Responsible Travel Made Easier: A Guide to Sustainable Hotels and Tours

Travel Responsibly: Think Sustainability

After more than a year of confinement, humanity’s desire to travel is a volcano ready to erupt.  According to Longwoods International, 86% of Americans plan to travel in the next six months. That’s a lot of people! I have visions of crowds ala Walmart on Black Friday storming every major national park, attraction, and airport. And while it may be the reality for some places (Yosemite get ready), something else is afoot.

The pandemic has provided humanity with a sliver of a silver lining. We have the opportunity to engage in a global travel reset. We can shed years of bad travel habits and thoughtless behaviors and (wait for it)… travel responsibly.

How to Get Started

Booking a stay or confirming a tour is typically the first thing we do when planning a getaway. Consider how much easier traveling responsibly will be if you choose accommodations and/or tours that already practice sustainable tourism.

The key is to avoid posers, businesses that hijack buzzwords such as “eco-friendly” and “green” when they barely take it seriously. There is a term for this eco smoke and mirrors; it’s called “greenwashing.” So, how do you know what’s real and what’s gloss?

Here’s how: I’ve put together some very helpful resources to make it easier to find who is doing it right.

Huge, skinny waterfall in Chang Mai, Thailand with people the size of ants at its base
Change Mai, Thailand | Photo: Susan Portnoy

First: A Couple of Things You Should Know for Context

1. Definitions: Sustainable Tourism vs Sustainable Travel vs Responsible Traveler

Before we jump to the lists, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about a few things.

Sustainable Tourism is how the industry (hotels, tour operators, destinations..) behaves. How it works to minimize the negative impacts (i.e. over-tourism, environmental damage..) while maximizing the positive impacts (i. e. job creation, nature, and wildlife conservation, cultural heritage preservation…).

Sustainable Travel means traveling with zero negative impact on the places we visit, environmentally, socially, and economically. (For 10 tips on the things you can do, click here.)

A Responsible Traveler deliberately makes choices that, at the very least, result in zero impact but, ideally, lead to positive effects.

View from the water of a ridge of mountains at sunrise in the Sea of Cortez
Sea of Cortez | Photo: Susan Portnoy

2. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council

An infograph of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals - Global Goals

In 2015, 193 countries adopted a shared plan of 17 Sustainable Development Goals to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet by 2030. These goals aren’t specific to travel but travel can play a huge part in supporting their success.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), simply put, uses the SDGs as a roadmap to establish and manage global criteria for destinations (i.e., policy-makers) and the industry (hotels, tour operators), and if they follow that criteria, it will lead to certification validating their effort.

Global Sustainable Tourism Council Certification Logo


Great Resources To Find Sustainable Accommodations

Travel Specialists

Without question, using a professional to help plan and book your trip takes the hassle out of travel. Working with one that specializes in responsible tourism is even better.

Travel with Myght

Myght was created in 2016 with an elite “ecosystem” of advisors (destinations and suppliers too) who are specialists by region (ie. the Americas or the middle east) and craft wonderful sustainable itineraries. Easy Peasy.

Search Myght’s Awesome List of Sustainable Travel Advisors

Online Travel Agencies (OTAs)

Use these sites like Expedia or Travelocity but for results that showcase travel-related businesses engaged in responsible tourism and certified by the GSTC.

Bookdifferent.com

EcoHotels.com

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Sustainable First 

Sustainable First Logo

Launched in early 2021 in partnership with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, Sustainable First shines a light on certified accommodations around the globe (also individuals, companies, destinations, tour operators, and organizations) making meaningful strides towards sustainable strategies linked to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

With each featured entity, you’ll discover the WhatHow, and Why of their sustainable operations, the SDG goals they address, and relevant links to travel news and articles. 

Search Sustainable First’s Selection

TravelLife Collection 

TravelIfe Collection
TravelIfe Collection

Recognized by the Global Sustainability Tourism Council (GSTC), UK-based Travelife has vetted approximately 1000 hotels/properties in more than 50 countries. Each has passed muster for their “human rights, labor, community engagement, and environmental impacts” to receive a coveted Gold Certification.

Search for Gold Certified Accommodations

Travelers riding horseback on the beach as part of activities offered by Blue Apple Beach House in Colombia
Guests of Blue Apple Beach House, part of the Regenerative Travel Collection, riding horseback on the beach. | Photo: Blue Apple Beach House

Regenerative Travel Collection

In 2019, hotelier David Leventhal and magazine editor Amanda Ho launched Regenerative Travel, which markets an eclectic collection of independent hotels, inns, and resorts sprinkled worldwide. Their styles range from quaint farmhouses, chic boutiques, and adventure lodges to luxury retreats, elegant escapes, and stunning safari camps. Their common thread is their commitment to providing exceptional experiences while addressing their impact on their environment and surrounding communities. They also offer a variety of exciting itineraries.

To become a member, hotels must complete a self-assessment before applying and meet baseline standards based on 30 data points. If a resort does not have the required data, a six-month waiting period for collection is mandated. Site visits are also required, but due to the pandemic, they are temporarily on hold. 

The criteria include waste management, electricity, and water use, impact on the ecosystem, and whether the applicant is involved in any environmental conservation programs. Social science concerns are also reviewed. “We’re talking about everything from how you represent humans on social media for example, to how you pay your staff, to how you interact with suppliers,” says Portia Hart, Regenerative Travel’s Standard Bearer, who also owns the member property Blue Apple Beach Resort in Isla Tierra Bomba, Colombia. 

Consistent improvement is also a factor. “What Regenerative Travels ask of its members is not to meet criteria and then sit there. It’s to say, where was I yesterday, and how can I be better tomorrow?”  

Legacy is also vital. Hotels need to position themselves to continue their programs should the owners pass away or leave the industry. “We’re working quite hard with our members on that front to make sure that their legacy is lasting.” 

Search Regenerative Travel Properties

Aerial view of Jicaro Island Resort
Aerial view of Jicaro Island Resort | Photo: Cayuga Collection

The Cayuga Collection 

The Cayuga Collection develops and manages seven small (between 8 and 30 rooms) sustainable luxury hotels and lodges in Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua. Each property has a distinct personality, from low-key beach houses and a romantic cliffside getaway to private island escapes and an elegant Victorian mansion. 

Owners of the Cayuga Collection Hans Pfister and Andrea Bonilla choose the properties they’ll work with carefully. Hoteliers must be interested in moving beyond superficial fixes such as single-use plastics and recycling. 

Cayuga Collection Sustainability Facts
Cayuga Collection Sustainability Facts Postcard

Monitoring utility consumption and sustainable sewage management is a baseline for Cayuga members, but that’s only the beginning. 

“The most important things is everything related to people and local,” explains Hans. “Everything, food, furnishings, goods, and services should support regional economies.”

Positions within the hotels must also provide the opportunity for upward mobility. “It would be more cost-efficient to hire trained ex-pats as General Managers,” he says, to avoid the substantial cost in time and training, but the Cayuga team believes what makes the difference is local employment “at all levels.” 

Search the Cayuga Collection

Cervo Mountain Resort - Large toom with floor to ceiling windows  revealing mountain views
Cervo Mountain Resort | Photo: Green Pearls

Green Pearls Unique Places

The German team behind Green Pearls believes you don’t have to give up quality or spend a lot of money to be environmentally conscious and socially responsible. Their collection of 60 boutique hotels are vetted to ensure they deliver a wonderful stay while measuring up to guidelines examining their management plan, architecture, water consumption, energy, and waste management and has a long-term plan in place that “Includes socio-cultural criteria as well as environmental, health and safety, and whose implementation is regularly monitored.”

Each spotlight features property highlights and ratings of its competence in environmental protection, authentic experience, social commitment, and cultural engagement. A summary of the various green projects they actively support in their area is also provided.

Lodging in Asia and Europe is well represented with a smattering of South America and the Indian Ocean properties. Unfortunately, only one North American resort, the Wildspring Guest Habitat on the South Oregon coast, is listed. A few restaurants and vacation homes are also included.

Search Green Pearls Unique Places



Lower-Budget Accommodation Options

I wanted to include low-budget options, but I didn’t find the same dedicated curation sites like those above. Hostel World markets hostels in almost every country, though sustainability isn’t a foundation of membership. That said, I found some links that provide some direction.

21 Eco-Friendly Hostels Perfect for the Sustainable Traveller!

Eco-Hostel: 15 Amazing Eco-Friendly Stays Across Europe



Wonderful Sustainable Tour Operators 

Intrepid Travel 

Intrepid Travel was sustainability-conscious and ethically driven long before it was cool. Their motto is “Small group travel that makes a difference. ” And over the last 31 years, this Australian company with offices worldwide has lived up to its slogan. 

Sherry Ott with her niece in India
Sherry with her niece Erin in India | Photo: Sherry Ott

Intrepid Trips are affordable, enriching, culturally immersive experiences in dozens of fascinating destinations. Finding the right tour is based on a destination or a long list of themes such as 18-29s, Adventure Cruising, Family, Walking and Trekking, and so on, along with itineraries designed in partnership with Lonely PlanetIt is also the world’s largest travel company with a B-Corporation certification (more on that below) and has been carbon neutral for ten years. 

A few of the company’s sustainability practices include offsetting every guests’ trip, hiring indigenous leaders and guides, introducing guests to locally owned hotels, restaurants, and businesses, and they inject additional revenue into the communities by investing in initiatives that focus on human rights, wildlife conservation, and the environment.

Sherry Ott with her niece in New Zealand on an Intrepid Travel sustainability tour
Sherry with her niece Lindsey in New Zealand | Photo: Sherry Ott

For the team at Intrepid, however, a question remains, “How are we going to help influence [our guests] to be more mindful and conscious consumers in their everyday lives,” says Mikey Sadowski, Intrepid’s General Manager, Global PR, and Communications.

His answer: The company provides resources, education, and platforms. “We’re definitely starting to get more into that education base side of things.”

Sherry with her Niece in Vietnam on an Intrepid Travel Tour
Sherry with her niece Megan in Peru | Photo: Sherry Ott

I haven’t traveled with Intrepid but my close friend and colleague Sherry Ott of Ottsworld, has gone on multiple tours as part of her incredible seven-year Niece Project. 

She had this to say.

I took my nieces on Intrepid trips because I love their commitment to the communities they operate in worldwide. By having local guides, it gets me closer to the local culture than I ever could have on my own. I wanted my nieces to learn about responsible tourism and have authentic local experiences … It’s good to know that my tourism money is going directly into the hands of small local businesses!

Search for Intrepid Travel Tours

Traveler with Discover Corps volunteers on a trip at Mount Carmel Primary in Belize
Traveler with Discover Corps volunteers on a trip at Mount Carmel Primary in Belize | Photo: Discover Corps

Discover Corps

Discover Corps is B-Corp certified serving solo travelers, retirees, and women-only groups but where they really shine are with families from immediate relatives to multi-generational groups, and “Skip-gen” (grandparents with grandchildren) travelers.

Discover Corps’ journeys are volunteer-centric grassroots expeditions developed in partnerships with NGOs in countries like Tanzania, the Dominican Republic, and Peru. Accommodations are clean and basic, and days are spent working alongside communities building houses or teaching English at schools, combined with cultural activities.

Discover Corps traveler volunteers work with children in Tanzania
Discover Corps traveler volunteers work with children in Tanzania | Photo: Discover Corps

The company also offers higher-end itineraries with less volunteering time in the field and more citizen science says the company’s Executive Director Alex Dubois.

These trips, he explains “take people to amazing parts of the world, you know, so we’re going to Egypt, Thailand, Costa Rica, South Africa, Kenya, and then we develop an experience that takes you behind the scenes … for example, going to Kenya, you stay out in the Masai Mara and go out with various conservationists or conservation groups to protect lions, you know to learn about anti-poaching efforts. Educational behind the scenes, purpose-driven travel.

Other activities might include cooking food with a family in their home or assisting scientists to collect data for conservation efforts protecting mountain gorillas in Uganda. No matter the trip, the idea is to enlighten people about how other societies live and motivate them to be better global citizens.

Search Discover Corps Tours



In Case You’re Wondering: B-Corps Certification and What It Means

Becoming B-Corp certified is not for the faint of heart. To qualify, companies must be completely transparent with all aspects of their business and invest in whatever is needed to get up to snuff. Suffice to say, any business with a B-Corp certification worked hard for it. No greenwashing here. 

Unlike Travelife (above), B-Corp certification isn’t specific to travel. There are over 3,500 certified corporations (Think Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, or Wallaroo Hats) in more than 70 countries, ranging in size from small businesses to Multinationals, that must re-certify every three years. The B- Corps Pledge says it all.

As B-Corporations and leaders of this emerging economy, we believe:

  • That we must be the change we seek in the world.
  • That all business ought to be conducted as if people and place mattered.
  • That, through their products, practices, and profits, businesses should aspire to do no harm and benefit all.
  • To do so requires that we act with the understanding that we are each dependent upon another and thus responsible for each other and future generations.

Search B-Corp Certified Businesses in Travel and Beyond

Women learning from Wiwa Women in Colombia
Women learning from Wiwa Women in Colombia | Photo: G-Adventures

G – Adventures

For the last 30 years, G-Adventures has offered small group tours around the world catering to explorers interested in responsible travel with a long list of travel styles from wellness and active tours to rail and marine tours and almost everything in between.

The company also offers tours with Nat Geo, “National Geographic Journeys” designed to be more culturally immersive with more inclusions and “greater hands-on exploration and interaction with resident experts, and the freedom to roam,” including itineraries designed specifically for families. A collaboration with the Jane Goodall Institute offers Goodall-endorsed experiences.

On the sustainability front, founder and CEO Bruce Poon Tip created Planeterra, a non-profit using community tourism as a catalyst to change lives.

We have over 100 Community Development tourism projects that create social enterprises programs with local communities and local people to create experiences for our customers on our trips.” says, Bruce. “These are, you know, when extreme poverty kind of intersects with tourism, and that is a sweet spot for us at Planeterra.

Women learning from Wiwa Women in Colombia
Women learning from Wiwa Women in Colombia | Photo: G-Adventures

The Ripple Score is G-Adventures’ unique measuring system that looks at how much of your money spent on a trip stays within the local economy.

We’re very much into having the local impact of money stay in hand in local communities and we created the ripple score, which we know when we do all of our buying with hotels or transportation or trains, explained Bruce during a Clubhouse impromptu interview. We’re very strict about finding the ownership of those companies, making sure that local ownership and management is not brought in from outside or from other countries. We make sure the people that are hired to work in those projects actually are from, you know, 15 or 20-mile radius of the location because it’s benefiting the local community.

Search G-Adventures Tours

First Graduating Class of the Exodus Foundation’s Mountain Lioness program which puts women in Tanzania through guide training–a male-dominated occupation.

Exodus Travels 

With over 600 itineraries in more than 100 countries worldwide (with a small selection in America), Exodus Travels, based in the UK, specializes in responsible wildlife, cultural, walking, trekking, cycling, and polar adventures, as well as train trips, vegetarian trips, and multi-country options among others.

If traveling with strangers isn’t your style, or perhaps you want to explore at your own pace, the company offers several European self-guided tours. Exodus will handle all the logistics, move your luggage between hotels, and, if needed, there is 24-hour emergency support.

“Treading lightly” has been the company’s maxim for almost a half-century, and but in the last few years, Exodus has turned things up a few notches with a foundation and a new initiative. 

Four adorable bear cubs living in the area rewilded by Exodus Travels in the Apennines
Four adorable bear cubs living in the area rewilded by Exodus Travels in the Apennines | Photo: Exodus Travels

During the Pandemic, the Exodus Travels Foundation begun in 2019 created the Community Kickstart Project to support the local teams of leaders, operators, partners, drivers, and communities around them until travel is back to normal. To ensure crucial plans were quickly up and running, the company seeded the fund with nearly $15,000 and has raised a total of XX since its inception. 

In 2020, Exodus added the more comprehensive People, Places, and Planet Plan sustainability strategy to proactively pursue positive impact through travel on the people they encounter, the places they visit, and the environment they enjoy, based on the UN’s SDGs. The enterprise is extensive, with varied approaches based on the needs of the region. (See the link above for all the details). 

For example, the “Nature & Carbon Corridors Project” falling under the “Planet” plan, partners with Rewilding Europe.

Women in Nepal receiving Exodus Travels' Freedom Kit Bags
Women in Nepal receiving Exodus Travels’ Freedom Kit Bags | Photo: Exodus Travels

“We’re looking to, over five years, rewild five nature corridors (approximately 19 square miles) in the Italian Apennines, which essentially will enable the safe passage of wildlife between the national parks in the area,” says Kasia Morgan Exodus’ Head of Sustainability and Community.

One hundred square meters (120 square yards) is rewilded on behalf of each Exodus guest. As you might have guessed, rewilding also provides an effective Carbon compensation estimated at 85,000 tons of carbon over the partnership’s duration. In addition, Exodus offsets all the carbon produced during their trips.  

Search Exodus Tours


Other Resources Worth Knowing About

Carbon Offsetters

You know where you are going and where you are staying. Now, consider offsetting your transportation carbon emissions.

Here are a few great ways to do just that!

Sustainable Travel International

If you are interested in one-off offsetting when booking travel, Carbon offsetting is just one of many wonderful facets of Sustainable Travel International‘s initiatives including working with “communities, companies, governments, and organizations to create a better path forward for some of the most vulnerable destinations around the world.”

Get Your One-Off Carbon Offsetting

For individuals, the organization’s site has some wonderful articles (I’ve listed a few below) worth perusing.

Top 10 Tips for Sustainable Travel

How To Be a Responsible Underwater Photographer

10 Ways to Protect Marine Wildlife When Diving

Tomorrow’s Air

A very cool way to offset your carbon footprint is through a new kid on the block, Tomorrow’s Air, which funds direct air capture technology that stores carbon dioxide underground. Within 2 years, it turns to rock. A subscription is as little as $10.00 per month and can make a big difference.

Gift it!

Another great idea: you can give the gift of Tomorrow’s Air offsetting for a minimum of three months (or more) for $30.00, $6.00 of which will go to advocacy and education.

Subscribe to Direct-Air Capture to Offset Your Travels Or Purchase As A Gift

Ecologi

If you are more old-school, a subscription to Ecologi ($10.50 min/month) is also an option. Ecologi funds The Eden Reforestation Projects in Madagascar, projects reforesting the hills of Appalachia, and other climate crisis solutions.

Gift it!

There’s also a diverse range of gift options worth checking out. (Psst… if you really want to impress someone, plant 100,000 trees––a large enough forest to be seen from space––for $16,800.)

Offset Your Carbon Dioxide With an Ecologi Subscription

Gifting Options with Ecologi

Impact Travel Alliance 

The Impact Travel Alliance is a 501(c)3 nonprofit’s goal is education, advocacy, and community building around the idea that travel can improve the world by striving for positive impacts on destinations, the environment, and community building, no matter the destination, budget, or style. 

The Alliance’s strength is in its network of global travel experts, content creators, journalists, and specialists in the field of sustainability, who donate their time to produce webinars, events, and educational content. Travelers, as well as industry pros, are addressed with information tailored to their perspective. 

Impact Travel Alliance articles I’ve found particularly helpful include: 

A Guide to Ethical Souvenir Shopping

Travel Tips to Support Gender Equality

How Travelers Can Be a Better Ally for People with Disabilities

21 Memorable and Ethical Wildlife Experiences to Inspire Your Future Travels

5 Tips for Ethical Underwater Travel Experiences

Views of snow-capped mountains, water and green forests in Glacier National Park
Glacier Bay National Park | Photo: Susan Portnoy

National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA)

National Parks have always played a large role in American life, but now more than ever, a holiday road trip in our protected wildernesses has risen to the top of most families’ agendas. Suggesting ways you can make the most of your visit while learning how to safeguard the parks for future generations is just a couple of the goals of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Created in 1919, the NPCA is a nonpartisan, independent voice advocating for the protection of the country’s 420+ national parks. They fund projects for clean air, clean water, preserving the landscape, and wildlife conservation.

A snow-covered Mount Denali against a cloudless blue sky
Mount Denali | Photo: Susan Portnoy

They also invest in strengthening the park system in general, says Sheila Faalasli, NPCA’s Senior Manager of Digital Communications. “It also includes speaking up for national park staff. We are advocating for more diverse representation in staff, more diverse park visitors feeling more welcome to visit their parks. At any given time, we have like 60 plus different campaigns going on,” she adds. Not surprisingly, Sheila cites climate change as the Parks’ number one threat.

The website is geared for park news and press releases BUT on the blog, there is a lot of great information. Here are some articles I particularly liked.

Insider Guides: National Park Travel Tips

Not-So-Beaten Paths: 11 Lesser-Known Hikes in Popular National Parks

The 10 Most-Visited Parks — and Less-Visited Side Trips

The 10 Least-Visited Places in the Park System

Buy an America The Beautiful Annual Pass $80.00

You Don’t Have to Be Perfect

There are many travel-related companies out there doing their best to make a difference, but until sustainability is ubiquitous, it’s on all of us to make the right choices and ask questions. As soon as CEOs understand sustainability is necessary to keep your business, more will make it a part of their road map.

Do you have to be perfect? No. No one can be. But making a conscious effort to be better each time you travel is a big win for everyone and the planet. Just try.

Happy Responsible Travels!



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4 thoughts on “Responsible Travel Made Easier: A Guide to Sustainable Hotels and Tours

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      I’m so glad you think it’s helpful Diana! Thank you for letting me know.

      If you have friends or family you feel might appreciate the information, please share. 😉

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