“Gonna travel, gonna travel wild and free. I'm gonna pack my bags because this great big world is calling me” — Elvis Presley
You've packed your bags and your blue suede shoes, you've cued up your travel playlist, and mapped out a low-impact transportation plan. You've booked your eco-friendly accommodations (you responsible traveler you), and now it's time to decide how you want to explore your destination. Whether urban tourism, wildlife tourism, or something in between strikes your fancy, the internet presents copious options. In fact, with so many booking platforms and tour operators claiming to be “green” or “eco-friendly,” it can be difficult for tourists to make informed decisions. That's why we've compiled a responsible traveler's guide to green tours, showcasing responsible platforms that connect travelers with sustainable tour operators worldwide.
In addition to our favorite green tourism booking platforms, you'll find trusted resources for cultural tourism and nature-based tourism, respectively. And just in case you missed our complete guide to responsible ecotourism, we'll begin with a quick recap of what responsible travelers look for when booking a “green tour.”
Green Tour Checklist:
“Green” and “Eco” have recently become two of the most widely abused terms in travel marketing, thanks to the vague, “feel good” associations they conjure. Tour operators often employ these terms as branding tactics with flimsy evidence of any tangible sustainability initiatives to back them up. This common practice of greenwashing pervades the travel industry as a whole, from airlines to hotels to wildlife tours. For our purposes however, “green” is a positive and convenient label for activities that align with the tenets of responsible ecotourism.
According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), “ecotourism unites conservation, communities, and sustainable travel.” As responsible travelers, we want to ensure that our excursions align with these ideals – that our “green tours” are veritably verde. So, responsible travelers, look for a combination of the following characteristics when selecting tour operators:
- Minimal impacts on the local population. (Impacts can be physical, social, and even psychological).
- Emphasizes environmental and cultural awareness and respect. (Proper waste disposal, respecting animal habitats, honoring local customs, etc.)
- Provides positive experiences for both visitors and hosts. (Tourists shouldn't be the only ones having a good time!)
- Financially contributes to environmental conservation. (Do they donate a percentage of profits to conservation or encourage visitors to do so?)
- Generates financial benefits for local people. (Employing locals is one thing, paying them fairly is another).
- Helps raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental, and social climates by interpreting these concepts to visitors.
- Designs, constructs, or operates low-impact facilities. (Solar panels, composting, plastic-free, etc.)
- Recognizes the rights, traditions, and spiritual beliefs of the local Indigenous People and works in partnership with them.
Green Tourism Companies
What do we mean by green? Is there a difference between green tourism and ecotourism? The travel industry disseminates a lot of vague terms, and prefixes like “green and eco” are often used interchangeably in conversation and travel media. In the context of tours and experiences, “green” is widely regarded as a vapid and ill-defined marketing buzzword, while “ecotourism” has found a more official definition among sustainability advocates. Even so, “green” remains popular in conversation and in advertising as a synonym for “environmentally friendly.”
As travelers participating in and influencing tourism, it would help us to reimagine “green” in this context. In addition to its association with the natural environment, the color green symbolizes the broader concepts of prosperity, health, and balance. Extending this rationale, a “green tour” would ideally support the prosperity, health, and balance of the local environment and its inhabitants.
Yes, this is extremely broad. And yes, green tourism redefined still closely resembles its more niche relative, ecotourism. The point here is not to get bogged down in precise definitions but to recognize that these terms will likely continue to circulate loosely in the travel world. Until that changes, we can hold ourselves accountable for the environmental, socio-cultural, and economic impacts of our touristic activities – “green” or “eco” or not.
What a task! If only there was an easy way for travelers to gather and collate all of the information they need to find legitimately green tours…
Thankfully, we have found some amazing ecotourism companies that do just that. The following sites carefully evaluate the tour operators they promote and hold them to specific, well-documented sustainability requirements:
For two decades, Responsible Travel has been leading by example in sustainable tourism, offering transparent accounts of their evolution as a company. As part of their mission to address climate change, they provide resources to help travelers reduce their carbon footprint on every trip while urging them to “fly less and make it count”. Their extensive online catalogue offers wildlife tours, cultural experiences, adventure tours and more in over 100 countries. By pre-screening listings for responsible/sustainable tourism initiatives, providing marketing for member companies, and offering direct online booking, this website facilitates a seamless travel planning service for tourists and members. To qualify for a membership, all listings must meet environmental, social and economic criteria. (each member's specific policies are available online).
2. G Adventures
G Adventures wholeheartedly believes that travel can be a force for good. This company has specialized in small group adventure travel for thirty years. It helps keep tourism dollars in the local communities by partnering with small businesses and individuals for tours, accommodations, and more. Their commitment to reducing plastic pollution and partnership with the Planeterra Foundation are just two of the many ways they walk the talk. Check travel deals here.
3. I like Local
I Like Local is a travel platform where you can book authentic travel experiences created by locals in Asia and Africa. They offer experiences in various categories such as art and culture, trek and tour, lodge and camp, and even volunteering. Created by and for travelers, I Like Local follows a sustainable business model that also supports local people. What makes this site unique and refreshing is its price transparency. Local people earn 100% of their asking prices for the tours, meals, craftsmanship, hospitality and entertainment they offer. Unlike other booking platforms which extract a fee from the asking price, ilike local just adds their 20% administrative fee on top of local pricing. Finally, local tour operators are never charged for their memberships to the platform.
According to the company website, “Intrepid is committed not just to treading lightly, but to making a real difference – by investing in local communities, human rights initiatives, wildlife conservation projects, and the environment.” True to its mission, this company is one of the first and only carbon-neutral tour companies (since 2010). It is a signatory of The United Nations' Global Compact and is currently working towards earning a B Corp certification. They have implemented sustainability initiatives such as promoting small group travel, employing local guides, and promoting locally owned accommodation. They were also the first travel company to remove elephant rides from their listings due to animal welfare concerns. Find out more about them here.
Cultural Tourism Companies
Cultural tourism is an umbrella term encompassing a wide variety of interests, both tangible and conceptual. Cultural tourism can include visiting heritage sites, historic buildings, museums or exhibitions, performances, festivals, rituals, religious events, and more! It can be as simple as eating at a local restaurant or signing up for a city-wide walking tour. From a sustainability perspective, travelers must engage with foreign cultures respectfully. And the easiest way to do that is by forging relationships with local people!
Enter peer-to-peer travel. P2P travel platforms have recently flooded the internet, and for a good reason: they help travelers find authentic cultural experiences by connecting them with locals eager to share their knowledge. However, not all peer-to-peer platforms benefit locals equally. We recommend supporting P2P's that don't charge membership fees and display transparent pricing.
Airbnb, known originally for its accommodation listings, may be the most widely known peer-to-peer travel platform at the time of publishing this article. Other P2P sites however, focus exclusively on matching tourists with locals who curate cultural experiences or simply want to connect over shared interests. Here are six standouts that deserve your attention:
Sightseeing often comes to mind when we think of tours, but shopping is also a fun way to immerse oneself in local culture. Local Purse facilitates live virtual shopping experiences with locals all over the world. Its creators felt inspired to help alleviate the economic hardships that the Covid19 pandemic inflicted upon cities that depend on tourism. So they designed a virtual platform that supports these hard-hit places in rebuilding and diversifying their tourism economies. Travelers can use Local Purse to get acquainted with upcoming destinations in advance, or they can continue supporting communities they've already visited. The beauty of Local Purse is that travelers don't have to go anywhere physically, so anyone who wants a glimpse of the spice markets in Marrakech, for example, can participate. Local Purse is still in beta and will launch soon. Visit their website to learn more!
Lokafy connects travelers with locals who have shared interests and are passionate about their hometowns. Locals, affectionately called Lokafyers, offer personalized tours to travelers, which make for casual and friendly experiences. Initially based in Toronto, Paris, and New York, Lokafy now offers tours in 200 cities worldwide. The company's mission is to help people understand the world better by “making travel about the people you meet and not just the places you see.”
Herost believes that hosts are the heroes of sustainable travel. This impact travel platform and network showcases responsible hosts, highlights their sustainability efforts, and connects them with like-minded travelers. Herost also participates in the One Planet Sustainable Tourism Programme, a multi-stakeholder partnership that promotes sustainable consumption and production in tourism. A developing company, Herost is working to expand its online travel guide, directory, and toolkits both for travelers and hosts. The platform is ideal for curious wanderers who aren't yet committed to a specific destination.
MYTB is a French platform that connects travelers to locals in over 25 countries. But this is no ordinary travel database. Think of it as the lovechild of Airbnb and Tinder- an online matchmaker for sustainable travel that suggests “matches” based on shared interests between locals and visitors. Because of how it connects people, MYTB feels more like a community where tourists can also offer local expertise in their own hometowns. By cutting out intermediary services for travel planning, this site helps people enjoy authentic experiences while saving money and contributing directly to local economies in the process. To use MYTB, travelers create a free account to start meeting potential adventure buddies, tour guides, and even friends! Make Your Trip Better is originally a French platform and has been translated into six different languages. So English speakers who notice unusual word choices on the landing pages should not feel deterred!
Embark distinguishes itself as a platform by narrowing its focus to outdoor adventure experiences, connecting locals with travelers who aren't afraid to work up a sweat. Eschewing gallery crawls and fine dining for rock climbing and diving, this platform supports local businesses exclusively and vets all tour guides for quality and reliability. It cuts a more generous slice of the tourist economy pie for outdoorsy guides, by helping them generate income with their adventure skills and removing the meddlesome corporate obligations with which large tour operators often contend. Although member guides go through careful screening, they ultimately have full control of the experiences they provide.
Be advised that while Embark empowers local guides to fully customize their small group tours, its website does not specify any environmental priorities. So when booking from a site like this one, remember to tread lightly, leave no trace, and ask questions in advance!
This platform approaches tourism from an educational perspective, and invites travelers to dive deep into the historical context and present-day culture of the cities they explore. Over 80% of Conext Tour guides possess an M.A. or P.H.D. Degree in their area of expertise, which makes this platform attractive to scholars and the intellectually curious. Context Travel also takes its commitment to sustainability seriously by exceeding BCorp standards.
Nature Tourism Companies
Ahhh yes, Nature tourism, yet another vague and overused term leading to much confusion among eco-conscious travelers. Here, we're simply using Nature Tourism to categorize our favorite ecotourism companies that specialize in wilderness excursions, wildlife tours, and outdoor adventure. All of the travel companies below adhere to the specific guidelines of responsible ecotourism.
This eco-travel company welcomes all self-identified female travelers who want to explore the world sustainably and in the company of like-minded women. They explore off-the-beaten-path destinations and pride themselves on doing so affordably and inclusively. Origin Travels works with local merchants, artisans, chefs, philosophers, guides, and visionaries to create customizable and unique experiences for women. They also offer slow payment plans to help explorers invest in ethical travel comfortably. The trips revolve around appreciating the raw beauty of nature while integrating with local culture.
2. Sumak Travel
Sumak Travel borrows its name from the ancient Quechuan saying, “Sumak Kawsay”, meaning good living, and specializes in community-based ecotourism (CBET) in Latin America. They work closely with community leaders and networks to offer tailor-made, fair-trade experiences for visitors. They typically partner with farmers and fishers, indigenous communities, and shantytown dwellers who offer local accommodations and tours. All the tours include visits to social and environmental projects. Sumak applies fair-trade logic to their pricing with an emphasis on transparency, so tourists pay fair prices in exchange for high-quality (and often unique) products and services.
When successful, community-based ecotourism creates additional revenue sources for locals that complement but do not replace their current livelihoods (such as fishing, farming, etc). Achieving this helps communities become more economically resilient. Furthermore, local community members decide how much and how far tourism initiatives develop. Sumak Travel increases the global visibility of Latin American destinations and abides by an extensive Responsible Tourism Policy.
Explore is a well-known responsible tourism booking platform that offers small group tours and encourages customers to become more responsible travelers. Explore is the recipient of the Responsible Tourism Awards, British Travel Awards, and Travel Trade Awards. And their commitment to sustainability focuses primarily on animal welfare and climate change. According to the website, Explore is actively reducing its carbon footprint through the supply chain, investing in reforestation, and protecting the remaining ancient rainforest in partnership with Cool Earth. They offset the residual carbon through ClimateCare and aim to be single-use-plastic free across all trips in the year 2021.
Like most of the platforms we've mentioned, Explore offers all kinds of tours- from food and drink to cycling to solo tours worldwide. They have a robust catalog of wildlife and trekking tours, which makes Explore an excellent resource for nature lovers who want the convenience of booking green tours using a large, well-known platform.
This award-winning global tour operator prefers to be called a “travel outfitter” designed to bring travelers as close as possible to iconic wildlife species across six continents. According to the website, their salespeople aren't salespeople either – “they're Destination Specialists, each one an expert in the regions that they work with.” Natural World Safaris closely monitors the impact of their tourism activities from ecological, cultural, and economic perspectives and partners with grassroots organizations and conservation NGOs to ensure long-term sustainability.
This ecotourism company connects travelers with small-group tour operators in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Although Yugen Earthside does offer cultural tourism experiences, many of their tours revolve around relishing nature's splendor. While they thoroughly evaluate trip operators before inviting them to the platform, they also acknowledge that the path to sustainability may not always be easy, and allow members to showcase their sustainable actions and goals with or without official certifications. Yugen Earthside also donates a percentage of profits to sustainable tourism development initiatives and encourages travelers to understand and reduce their ecological impacts with actionable advice.
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