CHOOSING AN OPERATOR
There’s no doubt that with thorough planning and careful research, independent travel can offer freedom and choice of budget. However, by arranging your wildlife trip through a specialist travel operator, you’ll receive the benefit of first-hand knowledge of your chosen area, as well as an itinerary that includes everything from transport and accommodation to national park entry fees and the services of a professional guide. There is also a lot to be said for travelling with like-minded people on an organised trip.
Track record, accommodation, quality of guides, group size and responsible travel should all be taken into consideration when selecting a wildlife tour operator. Before making a reservation, use the following checklist to help you decide whether a company comes up to scratch.
How long has the travel operator been in business? Is it affiliated to a professional association which provides a quality charter and financial security? In the UK, for example, the Association of Independent Tour Operators not only provides high levels of consumer protection should one of its members go out of business, but it also awards travel companies a star rating for meeting high standards of responsible travel (see below).
Does the operator have a responsible travel policy? Is it something that lies at the heart of the business or is it merely greenwash?
Test an operator’s eco-credentials by asking the following questions:
• How do you minimize the environmental and cultural impact of your tours and can you provide me with information on travelling responsibly?
• How do your trips benefit local communities? • Do you employ local guides and leaders and are they trained in responsible tourism practices, such as how to avoid disturbance to wildlife?
• What systems do you have in place to minimize pollution, both at home and abroad? Do you support a carbon offset programme?
• Which conservation charities do you support? Can you tell me about any successful environmental projects you’ve been involved with?
• How much produce is sourced locally on your trips?
• Can I stay in community-run or family-owned accommodation? What environmentally sustainable camps and lodges can you recommend?
Wild nights out
Accommodation is largely down to personal choice and budget, but think hard about the options. Mobile camping may enable you to reach remote, wildlife-rich areas, but if you’d prefer four solid walls and a roof between your bed and the wild unknown there is a plethora of lodges to choose from. Try to judge accommodation not just by whether it has a swimming pool and air-con, but also on its environmental credentials.
Look carefully at your itinerary. Are enough days allocated to exploring national parks or is too much time spent travelling between too many highlights? If you’re a keen photographer or interested in animal behaviour, concentrating on one area may prove more satisfying than flitting from one to another. Is the timing right? Bargain deals might conceal unfavourable conditions for viewing wildlife – it could be the wet season when access is difficult or simply the ‘off season’ when wildlife has migrated elsewhere.
Group size & guide-wise
Two final aspects to bear in mind when choosing an operator are group size and the quality of your guide. Small groups of a dozen people are quiet and unobtrusive, and an expert guide who can communicate with a genuine passion for the natural world will elevate a wildlife holiday to the trip-of-a-lifetime – whether you’re searching for butterflies in the Alps or blue whales off California.