I spent almost 3 weeks in Turkey earlier this month exploring the rich culture and eating too much amazing food! I usually do a sustainable travel guide for major cities I go to, however this one is a little different. I spent 2 weeks on a tour of Turkey with Intrepid Travel, who are a registered B Corporation which means they are committed to aligning people, planet and profit through measurement and accountability. I must admit, I did have some pretty high expectations that this would be a different experience to other tours I have been on. There were some aspects they did well, however there were others that were not so impressive. This guide discusses the overall experience as well as a few cheeky sustainability moments from Istanbul so you can see life beyond Intrepid Tours!

Intrepid Travel Background

In 1989 their founders wanted to start a business that focused on creating a travel experience that was good for travellers and locals. This has been the core purpose of their business for 30 years and it shows. They are now the world’s largest adventure travel company, with the Intrepid Group owning a collection of brands that offer more than 3,000 trips in more than 120 countries and on every continent.

The Itinerary

The tour I did was an 18-29 year old tour called ‘Real Turkey’, which was not my choice but the only one within my budget. We saw another group who were on a similar route with Intrepid and the majority of people were aged 50+. It is difficult having exclusive age ranges because it means that the other tours are less diverse. In my opinion it would have been nice to have a more diverse age range on our trip. However, there were not many people aged 30-40 in either of the trips.
We covered a lot of ground in the 14 days! Check out the itinerary here.

Map of Real Turkey  including Turkey
The Real Turkey Itinerary!

Sustainable Practices: Environment

Leigh Barnes is Intrepid’s Chief Purpose Officer. His role is to ensure the business is living out the company’s purpose focusing on social and environmental factors. A strong focus for Intrepid is the impact of their work on the environment. As the tourism sector balances the carbon emissions from travellers, Intrepid is focused on building awareness of sustainable practices. In an interview with Forbes, Leigh said, ‘From a responsible business point of view, our big, big focus right now is to become climate positive in 2020. We know that the travel sector is a big contributor to the climate crisis. And our big focus is to take climate action. We’ve been carbon-neutral since 2010, so we’ve been doing a lot of work and setting up to become climate positive next year. So an example of that is we will be offsetting at 125% as of 2020. Those funds will go to six projects globally. Everything from a rain forest protection project in Borneo and Brazil; a burning off project in Arnhem Land, Australia; and wind farms in India and Turkey.’
Being carbon positive is a massive step forward for the business. By investing in energy and environment projects in their local regions, it sets them up as a leader in this space.

During The Tour

Transport

The tour boasted that we would use local forms of public transport as it is more sustainable. We toured thousands of kilometres and only used 2 public buses and a public train. The rest was by private bus. This can be a difficult thing to juggle as public transport itineraries are hard to manage. However, it would have been great to have more opportunities in public transport. When our group went on the public train, some people had opportunities to meet with local people. One of the tour group told me afterwards how she was sitting next to an old man who wanted to learn about her country and although he had very limited English, they spent time sharing and chatting. She also said he made sure her bag was safe and wanted to ensure she was always comfortable on the trip. Now that is some Turkish hospitality!

Plastic Usage

One of the biggest environmental challenges on the trip was the use of plastic bottles. In Turkey it is not safe to drink the tap water, so we needed to purchase water bottles regularly. In some of the hotels and guesthouses we stayed in, Intrepid offered filtered water. However in one of the places the water was contaminated and I got really sick and ended up in hospital.
We had a 2 day boat trip where we would not have access to fresh drinking water, which we were only told about just prior to boarding the boat. So a group got together and bought 10 litre plastic bottles so everyone didn’t need to purchase small water bottles. This worked really well and would be a good thing for Intrepid to work with the businesses who are not offering filtered water to find processes to manage it. On the boat you could purchase 500ml bottles. If we had not bulk bought our water, there could have been over 120 bottles wasted over the 2 days.

The most frustrating part of the plastic bottle scenario was that at the start of the tour we were given a linen bag that said ‘Say No To Plastic.’ This was great for plastic bags, however it fell short with the plastic water bottle usage. I had been travelling for 6.5 months before starting the trip and I used more plastic water bottles during the tour than I did in the prior months. I think the main challenges with tours is that you don’t have autonomy to choose restaurants or make your own itinerary. I usually make sure I can fill up my water with filtered water at the places I eat at, however that option wasn’t available in many places we ate in.

The bag we got on the first day.

Sustainable Practices: People

This is an area that Intrepid invests a lot of time and energy. They have female empowerment programs across the world that encourage female led businesses. They do this by using local suppliers for their experiences, food and hotels. On top of their supply chains, they are also aligning their philanthropy to empower women through their Foundation. In 2002, with an initial contribution of AU $200,000, the travel group established The Intrepid Foundation. To date they have given over $7.5 million in grants to over 130 charities and NGOs in the areas where their tours operate.
The idea came when tour guides were noticing that people were giving money directly to them to pass on to local community projects. Intrepid’s founders knew there needed to be better transparency and accountability around the whole process, so they established the Foundation.
They allow Intrepid customers to donate to the Intrepid Foundation and they match the donations dollar for dollar. 100 per cent of the donations go directly to the cause and projects in the local region.
Many of the projects are committed to empowering local community groups that are run and led by women including the Small Projects Istanbul. The grants often help women to establish their business which is often hindered by lack of funding.

During Our Tour

In our tour we went to a rug making cooperative run with over 2000 women, providing them with employment and security. We also went to a few restaurants that were run by local women and even went to the home of a woman who offered us a cooking class and lunch. It was a great experience because we had the opportunity to see how Turkish families live and to also see how proud the woman was to show off her business.

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Went on a magic carpet ride in Turkey and found an amazing women’s cooperative that provide employment and community for over 2000 women through rug making. The rug making process is UNESCO heritage listed with everything hand made from spinning the materials to dying and weaving the rugs. I got involved in the double knot method of rug making and let’s just say those ladies are professionals!!! It is harder and more time consuming than it looks! The pattern of each rug is designed by the ladies and they all tell a story from the region. 😍😍 The Turkish government also help out local cooperatives with grants and they sell their rugs in stores across Turkey. It’s so great to see businesses supporting women across Turkey where women’s empowerment is so critical. Providing employment and ways to create financial independence is such an important step. #socialgood #socialchange #turkey #girlboss #empowerment #empowerwomen #rugs #turkishrug #wovenrug #planetbinsights

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Another female led business experience was a 2 night boat expedition on the south of Turkey. The captain and chef was a local woman who lives on the boat for 8 months of the year with her husband. She served up some of the best food I ate in Turkey and was always smiling. Check out the full article about How Intrepid Travel Are Empowering Women In Turkey.

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We spent two amazing nights on a boat in the south coast of Turkey exploring the most beautiful coastline and seeing some incredible sunrises and sunsets. But the best part was that our captain, skipper, chef and business owner of the boat was a woman! She lives with her husband on the boat for 8 months of the year where she runs her business like an absolute boss. The food was the best I ate in Turkey and she was always smiling, making sure we were having a fantastic experience. @intrepidtravel are doing amazing things to empower local women with financial independence through a partnerships! Winner!! 💪🏼💖🙌🏼💚 . . . . . . . . #girlboss #socialchange #socialgood #turkey #intrepidtravel #intrepidtours #bosslady #boatlife #sunset #sunrise #planetbinsights #femaleempowerment #womeninbusiness #businesswoman #travelblogger #travelgram

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This was definitely a strong point of Intrepid Travel as you could tell they were really pushing many aspects of their supply chain to include women, which is important for the local economies as well as the overall travel experience.
However, one of the biggest challenges in Turkey is that the level of English of locals is quite low. For many of the women we spoke to they could not speak English so it was difficult to have conversations about their lives, jobs and families. Our tour guide translated the questions we asked, however it made for a massive strain on the guide.
Our guide also didn’t talk much about the social aspect of Intrepid Travel so much of what we learnt was via the internet. As many of the people on the tour chose Intrepid Travel for this reason, it would have been great to learn more about the social trends and how Intrepid Travel is investing in local communities.

Things To Consider

If you’re wanting to go on a socially and environmentally conscious tour, here are some things to think about:

  • Check the itinerary: Even if companies boast that they will use public transport for sustainability purposes, look at the itinerary for the modes of transport used on a daily basis. Ours strayed from the itinerary (using 2 more private buses) but it is a good indicator of the experience. The itinerary usually has the included and optional activities which will highlight if there are opportunities to meet with local people. Beware of voluntourism though. This is the practice of going into a community and volunteering but the positive impact of the work is not achieved because the focus is on tourism, rather than sustainable community change. One way to spot voluntourism is to ask the companies what they are doing to invest in communities after the tour groups leave. Also asking about the specific activities involved (For example is it just going to check out an orphanage or is it helping with lessons or maintenance of buildings) and the impact that achieves. Also ask how responsive the communities are and if they have any case studies or impact reports to show the outcomes.
  • Check their website: Look particularly at their Foundation (if they have one) and see what types of initiatives they are investing in. Also look at the mission and vision of the business in their ‘About us’ section. If it doesn’t mention any social or environmental factors, then they probably aren’t thinking of it on an operational level.
  • Ask the company: There are a number of things that you can ask the company including,
    • ‘How will the company ensure clean drinking water throughout the travel without using plastic bottles?’
    • ‘Is the tip carbon neutral and if not, is there a way to pay for it?’
    • ‘How does the company empower local communities? What initiatives do they undertake and is there a way to be involved in a way that has a positive impact?
  • Talk to your friends: If you have some friends who have travelled extensively, talk with them about their experiences and if they know of a good travel provider. My friend recently went with G Adventures to South America and she was really impressed by the amount of local experiences they had that were authentic and socially/environmentally led.

Overall

Turkey is an amazing country and would definitely recommend a tour as some of the areas are difficult to get around. Having a local tour guide who can help with translation, navigation and local tips was invaluable.

The Intrepid Travel was a good experience (except for the time I ended up in hospital for drinking the water Intrepid provided) if I had no expectations of them being a socially conscious business. They ran a tour that I would expect from any other type of travel company and it was not evident that their social and environmental initiatives are a differentiator.

Istanbul

I spent a few nights in Istanbul either side of the tour and had a blast. Istanbul has a population of about 15-20 million people which means it is a bustling, chaotic place. The old town is where all the Mosques, museums and action is for tourists. However, I spent a few nights on the Karakoy side and it was an absolute delight. The alleyways were lined with interesting cafes, local designers and even sustainable products.

100% Istanbul

One in particular that caught my eye but was closed was 100% Istanbul. They use convert waste materials into brand new products and they look amazing! They often use construction materials so they are strong and durable. Check them out on Instagram!

Turkish Breakfasts

Turkey is really well known for its breakfasts. However, there can be a dark side to the never ending arrangement of vegetables, eggs, toast and condiments. According to the Hurriyet Daily News 100 million liras (about $25 million AUD) worth of food is being wasted every year because of this new cafe trend. Instagram should probably cop some of the responsibility for this as the ‘Turkish breakfast’ is known to be more beautiful than practical with these breakfast pictures becoming a popular trend.

When travelling through Turkey, be mindful of the breakfast set menus as you may bite off more than you can chew…literally!

100 billion liras wasted in breakfast menus
Example of a Turkish style breakfast. Source Hurriyet News

Overall

There is a lot of poverty in the streets of Istanbul caused by a flailing economy and an influx of refugees from Syrian, Iraq and Iran. I was pretty shocked at some of the scenes on the streets and it is difficult to know how to help. There are often mini bakeries around selling simits (a Turkish bagel) as well as grilled corn vendors. These can be good snacks to buy for people begging on the streets.

The social enterprise scene is still growing and not overly common just yet. However, in the coming years as tourism continues to grow, I am sure there will be more pop up. If they will pop up anywhere, it is in the Karakoy and Taksim Square region and would highly recommend staying on that side of town to experience a more authentic side of town.

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