“We’re going to travel better.” That was the refrain of the optimists who thought, back in the confused early days of 2020, that the pandemic was part of some giant recent and everyone would become more thoughtful after they blinked their way back into the world after being locked up for however long. But then the chaotic, record-setting summer of 2022 happened—along with the bizarre idea of “revenge travel”—and showed that very little had actually changed.
Now, though, things might actually be changing. Fringe ideas like “conscious travel” and “regenerative travel” are becoming mainstream, destinations have had serious reckonings with overtourism, and travelers—thoughtful ones, at least—are waking up to their responsibility not to leave places worse than they find them. Fodor’s released a “don’t go” list, and the New York Times just published an ode to responsible travel.
And so, while I used to ask a few mainstream luxury travel agencies for their recommendations for the year head, this time I turned to small business owners who care about principles as well as profits. Here’s what they suggest.
While the Conscious Travel Collective also organizes private travel to the Green Mountain State, it’s worth considering the small group tour in autumn, in which founder Tara Bush promises stops that only “a seasoned local stands a chance at identifying.” The itinerary takes in only the sort of locally owned businesses that speak to the culture of this stunning, rural Northeastern state. “From farms, to breweries, to cooking classes and hiking trails, the true character of Vermont comes through with each day,” says Bush. Travelers stay in cozy cabins overlooking Caspian Lake and an historic bed and breakfast in Burlington.
Kachemak Bay State Park, Alaska
The family-owned Tutka Bay Lodge sits in a private cove within a rugged nine-mile glacial fjord at the edge of the Kachemak Bay State Park. It’s a prime spot for viewing wildlife on property. In the winter, travelers can see moose, wolves, blue herons, harbor seals, and otters. In spring, there are bears and whales, and in summer and fall, mountain goats, bald eagles and snowy owls. In May, more than 25 species of hummingbirds show up. It’s also a place to taste true Alaskan hospitality. Kirsten Dixon and daughter, Mandy, are trained chefs and cookbook authors, and they’ve also created a cooking school in a converted crabbing boat.
Girls on the Go Destinations curate fun and impactful learning adventures for women only. Their Oaxaca trip goes beyond beaches and shopping tour to take a deep dive into the rich history and culture of this UNESCO-recognized city. The focus is connecting with local women leaders and learning about their daily lives and expertise in weaving, unique black pottery, wooden alebrijes, medicinal herbs and mezcal production, explain managing partners Jane O. Howard and Elise Kloter. Led by local women guides, they’ll hike the historic Camino Real (Royal Trail) of the Zapotecs, part of an ancient pre-Hispanic route leading to the Gulf of Mexico. In Capulalpam, they’ll learn about ancestral healing practices from Zapotec women—six spiritual leaders have invited the group into their sacred space.
Chaco Canyon and Taos, New Mexico
Angelisa Murray is a true believer in the magic of northern New Mexico, and she’s dedicated her travel company, Heritage Inspirations, to taking people to see the state at its most genuine and also its most sublime. In 2023, she’s leading groups into Chaco Canyon—a site that was home to thousands of Ancestral Puebloan people between the 9th and 13th centuries—and the wilderness around Taos for two next-level stargazing experiences. (Both sites are known for Dark Sky viewing.) She and her guests will be in the canyon for archeoastronomy during the spring and autumn equinox and new moon, and glamping in the Taos wilderness during the Perseid meteor showers and new moon in August.
Pacuare, Costa Rica
The pioneering conservation and ecotourism adventure company Rios Tropicales has an impressive rising-from-the-ashes story. Known for its raft-in, raft-out lodge in the wilderness, the company filed for bankruptcy in January 2021 for obvious reasons, and two months later its internationally acclaimed cofounder died of cancer. But then passionate group of paddlers, conservationists and adventure tourism stewards, including that founder’s young son, Roberto Gallo, believed that the best could still be yet to come. They secured funding and purchased the ecolodge in February 2022, renamed it and immediately set about expanding its facilities, vision, and conservation projects in the Pacuare River ecosystem. Now guests choose between rafting or hiking into this remote ecolodge—there’s still no automobile access—and enjoy ziplining, hiking, horseback riding, conservation tours and tree-planting, waterfalls and swimming holes, birdwatching, and visits to a community butterfly garden.
Northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Mosaic Earth Travel offers experiences exclusively in lesser-known regions of British Columbia, to “get travelers beyond the busy hubs and connecting with small communities, unique Indigenous cultures and the wildest landscapes that make BC so unique,” says owner Pam Duynstee. Her eight-day North Island In-Depth small-group tour has a focus on sustainable and regenerative tourism, education and creating a platform for indigenous communities to share their stories, with plenty of adrenaline along the way: sea kayaking with orcas, and wildlife viewing in the Great Bear Rain Forest. “In a time of rabid media consumption, social unrest and environmental concern,” she says, “this trip provides an opportunity to slow down and cultivate a broader understanding of our planet.
The Great Inca Trail, Peru
This is not the overtouristed Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Rather, it’s a 25,000-mile network of roads and trails that’s considered one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels. With that reach, parts of it are still quite untouched. SA Expeditions takes small groups of explorers (and pack llamas) on five-day treks through the remote Andes from Castillo to the archaeological site of Huanuco Pampa, where, says COO Riva Bacquet, they’ll encounter “tiny local communities and zero other international travelers.” She also points out that SA Expeditions is a certified B Corporation, and is actively and responsibly participating in the conservation of the world’s largest UNESCO World Heritage site—“a site on the precipice of destruction by haphazard modernization.”
A long-respected leader in thoughtful travel in some of South America’s most distant and stunning regions, Explora has taken on the stewardship of Patagonia National Park—the legacy of legendary conservationists Doug and Kristine Thompkins—for the next 25 years. The new lodge is a base for travelers to explore this remote, off-the-beaten path region, learn about the process of creating a national park and in an effort to drive conservation in this region, partly via the Thompkins’ foundation, Rewilding Chile.
Uyuni Salt Flat, Bolivia
Designer Cecile Stuart calls visiting the Uyuni salt flat—a 42,000-year-old marvel of nature that’s four times the size of Hong Kong—in the highlands of Bolivia “an experience that goes beyond the scenery. She’s collaborating with the travel planners at V&V Experience to create trips to the region. “For some cultures the salt flat is known as one of the strongest energy centers in the world. The immensity, the color and the pureness of the territory create an ambience that takes one to a parallel world, where one connects with the purest of senses. The people and local culture are also unique, a place where time seems to have stopped a century ago—faithful to their beliefs. A caring community that is eager to share their most ancient wisdoms.” Referring to the shifting horizons and colors, she adds, “David Lynch would feel right at home here. So would Salvador Dalí.”
Call it permaculture-lite. Since its inception, the leaders of Croatia’s AndAdventure have been “looking at ways how to give our contribution to environmental awareness in a way that would be inspirational and educational to our visitors while at the same time not overwhelming them,” says founder and director Veselka Huljić, “We needed hands-on experience. Something palpable and easy to translate to people who have lost connection with nature, elements and the soil.” And so, Pomalo, their regenerative farm and sustainable olive grove, can be visited in a one-day experience or as a one-week farmstay that combines getting your hands dirty with explorations of the lesser-known parts of Hvar Island.
“Tucked between the Alps and the Mediterranean, Slovenia is a treasure trove of breathtaking nature, especially in the winter when nature puts on its white outfit,” says Ursula Kordis, the founder of the local tour operator Wanderlux Journeys. “Winters in Slovenia are magical, away from city lights, embraced by soaring, snowcapped peaks warmed up by the scent of mulled wine.” Another reason to visit soon: the new six-room hotel Milka, just four miles away from the Triple Border with Italy and Austria, a crossroads of three national and cultures.
Gourmet on Tour has pioneered culinary tourism sector for more than 20 years, says founder and managing director Judith von Prockl. “Our little black book of contacts and attention to detail transform a good vacation into a truly outstanding one.” In Tuscany, “we have curated culinary weeks together with Villa Michaela [a 16th-century aristocratic home in the Luccesi hills] since 2000 and are the sole agency for these magnificent experiences here.” Her company’s weeklong itinerary combines cooking in historic kitchens, culture and a spirit of adventure, including hunting for black truffles in the Tuscan woods.
Ngorongoro Highlands, Tanzania—on Foot
Tanzania Journeys’ “human-powered journey” from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to Lake Natron is a remote experience that “challenges, connects and humbles those willing to take it,” says company founder Seema Shah. “With a combined two-day trek and two-day cultural experience, this itinerary offers deeper ways to explore remote and unique places in Tanzania and connect with its people.” After a supported hike led by Maasai guides, the rest of the trip is dedicated to visiting Lake Natron, the “devastatingly beautiful soda lake” where 75% of the world’s lesser flamingoes are born and one of the fascinating cultures of Tanzania’s diverse people radiates.
Lake Turkana, Kenya
Uncharted owners Chip and Sandy Cunningham recently had an experience they’re now offering to clients on custom trips: a helicopter safari to Lake Turkana. “Twenty-four hours felt like a week,” says Sandy. “The wildest form of reconnection in the most unconnected place, moments like this are pure magic on every level. This is truly one of the most spectacular off-the-grid experiences.” Maverick Chopper Pilot and third-generation Kenyan, Andrew Francombe, a long-time friend of the Cunningham family, takes off from Laikipia with the basics for a day and night away at the farthest reaches of northern Kenya. “Andrew is one of those rare breeds of humans who can bring even the most rudimentary experience to life in a brilliant Technicolor kind of way.”
Brahmaputra River, Assam, India
Ubuntu Life founder Nishant Badami is a passionate advocate for transformation travel, and she sees great value in visiting the Brahmaputra River. “Rivers and their tributaries are storytellers,” she says. “They bring tales from the lands that they flow through.” There are multiple communities along and around the mighty river. Some are still trying to strengthen their identities; some have already made their place. Visiting the region, whether on a private, customizable journey on a luxurious boat (with a home stay at the end) or as part of a special small-group trip planned for January, is meant to “open our minds to what living with uncertainty truly is and how it builds resilience and innovation amongst the people.” Thirty percent of all deposits for the group trip will be donated to flood relief measures.
Everything Earth Changers organizes is based on positive impact, sustainable tourism, conservation and community benefit, and this ocean conservation-oriented adventure sailing trip to Palmyra Atoll are no exception. The journey begins in Hawaii and ends on the Oceanic island of Kiribati, but the focus is on the atoll, a relatively new National Wildlife Refuge within the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. “It’s a Nature Conservancy and US Fish & Wildlife Service–managed research station on Pacific ecosystems,” explains Earth Changers founder Vicky Smith. “Palmyra only opened for visits in 2019, then was promptly shut again for Covid, so very very few visitors have ever been there! It’s one of the best places in the world for snorkeling.”
Papua New Guinea
“Few places are truly off the beaten path, and Papua New Guinea is one of them.” says Beth Whitman of Wander Tours, whose company takes guests to visit the country. “With nearly 850 tribes speaking nearly as many languages, and few roads linking one location to the next, the country remains a wild and tribally fueled location where locals don face paint, bird feathers, pig tusks and hornbill beaks as part of their traditional clothing for ceremonies and festivals.” While most companies focus on diving and visits to the islands, Wander Tours focuses on small villages and incorporate little-known as well as large singsings (festivals).