Responsible travel is something I’ve become much more interested in in recent years. The reality for most of us who have the means to travel is that we come from countries with a disproportionate amount of wealth.
Many countries popular with tourists, whether for their natural beauty, warm people, rich cultural heritage or all the above, also struggle with poverty. It’s our responsibility when we visit these places to try to have a positive, rather than a negative, impact.
None of us are perfect, and sometimes just by being on an island – for example – that’s unequipped for a lot of people, we are a part of the problem. However, we can make choices to reduce the impact we have and encourage responsible tourism. I’ve listed below a few ideas to consider for your next trip. I can only apologize in advance for how much ‘research’ comes up!
Although I love to volunteer while travelling, I’m a strong believer in doing your research beforehand. If this sort of trip interests you, you likely want to do good as well as enjoy yourself. Unfortunately, where there’s money to be made tourists can easily be exploited for their desire to help or experience a culture.
I like Ecoteer for finding responsible volunteer programs, but a good rule of thumb is to take the price into account. If the price is relatively low then it’s more likely that the volunteering you do has value.
On the other hand, if you’re happy to pay more because you believe in a charity and the work it’s doing, and want to make a donation of sorts as well as have an experience, then that’s also fine. Just make sure you read around the charity first, check that its verified by a responsible source and look for reviews by former volunteers. Don’t be afraid to contact the organizers and ask questions.
Preserve the natural environment
I’m a huge animal lover and wildlife is one of the main reasons I travel. In the past, this desire to get close to animals led me to pay money for animal encounters. Although it’s amazing to be able to touch a wild animal, I now know that any environment where this is allowed or encouraged is unlikely to be good for the animal.
I went to the Philippines last year largely because I wanted to swim with the whale sharks in Cebu. But as I talked to people about it and read up on it online, I realized it was the sort of wildlife interaction I didn’t want to be a part of. I’d been volunteering with sea life, snorkeling and diving, and couldn’t with good conscience get behind feeding wild animals, or bringing boatloads of people in life jackets to the whale sharks and letting them touch them with their oars and hands.
These decisions can be hard; I still want to see a whale shark, but I’d rather wait to see one that is truly wild. There are so many ways you can see and be wowed by animals without doing them or their environment any harm.
Donate to local charities
I visited three countries on a two-month trip last year and decided I would donate money to a local charity in each. It wasn’t a lot of money but it helped me to justify my presence there. I came face-to-face with extreme poverty in all three countries, but rather than give money to beggars I researched charities that help local people and donated to them.
In Nepal for example, I saw the elephants around Chitwan National Park and had questions about their treatment, so I did some reading. Mahouts mistreat the elephants, but they themselves are often marginalized and mistreated, and are sometimes killed by abused elephants who can’t take anymore. I found a charity that works with mahouts, supports them and educates them around elephant care. I figured this was a far better use of money than paying for an elephant ride.
Again, this is about where you spend your money. Most of us spend money wherever we are, even if we’re on a modest backpacker budget. Make the money you spend go further by buying from independent shops, and by hiring local tour companies or guides. If you go with a local tour guide as opposed to an international brand, you’re also likely to get a better price. People working in the tourist industry are often keen to share contacts and help out wherever possible.
Having said that, if you do go with a local guide try to do some research beforehand, particularly if you’re interested in doing something sensitive like a tribe visit. An un-vetted local might jump on the opportunity to make a quick buck, but they may be unaware of regulations put in place to protect the local people and environment.
There’s no need to go into this too much as we all follow these rules in our day-to-day lives anyway, but monitoring your waste disposal – particularly plastic – is even more important in deprived areas with underdeveloped or unprepared infrastructure. Try to recycle if possible, leave no trace, support eco-friendly organizations, limit your water usage and try to use bio products – such as laundry detergent – where possible.
Do you have any more ideas for travelling responsibly? I’d love to hear them.