When we refer to tour operators, we mean the company in your destination that’s providing your local tour arrangement services, and is duly licensed as tour operator for these activities. For most of our core destinations and travel experiences – such climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, or game drives to the Serengeti National Park, or visits to the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area – local law & regulations mandate that your tour must be operated by a duly licensed local company. This means that all such tours are, by default, operated by local companies, no matter whether sold to you directly by these local companies or indirectly by agents. It also means that an independent guide who’s not employed by (or the owner of) such a duly licensed company is not legally allowed to operate such tours for you.
Travel agents (when duly registered) are companies who sell tours operated by other companies. They are mostly based internationally, closer to you as traveller. However, they might also be based locally. For example, a company solely specialized on operating Kilimanjaro climbs might act as agent for another company specialized on operating safaris, in order to be able to arrange your entire trip locally for you.
Traditionally, tour operators have specialized on operating tours locally, while agents have specialized on packaging & selling those tours to you, typically through a so-called white labelling or sub-contracting agreement. This means that agents sell tours to you in their own name, even though they don’t actually operate the tours themselves.
There’s nothing wrong with this agency–operator set-up; in fact most industries operate in a similar way: Imagine you go to a boutique coffee roaster to buy coffee beans. Have you every considered calling up a farmer in Ethiopia or elsewhere to buy the coffee directly from them? Of course not! Each company provides the function in the value chain they’re best at, and you as consumer stand to benefit from such an efficient set-up. The travel industry is no different.
Recently, being an agent or international has received a bad connotation amongst the conscious travel community. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. Read 5 reasons why international agents are important for conscious travellers here.