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Responsible Travel, Ethical Tourism and Other Essential Travel Issues

Women on the Road
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Travel stories tend to be about places, or at least about about how we look at a place through a specific geographic or cultural lens.

PLEASE NOTE: Some articles on this website were written before COVID-19 emerged. I've done my best to keep destination articles updated but the changing situation has made it impossible to adjust the entire site to the realities of the pandemic or travel restrictions. You'll find updated information from the CDC about travel conditions by country but please check all appropriate sources before you travel as situations can change in minutes. 

But sometimes, travel stories are also about issues. Here's why.

1) Like it or not, travel is a political act. When we choose to spend our money in a country, we are – at least tacitly – supporting what happens in that country. If a restaurant or hotel is government-owned, our money goes into that government's pockets.

2) What we do affects people at our destination. When we eat in a restaurant, we are helping it earn money, whether it exploits its workers or not. When we buy a souvenir, we are supporting a workshop or factory, whether it uses child labor or well-paid staff. When we spend our money on responsible travel companies, we may be helping preserve the planet.

3) It's all very well to worry about our own issues (there's no denying such things as travel budgets, safety or single supplements are important parts of travel) but it's at least as important to worry about the world around us.

4) We can be a force for good in the world and still enjoy ourselves. Why shouldn't we contribute to the common good while we're having fun? Selfishness is all the rage in some quarters...

That said, it's a lot easier to ignore all this and zip off to see beautiful sunsets, bask in luxury and eat delightful foods. That may well be our plan, but our actions affect others in ways we might not have considered.

I love seeing the world as much as the next person, but I don't want to leave it worse off as I pass through – hence my efforts to travel responsibly, to be a responsible traveler.

I may not always succeed, and in fact I have made classic mistakes – like taking selfies with animals in captivity, until I realized how wrong that was – but each time, I learned from my mistakes. These days I make sure I'm deeply informed about the place, the politics, the social issues. By doing that research, I'll be in a better place to make a contribution, however minor.

but first- what is responsible travel and tourism?

At its most primal, responsible travel is about doing the least harm to people and places, and the most good.

Often, we err because we simply don't know what we should be doing. We'd like to do the right thing, but the right thing isn't always clear.

A hotel that tells us it's conserving energy by asking us to turn out lights or not replacing towels, so we assume it's an ethical travel company exercising ethical tourism when all it's doing is pretending to do the right thing for its bottom line (it's called greenwashing).

Definition of responsible tourism

Responsible tourism is any form of tourism that can be consumed in a more responsible way. “Responsible tourism is tourism which: minimizes negative social, economic and environmental impacts. generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities.

That said, an increasing number of companies are walking the talk and behaving responsibly. Travelers, too, are becoming increasingly conscious of their impact and are either altering their behavior or seeking travel companies that match their ideals.

There are plenty of (relatively) modest actions we can all take to do our part to be ethical or responsible when we travel.

Culturally responsible travels

  • Be culturally sensitive and learn as much as you can about your destination's cultural etiquette before you go. Try to blend in with the culture around you. Don't be offensive, however much you value your 'rights' as an individual.
  • However, when culture is harmful, don't engage! In some cultures harming animals is perfectly all right, for example bullfights and dogfights. You wouldn't condone these at home, right? 
  • Be destination-wise. Some destinations are more mindful than others about preserving their cultural heritage, for example by forbidding you to climb all over their ancient buildings or asking you to avoid entering ancestral lands. Visit with your eyes open or choose another destination. Maybe stay away from places already plagued by overtourism.
  • When you visit sites where people have suffered, explore the meanings of dark tourism and disaster tourism before you make up your mind and choose an appropriate destination, one in line with your worldview.
  • Learn to communicate in your host country's language. No, you don't have to become fluent in Mandarin but a few simple phrases like please or thank you will go a long way. So will "Can you help me" and "What is the word for..."
  • Don't give money to street beggars, especially children. They are often exploited by gangs and in the case of children, begging keeps them out of school or even makes them prey to sex traffickers.
  • Be open-minded. You can carry your opinions with you, but share them sensitively. You are not always right – not even close.

Economically responsible travel

  • Buy locally. The closer to the producer you buy, the more likely local people will benefit.
  • Make sure your tour operator and tourist dollars aren't just making multinationals rich. Engage in pro-poor-tourism and help keep money in local communities, where it can fight poverty.
  • Be sensitive when you spend. The art of haggling may be alive and well, but don't bargain as though your life depends on it. It may be a few pennies to you, but a day's food to someone else.
  • Understand that working conditions in the tourism industry are among the worst in the world. Hold that thought when calculating your tip or preparing your complaint about slow service.
  • Where you can, use ethical travel companies. These aren't always easy to identify, but a business that offers you a vacation close to local people and communities or which is run by locals within the country might be a better bet than an international corporation because, at the very least, the money will circulate within the local economy. (There are many caveats to this, as global companies can be very ethical and local companies destructive: try to get personal recommendations or find out more.)

Environmentally responsible travel

  • Pack wisely before you travel. Leave all the packaging behind or you'll be polluting your destination.
  • Be environmentally aware. Don't waste water or food – they may be scarce where you are. Don't litter or leave waste behind. Offset your carbon emissions by using a carbon calculator. 
  • Be careful about contact with wild animals or animals in captivity, for example riding elephants or petting tigers. Find out more about animal-friendly travel. Wild animals who end up in captivity don't get there willingly – they are hunted and their parents killed. The animals are often drugged or tortured to learn to obey. To be on the safe side, avoid any tours that include physical interaction with wild animals.
  • You can get close – just visit a rescue center, where animals are being cared for and prepared for a return to the wild.
  • Beware of endangered species and make sure you don't buy any products made from rare animals or plants, for example ivory or coral or a local "magic medicine" made from an endangered plant.

Politically responsible travel

  • Think twice about travel to countries with dictatorships or regimes that flout human rights. You might want to consider boycotting them and spending your money elsewhere.
  • Stay away from places that have been carved for tourism out of people's lives, for example by pushing people out of neighborhoods (with over-speculated Airbnb conversions) or by displacing populations to make room for resorts.
  • And to those who say "but tourism employs people and helps a place develop by improving infrastructure", well, yes and no. All it takes is an earthquake or a terrorist attack or rampaging epidemic (we have seen this with Covid) and those tourism dollars will dwindle and disappear. Meantime, the natural habitat, which might have provided locals with the means of some survival, will have been destroyed and those left jobless will move to cities, which have enough problems already...

Following these recommendations won't guarantee a completely damage-free trip, but it will show your hosts you are concerned and caring, and it will make a difference on the impact of your journey.

Issues worth Thinking About...

responsible travel resources

  • CREST - a non-profit research institution that studies the positive impact of responsible travel
  • Ethical Traveler - a non-profit that empowers travelers to behave ethically and "change the world"
  • Responsible Travel - an independent and activist clearinghouse of local tour operators committed to responsible travel 
  • Tourism Concern - has campaigned against abuses in tourism but sadly ran out of funding and shut down - but their website is still up with plenty of resources
  • UNWTO - the UN intergovernmental organization that promotes responsible, sustainable tourism and universally accessible tourism

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