It's a promising approach — partnering with an established, niche conservation group to offer trips focused on uncrowded Mediterranean villages and protected areas. And it might just work as more travelers seek "soulful" experiences away from Europe's tourist crowds.
During Skift Forum Europe, while the world remained in the throes of the pandemic, destinations described the travel pause as a perfect opportunity to confront overtourism’s negative impacts on their region and to find new destination management tactics.
Since then, more tourism leaders and stakeholders around the world have been discussing solutions to “building back better” post pandemic and finding a way to shape tourism in a way that is more positively impactful for the environment and resident communities.
Intrepid Travel, considered a leader in the sustainable tourism space with its low carbon footprint and locally-led small group tours, showed it was moving past platitudes by sharing concrete ways in which it was moving forward post-pandemic.
Now it’s taken that effort one step further — by launching a new kind of conservation-focused tour that aims to be the antidote to those big crowds visiting the same places in southern Europe. It’s partnering with the MEET Network to do that, an association of protected areas in the Mediterranean that creates sustainable tourism products with the goal of benefitting conservation and communities.
The first two Intrepid tours in collaboration with the Meet Network launch in August and invite travelers to either “discover lesser-known treasures on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast” in Sibenik and the Kornati Islands or to visit “the lesser known corners of Crete untouched by tourism.”
Each itinerary is centered around a major protected area — Kornati Islands National Park in Croatia or Samaria Gorge National Park in Crete — and from there, surrounding nature and cultural experiences are incorporated, from lunch with a local family to hiking gorges and visiting secluded seaside villages in Crete.
“What we found with MEET is that they were really strong in Europe, and Europe has always been a very challenging continent that has been impacted by overtourism,” said Zina Bencheikh, managing director of Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Intrepid Travel, confirming that the tours were absolutely intended to combat future overcrowding issues.
“We want to make sure we can help in places that are lesser known but probably as beautiful, if not more, and as interesting.”
Carla Danelutti, executive secretary for the MEET Network, said that these new tours aimed to show travelers a different side of the Mediterranean.
Could this be a model for global tour operators to follow?
Bencheikh said that the industry cannot wait for customers to change when it comes to sustainable travel.
“We have a responsibility as an industry to drive the change because it’s about the planet — it’s not about just our individual businesses and profits and all of that. It’s about being able to have a planet we can visit and travel without harming it.”
AMplifying Sustainable Tourism in the mediterranean
Bencheikh said the new tours through MEET amplify the company’s decades of push and growth in sustainable tourism — particularly in the Mediterranean, a region where finding ways to travel in groups to under visited places has been hard.
Partnering with the MEET Network allowed for Intrepid to access to a network of European suppliers that it would not have otherwise, while growing the tour company’s offerings because the non-profit has done all the work already.
“It’s there for us to use, we believe in the value and they believe that we can actually amplify by accessing our audience and giving them access to this product,” Bencheikh said.
“What makes our MEET model truly unique is that it puts conservation and the natural park in the driving seat of tourism development, ensuring public-private collaboration and the active participation of destination stakeholders,” Meet Network’s Danelutti said, adding that MEET Member parks Samaria and Kornati worked closely with a local tour operator, organizations and service providers to design the tour experiences.
Danelutti added that because MEET’s experiences are developed in protected areas, they undergo a robust sustainability assessment process, diving into the ecological footprint of each ecotourism product using MEET´s custom “ecological footprint calculator.”
“For instance, in the Samaria Gorge National Park, this assessment process helped to reduce the ecological footprint of food and drink services by 33% in the original six-day itinerary.”
In addition, the criteria that MEET uses to design the tours align closely with Intrepid’s, Bencheikh said — beyond carbon footprint, MEET aims for a minimum of 50 percent of women benefiting through employment, measuring jobs created in the communities, and making sure it’s focused only on locals from that area. It also conducts capacity building and leadership training.
“That’s what really would find them very positive for us, in terms of working with them,” Bencheikh said.
The More sustainable choices, The Easier for Consumers
Target customers for the immersive Intrepid Travel Croatia and Crete tours include independent travelers looking to explore in smaller groups, as well as older travelers interested in slow travel and connecting with nature post-pandemic.
Much has been said about the rising interest of consumers in choosing sustainable tourism products and experiences. Skift’s 2025 Megatrends predicted a rising trend described as “soulful” and introspective and leaning towards regenerative tourism.
The latest sign of this consumer lean in towards green is in Booking.com’s 2021 Sustainable Travel Report, released this month and surveying over 29,000 travelers in 30 countries — in it, 46 percent of U.S. travelers said that the pandemic had pushed them to want to travel more sustainably in the future.
What’s more, 65 percent of Americans said they would avoid popular destinations and attractions so as not to contribute to overcrowding challenges and help do their part to disperse the positive benefits of travel to less frequently visited destinations and communities.
“There is a definite shift, higher and higher proportion of people wanting to travel more sustainably — we’ve seen it, otherwise we wouldn’t be successful as we were,” Bencheikh said, while adding that there’s a yes and no answer to the question of more travelers who are now by default looking to travel sustainably.
For instance, it’s not a given that they book Intrepid trips from the start knowing they want to travel more responsibly, Bencheikh said.
“The first time they book it’s because it’s good value for money, it’s a good product, it has good reviews and what happens is — on the trip then they get educated.”
That’s how travelers then get awareness that it’s a great way to travel, because they feel like their money stays in the destination and it has a positive impact on the destination as well as positive for the climate.
“That educational piece that happens on the ground on an Intrepid trip is critical and is what generates return repeat customers.”
Intrepid Travel served 460,000 global customers but with the recovery of travel being gradual and fragmented, a few departures a month for the new Mediterranean tours would be a great start according to Intrepid.
“But we are very confident [the new tours] will pick up and we have plans to increase the range as tourism comes back — the MEET Network has existing ecotourism products in Spain or Italy, but they also have plans to grow Morocco,” Bencheikh said, noting that Morocco also has lesser known areas around national parks, and is home to significant conservation work.
Will the rest of the industry follow on the path to finding antidotes to overtourism and embracing sustainability beyond platitudes and headlines?
“The industry is changing slowly, we’ve seen destinations shifting into promoting more responsible travel, we’ve seen a lot of businesses being more conscious about their carbon footprint and committing to things maybe we’ve done 10 years ago,” Bencheikh said, adding that the industry should not criticize but rather stay hopeful because ultimately it’s the way to go.
“And customers will follow — especially if there are more and more offers that are more sustainable, it will be easier for customers to travel sustainably.”