Our Tour Operators That Give Back series meets a company driven by a responsibility not only to travelers but also to the communities they visit and to the world itself.
Travel offers us an opportunity to take ourselves away from the comforts of home, embrace difference, and open ourselves to new experiences that can change how we see the world. Intrepid Travel dedicates itself to that opportunity by finding ways to build human connections, support local communities, respect the environment, and draw us all a little closer together.
Intrepid itineraries are crafted to include as much time as possible doing local things with local people. That experience helps travelers get behind the scenes and understand what makes a destination special. Whether it’s learning about Sherpa culture in the most mountainous parts of Nepal, camping out with Maasai warriors on the plains of Kenya, eating crispy pork banh mi on a street-food crawl through Hanoi, or weaving with local women in Peru’s Sacred Valley—it’s these moments that create lasting travel memories.
Since Intrepid’s very first days as a tour operator, responsible business has been at the heart of the company. Its investment in local communities, human-rights initiatives, wildlife conservation projects, and the environment range from increasing employment opportunities for women in the travel industry to being the first global tour operator to ban elephant rides in 2014. And while it’s up to each traveler to be a conscientious globe-trotter, Intrepid aims to make it easier by incorporating principles of sustainable tourism and development into the real-life experiences it crafts for its guests.
Immersive, experience-rich, responsible travel
Intrepid Travel founders Darrell Wade and Geoff Manchester (known as “Manch”) met as university students in Melbourne. After some individual travels, they arranged a trip through Africa in 1988 with a group of friends. They acquired an old truck, geared it up with seats and supplies, and set off for the better part of a year. During that adventure the two hatched the idea of what would turn into Intrepid. The word seemed to perfectly describe their style of travel and what they wanted to create.
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“We reflected on days as a backpacker and how it’s an incredibly immersive way to travel,” says Wade. “The challenge is that when people have conventional jobs, they don’t have many vacation days. With the time it takes to get into the swing of being a backpacker—from working out transportation needs to where you’re staying—the trip is over before things really click well. But with details prearranged, you’re spending less time researching and more time being close to the community and meeting real people in the destination.”
More than 30 years later, Intrepid Travel is a world leader in sustainable, experience-rich travel that takes visitors deeper into destinations and cultures to benefit both travelers and the communities they visit. The company’s nonprofit arm, the Intrepid Foundation, has contributed more than $7.9 million to over 130 community organizations (like Education for All in Morocco and Blue Carbon Lab in Australia) since 2002. In 2018, the carbon-neutral business became the world’s largest company to earn certified B Corporation status, which means it meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.
“We’ve noticed a change in travel values in our guests over time,” says Wade. “Certainly, for a first trip, people are making decisions based on the time they’ve got available, the departure day, price, and other functional kinds of features. But when we survey the same person after the trip and ask them what was great about their experience, those values and approaches that we consider as ‘responsible travel’ are at the top of their list. Over time, with repeat customers, we can see how we’ve had an impact on them and how they are re-evaluating how they travel.”
How Intrepid Travel gives back
Intrepid ensures that it builds responsible travel fundamentals into each of its trips. While the company became a completely carbon-neutral business in 2010, it took an extra step in 2020 by becoming the first tour operator in the world with verified, science-based climate targets—an initiative that’s a collaboration among four organizations, including the United Nations Global Compact. As part of Intrepid’s initiative to rebuild the tourism industry responsibly postpandemic, it published the 10-Step Quick Start Guide to Decarbonising Your Travel Business, written by in-house environment impact specialist Dr. Susanne Etti.
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The goal of a wider decarbonization plan established by Intrepid includes removing all flights under 90 minutes from its top 50 trips by the end of 2022, as the company starts to operate in line with a 1.5°C future, the target set by the historic 2015 Paris Agreement. That agreement was born of the COP21 gathering in Paris, where every country agreed to work together to limit global warming to well below 2°C and aim for 1.5°C. When leaders met again in November 2021 for COP26 (held in Glasgow), Wade was there, calling on the tourism industry to limit its carbon footprint and sharing Intrepid’s open-source guide to decarbonizing tour operations. Intrepid itself recently introduced more than 40 new low-carbon alternatives that will enhance the experience for travelers while also being better for the planet. Examples include more “human-powered” adventures like the Walk Yosemite National Park trip and replacing the usual flight between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh on the Premium Cambodia tour with a boat ride up the Tonle Sap River.
The Australian company has also recognized its responsibility to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders—and their ongoing connection to lands, waters, and communities—by joining the reconciliation movement. Phase two of its four-pillar commitment includes developing more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tour experiences and partnering with nonprofit organizations through the Intrepid Foundation.
Most recently, in August 2021, Intrepid launched a series of initiatives as part of a new global vaccine-equity campaign that included increasing on-the-ground resources in support of vaccine access and education. With fewer than 4 percent of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide administered in low-income countries, Intrepid believes vaccine equity is essential to save lives and restart economies, as well as rebuild the tourism industry.
Intrepid’s responsible travel values are ingrained in the culture and daily operations of its offices and trips. “I’ve seen the face of travel change in our lifetimes,” says Wade. “Allowing people to engage with different communities and learn what life is like in the places where they travel makes them much more informed about the world as a whole and how all our actions impact each other.”