How to Travel Responsibly
Responsible. Blech. That word makes me think of parental lectures on the importance of doing my dishes and walking the dog, most of which fell on the deaf ears of my brother and I growing up. Responsibility seems like a stuffy, uptight and boring word that contradicts the fun, carefree spontaneity of travel. So, is responsible travel actually an oxymoron?
Hell no! In fact, we’d argue that traveling responsibly gives us way more of an authentic and fulfilling experience. Responsible tourism doesn’t have to be a certain type of travel. Rather, it should be embedded in the way that every single person travels, regardless of destination, budget and interests. And it’s not difficult to make a positive impact on the world while having a lot of fun along the way! We’re not here to judge, simply to inform, so we hope this guide serves as a useful insight to help you start traveling responsibly.
What is Responsible Tourism?
Quite simply, it’s traveling with an awareness that we, as travelers, have an effect on the people and places that we visit. Then it’s making decisions about where to visit, who to book tours with and what activities to do based on that awareness.
And this doesn’t mean you have to miss out on things because they have negative effects. It means finding alternatives that not only preserve the destination, but also have a positive effect! As more and more companies and destinations become socially responsible, the tourism industry is booming with plenty of opportunities to do good. After all, wouldn’t it be great if you could go to a place, have an amazing experience and also give back to the communities that are welcoming you to their home?
Being a responsible traveler doesn’t necessarily mean volunteering (although if you’re interested in volunteering, here’s some tips on finding the best program for you). Instead, it can mean supporting local tourism boards that work hard on preserving the natural beauty of a place, rather than allowing overdevelopment to ruin what was once the original appeal. We’ve all been to those over-touristy spots. The kind of spots where maybe 5 or 10 years ago it was a pristine paradise, but then an influx of people and foreign investment turned it into yet another destination crammed with huge resorts and littered beaches.
Authentic culture is often diminished in these locations as local customs and traditions are pushed out in favor of Western interests. If local culture is preserved then it’s often influenced, re-packaged and marketed as a tourist attraction to curious travelers. Environmental concerns are disregarded in the quest for ‘development’. Animals are often subjected to exploitation as an exotic attraction. Local economies suffer as money is leaked out of the country through foreign investment.
Pretty depressing stuff, huh?
But do you want to hear the good news?! There’s something that we can do about it! We as travelers have the power to shape the world that we explore, by choosing destinations, tour operators and experiences that prioritize the care and protection of local culture. We make a choice every time we hand over our hard-earned money. By choosing responsible and ethical hotels, tours and locations we help support sustainable tourism and the integrity of the places we visit!
It doesn’t have to be super complicated. It can be as simple as choosing small mom and pop shops and hole-in-wall restaurant stalls over chain stores. Seriously, we really don’t need any more McDonald’s in the world.
Sometimes it can be a little confusing figuring out which companies really prioritize responsible travel and which ones are just BS. One way to measure this is to see if the company focuses on the triple bottom line of responsible travel: people, profit and planet. Normally companies have the “bottom line” of only profit. Responsible travel means buying from companies and organizations that value profit (hey, gotta make that $) equally as much as the welfare and prosperity of the locals, as well as the sustainability of the environment and animal populations. Win/win/win!
Responsible travel can be broken down into three main categories
The travel industry can be misleading. You would think that by visiting a destination, you would be supporting the local people by spending money. Unfortunately, a lot of the time there is a problem called a “leakage economy.” Basically, when a place really starts to pick up with tourism, foreign investors come in and start buying up hotels and tour companies, and a lot of the money that customers spend in those businesses doesn’t even make it to the locals. Keeping an eye out for small local-owned business and big businesses that fund community projects ensures that locals will benefit off your tourism. This helps keep local culture and tradition alive, which is one of the main reasons we visit a foreign country in the first place!
Who doesn’t like to gaze in awe at a gorgeous scenic landscape when they travel? Unfortunately, these natural resources are not always respected. Jules and I have seen some truly horrific things while traveling, including bags of trash being dumped into the gorgeous Amazon River and rubbish thrown from bus windows. As a traveler, you really want to scream at the perpetrator, but we have to remember that in a lot of countries there isn’t an emphasis on protecting the environment. In the United States, it’s drilled into our head from a young age to not litter and to recycle every bottle and can (although there are still many who disregard this). That’s why environmental education initiatives are so, so, SO important! Volunteering or contributing to organizations that focus on educating locals about the importance of environmental education is one of the best things we can do to help keep these destinations beautiful.
It can be tempting as a traveler to want to interact with exotic animals that you could never interact with at home.
Exposés on the exploitation of animals have made travelers much more aware of the problems associated with animal tourism. Documentaries like Blackfish, which show the abuse of marine mammals at SeaWorld, have helped educate and influence where people choose to spend their money. Around the world however, especially in developing countries, there is little regulation on how animals are treated for tourism attractions. It can be tempting as a traveler to want to interact with exotic animals that you could never interact with at home. From riding elephants, to petting tigers, to swimming with dolphins, these sound like an animal lovers dream! But the fact is, these animals are wild and in order to interact with humans safely, it most likely means they are abused, drugged or both. Our rule of thumb: unless we’ve found a reputable sanctuary or are witnessing these animals in their natural habitat, we skip it. But even still it’s worth doing some research behind the organization or sanctuary to see what the real story is.
If you’re thinking, “jeez, being a responsible traveler sounds like a lot of work!” Don’t worry. No one is perfect 100% of time. Traveling responsibly is all about doing what you can. We’ve all had our moments of weakness at 2 am after a night of Changs and end up stuffing our faces with Burger King hash browns. So we’re not going to preach about being perfect, but we are trying everyday to travel with a conscious.
At the end of the day, traveling responsibly is about enjoying new destinations like you normally would, but just staying aware of your impact. It shouldn’t be too hard to find the most ethical and sustainable companies in the travel industry, it usually just requires some research. Lucky for you, dear reader, Jules and I travel the world doing the research for you! We connect with companies that understand and respect their impact on local communities, as well as provide the best experience to travelers. Then we pass this info off to you, so you can travel responsibly and ethically while having a seriously fun time! Sound good? We think so too ☺