Tours & Trips

What to Look for in an Ethical Tour Company

Laura Carroll

Laura is a writer and international development professional based in the Washington, DC area. She has lived, worked, and studied in five different countries, as well as traveling to 20+ others.

Traveling to a country that you’ve been itching to explore is one of the great joys of life.

Taking a tour is one of the best ways of making sure that you’re seeing as much as possible in the time that you have. A good tour can bring you to the best insider spots in a city, get you behind the scenes at an artisan’s workshop, take you trekking in the prettiest part of the countryside, or get you the absolute best local dessert.

With all these advantages, it’s no wonder that traveling with tours is super popular. But how do you know if your tour company matches your ethics? Here are a few things to look for, if you want to ensure your tour provider is doing ethical business.

The Size of Their Environmental Footprint

Travel is an industry with a huge environmental footprint.

Many companies do their best to mitigate their impact on the environments where they lead their tours. On a small scale, this might include a policy to leave behind only footprints and take away only memories -- an excellent policy to follow as a traveler regardless of whether your tour company mentions it or not.

Read more: Is Tourism Sustainable? 5 Benefits of Sustainable Tourism

On a slightly larger scale, a tour company might organize periodic cleanups of natural areas in your destination, or it might provide reusable water bottles and filtered water to tourists to help reduce plastic bottle waste. On the largest scale, a company might even go completely carbon-neutral!

"Giving Back" to Local Communities

Travel companies have the honor of sharing beautiful corners of the world with travelers, and many ethical travel companies have a policy of “giving back” to the communities that they visit.

Giving back can take many forms: the company might support schools or educational programs, or they could support entrepreneurship programs for local youth and adults. They might help local communities access clean water, or they might be working with a local park service to protect endangered species.

Look for policies which indicate that a tour company is doing these actions, and you can feel better that the impact of your tour will be net-positive.

Working with Local Employees & Locally-Owned Businesses

More than just supporting great causes, the best ethical tour companies actively support local communities through their business practices. Their tour leaders and local office staff are citizens of the country where the tour is taking place, and their local guides are from the city, village, or rural area being explored.

Beyond employing local people, great ethical tour companies contract with local businesses to give their guests a truly unique experience. They stay at locally owned hotels, rather than international chains, and they find meals at awesome local restaurants.

Limited Group Size

We’ve all seen the stereotypical huge buses full of tourists who move in a herd, visiting a site, snapping photos, and then moving immediately back onto the bus without ever stopping to interact with a single local person at the site.

In addition to making a much greater impact on the sites they visit, these tours just don't feel very good. Large tour groups like this are frequently disruptive to the local populations in the places being visited, simply because of their size.

Smaller tour groups blend in better to their local surroundings, and they are better able to take advantage of local businesses -- a shop or restaurant is much better able to accommodate 15 people at a time than 50! In addition to being better for the local community, a smaller group tour also gives you access to more unique experiences, making it better for you as a traveler as well!

Explicit Policies About Wildlife & Environmental Conservation

Traveling to see animals in their native habitat is truly awe-inspiring. The thunderous rumbles of an elephant's footsteps or the majesty of a sea turtle swimming lazily past you are unforgettable moments where as a traveler, you can be humbled by nature.

While animal-focused adventures are super popular, an ethical tour company will be very careful about including any animal experiences in its tours. For example, several international tour companies have stopped including elephant rides in their itineraries in Southeast Asia due to the prevalence of inhumane elephant treatment.

Instead of looking for tours that offer elephant rides or similar attractions, look for tours that take you to wildlife sanctuaries or rehabilitation centers. You’ll still get to see amazing animals up close, without contributing to animal exploitation.

How to Find Ethical Tour Companies

Ideally, a company that’s rocking an ethical business model will want to tell you all about it! They’ll have a sustainability section on their website, or blog posts about the awesome program they’re supporting for rural entrepreneurs. They’ll tell you proudly about their commitment to protecting wildlife.

To get you started, here are a few ethical tour providers that are highly rated on Go Overseas:

The Bottom Line

If a tour company doesn’t indicate their sustainability and ethics policies on their website or printed materials, don’t be afraid to ask! Best case scenario, they’ll let you know exactly how and why they choose their adventure and how they’re supporting the local community and environment. If not, they’ll know from your inquiry that ethical business is important to their travelers, and they’ll start stepping up their game accordingly.

This post was originally published in January 2018, and it was updated in July 2020.