As an expert on ecotourism, one of the most common questions I get is, “How do I know which tour operators are truly sustainable?” As with choosing green hotels, the answer is fairly complex and generally involves asking a lot of questions.
But over the past 20 years of immersing myself in the responsible travel sphere, I’ve learned a lot about which companies really walk the walk of sustainable tourism practices and which ones just talk (a.k.a. greenwashing).
With that in mind, here are my personal picks for the world’s 10 best adventure travel companies, ranging from big to small tour operators and everything in between.
THE WORLD’S 10 BEST ADVENTURE TRAVEL COMPANIES
Based in Billings, Montana, this 35-year-old adventure travel company prides itself on being family-owned and operated, with founder Dan Austin as President and his wife and kids serving as Travel Consultant, VP of Operations, and Guide/Photographer. The family vibe extends to the company’s guides, many of whom have worked with them for decades. Their 6-to-1 guest-to-guide ratio and small tour group sizes (12 to 18 people) leads to intimate, immersive experiences, all of which feature a money-back guarantee. They currently offer expeditions to 50+ countries on seven continents, with focuses ranging from biking and hiking to culture, history, and wildlife.
Founded in 1974 by adventurous friends John Gillies and David Burlinson after traveling the “hippie trail” across Asia, Exodus Travels has grown into one of the most critically acclaimed tour operators in the United Kingdom. Having led some of the first group trekking trips to the Nepalese Himalayas, they’re perhaps best known for their extensive array of Walking & Trekking Tours, including popular trips in the Amalfi Coast, Austrian Tyrol, the Mont Blanc Circuit, and Everest Base Camp. But if those aren’t your speed, Exodus offers more than 600 itineraries in 100+ countries around the world.
Launched in 1990 by Bruce Poon Tip after he returned from a backpacking trip in Asia, this Canadian company specializes in small group tours with a focus on sustainability. What began as a one-man-show is now one of the world’s largest adventure travel companies, with more than 2,200 employees in 28 offices around the world. Named one of the world’s most innovative companies by Fast Company in 2018, G Adventures offers some 700+ different tour options spanning the globe. But they specialize in off-the-beaten-path adventures that value local immersion and authenticity over luxury.
An award-winning innovator in the ecotourism sector, the Alabama-based International Expeditions offers immersive travel experiences to the world’s wildest regions. From its start in the Peruvian Amazon nearly 40 years ago, the company has expanded to nature- and culture-focused tours in places like the Galapagos Islands, Cuba, Costa Rica, India, Iceland, and a half-dozen countries in Africa. And because the vast majority of their expedition leaders and expert naturalists are locals to the area you’re visiting, guests are given an insider’s take on the destination that you simply can’t find in a guidebook.
This Australian company is the world’s largest small-group adventure travel specialist, with 1500+ itineraries in 120+ countries. It began in 1989, when buddies Darrell Wade and Geoff Manchester got back from an epic journey around Africa, in which they avoided all the comforts of the Western world. That emphasis on authenticity and remote destinations continues to drive the company’s responsible travel ethos today. They became carbon neutral in 2010, were among the first major tour operators to ban elephant rides in 2014, and their non-profit foundation has given more than $6 million to healthcare, human rights, and environmental protection.
This is one travel brand that needs no introduction. It’s part of the National Geographic Society, one of the world’s largest scientific and educational NGOs, which was founded in 1888 to promote environmental and historical conservation, and the study of world culture and history. Their expeditions are led by experts– anthropologists, art historians, marine biologists, educators and researchers– who bring their passion and knowledge to every experience. From ancient Aboriginal culture in Australia and prehistoric cave paintings in France to wildlife biology in the Serengeti and whale conservation in Alaska, every adventure is uniquely memorable.
Named the world's #1 Adventure Travel Outfitter by Outside magazine, this Colorado-based company was also selected by World Wildlife Fund as its conservation travel partner. This is due in large part to their commitment to eco-friendly travel and conservation, as well as their exclusive focus on upscale, small group Nature Travel experiences. NatHab’s partnership with WWF gives them access to respected scientists and naturalists, with unique trips to private wildlife reserves, remote parts of national parks, and secluded eco-lodges and camps surrounded by an array of wildlife.
Founded in 1991 by Lars Wikander and Mike McDowell, this Seattle-based expedition travel company is the only one on this list with a niche geographic specialty. Quark only offers voyages to the Arctic and Antarctic regions aboard purpose-built expedition vessels, including larger icebreakers and smaller ice-strengthened ships. Many of their trips explore the high Arctic, from Canada and Europe (Greenland, Iceland, and Norway) to the Northwest Passage and the North Pole. They also boast numerous sustainable initiatives and were the first adventure travel company to offer a carbon-neutral cruise to Antarctica.
Although REI is another brand that needs no introduction, its REI Adventures arm that has surged in recent years to become the retail giant’s fastest-growing source of revenue. The 30-year-old tour operator offers more than 200 guided small group trips (12 people max) to nature destinations around the world. Most are targeted to active travelers, including a challenging 4-day Grand Canyon hike from the South Rim to the canyon floor. Other popular excursions include a 7-day trek in Portugal, hiking along Italy’s Amalfi Coast, and expeditions to Mount Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp.
Based in Seattle, Zegrahm Expeditions was founded in 1990 with a focus on luxury small ship cruises and small group tours that take travelers far off the beaten path. They helped organize the first expedition to visit emperor penguin colonies in the Weddell Sea, and were the first adventure travel company to circumnavigate South Georgia, Newfoundland, and New Guinea. Priding themselves on world-class expedition leaders and innovative itineraries, they offer an array of incredible journeys to places like Madagascar, the Black Sea, Uzbekistan, Micronesia, Melanesia, and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.