As enjoyable as jet-setting off to foreign destinations in search of new experiences (and food and drinks) can be, international travel has developed a bit of a track record for being less-than-enjoyable for the environment. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, emissions from long-haul flights and energy-intensive resorts have lead to ozone depletion, loss of biological diversity and climate change. These effects are not only harmful for the environment; they take away from travelers’ experiences, as well. I mean, can you imagine a ski resort with no snow, or a rainforest with no animal life?
Fortunately, more tour companies are taking notice of the impact their trips are having on their surroundings and have made ecotourism a priority. Here’s a guide to the top companies doing their part to help make travel experiences rewarding for both their guests and their destinations.
All seven continents
Natural Habitat Adventures (NHA) has been operating trips since 1985 and now operates in every continent on Earth (including Antarctica). Trips usually range from 7 – 14 days and cost anywhere from $5,000 – $10,000 USD, offering everything from Canadian polar bear adventures to paddling through caves and traditional villages in Indochina.
In addition to their wide selection of trips, in 2007 NHA became the world’s first carbon-neutral company, offsetting all of the emissions from transport, accommodations, and trip excursions as well as all their internal office operations. This offsetting is made easier through initiates like sourcing local foods on their trips and converting 12-passenger vans to run on vegetable oil. To top everything off, they partner with the World Wildlife Foundation and all together, the company and its guests have donated over $1,400,000 to conservation and research efforts.
As one of Kenya, Africa’s leading tour operators, Cheli & Peacock offer a range of ecotourism safari excursions across the country. In order to sustain the environment their trips rely on, they have a rigorous selection process for choosing each of their safari camps. They look at each lodge’s waste and recycling programs and ensure all business practices are ethical. As a result guests stay in lodges like the Kitich Camp in Mathews Mountain Range that run entirely off solar power and use traditional bucket showers. There’s also Elsa’s Kopji in the Mara, which hosts a “Trees for Fees” program where guests can support a child’s education by buying local plant and fruit seeds for their families to cultivate.
Most of their trips range between 7 – 11 days and cost between $4,000 – $6,000. Guests typically travel between two or three camps and take part in various safaris where they can get to see leopards and elephants and even take part in yoga retreats.
Patagonia, Peru, Tanzania
This philanthropic travel company is committed to inspiring travelers to be more socially and environmentally aware by crafting meaningful experiences rooted in the principals of ecological and cultural sustainability. They place a high importance on educating their travelers about the indigenous populations in their trips to Patagonia, Peru and Tanzania. These trips tend to last between 7 – 14 days, costing approximately $5,000. In addition, Paragon ensures that 10% of the proceeds from each of their trips goes directly to the local community and charitable projects like the Peruvian Mountain Fund, which serves to protect the traditions of the Q’Eros nations, and Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project, which improves the working conditions of the porters on Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Arizona River Runners has been helping people raft, hike and camp through the Grand Canyon for over 40 years. During this time, they’ve seen the environmental impact of travelers on the canyon and have made a commitment to passing on their environmental knowledge to their guests. During their trips — which range between 3 – 13 days and cost between $1,000 – $3,000 — tour guides explain the importance of proper waste disposal and explain the effect that even small amounts of trash can have on the local ecosystems.
The company also partners with the National Park Service (NPS) and Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association (GCROA) on special projects to remove invasive plant life. Moreover, they’ve worked with Google to document a street view of the Grand Canyon to raise awareness about its declining health.
Based in Morocco, Africa, Journey Beyond Travel is run entirely by former Peace Corps volunteers who are committed to working with local charitable organizations to promote sustainability and ecotourism. Backed by popular demand, they’ve created a JBT Project Fund, which allows travel guests to donate to the cause of their choice after completing a 8 – 21 day trip (ranging from $2,000 – $7,000). These trips allow guests to experience local Moroccan culture and cuisine and get a taste of the Sahara desert while interacting with local guides.
One of their larger charities is the High Atlas Foundation, which works with local farmers to plant trees in the mountains. By making a donation, tourists can help offset the carbon footprint of their trip.
Alaska, Costa Rica, Mexico and The Amazon
With a name referring to an ancient supercontinent that broke off from Pangaea, Gondwana Ecotours is a company offering trips around the globe, with an aim of bringing people from all over closer together. They have also made it their mission to maintain an environmental and cultural focus while providing the vacation of a lifetime, and are a Green America Certified Business, which means they have been certified by a committee which examines their social and environmental values and contributions. They have offset over 130 tons of carbon for their travelers’ flights through Carbon Fund, a non-profit organization that calculates the carbon footprint of businesses and the cost of offsetting it through initiatives like tree planting. In addition, Gondwana also books locally owned hotels and B&Bs and keeps environmental education central in their trips. These 5 – 8 day trips across Alaska, Costa Rica, Mexico and the Amazon Rainforest range from $1,000 to $4,000 and allow travelers to participate in a variety of adventures from meeting reindeer and seeing the northern lights to horseback riding and experiencing yoga retreats.
Departing from Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Dublin, Rabbie’s has won numerous awards for its 1 – 5 day trips ranging from about $60 – $450. These include the 2013 titles of “Entrepreneur of the Year”, awarded by VisitScotland and “UK Tour Operator of the Year” from Goldstar. The trips take excursionists through Loch Ness, Shakespeare’s England and the Isle of Skye, among many others. Over the past four years, Rabbie’s has been able to reduce the carbon footprint of each of their individual travelers by 21% and have donated $15 for every ton of carbon used in order to offset their usage. Through this, they have donated over $55,000 and have started a joint project to plant native hazel trees at Ben Lawers. In September 2012, they began organizing school trips to their planting sites to educate the local community about environmental sustainability. Now, Rabbie’s has expanded the project and created a Green Team for local children to learn about nature in Killin and help in Rabbie’s tree planting efforts.
What’s your favorite responsible travel or eco-friendly focused tour company? Please share in the comments below.
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