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Evaluating Responsible Tour Companies

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by our friends at Sustainable Travel International in the Travel Green section of their Responsible Travel Report. It is reproduced here with permission.

cinque terreA good way to evaluate a tour company’s commitment to sustainable travel is to review its sustainability policy (which includes its social, economic, and environmental responsibilities). If the company doesn’t have a written policy, ask a company representative what the company is doing to promote sustainable tourism. If the company has no policy in place (written or unwritten), and it can’t tell you what it’s doing to promote sustainable travel, it probably isn’t truly committed to these values.

Here are some of the things to look for as you review a tour company’s sustainability policy:

Does it integrate sustainability practices internally by…

  • Finding ways to use fewer and better materials in its office(s)
  • Recycling materials as much as possible
  • Designing (or redesigning) its offices to reduce energy use
  • Switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs
  • Installing Energy Star appliances
  • Incorporating sustainable power sources
  • Providing filtered water and reusable cups and glasses instead of individual plastic water bottles
  • Publishing annual sustainability, environmental, and/or corporate responsibility reports
  • Establishing a baseline reflecting the impact of its activities and continuously working to improve and lesson that impact
  • Purchasing carbon offsets

Does it integrate sustainability practices externally by…

  • Using locally owned restaurants, accommodations, and guides
  • Buying equipment and supplies from companies that also support sustainability
  • Discussing and developing environmental standards with its affiliates
  • Establishing a supply chain (wherever it does business) that avoids the purchase of toxic products and favors the “greenest” options available
  • Supporting local conservation projects
  • Contributing to the creation or enhancement of local services like schools, medical facilities, reforestation programs, and water purification systems
  • Managing tourism development responsibly and sustainably

Finally, find out (a) how the company implements its policy and (b) if it has a monitoring system in place to ensure that everyone follows the policy.

When managed poorly, tourism can damage or destroy destinations, but when managed correctly, it can protect and preserve them by…

  • Fostering mutual respect
  • Increasing cultural understanding
  • Promoting awareness of social and economic issues
  • Respecting and protecting the environment

Fortunately, all over the world, there are many small, locally owned tour companies that have been created with exactly these goals in mind.


Certifications and Award Winners


Various eco-label and green certification programs exist to help travelers choose sustainable and responsible travel providers. Businesses can earn an eco-label based on their impact management. Certain criteria (different label programs have different sets of criteria) are evaluated to determine how well a company manages its local and global impact. If a business meets the selected criteria, it is awarded a label or certification. Worldwide, there are over seventy credible programs, but it can still be difficult to differentiate a meaningful label from a misleading marketing scheme.

Two organizations trying to establish a common guideline for sustainable tourism are the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC) Initiative and the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council (STSC). The Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria Initiative aims to establish common criteria for accommodations and tour operators – their Baseline Criteria are available on their website. The Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council is a proposed global accreditation program for existing certification programs. The STSC would monitor the validity of existing eco-labels and approve acceptable programs.

Award Winners

In addition to certification programs and eco-labels, there are many green awards given to sustainable travel providers and destinations every year. These awards highlight the best and worst destinations, travel companies, etc. Try these resources to find some award-winning ideas for your trip:

Condé Nast Traveler’s Green List
David Bellamy Conservation Award
National Geographic Traveler Destination Scorecard
Responsible Tourism Awards
Tourism for Tomorrow

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