Looking for a responsible tour operator for your next holiday? Why not choose one of these 5 locally-owned companies? I personally selected these inspiring businesses and asked them some questions to determine what their values are if it comes to sustainable travel.
As a traveler, I know how important it is to support the local community on your trip. Tourism can really elevate a destination if it’s done right. It can bring a lot of prosperity to the people living in that area, as long as the money does actually end up in their hands.
Because did you know that often only 5% of all the tourism money actually benefits the locals there? That is nothing! We, as travelers, have the power to change that number. But it can be hard to determine which tour operators are actually responsible or not. After all, greenwashing is also something to be aware of as a sustainable traveler.
I selected the list below based on the same ratings that we also use for our accommodation on Sustaying. This means support for the local community, respect for the natural environment, care for the planet, and awareness for travelers.
You can be sure that the following 5 inspiring tour operators want to help the local tourism scene, and that your money contributes to something bigger. The businesses in the list below are all 100% locally-owned – keeping most of the revenue earned within the country they operate in.
Check out these 5 responsible tour operators:
1. Indigenous Kokoda Adventures
I got introduced to Indigenous Kokoda Adventures (IKA) via Instagram and I am amazed by their responsible tourism approach. IKA is a locally-owned tour operator in Papua New Guinea that provides walking tours along the Kokoda Track.
The business is founded by Jesse Leta, who is originally from the Kokoda track area and works closely and almost exclusively together with the local community there. Most of their business operates entirely from Papua New Guinea – from their bank account to their website developer and the local guides and porters. Every decision that Jesse takes, he makes by keeping in mind the impact it will have on the communities along the Track.
The trekkers choosing Indigenous Kokoda Adventures for their trip can expect to live a truly local experience. They will sleep in indigenous village huts along the trail and get to taste the food provided by the local communities there. The guides and porters are paid a fair salary, which benefits the whole village. After all, responsible tourism is only real when the local community earns something from the money that travelers bring into the country.
Besides that, IKA knows how important it is to set the right example for responsible tourism. They make sure nobody leaves any trash behind while on the trail. Their guests get educated on how important it is to respect the natural environment, as well as the local communities there. You walk the whole trail on foot, so it doesn’t impact the natural area in a destructing way at all.
Finally, Indigenous Kokoda Adventures also helps the indigenous communities directly by selling coffee from local farmers to support a better education program for the kids in the region.
2. TerraSur Travels
TerraSur Travels is a responsible tour operator in Latin America that provides conscious trips to Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Chile. Founders Angelica and Christian live in Ecuador and operate their business from there.
TerraSur only works with locally owned hotels, local guides, and local drivers. They make sure their providers always have a responsible approach to tourism. Besides that, they also support local and international projects such as Amiguitos del Océano and the Charles Darwin Foundation.
Their trips bring awareness to travelers because they believe that education is key to the future of tourism. All their social media channels are dedicated to explaining the importance of preservation and respecting cultural diversity, among others.
TerraSur Travels makes sure its tours have a minimum impact on the environment. They do this by only working with small groups and promoting land transportation. They don’t provide trips that harm animals or people and they promote carbon offset for every trip.
Finally, this operator is a big fan of slow travel, focusing on connections with local people, food, music, and traditions.
3. Community Homestay Network
Nepal has been a popular tourist destination for decades already. Travelers flock to the popular trekking areas around the Mt. Everest region, making it prone to over-tourism (which is not sustainable). Community Homestay Network is a responsible tour operator that is working hard to distribute tourism in Nepal in a more conscious way, so that communities all over the country can benefit from tourism money.
Community Homestay Network works with local community-based homestays in Nepal.
Currently, they empower 36 (mostly indigenous) villages across Nepal. Routing travelers to these destinations which are outside of the main tourist attractions in Nepal means CHN is able to generate direct financial benefits for these communities.
As a result, communities are now also more aware of preserving their culture, traditions, heritages, and environment. Activities for tourists range from cultural programs, like art and craft workshops, to hikes, and jungle activities. They do not promote tourism activities that involve the use of animals for recreational or travel purposes such as elephant rides, horse or ox cart rides. CHN also encourages their communities to manage the waste properly through methods of composting, reducing, reusing, and recycling the waste items and have always discouraged the use of single-use plastic bottles whenever possible.
Besides that, CHN also encourages women’s participation and involvement to create economic opportunities for them. Thanks to this, women are more empowered to become financially independent and make decisions for their families.
Community Homestay Network is founded and owned by Mr. Shiva Dhakal who lives in Nepal himself. Having a native founder contributes to sustainable travel since most of their revenue stays in the same country.
4. The Island Story
The Island Story is a women-led responsible tour operator in Sri Lanka. They specialize in transformational small-group journeys and retreats. They support vulnerable communities with experiences led by the unseen of Sri Lanka.
The Island Story currently has many interesting and inspiring volunteer opportunities and experiences led by a selection of single and marginalized mothers. They employ these women in their weekly community programs which are run through their very own in-house community organization that is run by single and marginalized mothers. In the future, they will also have many hosted focused small group journeys and retreats for vulnerable communities. A percentage of all their journeys is going back to support the programs run through their non-profit, which also includes care of orphans and kids in Children’s Homes and care and rehabilitation of the homeless elderly and youth on drugs and on the streets.
The Island Story launched in 2019 and since then they have been doing bespoke private tours. Their journeys are responsible and they work with ethical small privately owned properties. They hope that their journeys encourage less judgment and more support and love toward each other.
I personally fell in love with Sri Lanka when I traveled there 10 years ago and in fact, it was one of the reasons I started Sustaying! I realized how much of an impact we can have as a tourist on the local community by helping them grow their local businesses. The people of Sri Lanka are incredibly friendly and the food is amazing!
By traveling to Ceylon (the old name for Sri Lanka) with The Island Story, you get to disconnect from the ordinary and connect with the extraordinary, random, and somewhat eccentric locals and help them rebuild their lives. The Island Story believes that responsible travel when done slowly and genuinely, has a way of changing and regenerating the lives of the local communities and environment in a truly magical and meaningful way.
Besides that, they promote local, public transportation like buses and trains, which is actually the best way to see Sri Lanka if you ask me! They provide a local guide to go with you so you don’t get lost. A true, local experience that allows you to connect deeply with the country and its people.
And finally, they do not promote plastic bottles and have their in-house upcycle project where they recycle plastic bottles into polyester yarn with another local company.
5. Persian Gryphon
I personally never had the pleasure of visiting Iran during my travels, but I’ve heard amazing stories about it. My traveler friends can’t stop talking about the hospitality of the Iranian people. But despite this, Iran has been off the tourism map for many travelers. It has been plagued by protests and it’s generally advised to not travel to Iran right now.
A negative travel advice can be devastating for a country, as they lose a lot of potential income from tourists. I have traveled to destinations with a negative travel advice before and had some of the best experiences. Of course, you need to be a bit more adventurous to visit these countries, but in general local people are extremely happy to receive tourists. Please do your own research to determine if it’s safe to travel to Iran.
If you do, Persian Gryphon is here to help you navigate their amazing country. This responsible tour operator is doing their absolute best to be as sustainable as possible. They use local (eco) accommodations on their tours, support locally-owned shops and restaurants, and use public transport where possible. You can, for example, book a sustainable food tour with them! Food is a great way to connect with locals and experience the culture from a different angle.
Tips to choose a responsible tour operator
Sustainable tourism is on the rise, which is great news! There are many responsible tour operators popping up everywhere to make the most of this new trend. I understand it can be hard to determine who is really responsible or who is just greenwashing.
For me, my intuition is a great tool to choose a tour operator. Is the owner visible (online or in person) to tell their own story and why they are enthusiastic about responsible travel? Is the operator not sponsored by big corporations? Do they really promote sustainable travel, also on their social media channels?
Certifications can also be a great way to check whether a company is legit, but don’t let this be your only guideline. Many local owners have never even heard of these labels, so how could they have obtained them? Sometimes ecolabels are another way to greenwash, so be mindful of this.
And finally, the best way to check whether a tour operator is genuine: ask other travelers who have been on their trips! Reviews and public comments are trustworthy sources of information.
I hope this article helped you to choose a responsible tour operator 🙂
Sustaying is a platform just like TripAdvisor, but we only focus on sustainability reviews. We want to help travellers discover sustainable accommodation that have a positive impact on the world and support local people.
About the author
Yvette van den Brand
Yvette is the founder of Sustaying. She has lived abroad for seven years of her life, while travelling and working in 45 different countries. Originally from The Netherlands but now residing in Mexico, where she manages Sustaying and enjoys a kiteboarding lifestyle.