Travel can be an empowering, educational, and relaxing experience. But unfortunately, tourism does come with some harmful effects. Here are 20 ways to be a responsible tourist.
I’ve been traveling for over a decade, and in that time, I’ve been trying to become a more responsible, sustainable traveler. Over the years, I’ve definitely made mistakes when it comes to responsible tourism. But the more I travel, the more I learn. I’m sharing with you 20 tips I’ve learned for becoming a more responsible tourist.
What is Responsible Tourism?
Responsible travel is all about making choices that minimize the negative impacts of your travels in favour of ones that are neutral, or contribute positively when traveling. It’s about traveling in a way that is better for people, the planet, and wildlife.
With this approach to tourism we can reduce the effects of overtourism, support local and Indigenous communities, protect natural resources and wildlife, and more. Responsible travel ultimately provides an opportunity for us travelers to give back to the regions and communities that we visit.
Now, that’s how I think about responsible tourism, but there are some official definitions, too. The UNWTO has a great official definition:
“Responsible tourism takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, while addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”
Why do we need responsible tourism?
The reality is that tourism can be harmful. We need responsible tourism because it provides a framework along with actionable tips for how we can travel in a way that is more sustainable for local communities, planet earth, wildlife, and heritage.
What is an example of responsible tourism?
Responsible tourism means reducing air travel whenever possible, booking locally-owned and eco-conscious hotels and tour guides, traveling slowly, sustainably, and mindfully, and investing your tourism dollars in local communities as much as possible.
This is a pretty broad example, but don’t worry, I’m digging into more examples and details below!
How To Travel Responsibly
It can be overwhelming to get started with responsible travel. Just remember that it’s all about ongoing learning, and it’s not a race. Rather than making lots of big changes at once, approach it with baby steps!
A great place to start is by simply acknowledging the impact of your travels. Take the time to think about how your globetrotting might be affecting natural environments, wildlife, local communities, culture, and economies. From there, you can begin making small changes to your travel habits.
I also think it’s important to remember that there isn’t a one size fits all approach for responsible travel. Some of the tips below might be more accessible to you than others, and that’s ok! A good start is to do just what you can, and build from there.
Practical Responsible Travel Tips
If you want to start working toward responsible travel, you’re in the right place! Read on for my favourite responsible travel tips.
One of the beautiful things about travel is that it gives us the opportunity to see the diversity of the world. One way to be a responsible tourist is to actively acknowledge diversity, and put effort into learning about diversity – not just diversity between countries but within countries and communities as well.
For example, in India there are 22 major languages, over 720 dialects, and people across the country belong to different ethnic groups who all have unique traditions and culture. Taking note of this diversity (and putting effort into learning about it!) shows respect for those cultures.
It’s also important to acknowledge Indigenous peoples as you travel. For example, Canada’s Indigenous peoples tend to be underrepresented in the tourism industry. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any opportunities for tourists to support Indigenous peoples when they visit Canada. For example, tourists can seek out Indigenous owned shops and restaurants, or visit museums dedicated to Indigenous history.
Do you know anything about Canada’s Indigenous peoples? If not, listen to this episode of Alpaca My Bags to kickstart your education.
Avoid Contributing to Overtourism
Being a responsible tourist means trying to benefit communities rather than do them harm. For the most part, tourism is extremely beneficial: it can help build economies, especially for small communities, create jobs, encourage conservation, and encourage the restoration and preservation of historic sites.
Overtourism describes when tourism’s positive benefits become outnumbered by the negative ones, and it’s become more evident in recent years as tourism has become more accessible. When tourism becomes unsustainable in a place, you start to see consequences that have the potential to impact local life, culture, the land, animals, and more.
Reducing your contribution to overtourism is a great way to responsibly travel. Here are ways to do it: Avoid mainstream or iconic destinations, practise second city tourism, travel in small groups, travel slowly, and try to travel in the off peak, off season.
Support Local Communities
Support locals and local communities by investing your dollars in them rather than the government – yep, this means skipping Starbucks and opting for a local cafe instead! By putting your dollars towards local restaurants, cafes, and other businesses, you can help ensure that tourism remains a force for good – which is our ultimate goal in being responsible tourists.
A few ways to support local communities include buying directly from markets, eating in small restaurants, selecting locally owned and operated tour companies and staying in locally owned hotels and hostels. If you’re ever unsure about how local a restaurant or hotel is, you can read through online reviews. Oftentimes online reviews will reveal who is operating or who owns the business, and that’s a great clue to whether it’s local or not.
Support Local Tourism Operators
Lots of global tour operators are actively working toward more sustainable practices. There are eco-operators that take steps to minimize their environmental impact, and many tour operators are hiring local guides and supporting local business as much as possible.
When booking group travel or tours, do some basic research to see what kind of support the company you’re looking at is giving to the local community. Look at whether their guides are local to the destination you’re visiting, look at whether other staff are local, and look at if they support local restaurants and hotels rather than chains.
When possible, you can also choose to hire a guide once you’ve arrived at your destination. For example, when we traveled to Guatemala to do the Acatenango hike (which gives you views of an erupting volcano), we didn’t book our guide until we’d arrived in Antigua. Rather than booking a global tour company for our hike, we asked in our hostel to be connected with a local guide.
Value Experiences Over Bragging Rights
From conversations in hostel dorm rooms to travel influencer Instagram accounts, I’ve noticed that country counting is an ongoing trend. This trend shifts the focus and value of travel away from experiences, favouring quality over quantity.
Responsible tourism is all about doing right by the destinations you visit, and that means spending the time to learn about that destination, and value the time you spent there. While country counting isn’t all around bad (yes, I can tell you how many I’ve been to), as responsible tourists we should strive to keep the focus on experiences, because that’s what matters.
So when you’re planning new travels, don’t discount places you’ve been to already, or feel like you need to fit as many countries into your time away as possible. Revisiting places can be super rewarding. Believe me, this is why I’ve traveled The Netherlands four times now!
Be Intentional With Photos
It’s tempting to take photos of, well, everything when you’re traveling. And I get it, it’s fun to take photos with local people. But photo-taking needs to be intentional, and respectful to other people and cultures. So if you’re taking photos of people, be sure to grab their consent – this is an easy way to promote responsible tourism.
If you intend to share a photo of someone to your social media, or any public platform, it’s important to have explicit consent to do so. This is especially important if that person belongs to a minority group or different culture, or if the person is a child. Sharing images of impoverished, or less developed communities for self-gratification is an unfortunate symptom of the White Saviour Industrial Complex.
So how can you be a responsible tourist when taking photos? The first step is to be intentional, and be transparent about those intentions. If you’d like a photo of a local person for your travel blog, for example, let them know that. The second step is to simply ask for their consent! Ask if it’s ok to share the photo on your Instagram, or on your blog.
Travel Overland Whenever Possible
By minimizing how often you fly, you can significantly reduce your carbon footprint. It’s hard to wrap your head around how much carbon a flight produces, but it’s really important to understand that it’s a lot. In fact, one return flight can generate more CO2 than citizens of some countries produce in an entire year.
It isn’t realistic for most people to cut out flying entirely. Some of us may have family abroad, or are required to fly for work. If you live in a country like Canada or Australia, visiting another country might not be possible without a flight (or a multi day road trip). Given this, the best approach to sustainable travel when it comes to flying is to reduce how much we fly, as much as possible.
Here are some tips for reducing your air travel carbon footprint:
- Most emissions are released during takeoff and landing. Reduce the carbon impact of your flight by booking a direct flight rather than a flight that includes connections. The less you takeoff and land, the better!
- Travel overland rather than booking a flight, particularly when traveling short distances. In some cases, flights are a big time saver, or they’re getting you across an ocean. But wherever possible, take a train or bus instead of the plane!
- Fly economy class. Business class fliers leave a far larger carbon footprint, so by opting for economy you can minimize your impact when you do fly.
- Neutralize your carbon footprint by paying carbon offsets. This means funding projects that remove carbon emissions like reforestation, farm power and landfill gas capture. Make it a practice to donate, every time you fly.
- Skip the weekend jaunts and do something local instead. With short haul flights so widely available, it’s tempting to take a 2 hour flight to another city for a day or two. If you can, cut down on these weekend trips and do something closer to home that doesn’t require a flight instead.
The good news? In the future we will likely switch over to electric planes which will reduce the carbon impact of flights. In the meantime, governments around the world are taking action. The French government has become the first large economy to ban short-haul flights where a train or bus alternative of two and a half hours or less exists–a move which was voted on in 2021 and comes into effect in April 2022.
Zero Waste Travel
It’s becoming easier and easier to cut down on your waste, both at home and while abroad. Reducing your use of plastic and other disposable products and packaging helps lessen how much ends up in a landfill. A zero waste approach conserves natural resources and reduces pollution from extraction, manufacturing and disposal.
So how can you be more zero waste while traveling? Here’s some tips!
- Pack canvas bags, reusable cutlery, and reusable food storage containers. By bringing these items along, you can refuse single use items that you might come across while shopping or dining out. Bring canvas bags to use instead of accepting plastic bags, and reusable cutlery for takeout. You can also bring some containers for random things, like leftover food.
- Pack zero waste toiletries. These days it’s pretty easy to find no waste shampoo bars(I like the ones from Lush!), toothpaste tablets (I love the ones from Canadian company Oxygenate!), and a bamboo toothbrush.
- Invest in a water filtration system to help cut down on bottled water. I’ve been super happy using Grayl’s filtration water bottles. It can be expensive initially to invest in a filtration system, but not only is it good for the environment, it can ultimately save you money because you won’t be buying water bottles as you travel.
Minimize Waste in Hotels
In most hotels you’ll find lots of single use items in the rooms. One way to travel more responsibly is to avoid using these products. Instead, use what you’ve brought from home! Here’s some tips:
- Bring your own toiletries and toothbrush. This way you won’t need to use the tiny bottles of shampoo, lotion, and other toiletries that are offered.
- Avoid drinking bottled water that is provided.
- Hang up your towels to reuse rather than replace daily.
- Turn off lights, air conditioning, the television and other appliances when you leave your room.
- Leave the “do not disturb” sign on your hotel door knob so that hotel staff know not to wash linens and towels every day.
Pack In, Pack Out!
Pack in, pack out is a phrase (lots of hikers use it) that means, basically, don’t leave behind in nature anything that you bring with you. Avoid leaving any litter on the ground, even if it’s organic. When hiking, visiting beaches, or in rural areas, stow any waste in a reusable container and dispose of it properly when you can.
Walk, Cycle, and Take Public Transit
Renting bikes, walking, and taking public transport when you’re traveling does more than just reduce your carbon footprint. It’s a great way to see a new place! I love getting around on foot and on public transit when I’m visiting a new place because it creates an opportunity to get outside more, exercise, and save on your travel budget.
For example, when my partner and I visited Mexico City we made a point of taking the subway system and local buses to get around. Even though Uber trips are super affordable in Mexico City, we found that taking public transport was more fun because we got to experience the city in a local way.
Slow travel is all about emphasizing connecting to places we visit. Slow travel means spending as long as possible in place, rather than trying to, let’s say, tick off as many cities during a week in Europe as possible. I know how tempting it is to fit in as many stops as possible on a trip, but hear me out.
There’s many benefits to slow travel, and all of them directly support responsible tourism. Slow traveling allows tourists to spend more time in a place, which in turn means they get to know the culture and people better, and tourists can invest more tourism dollars in that place.
And these aren’t the only benefits. Slow tourism also has less of an environmental impact.
So next time you’re planning a trip, consider cutting down the amount of stops you make on your travel route so that you can spend longer in each place. You might be surprised at how slow travel not only benefits the communities you visit, but enriches your experiences of them.
Consider Cultural Appropriation
Cultural appropriation is when a person adopts elements of a culture that is not their own. It becomes controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures. Examples of cultural appropriation include when white people wear dreadlocks, or non-Indigenous people wear Indigenous dress as a halloween costume.
Cultural appropriation is a complex issue with lots of grey areas. And since much of travel revolves around experiencing and learning about other cultures, it can be tough to figure out what is and isn’t cultural appropriation while abroad. But it isn’t impossible. There are two important aspects to think about when considering cultural appropriation while traveling: respect and context.
The respect aspect means:
- You should always ask yourself if you are participating in a tradition, or wearing traditional clothing, out of honor or imitation.
- Respect includes understanding: are you aware of the significance, meaning, and history of the tradition or clothing?
The context aspect means:
- In what situation are you participating in a cultural tradition or wearing cultural clothing? Being invited to participate is key.
- Are you participating to learn about a culture, or to perpetuate a stereotype?
Thinking about whether your actions are respectful, and considering the context you’re in, as well as your overall motivations, are all important when thinking about whether you are culturally appropriating. Responsible tourism is about remembering that you are a humble guest of the culture you are visiting. Appropriation is really only acceptable on an invitation basis.
To learn more about cultural appropriation, listen to this episode of Alpaca My Bags Podcast that covers cultural appropriation and travel.
Practice Responsible Wildlife Tourism
Visiting elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, swimming with pigs in The Bahamas, and going on safari in Kenya – these are all experiences that most travelers dream of having. But because animal encounters are so popular amongst tourists, there is a consumer-driven demand for animals that sometimes results in exploitation. And so as responsible tourists, we should do our best to avoid supporting exploitation when engaging with wildlife.
It can be super difficult to figure out what kind of encounters with wildlife are responsible. The best line of defense is to always do your research. For example, if there’s an elephant sanctuary you want to visit, look at the reviews for that sanctuary (specifically the bad ones) to learn what other tourists have seen there. If they’ve witnessed maltreatment, it’ll likely be mentioned in the review.
Another rule of thumb for wildlife tourism is to avoid animal encounters that include contact. Any time a wild animal is willing to engage with you, it’s because that animal has been specifically trained to do that. If you want to visit animals as responsibly as possible, always opt for observation only experiences.
There are many ethical safaris where you can observe animals from afar without disrupting them. The animals don’t need to be trained, and instead of an artificial encounter, you get to see them in the wild, engaging in natural behavior.
There’s a reason that people love to combine their travels with volunteering. It seems like a great opportunity to do good, while exploring the world. The thing is, voluntourism, missionary work, and other forms of aid often carry colonial and problematic undertones. It can also be very difficult to figure out whether or not your presence and volunteer work is actually having a positive impact.
This is because voluntourism has in many cases become an industry. It’s so easy now to book and pay for a one or two week volunteer experience, where you drop into a community just briefly. Bu The Guardian summarized it well in a 2018 article:
The aspiration to help the most vulnerable children is a noble one, but the booming business of “voluntourism” sustains practices and institutions that actually do harm. There is no such thing as a “good” orphanage, according to child development experts. Eighty years of research confirms that children do best in a family.
Voluntourism tends to be very transformational for the volunteer, but in many cases it’s very unlikely that the volunteer returned that positive impact to the community they visited. This is often because voluntourism experiences are manufactured, and don’t require a long term investment or any specialized skills from the volunteer.
For a volunteer experience while traveling, a great alternative is to do a work exchange, like through WorkAway.
Respect and Follow Local Customs
Our planet is so culturally diverse, chances are, you’ll often find yourself in a region that has customs quite different from your own. Keep in mind that when visiting a country outside your own, you’re a visitor. So it’s best to behave like one!
This means taking the time to learn about local customs and traditions, and then respecting them. For example, in some regions of the world, women traditionally dress modestly. When visiting those regions, women travelers can show respect by following the local custom of covering their shoulders or legs.
It’s also always helpful to learn at least a bit of the language local to where you’re traveling. This makes travel easier for you (even knowing “hello” or “excuse me” is helpful), but also shows that you care to invest time in learning about local culture.
Check Yourself for Ethnocentrism
What’s ethnocentrism? Ethnocentrism refers to perceptions or assumptions made about a culture. Often, ethnocentrism leads people to judge another culture based on the standard of one’s own culture. There’s a power dynamic involved, too. For example, when Western travelers “don’t like” the customs in a country that are different from their own, there can be colonial undertones involved.
It’s okay to feel confused by, or to simply have thoughts about a custom that you aren’t familiar with. To avoid ethnocentrism, take some time to sit with those feelings and do some research so you can understand why that custom is the norm. Ask questions! Understanding a custom often helps to make something new or different feel more comfortable.
Pay Fair Prices
It can be hard when traveling to not get caught up in obsessing over your budget. Being budget conscious isn’t bad, as long as you are careful to make sure that your budgeting practices don’t harm the communities you’re visiting.
In many countries around the world, like India, bartering prices before making a purchase is common practice. It’s also common that tourists will be asked to pay higher prices than a local would. This is informally known as the “tourist tax.” Some travelers are upset by the tourist tax, but I’d argue that it’s fair that locals maximize their income by setting prices based on what a buyer can actually afford.
If you can afford to travel, then you can afford to pay local communities prices that are fair. That fair price may be more than what a local would pay, but that doesn’t mean it’s unaffordable for a traveler visiting from abroad who has currency privilege.
Be Mindful of What You Post
The way you post to social media, or even talk about your trip with family or friends is worth thinking about if you’d like to be a responsible tourist. Often, it’s easy to fall into using subtly demeaning language, or to accidentally perpetuate stereotypes.
Put some thought into how you are representing the place and culture that you visit. In some cases, what you post to Instagram or other social media will shape another person’s only perception of that destination. It’s always best to keep in mind the language and imagery used, and highlight the good in a place.
Do Your Research and Listen to Locals
Many of us travel for leisure (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but travel is also a great opportunity to learn. When we travel we encounter new places, people, cultures, and traditions, and these experiences can help us to broaden our mindsets and understanding of the world.
Before traveling, consider researching more than just the top 10 places to visit. Dedicate some time to researching your destination’s history, its food, its traditions, and more. Knowing some history and culture before you travel there can inform your trip, and help you to make sense out of what you encounter there. And, when you do start looking into the top 10 places to visit, I recommend looking for bloggers and influencers who are local to the region you are traveling to for advice.
During your trip, continue the learning by talking with locals, and listening to what they have to say. Ask questions. And most of all, remember to look for the good.
Responsible Tourism is Evolving!
I think it’s important to acknowledge that this list of ways to be a responsible tourist will continue to grow and evolve. I am not a perfect tourist, and I actually doubt I ever will be. But the more that I travel, the more I am learning about how to be respectful to not just the planet, but other cultures and other people.
It’s also important to acknowledge that much of the change that is needed to make travel more responsible and sustainable is in the hands of large corporations, governments and local authorities. They have the power to control tourist numbers, create tourist taxes, shift to more eco-friendly practices, and shift their marketing approaches. But as individual tourists, we can take steps to ensure that our travel is as beneficial as possible rather than being harmful.
I hope that these ideas for responsible tourism have inspired you to think about the way that you travel, and ways that you can (hopefully) travel better! Do you have tips for responsible tourism that you want to add? Tell me in the comments or send me an email.
More from Pina Travels:
- How to Avoid Contributing to Overtourism
- Responsible Tourism: Let’s Talk Travel Privilege
- Your Guide to Responsible Wildlife Tourism
- What is Second City Tourism?
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