This is a post that I have been wanting to write for quite some time. The issue of ethical and responsible travel is an area that I am passionate about, and it’s an issue which changes with travel trends. Travel is getting more and more popular, people are exploring more than ever before and, as a consequence, the issues associated are getting amplified. As someone who loves our li’l planet and the beauty it has to offer, seeing the harm that’s done from something I’m so passionate about, travel, is heartbreaking.
But we all love exploring. A lot. So what’s the solution? So how can we continue to enjoy the beauty of travel without causing damage? How can we be more self-aware and ethical in our adventures?
Over the past few weeks I have been researching these issues and asking you guys about your ideas on being responsible travellers. As it turns out, being responsible adventurers covers a huge scope of areas: cultural sensitivity, not leaving physical traces, protecting the environment, respecting history, and preventing economic predicaments. Together, we have come up with advice and tips which are achievable and practical.
Being able to travel is a privilege and a gift. The places we are able to visit and the people we get to meet enhance our lives and build memories for a lifetime. These are experiences which give so much, and we, as travellers, we should work our butts off to protect them. Some of the ways we can help be more ethical are easy, and some are a lot trickier. But all these areas, simple or complex, deserve our attention as responsible citizens and need to be addressed so we can enjoy our travel experiences without harm.
LIMIT SINGLE-USE PLASTICS
This is an issue which is receiving a lot of air time at the moment, and with good reason. Plastics contribute hugely to the amount of waste produced by humans, and the damage will take thousands of years to reverse. Sometimes when we travel we forget our responsibilities and maybe don’t act like we would at home, being in an unfamiliar environment can cause us to change our behaviours. With plastics, this can often be the case.
When you’re on holiday you are more likely to purchase bottled water, for example. And those re-usable shopping bags you have at home? It’s probable that you didn’t pack them. I know I am guilty of using more single-use plastics when travelling than at home and it’s something I really want to change in 2019.
- Bring re-usable shopping bags and shop at local markets with fresh produce and less packaged goods
- Purchase a shampoo/conditioner bar to prevent using plastic bottles
- Bring a re-usable water bottle to fill up. If tap water isn’t safe to drink in your destination, get the largest amount of drinkable water from the shop and decant it into a re-usable bottle as required. Another option is to use a LifeStraw, boil water, or use another filtering device.
- Bring a bamboo toothbrush on your adventures rather than using plastic ones.
- Go without straws at restaurants and bars (plus you have to ask because in many places being given a straw will happen automatically)
- Sit down and enjoy your coffee in the café rather than getting a takeaway – you’re on holiday, enjoy the relaxation!
- Many bars will serve drinks in single-use plastic ware, ask the bartender if you can have a glass instead
DO. NOT. LITTER. AND LEAVE NO TRACE
Littering is something that should not be done ever. However, often when people are travelling abroad, you can see that the message has been forgotten. One of the worst examples of mass littering I have seen was after the Full Moon Party in Thailand and it was disturbing. And on smaller levels, we have seen people throwing water bottles into the Phi Phi Islands, leaving wrappers behind in Mt Cook National Park, and leaving beer bottles strewn in National Parks in Victoria. Each time someone makes the choice to litter or leave a trace, it contributes to a huge and growing problem which we urgently need to combat.
And when you are out enjoying the natural environment, make sure you leave no trace, not just with litter but in other ways. I’m sure you have all seen where people have carved names into trees, drawn or graffitied on rocks, or walked off tracks and harmed plant life… When you have the privilege to enjoy the natural environment, do your best to preserve it.
- If you’re travelling and can’t find a rubbish bin: take it with you.
- Try to use fewer single use plastics because this will create less rubbish in the first place.
- Do not leave a trace when out in the natural environment. Stick to approved tracks and don’t interfere with plant life.
- If you see litter, pick it up. If you see someone littering, don’t be afraid to say something.
THINK BEFORE YOU SNAP
This one is tricky because I understand the appeal of taking lots of photographs when you’re travelling. I really do get it. It’s nice to have the travel memories forever, but these quick moments of snapping can have lasting impacts on the places you visit and people you photograph.
Consent. If you are taking photos of people then ask for permission first. The number of times I’m sure we’ve all seen people go up to locals and take photos without consent is immeasurable, and it’s not ok. Most people are fine with having their photo taken but you do need to ask. This particularly applies to taking photos of children where consent from their parents should be sought. It is exploitative to post photos of kids without expressed permission.
The No Photo Rule. If a gallery/temple/sacred space/memorial/restaurant/museum says no photos or no flash: respect it. There is absolutely no reason not to follow the basic standards that are asked of visitors. These rules exist for a multitude of reasons and it is frustrating to see travellers think that it doesn’t apply to them. We are guests in these places and it’s disrespectful to ignore such requests. This also applies to drone use in restricted areas which is becoming an increasing problem.
Geo-tagging. This is an interesting point that was raised by a reader and one that I will definitely try to be implementing in 2019! These days we’re all pretty Insta-obsessed and it is causing influxes of people to parts of the world that can’t handle the numbers. Geo-tagging has a lot to do with this, so it was recommended to reduce tagging specific locations (i.e. particular beaches, watering holes, look outs) and tag general regions instead to keep special, smaller places harder to find.
One Too Many. A lot of beautiful destinations are now full of people taking a bajillion photos and it can really detract from the magic of a place. The outcome of taking one or two photos vs. taking two hundred isn’t going to be that different in the long run… I think we can all admit that they will probably all look pretty similar. So why not focus on the memories rather than the photoshoot, take a couple of photos and then enjoy the moment? It’s something I will definitely be trying to do more this year and help return some peace to these places.
- Always, always, ask permission before taking a photo of someone. If you are going to use it for blogging or professional purposes, this should be made clear.
- Avoid taking photos of children and if you do, make sure you have the permission of the kid and their parents.
- If a place has a no photo rule: respect it.
- Consider using more general geo-tags on photos to avoid contributing to over-tourism.
- Focus more on memories rather than photoshoots, get a few good photos and then enjoy the moment.
One of the most important economic decisions we can make as travellers is to choose local. To keep destinations authentic and sustainable, there are simple choices we can make to support the local economy. Some of the biggest impact areas are: choosing local accommodation options, eating and drinking from locally-owned restaurants and cafés, and using local guides rather than international companies.
By choosing local we can support economies, give back to the communities which are hosting us, and you get to have a much more authentic experience along the way! Win-win.
- Choose local accommodation options rather than staying in chain hotels
- In parts of the world with rental crises, avoid using AirBNB which can contribute to the issue. Opt for Bed and Breakfast options, guest houses, local hotels, or couch surfing.
- If you’re looking for a guided tour, opt for companies which use local guides rather than guides brought in from other countries
- Eat at local restaurants and drink from local cafés rather than international chains
- Where you can, purchase groceries from grocers or fresh produce markets where money will go straight back to the local economy rather than chain supermarkets
READ MORE: Is Travel Just Modern Day Imperialism?
RESPECT CULTURES AND COMMUNITIES
We are travelling as guests in other countries, cultures, and communities, and as guests it is important to respect the wishes of where we visit. It’s always a good idea to read up on the customs and culture of travel destinations before arriving to make sure you pack appropriately. Things like dressing respectfully, knowing some basic phrases, researching tipping/bartering culture, and being aware of the respectful way to introduce and greet, will make the world of difference. Not only will you leave a much better impression on the places you go, but you’ll probably save yourself a lot of hassle.
And remember to be on your best behaviour. Things that are frowned upon or illegal at home are probably going to be treated the same way elsewhere. Respect the laws of the country you’re in.
- Read up on appropriate dress before visiting destinations (always pack a big scarf in case it’s needed at temples etc.)
- Learn local customs and how it is polite to behave (i.e. how to politely greet people, and things that might be considered rude which might be totally normal in your home town)
- Don’t behave in ways you wouldn’t at home!
- Respect the laws of the country you are in.
AMEND THE ITINERARY
One of the biggest issues in over-tourism is that travellers keep flocking to already saturated destinations at already saturated times of the year. Something that we can do to try and combat this problem is start amending our own itineraries. Rather than heading to places which are on everyone’s list, how about trying somewhere new? Visiting second and third cities (not the main/capital cities in a country) if looking for an urban experience, or branching out and staying in small towns and villages, can really help. Or even venturing further and travelling to a less touristed country or region entirely can make a big difference. You will probably have an even better experience as you’ll see something new and exciting, and it’ll be shared with a lot fewer people.
As another thing, I love to travel outside of peak season. Not only is this a much more pleasant experience as a traveller (less crowds and cheaper prices) but it helps to reduce the burden of mass tourism. Crowds usually swell in places during the summer time, so heading in the quieter shoulder months can be a good move.
If I’m going to preach anything in this article, it’s SPEND TIME. Jam packed itineraries are one of the leading causes of travel-related emissions and contribute hugely to mass tourism. Pick a few places and spend time in them. You will save planes, trains, and car rides, you will save money, you will save over-crowding, and I guarantee you will have a better time. Stick around, relax, and truly get to know a place. You won’t regret it.
- Mix up the itinerary by adding some smaller, lesser-known destinations amongst or instead of better known locations
- When wanting to visit a country, maybe choose a second or third city, rather than the country’s number one destination
- Travel to destinations when they aren’t in peak season, opting for shoulder season or off season instead
- Spend longer in each destination rather than moving around too much
USE PUBLIC TRANSPORT AND YOUR LEGS
Planes and transportation are massive contributors to pollution, especially when travelling. When you are on holiday try and think about your carbon footprint and what you can do to reduce it. For big journeys, see if you can do them overland rather than needing to take a flight. And for shorter journeys, where you can, use public transport or walk around a destination. Not only will you see more of a place, but you will save pollution and have a more genuine travel experience.
- Plan holidays to use minimal flights. And if you really have to fly, purchase carbon off-setting.
- Walk around destinations where you can, the exercise does you good and you see a lot more of a place!
- Try to use public transport to get from A to B. It saves pollution, reduces traffic, and you will have a much more interesting experience.
DON’T PROMOTE POVERTY AND RESEARCH BEFORE VOLUNTEERING
One of the most difficult ethical dilemmas when travelling abroad is the issue of volunteering. Although a traveller’s input is often well-intentioned, there are many volunteer opportunities that do more harm than good to the communities. It is important if you are considering volunteering that you research the project very well, dedicate a meaningful amount of time and resources, and you are doing it for the right reasons.
There is an associated issue with this which is the promotion of poverty. I’m sure you have all seen photos posted of people holding children or visiting orphanages. Objectification of people you visit on your travels, or painting entire countries with one brush, is incredibly harmful and promotes unhealthy stereotypes. Further to this, it can encourage the emergence of exploitative industries, such as in with some orphanages where children are handed over and exploited for orphanages to profit from tourism. Avoid activities such as slum tours and orphanage visits which exploit poverty.
Our actions can be more far-reaching than we might think at the time. And this is one particular area of travel where great consideration needs to be taken to avoid doing harm.
- Don’t share photos or messages online that exploit poverty or contribute to the ‘white saviour’ mentality
- Avoid ‘slum tours’ and orphanage tours. Tourism opportunities profiteering off poverty are unlikely to be beneficial to the people involved.
- Always research before undertaking volunteering opportunities. Many operations are legitimate, but there are many that do more harm than good. Look at the impact of the companies and ask yourself whether you’re taking a job away from a local who could be doing it.
READ MORE: Voluntourism: Is It Doing A World of Good?
AVOID ANIMAL TOURISM AT ALL COSTS
It’s 2019. It is baffling to still see people online (travel bloggers too!) posting photos riding elephants or taking photos with sedated tigers. We know now how damaging this kind of tourism is for the animals involved, the information is well and truly out there, and there is no reason to continue promoting it.
There are animal encounters which are obviously not okay, but there are also some which can be more difficult to distinguish. For example, it was only after spending several days in Chitwan National Park (it was called a National Park so we naïvely assumed the animals were free and protected), did we learn how poorly the elephants were treated. And in Albania, after eating lunch in a restaurant on a day tour, the tour leader took us around the back and showed us several tiny cages full of captive bears as if it was a spectacle. It was disgusting. And we were totally taken by surprise.
All I can recommend is to research, research, research. And for lack of a better phrase, assume any animal-related encounter is guilty until proven innocent. Assume the encounter is harmful until you can be 100% sure that it’s not. Use your common sense, too. Why would a tiger happily lie around being patted by hundreds of tourists? The answer probably not innocent, and it’s not because the tiger wants to.
- Any travel experience involving an animal being touched, used for close-up photos, kept in captivity, or ridden, is likely to be exploitative
- Things which may seem innocent, like horse and carriage rides, are damaging experiences too
- If you want to see animals and wildlife in the places you visit, research ethical options. There are several well-run sanctuaries and National Park experiences which are dedicated to positive animal encounters.
- Don’t feed animals that you encounter. A lot of people feed wild animals which is harmful for their health and ability to seek food in their native environment.
TAKE TIME TO ENGAGE AND CONNECT
Connecting with the people, culture and history of a place you visit will make you a better, more considerate, and more ethical traveller. It always amazes me when people travel but don’t want to know anything about the places they’re going. Ask questions, learn the history, get to know what life is truly like, and engage with the people of our world. It’s important to learn about the world around us, encourage conversation, and promote understanding.
Although Instagram portrays travel as a glossy, sun-kissed world of flowing dresses and fancy hotels, the reality is different. The places we visit are real, they are not just a backdrop for a photo shoot. Each place has history, struggles, and stories to tell, and we need to respect them as such.
If you’re doing it for the right reasons, I would really encourage visiting sites of historical significance and learning about the struggles faced by people past and present. Sometimes referred to as Dark Tourism, seeing and engaging with these sites is a significant learning experience and can make more understanding travellers.
- Take the time to read up on the history of the place you are visiting
- If you are going for the right reasons, engage with places of historical significance
- Connect with local people in the places you visit. Ask about culture, economy, politics, and life.
TRY YOUR BEST
The reason I am so passionate about sharing these tips is because I have made a lot of these mistakes myself. You’re here for the same reason I am: we love travel. And I’m sure we both want to make sure we can do it in a way where not only do we avoid having a negative impact, but we actually have a positive impact.
We’re all still learning about ethical travel and how to reduce our impact – we’re going to make some blunders along the way. But the most important thing is to keep trying. The best thing we can all do is go into travel with a positive, open mindset, and do our best to do no harm.
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