What is Responsible Travel?

We’ve all heard the term ‘responsible travel’ used with ever increasing frequency. But what does responsible travel actually entail?

What comes to your mind when the topic of ‘responsible travel’ arises? Swapping the unlicensed cab for a hire car? Switching your hotel room’s lights off when you head out for the day? Or avoiding unwittingly enforcing the disruption of micro-economies with under-developed infrastructure capacity? Yikes, that last one was a leap. We’ll get there – this battleground of eggshells will soon be swept clean.

A Buddhist monk taking a photo of a chedi on his iPhone.
A Buddhist monk visiting Ayutthaya, Thailand.

Responsible travel: many names, one face.

‘Responsible travel’ can be referred to by any number of synonyms. It isn’t too dissimilar from eco-tourism; it’s essentially the same concept as ‘sustainable travel.’ All of the above centre around the idea that, as a tourist, it is your responsibility to see as much of the world with as little impact as possible. If you can even improve the global situation, all the better.

Responsible travel holds accountability at its core. It is the responsibility of the traveler not only to manage their ecological impact on their destination, but to be aware of cultural norms, political considerations and historical sensitivities. Too many people are scared away from the concept by misconceptions that responsible travel needs to look like a U.N. peacekeeping mission, or involve building drainage systems in a developing nation (hello, ‘voluntourism’). An act of accountability whilst traveling could be something a simple as bringing re-usables, researching local customs or learning a few new phrases.

It might not have occurred to you that travel is even an impactful thing to do. Here are a few ways in which wider travel and tourism can affect the world beyond our front doors:

  • Ecology: Carbon emissions from travel carry some considerable weight, literally. In 2017, 859 million tonnes of CO2 were produced by aviation alone.
  • Economy: countries such as Nepal depend hugely on tourism as an industry in and of itself. When tourism drops (such as in 2015 after Nepal’s devastating earthquake), the economy (and local peoples’ real abilities to feed their families) suffers immensely.
  • Micro-economy: tourist dollar can create entire-micro economies that benefit local communities. But with all micro-economies come consequences – trafficking and narcotics are not uncommon in the tourist pulse points of developing countries (Thailand and Nepal are two strong examples). Dependence on tourism also leads people away from their traditional and sustainable means of survival. A drop in destination popularity can end entire communities.
  • Immediate environment: Entire cities and districts can suffer from the effects of over-tourism. Venice in Italy is a prominent example, as is much of Kathmandu in Nepal. My previous home of Kyoto, Japan is also past the point of no return. The governments of the Philippines and Thailand have closed entire islands on which wildlife and micro-environment have been destroyed.
  • Destruction of nature: People trampling rare flora in national parks in the USA and Canada, leaving non-biodegradable waste in protected areas, polluting shallow waters and destroying coral reefs with boats… the list is near endless.
  • Animal torture: Elephant rides and ‘tiger petting zoos’ in Thailand are nothing short of abhorrent cruelty. Whale shark feeding in the Philippines disrupts natural feeding and migration habits. Wild animal colonies, dolphin and sea mammal trapping – everywhere humans go on vacation, animals seem to suffer, often funded by those who lack basic levels of common sense and intelligence.
A traditional Japanese hearth featuring an iron kettle and low table.
Many ryokan in Japan offer visitors the opportunity to live close to nature, the traditional way.

These statistics make me want to stay home forever. Can tourism bring any benefits?

Yes! Tourism can bring as much positive change as it can negative. The whole point of travel is to appreciate more of our incredible world – sadly, when this idea is monetised ruthlessly, little good comes of it. But travel and tourism are no different from any other market: 100% of the power lies with the consumer. Put simply, if you don’t spend the money, negative practices cannot survive. Here are a few ways in which you can widen your responsible travel options:

  • Carbon emissions from aviation are hard to avoid, but try looking into ‘carbon neutral’ flights or ‘carbon offset’ organisations. This is a big topic and it will have a whole dedicated post coming soon.
  • Developing countries often lack clean drinking water and thus rely on bottled water. Bring a large, refillable canteen with you everywhere to refill from clean sources (macro-coolers, processed water caskets) wherever you find them. Bottles that contain high-quality filters are ideal for these situations. A post on this topic is also coming soon!
  • Choose which micro-economy to support. Don’t travel overseas and spend your tourist coin in Starbucks and McDonalds. Take the time to check out small, family run restaurants or places popular with locals. You’ll taste real food and support the local economy in the most direct way possible. The same applies to every possible way you spend your money. Stay at a locally owned hotel or hostel – don’t support big international chains. Buy souvenirs that are hand-crafted by local artisans and support their trade and livelihood. Avoid larger tourist attractions and spend time discovering lesser known places.
  • Categorically refuse to fund animal suffering. Do your research if you feel the need to involve animal contact in your travels at all – there may be animal rescue operations worth funding. Sadly, even with animal ‘sanctuaries’ you must be on your guard – people often use them as a front to rake in money while neglecting the animals they’re supposed to be helping.
  • The same applies to ‘orphanages’ and ‘schools’ – this requires a more detailed post, and one will be coming in the near future.
  • Before you arrive in a destination, learn some local words and make sure you’re fully informed of local customs, behavioural expectations and dress codes. Truly responsible travelers put respect for other people before their desire to ‘get the perfect selfie.’ Please note that ‘respecting customs’ is important, but your personal safety comes first. Don’t do something you find genuinely unacceptable just because ‘it’s normal here.’
The streets of Kirtipur, Nepal.
The ancient streets of Kirtipur, Nepal.

Overwhelmed?

While I believe there really is no excuse not to choose responsible options while traveling, I understand that the path to making better choices can be challenging. It’s an easy one for those of us who are young, childfree and able-bodied to switch up our habits immediately. Options are fewer and farther between for those of us who want to travel with children or who require different types of access to topography, or who have specific medical needs. Whatever your situation, know that there is always a way to choose options that are better for everyone. Most importantly, know that doing the best you can with the resources you have is more important than ‘being perfect.’

A monkey in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Macaque populations in Kathmandu have developed a taste for anything given to them by humans. They are becoming unmanageably hostile, although this is not a new problem.

Have any questions about the wider implications of responsible travel, or suggestions for a community of responsible travelers? Comment away, either here or at the @pure.land.co instagram page.

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