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Adventure Travel Abroad With a Group

A Tour Leader Explains the Pros and Cons of Leaving Decisions to Others

The existence of thriving websites such as www.TransitionsAbroad.com (and its previous 30-year existence as a print magazine) is testament to the changing attitude toward travel over the last 40 years. As people learn how the world’s cultural and natural treasures are disappearing, many more have become interested in “responsible” travel—engaging with the local culture without destroying it.

This growing population of travelers is catered to by companies marketing themselves as ecologically-aware adventure travel organizations. Such companies are commonly small and run a handful of tours, usually with a special theme, to areas where they are specialists. Few niches are unfilled, from cooking in China to biking in Bolivia.

The question is, how can you be sure that the company will really consider the needs and wishes of the local population?

Having worked as a tour leader for one of the leading adventure travel companies for the last four years, I know the difficulties you face when you try to mesh low-impact policies with a need for profit.

For example, to create the least impact the groups should be small. Studies have shown that the ideal group size is 12. Larger groups can be uncomfortably unwieldy, with a tendency to take over restaurants and lodgings; tiny groups are much more flexible, but any friction between two individuals can make life awkward for everyone.

Why Travel with a Group?

Sharing the joys and frustrations of travel is one of the reasons for the popularity of group travel. Part of my job is to encourage people from a range of ages and backgrounds to mix together. After a few dinners and excursions, they’re usually chatting away like old friends. It is something of a lottery, though, so if the group demographics are important to you, you may want to check with the company before booking.

However, ultimately you do not get to choose your travel companions (or, in some cases, even your roommate), and there is little that you or the reservations staff can do to prevent people from booking who have odd ideas about hygiene or a tendency to complain loudly. But while “difficult” passengers do turn up every so often, the majority of people who book such tours are like-minded travelers and most generally support low-impact policies and their implementation. I never assume this, though, and consider the communication and enforcement of these policies to be an essential part of my job.

So at the start of every tour I talk to the group and request, for instance, that they cover up if we’re in a Muslim country or refrain from buying animal products in the Amazon. (One recurring problem is the growing army of amateur photographers who put getting the “right shot” before everything else. I recently had to upbraid a passenger who dived off the path to get a close-up shot of a bird, oblivious to the fact that he was trampling its nest.)

When one’s job as a guide is essentially customer service, it is difficult to tell the customer that they must stop whatever it is they are doing. But my experience is that the rest of the group will always back me up and the wrongdoer will apologize profusely and shuffle crimson-faced to the back. Indeed most tour members are glad to be informed about what type of behaviour the locals will expect or what products they should avoid buying. Instead of combing fruitlessly through their guidebook, travelers have someone at hand with the latest information on appropriate behavior.

The Cost of Group Travel

The price of such service, however, can be high: Backpacking on a budget will always be cheaper, and for many the highest price is the lack of freedom. If we stop at a museum, I can give the group an hour, say, to look around. But for people who hate museums it will be tedious, and for serious students of the culture it will not be nearly long enough. The discontented will have to compromise and do so without complaining if they don’t want to distance themselves from the rest of the group.

The tour structure leaves limited room for maneuvering, and some people find the change from fluid independent travel difficult.

The idea is that a well-organized tour will cover all the places you wanted to see—plus a few extra places you didn’t know about. “Adventure” tours almost always visit places you may find difficult to reach as an individual, even if you know about them. And it all happens without your having to waste time in travel agencies or waiting for buses.

Those who enjoy the tours the most are those who are relaxed but punctual, curious about the local culture but not intrusive, treat the idiosyncrasies of developing world travel with good humor, and enthusiastically join in soccer games with the Sherpas. Adventure travel is not to everyone’s taste, but with around a high rebooking rate, it appears to be addictive.

Responsible Adventure Travel Companies

Culture Xplorers offers small group adventures in Latin America with an emphasis on respectful interaction with the locals and their culture.

G Adventures allows for the the simultaneous freedom of independence while traveling as part of a group, with the option to stay in your own room. G Adventures makes "responsible travel" a cornerstone of their tours spanning the world.

Intrepid Traveler is a huge organization that leads small groups to over 100+ diverse itineraries to countries worldwide.

Explore. One of world’s largest and well-established companies, Explore Worldwide operate nearly 300 trips, with the aim of “doing things the local way as much as possible.” They have won Green Globe awards for enivronment-friendly tours.

Adventure Collection. This is an organization of travel companies that “share a dedication to environmental and cultural protection, sustainable tourism and the highest operating standards.” Members include Backroads and Lindblad.

Exodus Travels. Their 400 diverse programs includes biking, trekking, snow holidays, cultural, and family vacations in countries worldwide. They insist that “if you simply cannot cope with anything unexpected or unusual, then we’d rather you looked elsewhere for your holiday.”

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