Authenticity—it’s the one thing all the best travel experiences have in common. Every day, more travelers are looking for ways to live like the locals; but in destinations with looser tourism infrastructures, such experiences can be hard to find.
It’s tempting to book familiar hotel names or eat at restaurant chains, but little of the money you spend at major brands overseas goes back to the local community. Sustainable travel—choosing to invest in the communities and economies of a destination—helps travelers share the wealth with locals while experiencing a place more authentically.
Creating your own sustainable travel itinerary is not without its challenges—language barriers and the lack of resources for local listings are common stumbling blocks. But a growing number of travel companies help customers see the world and have a positive impact. By collaborating with non-profits and locally owned businesses, the following companies are leading the shift to travel for social good.
Booking local accommodations and transportation in a place you’ve never been is daunting, but travelers on a tour with Intrepid Travel can trust that the right decisions are being made. Dedicated to making positive economic, environmental, and social impacts, Intrepid Travel is helping to build an industry that can be sustainable for years to come.
Intrepid Travel connects travelers to the destination and the people who live there by hiring local guides and supporting small businesses. The company is always looking for more ways to unite travelers and locals, even in countries like Myanmar, where homestays are forbidden by the government. Since travelers aren’t allowed to visit locals at home, Intrepid supports a community lodge staffed by individuals from a local village and it’s the main attraction of its Best of Myanmar itinerary. Programs like this prove that Intrepid understands that sustainable travel is not just about spending responsibly, but also about giving the traveler a special connection to the destination and the people who live there.
Intrepid Travel takes on sustainable travel on both the community and the global level. As the largest carbon-neutral travel company in the world, the company offsets its impact by supporting key carbon-reducing projects around the world—so far it has offset over 200,000 tons of carbon emissions.
Sustainability isn’t just about how you travel, it’s also about what you bring. Often, it’s hard to know if your travel gear was made under humane conditions—and there’s rarely an easy way to find out. However, outdoor retailer Cotopaxi is letting its customers in on the secret by introducing a new model of transparency.
Cotopaxi sells everything from backpacks to rain jackets and sleeping bags, and produces many of its products exclusively from recycled material in fair trade factories in the Philippines. Its mission is to use business as a force of social good and innovation, starting with its employees. The company’s most radical project has been the Luzon Del Dia, a backpack that is individually designed by the factory-worker who sews it together. Check out the video below to see how this idea of complete creative freedom transforms the atmosphere of the factory.
Cotopaxi’s lightweight and weather-resistant line of products are built to suit the needs of travelers and the communities they impact. Cotopaxi designates 10 percent of its profits as grants, which are then donated to trusted non-profits like the International Rescue Committee (view the full list of grantees on the Cotopaxi website). It’s travel gear you can feel good about—just check out the yearly impact report, which details how far the donated profits have reached and the differences they’ve made.
You don’t need to travel to the farthest corners of the world to practice traveling responsibly and spending locally. In fact, if you live in New York City, you don’t even have to leave your hometown. Urban Oyster is a tour company that’s helping people get a true sense of the city with tasting tours that share the flavors and histories of locally owned restaurants and bars throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan. Each restaurant is paid for the tasting, and Urban Oyster ensures that the restaurant’s daily business is not interrupted by the tours by only bringing in small groups. The tours cover everything from new craft breweries to immigrant neighborhoods and reveal the history behind some of the city’s oldest establishments.
But Urban Oyster’s operation isn’t just about giving its customers a more authentic New York experience, it’s also about giving visitors the chance to engage with locals while building the local economy. It’s proving that travel can be done better, not only for the traveler but for the community.
For independent travelers who like to plan their own itinerary, traveling sustainably is difficult. With the massive amount of information available on the internet, finding locally owned hotels or restaurants can be nearly impossible. Likewise, if you’re a small business in a small country trying to list your hotel or restaurant, finding visibility online can be even more difficult. This is the problem Lokal, an online marketplace for locally operated experiences, is trying to fix.
Because many of the businesses featured on Lokal don’t have the resources to make an attractive website or set up an Airbnb listing, they struggle to advertise themselves to global travelers. As a resource for sustainable travel, Lokal boosts visibility for these small businesses and connects them with travelers. Local communities get a much-needed income increase, and travelers get the benefit of authentic experiences with locals.
All of Lokal’s listings are carefully curated—they must be locally run by people who make great efforts to protect the environment and and preserve cultural traditions. Businesses are vetted and verified by local organizations. On Lokal, you can find private music lessons from a master artist in Cambodia and stays at eco-lodges so remote that they are accessible only by a 45-minute hike along the beach.
Though it currently only has listings in five countries, Lokal has plans for growth, and (calling all budget travelers) is looking for “Explorers” to help verify new listings.
“Don’t just see the world. Make it better,” says Bruce Poon Tip, the charismatic founder of G Adventures, a global tour operator on a mission to make a difference. G Adventures is acting on this belief by guaranteeing that money from every trip goes directly to the community through its own non-profit, Planeterra Foundation.
Not only can travelers feel good knowing that part of the money spent on their vacation is going toward a good cause, they can also visit the projects and communities their money is directly supporting. For instance, when G Adventures realized that there were little to no employment opportunities for local women on the Inca Trail, it helped establish the Women’s Weaving Co-op. The Co-op not only helps these women earn money but also gives them a space to share their stories with the G Adventures travelers who visit. Not only are travelers automatically supporting women in Peru by taking a bucket-list trip to Machu Picchu, they also have the opportunity to purchase souvenirs directly from the shop, speaking and learning from these hard-working women.
G Adventures understands that when local communities don’t benefit from tourism, the future of travel is at stake. Without sustainability, attractions that beckon travelers can’t be preserved and the people living in these destinations can easily begin to resent tourism. But by supporting these communities, G Adventures and companies like it are investing in travel as a means of connection across cultures. Traveling sustainably is about positive environmental and economic impacts, but most importantly it’s about holding the door open so travelers and locals can continue to learn from one another.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 5 Exciting National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures Trips in 2016
- 12 Dream Destinations That Don’t Want You to Visit
- Why I Hated Group Tours Until I Tried One
Jamie Ditaranto is always looking for ways to travel better and more mindfully. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.