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Small Group Tours are Transforming the Travel Industry

By Travis Noland

Where will you travel on your next holiday? How will you get there?

Numerous studies indicate that international tourists are asking for more responsible traveling experiences. Specifically, a 2012 report by The Travel Foundation and Forum for the Future found that 75 percent of consumers desired a more responsible holiday, and 66 percent wanted to identify a ‘greener’ holiday more easily. The industry has responded with its proof of efforts to ‘greenify’ operations. Certifications, mission statements, and accolades galore don the walls and websites of popular hotels, resorts, cruise ships, restaurants and tour operators across the world.

Still, the reality remains that the majority of this year’s 1 billion international travelers will join the herds of other tourists who overwhelm popular destinations during peak vacation seasons. Referred to as mass tourism, this dominant form of travel fails to engage healthily with communities, but instead strains local resources and withholds economic benefit from local economies.

Introducing an alternative

Meanwhile, a quickly emerging market of small, specialized group tour operators offer a more sustainable, social, affordable and ultimately transformative experience for the traveler. Described using niche categories such as adventure travel, ecotourism or ethno-tourism, such tour operators limit potential for environmental degradation and facilitate opportunities for travelers to engage more consciously with people and places they wouldn’t likely otherwise reach.

Take the Lando, for instance. Last month, global adventure travel leader, G Adventures introduced a state-of-the-art overland vehicle for its tour offerings across Africa. The overland fleet management team at G Africa custom-designed the vehicle to cater to the needs and preferences of travelers who want to get around the continent more comfortably, affordably and sustainably.

The Lando boasts a 250-liter (66 gallon) drinking water tank to reduce the use of single-use plastic bottles. It accommodates a maximum of 22 people per tour, which helps to reduce per-person carbon emissions compared to multiple private vehicles. The Lando’s greatest attribute is perhaps best summed up by Nadja Lingl, senior operations manager at G Africa: “Being able to travel region to region via overland vehicle and spend money locally can help travelers get up close and more personal with Africa’s diverse people, landscapes and wildlife and leave investment behind.”

Shrinking footprints

Rather than flood a community with throngs of tourists at one time, small groups inherently limit the pollution, damage to flora and fauna, and other ecological impacts. Several companies are also working toward tracking and counteracting the footprints of their travels. Intrepid Travel partners with Carbon Trade Exchange to carefully measure and offset the majority of emissions generated by transportation, accommodation and waste.

Small groups are also better suited to foster goodwill with locals and take great care not to disrupt social dynamics. “[Tribal groups especially] often feel that some tourists exploit them. It happens when they are being observed as if in a goldfish bowl," said Jonny Bealby, who runs Wild Frontiers. "They do not like it when tourists stay in a swanky hotel and drive in and do not talk to them, then get in their Jeeps and go back. That kind of thing happens a lot. But when it's small groups and the money goes directly to local people, then the benefits flow both ways."

Most responsible small group operators offer some form of pre-tour education to encourage passengers to be conscious of the impacts and impressions they leave on local people and environments. Such advice is usually based on the UNWTO Ethical Traveller Guidelines and includes tips such as “learn a few words of the local language” and “take nothing but pictures … but ask for permission first.”

Impact travel

Genuinely committed tour operators are not simply concerned with limiting adverse impacts. Increasingly, travel companies believe it is their responsibility to leverage tourism as a tool to create mutual value exchange by empowering the communities they visit. As a starting point, responsible overland tour operators will make an effort to support the local economy by spending money at locally-owned restaurants and accommodations, where possible. Additionally, they will look to hire local guides at fair rates.

Several leading companies have even launched foundations with the exclusive purpose to empower communities across the world by supporting existing social enterprises or helping incubate interventions to solve local problems. As leaders in the adventure travel space, both G Adventures and Intrepid allocate a percentage of overall profits and distribute donations to fund Planeterra and the Intrepid Foundation, respectively.

Pioneer and inspiration for sustainable travel, National Geographic is popularizing their own style of travel dubbed "geotourism." Jonathan Tourtellot, Founder of the National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations (CSD) defines geotourism as “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.”

While travel has the potential to catalyze tremendous economic impact, cultural specialists such as Mejdi Tours and Khiri Travel harness the power of travel to break down psychological and social barriers. In his TED Talk, Aziz Abu Sarah, founder of Mejdi Tours, articulated his belief that travel can be a transcendent experience by serving as a “powerful vehicle for a more positive and interconnected world.” Through its unique approach to multi-narrative tours, Mejdi offers exclusive access and authentic experiences designed to enhance understanding and build bridges between previously disparate or conflicting groups.

A shift is underway

The latest in a series of studies conducted by the ATTA, George Washington University and Xola Consulting found that 42 percent people who traveled in 2013 went on adventure trips. The sector has experienced an increase in value of 195 percent in just two years. Similarly, the International Ecotourism Society (TIES) projects that ecotourism could grow to 25 percent of the global travel market within six years. The UNWTO expects that specialized tourism sectors including ecotourism, nature, heritage, cultural and “soft adventure” tourism will outpace the already robust growth of the global tourism industry as a whole over the next two decades.

These are all signs that change is underway, both in physical movement and mentality. As the masses venture out from the comfort of luxury resorts and leisure packages, perhaps they will finally uncover the mutual exchange of value, culture and relationship found in the transformational power of specialized travel.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Martin Varsavsky; 2) G Adventures

Travis heads up strategic partnerships here at TriplePundit.com. Previously, he has worked with several social enterprises including Calvert Foundation, SOCAP and Karisimbi Business Partners, a socially motivated management consulting start-up in Rwanda. He has also served in Guatemala as a Social Entrepreneur Corps Fellow and continues to support Wild River Organics, his family’s organic fruit farm. Travis received his BS in Business Administration from Pepperdine University. He can be reached at travis@triplepundit.com and followed on his responsible travel blog at <a href="http://www.brightspotstravel.com//">brightspotstravel.com</a&gt;

Read more stories by Travis Noland