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Kayaking at Futaleufu River, Chile
Photograph: Guaxinim / ShutterstockFutaleufu River

10 eco-friendly travel companies you can feel good about booking with

Let your vacation dollars do some good when you book with these sustainable and ethical travel companies.

Written by
Ted Alan Stedman
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Whether you call it eco-travel, green travel, sustainable or ethical travel, if you’re an impact-minded traveler concerned about your imprint upon the Earth’s ecosystems and Indigenous cultures, you probably want to choose your travel experiences and providers carefully. But being a responsible traveler doesn’t have to be a buzz-kill. Diving unspoiled reefs, hiking remote mountaintops in the world's best national parks, observing Africa’s big game, building wells in a remote village – the sky is the limit when it comes to where and how travelers want to engage destinations in meaningful, exciting ways.

The critical link often comes down to the travel company who plans, organizes, stages and conducts your trip. So, when it comes time to plan your next purposeful adventure, you won’t go wrong by enlisting the expertise of the following travel companies – some of the more elite, ethical and environmentally driven players in the global travel business. If your budget can handle it, just remember the old adage 'you get what you pay for.' In this case, it’s the experience of a lifetime, and a satisfaction index off the charts.

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Eco-friendly travel companies

Named after the ancient supercontinent that gradually split to become the land masses we recognize today, Gondwana Ecotours says its mission is to bring people from different continents closer together, one trip at a time. The New Orleans-based company specializes in small group and private tours that take on exhilarating experiences around the globe, such as gorilla trekking in Rwanda and eco adventures in Patagonia and Mendoza.

A key component for Gondwana is its network of guides who live in the communities visited, adding a level of personal knowledge, depth and authenticity to the experience while providing tourism-generated income. The company is also committed to limiting its carbon footprint through sustainable travel practices and is recognized for offsetting a total of more than 580 tons of carbon emissions. Since 2021, its tours are 100-percent carbon-neutral, as certified by the Cooler emissions tracking organization.

In 1990, American ethno botanist Dr. Paul Cox was conducting forest research in Samoa when village leaders told him 30,000 acres of pristine rainforest were about to be logged due to a government decree to fund a school. Cox was horrified and quickly came up with a proposal to raise the needed money to conserve the forest in perpetuity. His plan worked and has come to define the Seacology model: Provide material benefits to villages that pledge to protect their natural resources.

Today, Seacology offers unique ecotourism adventures throughout the world’s islands, where travelers visit active projects, interact with local people and are part of the formula that helps conserve both habitats and communities. Seacology guests also explore intriguing island environments, from the coral reefs of Fiji to the rainforests of Borneo, while staying at well-appointed resorts and visiting important cultural sites. With all this tropical splendor, expect plenty of opportunities to scuba dive, snorkel, hike and kayak.

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Discover Corps is the leader in the rapidly growing field of 'volunteer vacations' which focus on children, schools, animals and wildlife conservation. Yes, 'voluntourism' has often become a buzzword to cash-in on thinly veiled claims, earning criticism and scrutiny over the years. But Discover Corps operates with full transparency and has become something of a gold standard for the model.

The company is part of Terra Education, a certified B Corporation that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. Trip itineraries are designed to connect travelers to local communities and provide deeper understanding of the culture, issues and ways of life in locations around the world. Many projects are in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and can range from two-hour walks with conservationists collecting data in Kenya, to 16 hours building bottle homes in the Dominican Republic.

From its beginnings as a whitewater rafting company in the US's Pacific Northwest, ROW Adventures has evolved into an adventure travel company that advocates the transformative nature of human-powered experiences. According to ROW, connecting people with nature results in positive impacts, and the company adheres to conducting business in an inclusive and sustainable way while promoting social equity, environmental stewardship and accountability. Human-powered activities allow participants to fully observe the surroundings, whether that be rafting the roily Futaleufu River in Patagonia, sea kayaking the unique ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands or trekking the Balkans’ International Peace Trail in Albania and Montenegro.

ROW also recognizes that travel is a large contributor to the world’s carbon footprint, and subsequently mitigates the impact by offsetting carbon-producing activities whenever possible. At the same time, trips also educate guests to be advocates for locations visited, with special recognition given to the awareness of Indigenous communities and honoring their legacies, lives and connections to the land.

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Conservation through exploration is the credo of Natural Habitat Adventures, the official travel partner of the World Wildlife Fund. Nat Hab, as it’s called, is committed to environmentally friendly nature travel, stressing that its travelers become a force for change in addressing the planet's most pressing conservation challenges. Polar bear tours in the Canadian Arctic, African safaris and South American nature tours are examples of the company’s itineraries where tourism dollars become an influential incentive for communities to protect their natural resources.

Nat Hab also acknowledges that its 8,000 annual travelers on all seven continents expend plenty of CO2. To mitigate travel’s carbon output, the company leans into offsetting measures. From 2007 to 2019, Nat Hab offset 49,418 tons of carbon dioxide and has become the world's first 100-percent carbon-neutral travel company. They’ve also provided more than $4.5 million to support WWF’s global conservation efforts and continue to give one-percent of gross sales plus $150,000 annually in support of WWF’s global mission. 

Ecology safaris catering to wildlife enthusiasts looking for an in-depth nature experience is what husband-and-wife founders Doug and Gail Cheeseman envisioned when they started their namesake company in 1980. Doug, a college zoology and ecology professor, and Gail, a naturalist, turned their passion for nature into a travel company focusing on comprehensive wildlife tours all over the globe. Working with local guides and wildlife researchers, tours are designed for hardcore animal lovers with an obsession for travel and who enjoy learning about the animals they encounter.

For example, the company’s Beluga Camp in the Canadian Arctic is an exploratory trip that takes guests to a remote estuary to spend six days exploring the landscape and wildlife by bike, kayak, ATV, plane, truck and on foot. The immersive itinerary is both educational and experiential, combining natural history and details of the mammals’ biology and behavior with the experience of witnessing one of the world’s largest beluga whale gatherings. 

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Quark Expeditions co-founders Lars Wikander and Mike McDowell took the first group of commercial travelers to the North Pole in 1991, completing the first-ever tourism transit of the Northeast Passage. That inaugural expedition proved to be a game-changer and positioned the company at the forefront of polar explorations. In the three decades since, its polar travelers have visited remote parts of the Arctic and Antarctic. 

With the Earth’s polar regions threatened by climate change, Quark is committed to raising awareness of these delicate ecosystems through environmentally responsible tourism. A facet of that commitment is the company’s Polar Promise to reduce its footprint and work with other leaders in the industry, as well as guests, to address the complex and challenging issues facing the regions. Coordinating with a global network of scientists, community leaders and sustainability innovators, the company plans to contribute a minimum of $500,000 each year in support of key environmental initiatives and sustainable development projects.

With a fleet of 15 rugged, purpose-built ships, the Lindbald Expedition experience is all about eco-friendly itineraries to some of the world’s most wild and remote coastal destinations. For 50 years, the travel company has sailed it ships to intriguing places visited by few if any other tour providers. Example? The Russian Far East itinerary introduces travelers to the isolated shores of Siberia, navigating some of the most untrammeled coastlines and seldom-seen islands anywhere. Through its partnership with National Geographic, Lindbald clients can also opt for land-based itineraries exploring Costa Rican rainforests, Peru’s rugged Andes and more.

The company’s eco philosophy ups the ante, stating that while sustainable tourism is largely the concept of doing no harm, regenerative tourism is a better model that aims to leave a place ‘better’ than it was before. To that end, Lindbald has raised more than $19 million since 1997 for environmental projects and maintains a portfolio of six investments in renewable energy, reforestation and community-based efforts that align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  Similarly, Lindbald is a 100-percent carbon neutral company.

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Since the venerable National Geographic Society launched its travel division in 1999, National Geographic Expeditions has grown to operate hundreds of trips annually to all seven continents. As you’d expect from a non-profit whose mission is to explore and protect the planet, Nat Geo’s travel arm creates high-end eco-expeditions designed for adventure, nature and exploration – from expedition cruises to the poles, the South Pacific and Asia to land expeditions in the world’s highest mountains and most remote jungles.

In the spirit of sustainable, ethical travel and helping preserve ecosystems, proceeds from Nat Geo travel are directed to the Society’s research programs, such as its Pristine Seas Project, its Big Cats Initiative, and rare language documenting effort, the Enduring Voices Project

During travel, clients see that their tourism dollars count and are encouraged to become involved. For instance, at Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in Rwanda, travelers see and learn about the critical habitat of the endangered mountain gorilla. The hosting lodge is owned by a Rwandan community trust and tourism profits are used to finance local socioeconomic and conservation initiatives. 

The value of citizen science is the underpinning for Earthwatch Institute, an international non-profit organization that connects travelers with scientists worldwide to participate in environmental research. Through travel, Earthwatch backs vital research while inspiring its clients to understand our shared global responsibilities as citizens of the world. As an early adopter of the citizen science model, dating to its founding in 1971, the Institute’s itineraries have included Amazon explorations documenting pink river dolphins, conservation work in South Africa to save threatened rhinos from poaching, and looking for answers and solutions to the declining numbers of threatened Pacific leatherback turtles in Costa Rica. In all cases, Earthwatch’s citizen science volunteers make direct contributions to research while increasing their scientific understanding and immersing themselves in learning about environmental issues.

To date, Earthwatch has been involved in 1,430 projects in 131 countries with 10,000 species studied resulting in 1,200 informed policy decisions, and 100,000 hours of scientific research per year.

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