Travel has always been a huge part of my life. It’s something that I firmly believe is the best education one can get. It brings people together, breaks down barriers and opens our minds. But with all that conflict, turmoil and destruction going in the world, does it seem careless to tell people to travel more? That’s the internal struggle I’ve been dealing with lately. So how do I continue to encourage people to see the world? Well, by promoting responsible travel, of course.
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After all, it’s good for you and the planet. That’s because responsible travel, according to the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST): “aims to minimize tourism’s negative impacts on the environment and maximize the positive contributions tourism can make to local communities.”
It’s also something that I can directly encourage and promote with my blog. Use the medium for good and hopefully encourage others to do the same.
As air travel is the single largest contributor to air pollution, how does anyone stand a chance of becoming a responsible traveller? Without planes, travelling across continents is very difficult, not to mention extremely expensive. Giving up air travel is simply an unrealistic solution.
However, not all is lost. You don’t have to give up seeing the world to make a difference. Every one of us can become a responsible traveller. We all can make small changes to the way we travel, choose where we spend our money and have our voices heard. You’re probably wondering if your little contribution can make a difference. As I was reminded, little drops of water make a mighty ocean.
“Traveling responsibly is not about halting development or staying home. It is about managing travel and destinations in an environmentally and culturally responsible way and designing tourism programs and individual trips carefully, to provide travellers with the experience they seek, while leaving a positive footprint on their destination.” CREST
10 steps towards responsible travel
So, what exactly can we do to become responsible travellers? Turns out that there is quite a bit.
Whenever possible, try to shop locally. Many souvenirs available at the local tourist shops are not made there. Like many things today, they are mass-produced in China and sold to tourists without having much impact on the local economy.
You’ll be better off supporting local artisans and buying items made there. They will most likely cost you more, but overall are better quality and represent the country where you bought it.
The same goes for buying food and eating out. Try shopping at local markets and eating in restaurants run by the people who live there instead of large international chains. You’re more likely to get an authentic culinary experience while supporting the locals.
Responsible travel is about leaving places as you found them. Don’t litter and throw trash thinking that it’s someone else’s problem. Plastic is especially harmful to wildlife and the environment. It’s probably one of the largest contributors to trash left by tourists everywhere.
So, what can you do as a responsible traveller? Try to avoid using plastic whenever possible. Bring reusable fabric bags with you, so that you can use them while shopping. You can also bring your own water filters and bottles so that you don’t have to buy bottled water while travelling.
Other great additions to your travel gear are things like reusable straws, food/drink containers and cutlery. Those are great if you’re attending outdoor food markets or if you want to make your lunch and bring it with you.
You can also choose natural and plastic-free personal hygiene products. There are many brands out there, offering shampoos, conditioners and body wash that come in solid form without plastic. Just think of how much space you can save in your suitcase.
Respect local culture
This is one of the most important parts of being a responsible traveller. Respecting the culture and customs of the places you visit is a no brainer. After all, you are a guest in someone else’s home and country.
Take the opportunity to learn about the culture and customs of where you are. Many places have strict guidelines for men and women when visiting places of worship. Make sure you read up on what is allowed and what isn’t to avoid disappointment. There might also be certain rituals when it comes to greeting others, dining or visiting one’s home. Try to learn as much as you can so that you don’t offend anyone.
Lastly, it goes a long way to learn a few helpful phrases in the local language. They will appreciate your effort.
Stand up for wildlife
Animal welfare is a huge thing for me. It breaks my heart seeing homeless animals and even worse, ones that are abused. Yet, so many people partake in activities that might seem harmless, yet are supporting the mistreatment of animals. Unfortunately, many tour operators that promote these activities focus more on profits than animal welfare.
Think twice before you give money to ride on elephants, swim with dolphins or take pictures with drugged wild animals. These activities often harm the animals and cause them distress. Any places that chain and abuse animals for entertainment shouldn’t be supported with your tourist dollars.
There are many legit animal sanctuaries that promote education and preservation of wildlife. Do your research before you get involved. Reputable organizations are transparent about their operations and have no problem providing you with information about their business. Supporting these places helps them care for the animals. It’s also a unique opportunity to see these creatures in their natural habitat. To me, that’s a more enjoyable experience that definitely is part of responsible travel.
Choose sustainable tour operators
Group tours can be a great way to see the world. While there are many operators out there, make sure you choose ones that are committed to environmental protection and responsible travel.
Find out about their sustainable and environmental practices, treatment of wildlife and support of cultural heritage. Do they use local guides? Do they provide them with fair treatment and pay? Most companies who care about responsible travel, be that local excursions or long term travel will be happy to share that information with you. Choose to support the ones committed to making a change.
Support local community organizations
Many local community organizations always need support. You can donate your time, money and expertise while travelling while supporting the locals. It’s a great way to ensure your support is going straight to the cause.
While volunteering is a great way to give back, it’s important to ensure that you’re not taking the jobs away from locals. Make sure that your work isn’t doing more harm than good.
Select where you stay
There are many options for lodgings these days. So how do you choose one that promotes responsible travel? Well, like everything else, do your research. More and more companies these days choose sustainable methods of doing business, including giving back locally.
I’ve been a huge fan of Airbnb. Originally, it offered a great and affordable alternative to a hotel. However, over the years, Airbnb has gotten a bad reputation. Seen as a driver of overtourism, the service has also been blamed for driving locals away from neighbourhoods and taking away rental properties.
So, should you use it? Try to opt for places where you’re renting space from someone who lives there. Ask questions, read the reviews and make informed decisions. Homestays, guest houses and other hotel-alternatives are not only a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture, but also a chance to get to know your hosts.
Reduce your footprint
If you have an option, try to take the train instead of flying. Trains are quite an enjoyable way to travel. In many countries, they are also a cheap and efficient way to get around. Plus, you don’t have to spend your time going through security and having to wait for hours to board.
You can also choose to walk, bike or use public transportation while travelling around. There are many bike rental companies in many cities that provide a great alternative to sightseeing. There is even a company, Green Kayak, that allows you to kayak in many European cities for free in exchange for picking up trash. Responsible travel at its best.
Whenever we can, we opt for renting cars in Europe as they provide a great option to see a destination. After all, nothing beats a great road trip!
The travel industry isn’t going to change until the people who use it demand it. The more pressure we put on airlines, cruise lines, hotels and tour operators, the more change we’ll see. Compostable materials are no longer a far-away dream. Yet, so many places still use plastic bags, straws and cutlery. That creates a lot of unnecessary waste.
As customers, we have a voice. We can put pressure on the service providers and make them accountable. While airlines still have to fly planes, maybe there are ways that can make travel more sustainable. Less plastic packaging and using biodegradable materials are just some of the ways.
Ultimately, we make choices with our wallets. Choosing to support companies that care about the environment is a way we can make a statement and influence change.
Part of the struggle I had about encouraging people to travel was a fear that they would go and contribute to the destruction. While I wanted them to learn more about the places they visited, it didn’t occur to me that telling them to travel responsibly was part of the solution.
We tend to take things for granted. It’s easy to forget the big picture when things are happening miles away from us. Sometimes we just don’t know the impact. As someone who writes about travel, I feel it’s my responsibility to teach others about the importance of sustainable travel and being a responsible tourist.
We need to speak up and encourage others to travel responsibly. As they say, knowledge is power and we can all contribute to making a difference. I know that there are many others that feel the same and that gives me hope.
Responsible travel starts at home
We can talk about responsible travel as much as we want, but when it comes down to it, it all starts at home. Let’s be honest, if one doesn’t give a shit about throwing trash out of the car window at home, they are not going to care about protecting the environment abroad.
Making environmentally friendly choices where we live and encouraging others to do the same is a start. The more people speak up, the louder our voices will be. The same applies to the choices we make.
We’ve been trying to be environmentally responsible for years. I’ve been using reusable bags for groceries before it was a thing. I am very particular about sorting recyclables from the garbage and compostable materials to a point of obsession. It’s like second nature to me now, despite many people making fun of me for it over the years. I do it because it’s important to me and I try to encourage others to do the same.
Supporting local businesses committed to sustainability is another way I make my contribution. You can do the same.
Final thoughts on responsible travel
While Europe’s flight-shaming movement gathers steam, I don’t think that’s necessarily the answer. Europe is a relatively small space with great connectivity. Train and boat travel is more developed and available, so travelling within Europe can be done by train or boat relatively easily.
The same can’t be said for other continents. In Canada, we have geographical challenges that make it impossible to only use trains. Travelling across Canada by train is very expensive and it can only get you so far. There are places up north that you can’t get to unless you fly. As much as I would love to take the train, it’s just not feasible.
Making small changes might seem insignificant, but they do add up. The more of us speak up, the more changes we can make. That’s a good thing because travel should be for everyone. Tourism is a huge industry and if we can make it matter, more politicians and decision-makers will make sustainability a priority.
Do you have any tips for responsible travel? Are there any companies that you think are doing a great job of promoting responsible travel? Let me know!