Tour Operators Promoting Sustainability (TOPS)

Imagine a world where direct competitors from the private sector come together to help conserve threatened landscapes and provide sustainable livelihoods for the local communities where they work -- all while improving their bottom line.

This is precisely the kind of world that the associates of TOPS -- Tour Operators Promoting Sustainability -- envision. These forward-thinking entrepreneurs are working together to support a greater good and are reaping the benefits of their collaboration. By working alongside the Rainforest Alliance, these tour operators are influencing industry standards and helping to mitigate tourism’s impact on natural and cultural treasures. At the same time, they are ensuring the financial sustainability of their own operations.

What is TOPS?

TOPS is a community of tour operators launched in 2011 by the Rainforest Alliance. Each participating region is represented by a locally based and elected tour operator who works to coordinate activities and provide input to the larger TOPS community.

By joining TOPS, tour operators commit to improving the sustainability of their own practices as well as the sustainability of their suppliers in various tourism destinations. The result: sustainability ripples down the supply chain. Hotels are inspired to operate responsibly, TOPS participants are motivated to promote sustainable tourism businesses and consumers are encouraged to visit eco-friendly destinations.

Participating Pays Off

Photo by Turismo Aventura

Tour operators affiliated with TOPS contribute directly to local economic development and the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems in Latin America by transforming their business practices and incentivizing change among their suppliers. Other benefits for participating tour operators include:

  • Improving their image and credibility by publicly committing to working with the Rainforest Alliance and obtaining permission to use the Rainforest Alliance Verified™ mark or the Rainforest Alliance logo.
  • Enjoying direct savings in operating costs, often the result of adopting best practices.
  • Accessing lists of approved sustainable tourism suppliers in preferred destinations.
  • Enjoying discounts on Rainforest Alliance verification services and on participation fees for conferences and trade shows.
  • Receiving invitations to participate in familiarization trips to meet sustainable suppliers and experience sustainability in action.
  • Receving promotion of their commitments to sustainability on Rainforest Alliance social media platforms.
  • Participating in collaborative marketing opportunities through advertisements, social media, travel shows, press trips and e-marketing.
  • Improving management practices.
  • Receiving an invitation to attend an annual gathering of affiliate tour operators.
  • Accessing tools and training materials for management, staff and suppliers.
  • Participating in seminars on topics of interest.
  • Enhancing commercial relationships and sharing experiences with their suppliers and other tour operators around the globe.
  • Appearing on a list of companies on the Rainforest Alliance website, at conferences and at special events.

Steps to Sustainability

Photo by Four Directions

The first step to TOPS membership is signing a cooperative agreement with the Rainforest Alliance. The agreement symbolizes a tour operator’s commitment to conserving biodiversity and reducing tourism’s negative impacts by becoming Rainforest Alliance Verified™ or earning certification by a third-party organization recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

In addition, tour operators commit to:

  • Ensuring that during the first year of membership, at least 30 percent of their suppliers in key destinations are verified or certified. The percentage must increase in subsequent years.
  • Keeping the Rainforest Alliance informed on their progress toward achieving sustainability goals.
  • Supporting the work of TOPS by making a charitable contribution to the Rainforest Alliance, based on a sliding scale.
  • Agreeing to give priority to hotels and lodges that adopt best practices in tour packages offered to international tourism wholesalers or travelers.
  • Attaining Rainforest Alliance Verification (for inbound tour operators).
  • Participating in elections and annual TOPS meetings.

Allies for Change

The establishment of the TOPS platform also facilitates the ability of its affiliates to seek formal relationships with other civil society organizations or the public sector, helping them to gain access to funding or tools to help advance sustainable tourism.

Learn more about the Tour Operators Promoting Sustainability around the world.

Case Study

An analysis of 114 tour operators working with the Rainforest Alliance over the past four years shows how their commercial relationships were enhanced and the sustainability of their supply chain was improved as a result of their participation in the TOPS platform:

  • The quantity of sustainable suppliers contracted grew by 38% for inbound operators and by 14% for outbound operators.
  • The total number of outbound operators that include sustainable tourism products in their itineraries increased by 41%.
  • Outbound operators increased the number of inbound operators they work with in the region by 100%.
  • The number of travelers that stated that sustainably managed tourism businesses are a priority when booking their trips grew by 8% for inbound operators and by 2% for outbound operators, showing that demand for sustainable tourism products is steadily increasing.
  • 76% of the outbound tour operators interviewed feel that sustainability is an important marketing tool and include it in their marketing strategy.
  • Inbound tour operators reported an additional 1,211 jobs generated, which represents a 65% increase with respect to 2008 numbers, demonstrating a direct positive impact on local economic development.