What Makes an Ethical Tour and Activity Operator

April 26, 2019, Kyla Steeves
Ethical tour and activity business. Aerial view of overcrowded beach in Italy.

Overtourism is a growing concern for destinations across the globe. Thanks to the ease and affordability of travel, herds of tourists flock to places they’ve seen on social media — especially Instagram. Unfortunately, many don’t realize the harmful consequences of their actions abroad, which is why tour and activity operators should take the initiative and lead by example.

By operating responsibly, it’s possible to turn the tide on this problem. With moral principles in place, you can offer an experience that you feel good about while also educating tourists on responsible travel. In turn, this can minimize the negative economic, social, and environmental impact of tourism in your area and create a better place to live and visit.

So what does it take to be an ethical tour and activity operator? How can you be a model for good and contribute to the bigger picture? There are many ways to make a difference, but an excellent place to start is by incorporating these sustainable tourism practices:

1. Respecting the local culture

All too often, local customs and etiquette fall to the wayside because of selfie-stick addiction and “doing it for the gram” mentality. In pursuit of the perfect picture, travelers might dress inappropriately, photograph locals without permission, or trespass for a better angle. This behaviour is not okay.

Sure, snapshots and videos beat plastic trinkets as souvenirs, but your guests don’t need to capture everything they see. Instead, designate specific photo-taking spots and encourage them to fully embrace their surroundings.

At the same time, it’s a good idea to provide your guests with information about the local culture beforehand. In their booking confirmation, let them know about social norms, and what to wear. You can even give them a few common phrases to learn for engaging with locals.

2. Supporting the local economy

Supporting the local economy. A local artisan making handmade jewelry.

Without a doubt, tourism can stimulate economic growth in your community. But that requires more money to come in than out. As a tour and activity operator, you can help your destination thrive by maximizing the financial benefits that crowds bring in. Here are some ideas:

  • Create more jobs and hire predominantly local guides
  • Source products and services locally
  • Feature local suppliers on your tours
  • Make recommendations of local places to stay, shop, and eat
  • Sell fair trade and ethically-made souvenirs
  • Implement fair employment practices
  • Pay relevant business taxes
  • Give your staff the tools, education, and training to grow in their tourism careers

3. Partnering with ethical brands

Strategic partnerships can be a game changer for your tour and activity business. Teaming up with other travel brands can lead to more referrals, help you tap into new markets, and give you leverage over your competitors. However, that doesn’t mean you should work with just about anyone.

When it comes to local partnership businesses, it’s important to be selective. Who you get involved with reflects who you are as a company. If they participate in unethical activities, your association with them will act as a stamp of approval. That’s why it’s best to choose wisely and make sure their core values align with your own.

Plus, a partner who doesn’t share the same vision might not have your best interests, or those of your guests and destination, at heart. As such, the partnership will be short-lived, unsuccessful, and ultimately, damaging to your reputation.

4. Preserving the environment

Preserving the natural environment. Traveler standing in front of waterfall in Iceland.

Tourism generates a profit, but it also produces air, water, and noise pollution. Future generations can still enjoy your destination as long as you do what you can now to protect what makes it special. How do you do that? Take a look at ecotourism for inspiration.

Ecotourism first came to be as a solution to the devastating impact tourism has on natural, historical, and cultural sites. Its purpose is to encourage travelers to visit relatively undisturbed areas to study and admire the scenery — nothing more. As an ethical tour and activity operator, you should adopt a similar approach by:

  • Teaching your guests to look, but don’t touch — especially marine life
  • Implementing energy conservation initiatives in your office
  • Using fuel-efficient vehicles, or taking public transport when necessary
  • Limiting paper use with an online booking system
  • Ensuring better waste management with the 4 R’s — reduce, reuse, recycle, and recovery
  • Lowering your capacity to keep tourist numbers down
  • Sticking to trails during treks
  • Advocating for animal welfare and wildlife conservation

5. Valuing the people

Of course, investing in your team, and providing a positive work environment should always be a priority. A happier team leads to happier guests. But what about the rest of the people in your community?

Once you start a tour company, you become an ambassador for your destination. Along with creating memorable experiences, it’s your responsibility to defend the well-being of those who live and visit there. So within your sphere of influence, treat everyone with dignity, equality, and respect. That involves honouring data privacy, raising awareness on social issues, and avoiding the exploitation of women, children, and minorities.

6. Giving back to the community

Giving back to the community for responsible tourism. Sign says Keep Our Beach Clean.

Travelers visit for the natural wonders, attractions, or recreational activities. Throughout their trip, however; they interact with the local community — whether it’s buying snacks at the grocery store, or spending downtime at a nearby park. If they have a welcoming experience all around, they’ll develop a positive perception of your destination.

So give back to the residents and small businesses by showing your appreciation for how they collectively make your destination great. Some ideas include donating to non-profit organizations, supporting a worthy cause, and rallying up your team for volunteer projects.

For example, many scuba diving operators organize clean-up events to keep dive sites free of debris. You can do something similar in your neighbourhood — not just on Earth Day — and even get your guests involved. That way, they too can do their part in leaving a place better than they found it.

Final thoughts

Overtourism isn’t an impossible problem to overcome. By being an ethical tour and activity operator, you can pave the way for responsible travel. And with your core values on display for all to see, travelers will make a conscientious choice to book with you.

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