What does responsible travel really mean and how can you be more aware of your impact in the world as a traveler? We'll show you how you can be a more responsible traveler and have an even greater trip because of it.
What is responsible travel?
Responsible travel was officially defined for the first time in 2002 in the Cape Town Declaration during the Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations. Simply put, responsible travel means you must be aware of your impact in your final destination be it ecologically, culturally, or financially.
Finding and booking a cheap flight for your dream trip is easy. Knowing what to keep in mind for traveling responsibly is too if you keep the following tips on responsible travel in mind.
How to be a responsible traveler
1. Before going, research your destination
Searching is part of the fun of traveling too. Responsible travel means you have to make the effort to understand your destination’s quirks and its people’s habits at a deeper level. Most of the guidebooks won’t tell you about details like the history of the country or what kind of political changes their people have gone through, but those are important to understanding their cultural identity.
Browse some local blogs, read some books by local authors, watch some documentary films. These days, anything can be found online so it shouldn’t be that hard to come up with a handful of independent sources.
2. Learn a bit of the language
You don’t have to become a fluent speaker overnight, but learning a few basic words and expressions of the native language of your destination goes a long way. Greeting and showing appreciation are expressions that will be welcomed, even if you don’t have the best pronunciation.
If you’re still too shy, download your favorite translating app to communicate with locals.
3. Go Local
Supporting local businesses is one of the most important aspects of responsible travel. Not only will it allow you to have a more meaningful and immersive cultural experience, you will be contributing to the local economy through these small businesses.
Instead of going for that chain restaurant you’re so familiar with, ask the locals for tips on where to eat and what kind of special dishes should you try.
4. Respect your destination’s culture
No matter how impactful you want your travel experience to be, thinking it will be 100% immersive is naïve. For the locals, you’re the foreigner and they will be as curious about you as you are about them and their culture.
The key to respect and understand your destination’s culture is to be open, to be inquisitive without stepping the line, and to be as willing to answer their questions as you are in wanting yours answered.
5. Be tolerant towards others’ religious beliefs
It doesn’t matter if you are a religious person or not, it’s not your place to judge others’ faith and religious beliefs. Follow the rules inside temples and other places of worship, don’t make general assumptions, and, especially, don’t confuse religious beliefs with religious institutions.
Being fascinated by different celebrations and rituals is fine. Questioning all of them just because you have a different opinion is not.
6. Assess the elephant in the room (and the tiger, and the dolphin…)
If you come across a local tourism company that advertises tours riding elephants, special experiences where you can pet docile tigers, or swimming with dolphins in a pool, you should feel something is very wrong with that picture. No photo op justifies the torture these wild animals go through to become part of your entertainment.
Situations like these are very common in developing Asian countries where local populations depend on tourism to make an income.
Instead, research local conservationist companies that you can donate your time or money to. Visit them, try to learn what they’re struggling with and what have they achieved so far, make it educational.
7. Be aware of “greenwashing” practices
Greenwashing has become quite the industry in the last 30 years. Eager to get a cut of the responsible travel profits, some companies in the tourism business market their products and services as sustainable and environmentally friendly.
If a tourism company is really dedicated to the environment, then they should be able to provide you with relevant data supporting their claims. And, yes, as a paying customer and a consumer concerned with responsible travel, you have the right to ask for details.
It takes more than placing a card in every hotel room with the house rules regarding housekeeping and how many times they change your linens.
8. Get information on local tours that visit slums and other impoverished areas
One of the main benefits of traveling is to shatter misconceptions regarding certain countries. However, some people capitalize on the good intentions of misinformed foreigners by setting up false orphanages where volunteers can pay a fee to spend time with children, by exploiting young children to beg on the streets, or by organizing what is known as ‘slum tours’ that are sometimes invading houses to showcase the misery of people who are too afraid to speak up against it.
If a certain company’s tours are raising red flags, you should ask more questions about their impact on the local community and how they are supporting and giving back to these impoverished areas.
9. Be responsible anywhere you travel, even in your own country
Responsible travel isn’t something you do only when you go outside your country. Traveling responsibly should always be your top priority.
Be respectful, think twice before wasting local natural resources unnecessarily, and buy local as much as possible.
10. Be an example, show don’t tell
Unethical tourism companies don’t just exist “over there”, on the other side of the world. They could be happening right there in your backyard. Being too close to home doesn’t mean you can’t pay attention to what’s happening around you when it comes to responsible travel.
Responsible travel starts with your own example and how you make changes to your behavior as a traveler. Remember that small things matter and traveling responsibly doesn’t mean you are limited to wander the world by foot because jumping on a plane isn’t environmentally friendly. You don’t have to quit flying everywhere, but you can choose which airlines are eco-conscious.
About the Author
Sandra Henriques Gajjar// Tripper
Sandra Henriques Gajjar is a writer born in the Azores and currently based in Lisbon. Since 2014 she’s been blogging about travel, culture, and the people she meets in between at Tripper, a blog about cultural travel to offbeat destinations.