The World’s Best Responsible Travel Organizations

Worlds Best Responsible Travel Organizations1

November 4 is World Responsible Tourism Day, a day designated by World Travel Market and the United National World Tourism Organization in 2007 to encourage the travel industry to focus on responsible travel issues.

Their major objectives were to drive change by educating the industry and consumers alike on responsible travel behavior, exploring ways of making destinations more sustainable, debating key environmental issues impacted by tourism, and using WTM as a forum for encouraging the industry to drive the responsible tourism agenda.

To commemorate the 8th anniversary of this special day, we’ll examine 10 of the world’s top responsible travel organizations, including a bit about their history, mission and current projects:

Center for Responsible Travel Logo

The Center For Responsible Travel

CREST was founded in 2003 by Dr. Martha Honey, the author of Ecotourism & Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? The research institute’s mission is “to promote responsible tourism policies and practices globally so that local communities may thrive and steward their cultural resources and biodiversity.”

Based in Washington, DC, the non-profit uses policy-oriented research to design, evaluate and improve the social and environmental commitments of responsible tourism, promoting more sustainable practices in the travel industry.

Their initiatives include coordinating research projects, creating publications, participating in and leading international workshops and conferences, leading responsible tourism course and seminars, and supporting social service and conservation projects through their charitable arm, Travelers Philanthropy.


Destination Stewardship Center

Destination Stewardship Center

An offshoot of the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations, the DSC was founded by NatGeo editor Jonathan Tourtellot. It was Tourtellot who originally coined the term geotourism, for “Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.”

Created “to help protect the world’s distinctive places by supporting wisely managed tourism and enlightened destination stewardship,” the NGO focuses on the ways in which the travel industry can either help or harm a given destination.

Their website offers a Destination Watch featuring ratings and news about intriguing places around the world; Stewardship Resources designed to help destinations improve; and resources for “Geotravelers” interested in traveling more responsibly and sustainably.


Ethical Traveler Logo
Ethical Traveler

A project of San Francisco’s Earth Island Institute, Ethical Traveler was founded by author/journalist Jeff Greenwald. The concept came to him after he wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post urging travelers to boycott travel to Burma to protest the military government that imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Travelers really are a huge untapped political action group,” Greenwald said in a 2014 interview. “What if there was some way to combine their voices in order to promote human rights and social change? A lot of countries rely on tourism dollars. especially in the developing world. We can and should exert pressure on those countries to do the right thing with the environment, social welfare, and how they use the resources we, as travelers, are bringing in.”

The organization is best-known for its annual report on the World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations, which weighs the merit of each country based on factors such as Environmental Protection, Social Welfare and Human Rights.

Global Ecotourism Network Logo

Global Ecotourism Network

The newest organization on this list, the Global Ecotourism Network was founded in early 2015 by a group of ecotourism professionals from all over the world.

The founders– all former members of the Advisory Committee to The International Ecotourism Society– established GEN to be a source for evaluating ecotourism practices and disseminating authentic trends, applied research and experience-driven studies in the field.

Their ultimate mission is to unite the world’s myriad national and regional ecotourism associations, destinations, indigenous peoples, tour operators, professionals and academics to help build a stronger ecotourism industry, provide advocacy and thought leadership, and encourage innovation and authenticity.


Global Sustainable Tourism Council logo
Global Sustainable Tourism Council

Formerly known as the Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria, this NGO started out in 2007 as a coalition launched by the Rainforest Alliance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Foundation, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Its original mission was to foster a better understanding of sustainable tourism practices and the adoption of universal sustainable tourism principles. The original partnership worked to craft a set of criteria organized around the four pillars of sustainable tourism: effective sustainability planning, maximizing social and economic benefits to the local community, reduction of negative impacts to cultural heritage, and reduction of negative impacts to the environment.

The GSTC’s Destination Criteria (GSTC-D) was released in November 2013, and now serve as the baseline standards for tourism destination management and as a framework for sustainability standards. The organization is focused on engaging everyone in the tourism industry– purchasers, suppliers and consumers alike– to adopt the criteria.


The International Ecotourism Society logo
The International Ecotourism Society

Founded in 1990 by Megan Epler Wood, TIES was the world’s first NGO dedicated to ecotourism as a tool for conservation and sustainable development. The following year the Board of Directors defined ecotourism, which has since been updated to “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

The organization works to unite communities, eco lodges, conservation initiatives and sustainable travel industry professionals, all engaged (and hopefully partnered) in creating an ecotourism infrastructure built on social, economic and environmental sustainability.

TIES encourages certain principles among everyone who sells, promotes or participates in ecotourism activities, including minimizing negative impacts, building environmental and cultural respect, providing direct economic benefits to fund conservation, constructing and operating low-impact facilities, recognizing the rights and beliefs of Indigenous People and working in partnership to empower them.


International Sustainable Tourism Initiative logo
International Sustainable Tourism Initiative 

Part of Harvard University’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, the ISTI is run by Director Megan Epler Wood, who founded TIES and served as its CEO from 1990 to 2002. Now she manages this comprehensive program, which is designed to build stronger health and sustainability systems within the tourism industry.

Their primary goals are to aid in the development of sustainable economic and environmental solutions, encourage research regarding the impact tourism has on global health and the environment, help create tourism development strategies that address climate change and protect local ecosystems, and encourage the development of business solutions to manage waste and waste water and protect clean water and air.

Working in conjunction with various non-profit foundations, industry members and governmental organizations, ISTI’s current research focuses on Advanced Tools for Destination Management and Climate Change Preparation, Healthy & Sustainable Food Supply Chains for Tourism, and Policy Innovation in Tourism Development.


The Long Run Logo

The Long Run Initiative

The flagship initiative of the Zeitz Foundation, the Long Run was launched in 2009 to pursue founder Jochen Zeitz’s mission to create and support sustainable, ecologically and socially responsible projects and destinations around the world.

At the core of their work is the belief that long-term sustainability can be best achieved via a holistic balance of the 4Cs- Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce– in privately managed areas. These four elements form the heart of their Global Ecosphere Retreats (GER) accreditation system, which helps identify institutions that manage natural areas of value by pursuing environmental goals such as biodiversity conservation or forest restoration.

Their current projects include natural wastewater treatment plants designed to improve the quality of river and aquifer water in Costa Rican communities, and a forest restoration initiative in Tahi, New Zealand that aims to eradicate invasive plant species and improve biodiversity in the forest, beach, wetland and estuarine habitat.


Sustainable Travel International Logo

Sustainable Travel International

Inspired by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (often credited with launching the environmental movement) and the International Year of Ecotourism (convened by the UN in Quebec), Alabama-bred Brian T. Mullis founded STI in 2002. The former tour operator’s goal was simple: He wanted to make ecotourism mainstream.

To that end, STI developed a set of standards by which airlines, destinations, hotels and tour operators could assess their progress in terms of economic, environmental and social impact to ensure that tourism was helping to drive conservation and alleviate poverty. They later got into offering carbon offsets for major corporations, as well as traveler philanthropy funds in developing nations such as Ethiopia, Honduras and Mali.

Their current initiatives include establishing regional alliances to collaborate on responsible destination management; and the 10 Million Better Campaign, STI’s commitment to improve 10 million lives by 2025 as well as galvanize the broader tourism industry to make similar commitments and use their Impact Monitoring System to measure those improvements.


UNWTO logo

United Nations World Tourism Organization

Based in Madrid, the UNWTO is the United Nations agency responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism as a source of economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability. Its origins date back to 1925, when the International Congress of Official Tourist Traffic Associations (ICOTT) was formed in the Netherlands.

The organization’s membership currently includes 156 countries, 6 territories and over 400 affiliate members representing the private sector, educational institutions, tourism associations and local tourism authorities. Together they work to generate knowledge of the global tourism market, promote responsible tourism policies, foster education and training, and provide sustainable development tools through technical assistance projects in over 100 countries.

The UNWTO is the oldest and largest responsible tourism organization in the world, playing an increasingly vital role in developing sustainable tourism as a means of generating economic development, international understanding, peace, prosperity and universal respect for human rights, particularly with regards to developing nations with nascent tourism infrastructures.  –Bret Love


BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.



6 responses to “The World’s Best Responsible Travel Organizations

  1. Dear Bret Love:
    First of all thank you for putting together this list of organizations dedicated to promote responsible tourism. Before locating your article I saw a post referencing it to a group established to discuss GSTC topics. And on first sight the impression was that there is a ranking of the world’s top responsible travel NGOs. I guess the title encourages that thought and considering the post I saw, one or the other reader would use it in that context.
    Thus I was wondering and wanted to ask you if beyond the descriptive part of what the listed organizations do, is there any kind of ranking? Are there any criteria to arrive at or be part of the world’s top responsible travel NGOs? What type of information would a NGO dedicated to responsible travel have to provide to be considered for the listing; and last no least how is the ranking arrived at?

    I hope you find a spare moment to share some more detail on the topic
    Thomas Meller

  2. The “Best” of anything so un-quantifiable as responsible travel NGOs is inherently subjective. The post’s title is all about inciting readers to click and read the piece. In this case, I based my decidedly unscientific choices on a combination of longevity, notoriety and respect within the field. Thanks for reading!

  3. “Travelers really are a huge untapped political action group,” Love that. I wish more people understood the power of their tourism dollars and thought about how their spending as travel consumers makes a real difference. Each time we spend, we essential vote for what we want in the world. From saying “No” to elephant rides just one afternoon to considering the where and how we travel for our entire trip, travel consumers have real power to force change – for the good or bad.

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