International Relations: Touring with an Overseas Operator



As affordable travel options have opened up even more of the world, the explosion of the Internet gave us access to tour operators anywhere. What should we know as Americans working with a non-US based operator? Patrick Harnett, Founder of New Zealand-based Japan Custom Tours, tells us.

Your usual tour organiser or agent might be someone who shares your background or expectations. But when you start working with a provider based overseas, or with a company that serves travellers from around the world, cultural differences become more apparent. These variations show up in the group dynamics, sightseeing expectations, and even transportation choices.

Compare and Contrast

Our insight comes from our specialty, taking English-speaking tourists to Japan. In our experience, key points between US and local operators are the same. 

  • Many large companies selling to the US market already have a global presence and may deliver tours using overseas agents.
  • International companies and local operators need to adhere to local laws, including consumer protection laws.
  • Travellers should always be aware of who they are actually dealing with (irrespective of company size), where they are based, and what the terms of their tour contracts are like. If Terms and Conditions is not easy to find, ask for it.

The main difference for US travellers is touring with a company that delivers services to people from multiple countries. 

  • International operators design tours for a broader range of cultural backgrounds, styles of travel, tastes, and expectations.
  • Departures will comprise a wider range of people, allowing cultural interaction with fellow travellers as well as locals you meet on your tour.
  • Mixed groups normally speak the same language, but always ask.
  • Travellers need to be aware of the multi-cultural make-up of their group, and get along accordingly.

Choosing to work with an operator based overseas, like Japan Custom Tours, is a case of self-selection. You’re opening yourself to the opportunities that a more diverse group provides. That includes anticipating that not everyone will speak English, and that things will be quite different than they are at home.

To Know Before You Go

What are the pros and cons to planning your vacation with a company that might literally be on the other side of the world?

  • No paper brochures! Most of your interaction will be online and by email. If necessary, you should still be able to telephone the operator to ask questions, but it might not be a free call.
  • Specialist or niche operators might only operate in one country, and the smaller the company and group size, the better your options for customizing your tour.
  • Payment terms and conditions might have exchange rate changes affecting the cost of your tour. Some companies charge for fluctuations, others will fix a price for you in US dollars. Ask whether payments are processed in the US or if you need to send the tour fee internationally.

What the Experts Say

Most of our guests are from the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, and the main themes we’ve observed are:

  • Guests from the US choose a non-US company because they want something hard to find among US-based operators. These travellers want an experience that includes different points of view from guests as well as guides.
  • On a day-to-day basis, we see visitors benefit from the more diverse tour groups that an overseas operator provides, including more diversity in food, sights, and experiences.
  • We also carefully match our tour guests for the best group dynamic and fit. Because people are sharing a group departure, being considerate of other group members is important, and there is less focus on putting the needs of one individual ahead of another.
  • We often have to explain how the country works and how that affects our tours. For instance, in Japan, travelling by train is far superior to using a car or coach. For English-speaking travellers, many aspects of Japan are quite different from what they’re used to at home.

Most of our guests are well-travelled and their feedback is about the memorable experiences they had. Ultimately, travellers generally have a better trip because of the varied perspectives of a multi-national group and a broader approach to Japan.


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Patrick Harnett
Founder, Japan Custom Tours

Patrick and Wendy share the iconic and remote beauty of the East through Japan Custom Tours.

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