For many of us, travel is an important part of our lives. Travel allows us to experience new places, cultures, and people. But, as travel has become more popular, it has also become largely unsustainable. The tourism and travel industry has long operated in a way that didn’t take sustainability into account — so, responsible tourism has begun to lead the way in creating sustainable change.
Why is Responsible Tourism Important?
Responsible tourism aims to address the pitfalls of the tourism industry. Before the 2020 pandemic, tourism had reached an all-time high. For many popular global destinations, as tourism grew, so did exploitation, gentrification, rising prices, and ecological damage.
As the world begins to reopen and travel resumes, several cities have begun to address ways to combat overtourism, which is a great start. Beyond the number of people traveling, creating a more sustainable tourism industry also depends on how we travel, too.
Our actions as travelers directly impacts the places we visit. When we choose to adopt responsible tourism practices, we can create lasting, positive change.
What is Responsible Tourism? Common Terms to Know
Responsible tourism is traveling in a way that minimizes your negative impact and maximizes your positive impact on the places you visit. There are many ways to travel responsibly, but the terms below are the most common approaches:
Sustainable travel means taking into account the people and the environment of the place you’re visiting so that you don’t negatively impact that destination.
Some sustainable tourism examples could include staying in a family-run hotel instead of a chain resort or going on a hike led by an ecotourism company. It can also look like eating at a restaurant that serves locally grown food instead of a chain restaurant.
Slow travel has been increasing in popularity as more people start to work remotely and are interested in less touristy experiences. Slow travel is essentially traveling slower. It’s usually defined as staying somewhere for three weeks or more.
What slow travel is not: Slow travel is not taking a five-day cruise or hopping from one location to the next in a matter of days. Slow travel helps you have a more local experience, giving you the opportunity to do more than visit the most popular tourist attractions.
Ethical travel means that you’re taking the time to learn about the culture and laws of the places you visit. Once you’re there, you respect them and don’t engage in activities that are prohibited or irresponsible.
Tourism often results in certain cultures, people, and industries becoming exploited or stereotyped. Travel photography often contributes to this by publishing photos that misrepresent so-called “developing” countries. Many tourists take photos of people without their consent — particularly children — and further this narrative.
Tourists also often participate in activities that involve exploitation, and trafficking. Examples of this include sex tourism, drug tourism, and even animal tourism.
Ethical travel looks like choosing to visit an ethical animal sanctuary, or not posting photos that further negative stereotypes.
Ecotourism focuses on visiting places specifically to learn about and preserve the natural environment.
There are numerous ecotourism tours and destinations throughout the world. These will be led by experts in the field, usually locals, and involve sustainable activities.
Some examples of ecotourism would be visiting a local sustainable farm like an eco-friendly coffee farm in Costa Rica. Ecotourism can also look like staying in an eco accommodation and learning about their sustainability initiatives.
9 Ways to Travel Responsibly:
As a responsible traveler, there are numerous different ways you can have a positive impact. Start by choosing a few of the responsible tourism examples below that are accessible to you.
1. Visit During Off-Season
An easy way to be a responsible traveler is to visit destinations during the off-season. During peak season, cities experience an unsustainable influx of people causing increased traffic, overcrowding, and even damage to local ecosystems. This can also cause a tourism dependent economy where businesses have to shut down during off-season.
When we travel during off-season, we can help support the local economy year-round. We won’t further contribute to the impact that large crowds of tourists have during peak season. This also works in your favor since prices are lower, and crowds are sparse, allowing you to get a more authentic experience.
2. Contribute to the Local Economy
When traveling abroad, it can be tempting to choose chain hotels, stores, and restaurants that you’re familiar with. Unfortunately, traveling like this does not contribute to the local economy. This leads to locals experiencing all the negative effects of tourism without receiving the benefits.
Consciously choosing to support locally run businesses is the best way to combat this. Whether that’s a locally run restaurant, small boutique, or a sustainable tour company — spending money locally makes a difference.
3. Stay in Locally Run Accommodation
Another great way to travel responsibly is to stay in locally run accommodation. Chain hotels or Airbnbs run by property management companies, don’t support the local economy. They also tend to contribute to gentrification and rising prices.
Choosing family-run, locally owned hotels, hostels, or Airbnbs is an easy way to combat that. There are wonderful sustainable options everywhere you go. Plus, they might even offer a more personal experience, and save you money too.
4. Limit Air Travel
One of the most shocking discoveries for me after leaving the US was finding out how affordable flying was in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, just because a flight is affordable, doesn’t mean you should take it.
Although convenient, flying is the most unsustainable form of traveling. Any time you can choose to use other methods of transportation such as trains or buses, opt for these instead.
If you do have to fly, look for the flights that have lower carbon emissions. Google Flights now shows the emissions of each flight so you can easily compare. Most airlines also offer the option to offset your emissions for a small fee.
5. Pack Sustainably
Traveling responsibly isn’t just about what you do when you get somewhere. It also means being mindful about what you bring with you. What you pack matters. In order to limit your plastic consumption while traveling, bring reusables like your water bottle.
Pack toiletries that will last the entirety of your trip instead of buying a travel size option that’s usually packaged in plastic. If you’re only bringing a carry-on, or have limited space, I recommend packing zero waste shampoo, conditioner, and lotion bars.
6. Learn the Local Customs and Laws
This may seem like a given, but it’s surprising how many tourists go to international destinations without knowing the local laws, customs, or the language.
It’s important to remember that when you’re in another country, you are a guest there. Even if you don’t agree with local customs or laws, it’s necessary to follow them.
It also makes traveling easier when you know what time people eat, when businesses typically operate, how people greet each other, and what is against the law.
If you don’t know the local language, attempt to learn common phrases such as hello, goodbye, and thank you.
7. Avoid Activities That Involve Exploitation
As a responsible tourist, doing your research is important. Many popular tourist activities are exploitative and even involve trafficking.
For example, animal tourism is one of the most unethical activities that tourists pay thousands of dollars for. It may be your lifelong dream to see an elephant, play with a tiger, or stand next to a gorilla, but it’s important to know how to do these things ethically.
Animal tourism often involves animal abuse and forced labor. Research reputable, ethical alternatives to the activities you’d like to do and support those companies instead.
8. Eat the Local Food
One of the best parts of traveling is the food. Unfortunately, travelers are often told that local or street food isn’t safe. This may cause tourists to try to stick to the same diet while abroad or to choose chain restaurants.
Avoiding the local food means missing out on amazing cuisine and the chance to support wonderful local businesses. If you’re worried about getting sick, a quick online search will let you know what you should be careful about eating. Take the necessary precautions, ease into street food, and enjoy all the local restaurants and dishes you can.
9. Avoid Contributing to Overtourism
With the rise of social media and travel being more accessible than ever, it’s hard to find any place that hasn’t been affected by tourism. Many of the most well-known destinations however are experiencing overtourism.
Overtourism is when there are too many tourists in one place at one time, resulting in a negative impact. This looks like rising prices, locals being pushed out, or damage to historic sites and the environment.
If you want to visit popular destinations like Venice, Santorini, or Bali, it’s important to be especially mindful of your actions. Visit popular destinations outside of peak season and implement the above tips to minimize your negative impact.
At the end of the day, responsible tourism can be as fun as it is impactful. Travel is the perfect opportunity for us to connect with each other globally. It gives us the chance to understand how our actions truly affect everyone, everywhere.
Responsible Tourism doesn’t need to be another set of rules to follow or remember. It’s simply traveling in a way that shows the same respect to the people and the places you visit, as you do at home. The sustainable choices you make in your everyday life can and should be made abroad.
You May Also Want to Check Out:
About The Author:
Alicia Briggs is a writer & editor specializing in slow travel & sustainable living. She’s worked in journalism since 2016 and currently writes for a variety of publications such as Sustainably Chic and Hidden Lemur. She has been a full-time traveler since 2018 and runs her own blog, Learning the Local Way, where she covers responsible travel & living tips.