups that offer ethical animal interactions such as sanctuaries or conservation volunteer projects are more appropriate. 

Local people own and run the business.

Tourism can create local jobs and share local knowledge but in reality, about 80% of travellers’ spending on vacation does not affect its destination country. If you stay in an international hotel chain with foreign staff and management, locals miss out on the chance to enjoy benefits-they leak out of the local economy a term known as leakage. The environmental impacts of tourism on local communities include noise and air pollution, littering, water shortages, price inflation and cultural issues. 

However, empowering locals isn’t simply hiring them as guides, taxi services or using locally sourced food products. Those are the easy and most economical ways to feign an authentic local experience meaning your tour operator might not be benefiting the local economy in the way you think. Partnerships that ensure local economic development through an equal share of profits and capacity-building are good tour operator signs. You might still book through a foreign agency in your home country (sometimes local operators are hard to find!) but look for transparency so that you know what percentage of funds stay in the local economy.

Be aware of group sizes.

Travelling in smaller groups has less impact on the environment and allows for closer interactions with local communities. If your activity is a 50-person hike on a well-trodden path, this type of tourism probably isn’t good for nature. 

Instead, travel off-peak when there are fewer people around if you still really want to visit Table mountain in Cape Town or where “Game of Thrones” was filmed in Croatia. Or choose small group tours like ours and meet the medieval wildlife of modern Europe in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains.

Try to learn something while you’re away. 

Even if you are looking for an escape from your daily life, learning in the field on vacation can be fun. Consider this: your adventure is a once in a lifetime opportunity; you are entering a unique microcosm of the planet surrounded by new surroundings and a foreign way of life. It is good to remember that while it all may seem unfamiliar to you, locals call it home. Learning about the environment you are immersed in from Indigenous people can add a new dimension of depth to your surroundings. 

Going on tours guided by Indigenous people you are likely to be more engaged and given details that you wouldn’t get on a normal cookie-cutter travel tour.  By coming with the mentality of a student that is with a willingness to learn, you can make your trip meaningful both for yourself and local communities. Taking absolute ownership of your adventures and choosing the right tour operator can ensure that your trip is fulfilling and supporting the local economy.

As you wait for travel to resume, consider the impact you want to leave on your next trip. Hopefully, we have proven that it is not rocket science to plan trips where your experience simultaneously benefits local people and their ecosystems. Especially now during the pandemic where global travel restrictions have impacted tourism-reliant economies. At Friends of Wallacea, our tours are 100% locally-owned, generating income, employment, and economic growth opportunities in rural communities worldwide. 

We are working on easing your curiosity for adventure by creating smart and responsible travel options at our upcoming South American sites. For more information about supporting community-led-tourism check out this article here.

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