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The 8 Behaviors of Responsible Travelers

“Responsible travel” is a buzzword these days. Pair it up with “sustainble tourism” and you have the magic words that hotels, tour operators and businesses are throwing around to catch onto a trend. It’s a good trend, at the heart. Travelers are becoming increasingly aware of the need for an integrated, responsible approach to travel. But what does it all mean, and should travelers seek out ways to engage in responsible tourism?

At the core, responsible tourism means travelers use their tourism dollars — both directly and indirectly — as a tool for conservation, poverty alleviation, and economic support. Responsible travelers respect the local people and the local environment in each place they visit.

As for the whys? Sustainable travel lessens your negative (and sometimes exploitative) impact on the environments and communities you visit. Even more, sustainable tourism optimizes the positive potential for tourism. There’s a lot that goes into responsible travel. Including how and with whom you book your holidays. But there are also many actions a traveler can take to lessen their impact. We’ll deconstruct the whys a bit more. Then share tips and ideas for socially responsible travelers and volunteers.

The railroad tracks in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya

The railroad tracks in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya

Why is Responsible Travel Important?

Tourism is a massive global employer. In 2016, WTTC research shows 284 million people globally employed in the tourism sector. Then think about the supply chain to each restaurant, hotel, and tour, and the numbers notch up significantly. Tourism impacts the globe, mostly in a good way — but not always.

The litany of tourism related issues change by each region and country. Here are some of the downsides to tourism:

  • Tourism demands can stress local resources, taking food, housing, or land away from the locals.
  • Tourism may stress vulnerable animal habitats and encourage the poaching of wild animals for tourist consumption
  • Air travel is a major pollutant.
  • Tourism commodifies some cultures and people by creating living zoos in places like hilltribe villages and slums.
  • Tourists can offend locals by not conforming to dress codes or culturally appropriate behaviors.

This list could continue. Humans are curious creatures. On the road, it’s easy to see something like a ping pong show in Bangkok and figure there’s not much harm in taking a peek. But sex tourism and sex trafficking in Southeast Asia is rampant. It’s important for travelers to think through each aspect of their behavior and activities. The goal of responsible travel is simply to lessen the negative impact and find ways to increase the positive change tourism can bring to a region. And there are many positives too.

These include just a few of the many ways tourism can be used as a force for good:

  • Tourism has the power to be the greatest redistribution of wealth from the developed to the developing world.
  • Tourism can infuse cash and economic buying power directly into the hands of locals.
  • Tourism can encourage locals to defend their wildlife and put an end to poaching.
  • Tourism can model practices like effective trash and waste management.
  • Tourism can create meaningful, deep cultural interactions between tourists and locals.
  • Tourism can engender deeper humanity on both sides, generating compassion and empathy for those we don’t understand.

And while many of these apply to developing countries, responsible tourism plays a part in visiting the canals of Venice and hiking in the Swiss alps. It’s as much a mindset as a set of behaviors.

Responsible Travel: Before You Go, What You Should Know

Go Overland
Flights use a lot of fuel and have a high environmental cost. Consider flying to your destination country. Then, travel overland to various sights and activities. To be fair, there is a lot of innovation happening in the airline industry, and they are working hard to make more efficient planes and fuel. But the fact remains, once you are on the ground, group transport via buses, shared taxis, and trains is usually the most impactful way to conserve your footprint. If you’re in a mountainous, natural area, this remains doubly true. Find opportunities to travel in groups and take advantage of shared transport.

Respect Cultural Norms
Research the cultural norms of each place you’re visiting. Even more, I recommend reading local authors or narratives about each new place. It’s often the tiny nuances of a culture that make it fascinating. Some countries have rules about patting kids on the head, others about women making direct eye contact. How you might dress in a church back home may differ greatly than your new country’s best-practices. Part of being a responsible traveler is knowing when and how to respect cultural norms. Not only is it a tenant of responsible travel, but it’s also the best way to make new friends and set the stage for honest, genuine, and respectful conversations with locals!

Use Local Resources
Source your food, souvenirs and tours from locals. Spending money at your destination is the best way to infuse money directly into the local economy. Many times deforestation, poaching, and other issues are directly affected by the availability of local employment and fair wages. By using locally run companies, you are supporting those who live in this destination year-round. Even more, choose companies that also prioritize this type of travel. Everything from ski resorts to hostels can commit to responsible and sustainable travel. It’s this very concept that forms the bedrock of Grassroots Volunteering’s responsible business database. The travel choices you make matter, so choose businesses that support their own communities and are making steps to preserve their natural resources.

Lessen Your Trash Impact
Put your trash where it belongs. Many countries lack a strong sanitation and trash infrastructure, but even if the locals dispose of garbage in rivers and mountains, take the extra step to dispose of yours responsibly. And if recycling is available, take that extra step too. Peak tourist season in vulnerable areas brings a range of issues, trash being one of them. Travelers know that roadside littering is wrong, so simply hold onto your trash until you can dispose of it in a responsible way. This doesn’t always work out in the end — locals may still use local methods to dispose of your trash — but it’s modeling an import part of preservation.

Bring a device that allows you to clean your own water instead of buying and disposing of plastic water bottles. You can use a SteriPen, or LifeStraw. We’ve already highlighted the big issue of trash, and massive use of water bottles is a huge contributor to that. At the very least, bring a water bottle, as many guesthouses and hotels have fill-up stations with filtered water.

Choose Your Activities With Care
When we leave our home country, it’s easy to see the entire world as an opportunity. In each destination, the rules and regulations can differ greatly from your home country. In cash-strapped places, some of the activities locals are willing to provide tourists are dangerous, questionably ethical, and often exploitative. This part of responsible tourism asks the traveler to analyze the impact of the activity before participating. In Southeast Asia, it’s common to see tourists riding an elephant or hugging a tiger — both activities have very negative consequences despite being a part of mainstream tourism in this area. Similarly, you may have the chance to take a slum tour in India or Africa, but some of these are little more than fostering a “human zoo” attitude toward the locals.

There is no easy way to lay out “do this but not that” for every country in the world. Instead, think of the impact of your activities at every level. What did it take to get the animal there and is it being treated humanely. Does the tourism activity foster cultural understanding and exchange? Or does it instead provide little more than a good photo opportunity? The answer to these two questions should inform your behaviors.

Spend Money
More than just using local organizations, feel good about spending money when you do. Tourism dollars are an integral funding source for many people and local governments. By visiting national sites, museums, and tourist spots you are stimulating the local economy. Also, spread your money in different places so that more family run businesses benefit from the money you spend in the country. Then, think of ways to go even more local. Community-sourced organizations are far better than Western companies. Support their businesses when possible by spending your money locally. It’s one of the simpler ways to stay responsible at your volunteer placement or while you travel. GV has one of the only geo-located list of social enterprises around the world, all sourced from volunteer travelers.

Travel in the Off-Season
Both urban and rural areas feel the impact of high season. We already noted that trash becomes an issue in peak tourist season, but it goes even further than that. Many urban cities face huge issues with pollution and traffic year-round, but peak tourist season worsens these issues. In the mountains or remote natural areas, the same is true. Flora, fauna, and animals call these remote areas home, and a lot of people moving through remote areas creates stress on the environment. Consider traveling in shoulder season. This spreads out tourism’s impact and has the added benefit of bringing more money into local economies year-round.

Keep Things in Perspective
Travel can be stressful. For many travelers, the trip is a venture into a new, unknown region. With all that newness and unknown, one of the most important lessons you can keep in mind is to maintain your perspective. In situations where you feel pressured to donate to beggars, know your stance on it before you leave. If you’re new to haggling, remember to maintain respect and perspective. Many traveler’s don’t always understand that a vendor will sell you something at a loss if they feel like it’s the only way to earn income that day. Haggling is a part of many cultures, but you need to understand the impact of your dollar and keep perspective on the smaller aspects of it all. Same goes when things get confusing, overwhelming, or downright chaotic. Take a breather. Step away from the situation if needed. Proceed with respect and an even-keeled, friendly attitude. You’re a guest in this country, be a good one.

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These are just a handful of the ways to travel more responsibly on your next trip. It’s not just about the actions, but about committing to the mentality that looks for every opportunity to create a respectful trip. Situations will arise on the road and it’s up to the travel to find the right course of action in that situation. If you’re a hiker, there are other considerations. If you’re volunteering in remote areas — again, you might find some unique ways to support your local community. Traveling with a commitment to responsible travel is a necessary step for all volunteer travelers as it sets the example for other travelers who are less aware of their impact on the people and places in each new destination.