Last Updated on April 22, 2023
Responsible tourism is a buzzword these days. Pair it with “sustainble tourism” and you have the magic words that hotels, tour operators, and businesses throw around to latch onto a trend.
Responsible and sustainable tourism is a good trend, at its heart. Travelers are increasingly aware of the need for an integrated, responsible approach to travel and tourism.
But what exactly is responsible tourism? And should travelers seek ways to engage in responsible tourism?
What is Responsible Tourism?
At the core, socially responsible tourism means travelers use tourism dollars—both directly and indirectly—as a tool for conservation, poverty alleviation, and economic support. Responsible travelers respect local people and the local environment in each place they visit.
Why Should You Travel Responsibly?
Sustainable travel lessens your negative (and sometimes exploitative) impact on the environments and communities you visit. Even more, responsible tourism optimizes the overall positive potential for tourism. A lot that goes into creating a sustainable tourism industry on the ground, and then even more goes into making sure your own trip is responsible—including how and with whom you book your holidays. But there are also many actions a traveler can take to lessen their impact. We’ll deconstruct the whys a bit more. Then share tips and ideas for socially responsible travelers and volunteers.
Why is Responsible Tourism Important?
Tourism is a massive global employer. In 2018, economic data from the World Travel & Tourism Council indicates that travel and tourism accounted for a staggering 10.4% of global GDP and the tourism sector employed 319 million people globally—that’s 1 in 10 jobs on the planet. The pandemic underscored just how imperative tourism was to a vast number of economies across the globe. The absence of tourism for multiple years devastated many communities. It also gave many places the chance to build back in a more responsible manner.
The money is just the start of tourism’s impact. Think about the supply chain to each restaurant, hotel, and tour, and the numbers notch up significantly. Tourism impacts the globe, mostly in a good way—but not always.
The litany of tourism related issues change by each region and country. Here are some of the downsides to tourism:
- Tourism demands can stress local resources, taking food, housing, or land away from the locals.
- Tourism may stress vulnerable animal habitats and encourage the poaching of wild animals for tourist consumption.
- Air travel is a major pollutant.
- Tourism commodifies some cultures and people by creating living zoos in places like hill tribe villages and slums.
- Tourists can offend locals by not conforming to dress codes or culturally appropriate behaviors.
This list could continue. Humans are curious creatures. On the road, it’s easy to see something like a ping pong show in Bangkok and figure there’s not much harm in taking a peek. But sex tourism and sex trafficking in Southeast Asia is rampant. It’s important for travelers to think through each aspect of their behavior and activities. The goal of responsible tourism is simply to lessen the negative impact, and find ways to increase the positive change tourism can bring to a region.
Positives to Socially Responsible Tourism
These include just a few of the many ways tourism can be used as a force for good:
- Tourism has the power to be the greatest redistribution of wealth from the developed to the developing world.
- Tourism can infuse cash and economic buying power directly into the hands of locals.
- Tourism can encourage locals to defend their wildlife and put an end to poaching.
- Tourism can model practices like effective trash and waste management.
- Tourism can create meaningful, deep cultural interactions between tourists and locals.
- Tourism can engender deeper humanity on both sides, generating compassion and empathy for those we don’t understand.
And while many of these benefits apply to developing countries, responsible tourism plays a part in visiting the canals of Venice and hiking in the Swiss alps.
Responsible tourism as much a mindset as a set of behaviors. But behaviors matter too—here’s what you should know before you hit the road to a new destination.
How to be a Responsible Tourist
These are a number of responsible behaviors travelers can undertake when they hit the road. These examples should get you started when you’re looking for a way to plan a socially responsible trip.
1. Go Overland
Flights use a lot of fuel and have a high environmental cost. It’s worse than you ever thought too—worse than predictions years ago. Flights are, quite simply, bad for the environment and are unsustainable as our go-to first option for traveling.
Responsible travelers should consider choosing somewhere closer if the timing of your trip precludes you from overlanding there (ships do take a while, I will admit.
If there is truly no way to get to your destination country overland and you’re dead-set on going there, commit to responsible overland travel once you arrive, as you explore various sights and activities.
To be fair, there is a lot of innovation happening in the airline industry—airlines are working hard to make more efficient planes and fuel. But the fact remains, once you are on the ground, group transport via buses, shared taxis, and trains is usually the most impactful way to conserve your footprint. If you’re in a mountainous, natural area, this remains doubly true. Find opportunities to travel in groups and take advantage of shared transport.
Interesting Read: How to Travel the World Without Flying
2. Respect Cultural Norms
Research the cultural norms of each place you’re visiting. Even more, I recommend reading local authors or narratives about each new place. It’s often the tiny nuances of a culture that make it fascinating. Some countries have rules about patting kids on the head, others about women making direct eye contact. How you might dress in a church back home may differ greatly than your new country’s best-practices.
Part of being a responsible traveler is knowing when and how to respect cultural norms. Not only is it a tenant of responsible tourism, but it’s also the best way to make new friends and set the stage for honest, genuine, and respectful conversations with locals!
Browse a list of the best travel books organized by country!
3. Use Local Resources
Source your food, souvenirs, and tours from locals. Spending money at your destination is the best way to infuse money directly into the local economy.
Many times deforestation, poaching, and other issues are directly affected by the availability of local employment and fair wages. When responsible travelers use locally run companies, you support those who live in this destination year-round.
Want to be next level responsible? Choose companies that also prioritize this responsible travel. Everything from ski resorts to hostels can commit to responsible and sustainable tourism practices. It’s this very concept that forms the bedrock of Grassroots Volunteering’s social enterprise database of responsible tourism organizations.
The travel choices you make matter, so choose businesses that support their own communities and are making steps to preserve their natural resources.
4. Lessen Your Trash Impact
Put your trash where it belongs. Many countries lack a strong sanitation and trash infrastructure, but even if the locals dispose of garbage in rivers and mountains, take the extra step to dispose of yours responsibly.
And if recycling is available, take that extra step too.
Peak tourist season in vulnerable areas brings a range of issues, trash being one of them. Responsible travelers know that roadside littering is wrong, so simply hold onto your trash until you can dispose of it in a responsible way. This doesn’t always work out in the end—locals may still use local methods to dispose of your trash—but modeling is an import part of environmental preservation in vulnerable areas.
Another option is to limit your plastic and trash in the first place. Bring a device that allows you to clean your own water instead of buying and disposing of plastic water bottles. You can use a SteriPen, or LifeStraw (here’s a review of how and why to use one while traveling). We’ve already highlighted the big issue of trash, and massive use of water bottles is a huge contributor to that. At the very least, bring a water bottle, as many guesthouses and hotels have fill-up stations with filtered water.
5. Choose Your Travel Activities With Care
When we leave our home country, it’s easy to see the entire world as an opportunity. In each destination, rules and regulations can differ greatly from your home country.
In cash-strapped places, some of the activities locals are willing to provide tourists are dangerous, questionably ethical, and often exploitative. This part of responsible tourism asks the traveler to analyze the impact of the activity before participating.
In Southeast Asia, it’s common to see tourists riding an elephant or hugging a tiger—both activities have very negative consequences despite being a part of mainstream tourism in this area. Similarly, you may have the chance to take a slum tour in India or Africa, but some of these are little more than fostering a “human zoo” attitude toward the locals.
There is no easy way to lay out “do this but not that” for every country in the world (although our free Responsible Travel Guides take a stab at it). Instead, think of the impact of your activities at every level. What did it take to get the animal there and is it being treated humanely. Does the tourism activity foster cultural understanding and exchange? Or does it instead provide little more than a good photo opportunity? The answer to these two questions should inform your behaviors.
6. Spend More Money Locally
More than just using local organizations, feel good about spending money when you do. Tourism dollars are an integral funding source for many people and local governments. Visiting national sites, museums, and tourist spots stimulates the local economy.
Also, spread your money to different places so that more family run businesses benefit from the money you spend in the country—this is particularly in places suffering from overtourism.
Then, think of ways to go even more local. Community-sourced organizations are far better than Western or multinational companies. Support community businesses when possible by spending your money locally. It’s one of the simpler ways to stay responsible at your volunteer placement or while you travel. GV has one of the only geolocated list of social enterprises around the world, all sourced from other responsible travelers.
7. Travel in the Off-Season
Both urban and rural areas feel the impact of high season and overtourism is pushing the capacity in the most popular destinations in the world.
We already noted that trash becomes an issue in peak tourist season, but it goes even further than that. Many urban cities face huge issues with pollution and traffic year-round, but peak tourist season worsens these issues.
In the mountains or remote natural areas, the same is true. Flora, fauna, and animals call these remote areas home, and a lot of people moving through remote areas creates stress on the environment. Consider traveling in shoulder season. This spreads out tourism’s impact and has the added benefit of bringing more money into local economies year-round.
8. Keep Things in Perspective
Travel can be stressful. For many responsible travelers, the trip is a venture into a new, unknown region. With all that newness and unknown, one of the most important lessons you can keep in mind is to maintain your perspective.
In situations where you feel pressured to donate to beggars, know your stance on it before you leave.
If you’re new to haggling, remember to maintain respect and perspective. Many traveler’s don’t always understand that a vendor will sell you something at a loss if they feel like it’s the only way to earn income that day. Haggling is a part of many cultures, but you need to understand the impact of your dollar and keep perspective on the smaller aspects of it all.
The same goes when things get confusing, overwhelming, or downright chaotic. Take a breather. Step away from the situation if needed. Proceed with respect and an even-keeled, friendly attitude. You’re a guest in this country; be a good one.
These are just a handful of the ways to embrace responsible tourism on your next trip. It’s not just about the actions, but about committing to the mentality that looks for every opportunity to create a respectful trip.
Unforeseen situations will arise on the road, and it’s up to the responsible traveler to find the right course of action in that situation. If you’re a hiker, there are other considerations. If you’re volunteering in remote areas—again, you might find some unique ways to support your local community.
Traveling with a commitment to responsible travel is a necessary step for all volunteer travelers as it sets the example for other travelers who are less aware of their impact on the people and places in each new destination.