How to Choose a Sustainable Tour Operator for Your Next Trip

Whether you’re a solo traveler, a family of five, or on your honeymoon, traveling with an organized tour group is one of the easiest ways to experience a new culture. There are plenty of different types of tours to choose from – half-day, multi-day, multi-location, adventure-themed, etc. – so it really does boil down to the experience you want to get out of the tour!

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Hear us out – it might sound a bit crazy that as dedicated sustainable travelers, we are advocating for organized tours. We are not suggesting that you hop on a big tour bus, shuttle around a country, and hop out to take selfies every couple hours! We are talking about choosing to go on tours with eco-friendly and responsible tour operators.

What does that mean exactly?

Responsible tour operators offer similar options to other tour companies but will incorporate a lot of the general principles of ecotourism into their mission. They will make the environment and local community a priority and involve themselves (economically, socially, and culturally) in the town/country they are located.

Finding a responsible tour operator for the destination you are visiting can seem a bit harrowing – especially if you’re a newer member of the ecotourism community! So we have compiled a list of things to look out for and questions to ask to make sure that the tour you end up choosing is just as responsible as it is fun!

On a tour with Apus Peru, a sustainable tour company in Cusco, Peru
On a tour of Choquequirao Ruins with Apus Peru, a sustainable tour company in Cusco, Peru
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What to look out for

Once you’ve started to research tour companies that interest you, here are some things you should try to learn more about on their website:

  • Look for evidence of sustainable practices on their website! If they emphasize things like small group sizes, connecting with the local community, employing locals, etc., you can safely assume they’re a responsible tour operator
  • Certifications/qualifications/awards: First and foremost, make sure that the company is a licensed tour operator! It’s also crucial that the tour guides are certified (including first-aid certifications, especially if you’re going to be trekking or camping with them!) Then you can dig a little deeper and figure out if they’re involved in ecotourism associations, have won any awards in relation to their sustainability efforts, etc.

Pablo leading us on a hike to Cerro Negro Volcano

  • Responsible tour operators are not going to be the cheapest option (but they most likely aren’t going to be obscenely expensive, either!). Often, the company will charge a premium for their tours, but if the pricing is justified – the workers are paid well, the tour is extensive, etc. – then it’s worth shelling out a little extra!

Questions to ask:

We’ve found that a lot of small, locally operated tour companies don’t have a ton of information available online. But just because a tour operator doesn’t have a great website, doesn’t mean they aren’t practicing sustainable travel principles in their day to day operations! If the website doesn’t fully highlight their eco-friendly mission, here are some questions you can ask the tour operator directly:

1. Is the company locally owned?

2. Where is the money earned from the tour actually going?

3. Are the people working for the company volunteering or getting paid a livable wage for their service as a guide?

Peru Lake Titicaca Amantani local donkeys 5233

4. Does the company itself offer eco-volunteering options (beach cleanups, conservation projects, etc.)?

5. Is there a charity/nonprofit organization or a particular community benefitting from this tour company? (This doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, but it is an awesome benefit if the answer is yes!)

Peru Amazon 8181

6. What specific steps is the tour company minimizing their negative environmental impact?

7. What policies are implemented to reduce water consumption, conserve energy or recycle water?

8. How big is the tour group? (Smaller group sizes not only benefits the environment but creates a more intimate experience for the travelers)

9. Are they choosing eco-friendly accommodation?

Costa Rica Dominical Waterfall Villas 7092

10. If they’re providing meals/stopping at restaurants during the tour, are the food options locally sourced?

11. Is the mode of transportation environmentally responsible? (Or are the environmental impacts being offset? i.e. carbon offsets for plane tickets?)

Our Galakiwi group in the Galapagos (minus Oksana, who's taking the photo)

12. If there are animals involved in the tour, are the animals in safe and kept in good livable conditions? (Participating in a tour that involves animals in captivity is NEVER  a good choice!)

13. Is the tour company benefitting the local community?

  • Is the tour guide a local?
  • How does the company educate visitors about local natural areas, wildlife, energy conservation, and local culture?
  • Do the supplies/services being used during the tour (kayaks, surfing lessons, bicycles, etc.) come from a local vendor?
  • Is the tour sensitive to the social, cultural, political and economic climate of the country you are in? (i.e. not taking selfies with orphans, joining a political protest as a form of tourism, etc.)
  • If the tour involves souvenir shopping, is it a local market being visited? Are the products made locally?

Local families waiting to welcome tourists on the Amantani Island

And last, but certainly not least, we recommend parsing through the company’s reviews on TripAdvisor and other forums to get an unbiased and clear picture of other travelers’ experiences with the company!

What questions do you ask when researching tour providers on your travels?

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