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Travel is a big part of my life. Over the years, I experienced different types of travelling (volunteering, work-related, exchange studies, vacations, etc) and I’ve gained incredible experience along the way as well as meeting amazing people and learning more about different cultures. So it’s no secret that travel is one of my top priorities when it comes to life decisions and money.
Unfortunately, not everything about travel is glamorous. Tourism as such is an ever-growing industry which continues to harm the planet and our environment daily. Overcrowded cities, polluted beaches and oceans, destruction of cultural monuments and unethical wildlife tourism are just some of the examples of negative travel impacts.
This is why it is high time more travellers become aware of their travel habits and how they affect not only our environment but local communities as well.
What is responsible travel?
Responsible travel (or responsible tourism) is a way of travelling when you are socially, culturally and environmentally aware when you travel and you understand the effect you have on the destinations you visit, and try to make that effect a positive one.
There is a lot of misconception about responsible travel and how it should look like simply because it is a very broad term which can involve lots of different issues such as unethical wildlife or conservation issues. However, it shouldn’t discourage you from adopting more responsible choices in the way you travel.
I 100% behind the statement that we don’t need all the people of the world being perfect responsible travellers or sustainability advocates (although it would be nice), all we need is all of those people trying to do the best they can to contribute. Seeking perfection is utopian and I do recognize that it’s nearly impossible but I do hope to inspire a handful of people to at least adopt a few more responsible travel choices for their future trips.
Ways You Can Become More Responsible Traveller
Over the last few years, I grew more conscious about my impact and footprint while travelling and gathered some very simple to do yet very impactful and effective ways towards more sustainable and responsible travel. Here are my top 25 ways to be a more responsible traveller.
1. Choose less visited destinations
If you’ve been to at least one of the most popular European destinations, then you definitely know that over-tourism is a real thing.
I always was aware that some cities and destinations can get quite crowded but only a few years ago I truly grasped the scale of it when visiting Venice and Italy in general. We are literally sinking cities and hurting local communities while trying to see the top landmarks and take photos of every single building that there is.
So instead of jumping on a bandwagon and visiting all the “TOP popular places you definitely need to visit”, why not do some research and find destinations that are less-visited but just as beautiful and spectacular?
Sometimes I like to google the least visited places in [Europe/Asia/country/etc] and see where I can go instead.
2. Get informed about local traditions and customs
One of the most important things you can do as a responsible traveller is to be informed and respect the local culture. One thing you can always do when visiting a foreign country is to remind yourself that you’re a guest.
You’re visiting the home of others and you should act accordingly. Know the dress code (!), understand the symbolism, know what is accepted and what is not in the place you’re visiting.
Some things that may seem completely normal may not be well accepted in the destination you’re visiting, especially if it’s rooted in old customs and religion. Just because it may seem odd for you, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong or your way of doing this is better.
The beauty of travel is all about discovering new cultures, languages, cuisines, experiencing how people live in other parts of the world. So whenever you’re visiting a new destination, always beware of things you should and shouldn’t do. It’s the matter of respect and definitely NOT the time to express what you think is the right or wrong way.
3. Shop locally
One of the things travellers forget to do is to think about where their money go when they travel.
Your shopping habits can have such a big difference in the place you’re visiting and their local economy. Some destinations such as Thailand, Indonesia, India rely on tourism to support their economy.
If you continue to shop from stores like Duty-Free or huge chains, I have some bad news for you. The money you spend go out of that country and not a dime is left to support the local economy. So, the next time you decide to buy a souvenir or something to bring home, visit small handcraft stores that are run by locals or family-owned shops.
You will not only get a unique and beautiful made souvenir, but you’ll also support the local economy by doing so. This applies to all money spending habits: restaurants, hotels, experiences, tours and so on.
4. Don’t bargain too much
Bargaining is a deeply rooted experience in the travel industry, especially in local markets. It’s okay to bargain for a fair price and I do encourage it, however, you need to be thoughtful with your bargaining.
The practice of bargaining is to find the fairest price for both parties and NOT the cheapest. The person who is selling you the product might be depending on the cost of that purchase to sustain his living.
Always look at the bigger picture and think ‘is haggling for that $1 is going to impact me in any way?’. It could mean nothing to you but so much to the seller. So the next time you bargain check in with yourself and decide whenever you’re bargaining for the right reasons.
5. Learn basic phrases in a local language
Take some time to learn (at least) a few key phrases in the language of the place you’re visiting. It’s such an easy but thoughtful gesture.
My Spanish is broken for sure, my German skills are limited to about 10 random words or phrases and my Hungarian consists only of an extensive list of produce and food names but that’s okay. You don’t have to be fluent or even intermediate in all languages, simply knowing key phrases is a good place to start.
Some of the phrases I always try to learn:
- Hello / Goodbye
- Thank you
- Sorry, I don’t understand
- Excuse me
- How are you?
If you ever in need, you can always rely on Google Translator. Plus, learning a new language and picking up new words is a fun way to interact with a new culture and their local people.
6. Reconsider giving money to beggars
This might sound a bit harsh but giving money to beggars is sometimes not the most ethical thing to do. I know it’s heart-breaking to see people on the streets begging for money.
When it comes to children begging for money, it’s a very usual practice in countries like Cambodia to send kids off to streets instead of school and make them the money bringers to the household. In some worse instances, those kids are involved in large networks who make money off kids.
Giving money to beggars doesn’t solve the issue. If you want to help that person, offer some food or help him/her find an organization or place which could help them out. Donate money or offer help to local organizations (do good research beforehand!) that help homeless and those who are in poverty.
Donating for artists and performers is a different topic, so don’t combine these two categories into one.
7. Seek to minimize your carbon footprint
Everyone and their grandma knows that climate change is an important issue and one of the ways to be more environmentally conscious is to lower your carbon footprint.
I won’t tell you to stop flying because I do believe that it is inevitable sometimes, however, you could try to minimize the number of flights you’re taking each year. If it’s possible, travel by train or bus.
Instead of using taxis and ubers, opt for public transport or even try walking (what a wild idea!). Also, if you want to explore the city and its surroundings, you can always rent a bike for a small fee. Environmentally-friendly, cheap and you get some exercise as well. I call this a win-win.
8. Offset your carbon footprint
As mentioned in the previous point, planes are inevitable part of travel industry. Unfortunately, it’s also the most popular way to travel.
If you can’t find other alternative ways to travel to the destination of your choice, don’t feel guilty or bash yourself for taking a flight. Instead, do something to compensate for your carbon emissions.
A good way to do so is to offset your footprint. The regular practice is that you calculate your emissions (loads of apps and websites for that) and donate that amount of money to a cause or organization which seek to reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere.
Like with everything, do your research. Don’t just donate to any organization because, unfortunately, there are a lot of people who try to profit from this. Websites such as Gold Standard, Carbon Footprint or Atmosfair are good places to start when looking for certified and reputable projects.
You can also sometimes offset when buying directly from airlines but not many have the option and, as with everything, I would highly suggest researching how that airline or a bus company is actually using that money to offset. If there isn’t enough information, you can always get in touch with the company and ask them directly about their practices.
Don’t donate blindly. The goal of offsetting isn’t for you to feel better about flying frequently, it’s here to first encourage you to reduce your carbon footprint (fly less) and then offset the inevitable footprint.
You can also offset all your footprint when travelling. Calculate the energy, water resources that you use and other elements and offset after each trip accordingly or monthly, if you prefer.
9. Reduce your waste
One of the bigger issues in developing countries. Although recycling and minimizing plastic consumption is becoming a vital part in more developed countries, some still aren’t as evolved in this area. That’s why it’s easy to fall back in bad habits and forget about minimizing your waste while travelling.
I’d say if you really need a kick in your butt to start minimizing your waste, visit beaches in Southeast Asia. It will be enough of a motivator for a lifetime.
Get yourself a reusable tote bag or any kind of bag that you can take with you to a shop. Say no to plastic bags and politely decline if sellers start adding your products in a plastic bag and you have a reusable one with you. It’s not an impolite thing to do.
Use a reusable water bottle and a filter if you need. Take your own cutlery with you (you don’t need a fancy bamboo set which is a greenwashing at its finest if I’m being completely honest), the metal fork or spoon will do just fine.
Bonus points if you pick litter from the ground in destinations you’re visiting and do a tiny bit to help with cleaning the place.
Don’t hold yourself back as well if you see someone littering, call them out. Silent judgement does nothing, we need action.
10. Volunteer some of your travel time but do your research
Volunteering is a great way to give back to communities and support local causes. If you have more time at hand during your trip, you can find a reputable organization or a project to support and provide your skills for good use.
You can teach English in a rural school, help as a medical worker if you have needed qualifications, help build a school if you’re handy and have skills needed. You can also just get in touch with local NGOs and ask if they need help that day with anything.
However, as with everything these days, you have to do your research. There are so-called “organizations” and “orphanages” that only profiting off volunteering and aren’t actually helping anyone. So it’s important to understand where your volunteering would do good and where it would actually do more negative than positive.
Most importantly, check your intentions when volunteering. Ask yourself if my reasons for wanting to volunteer are actually genuine? Are my skills or knowledge can actually empower and help?
Long-term volunteering is always more preferable, especially when working with children as they need stability and not a new English teacher every two weeks. Also, painting a school or “teaching” local communities westernized culture is not in any way helpful.
Volunteering should be all about empowering and helping nations to learn how to be self-sufficient. Remember that.
11. Choose guesthouses or small hotels over big chain hotels
Similarly to shopping locally, choosing locally owned guesthouses, small hotels and hostel contribute to the local economy. Big chain hotels and hostels that operate internationally usually leave a very small part of the money in the destination they are located and the majority goes to big corporations.
Long story short, support local business if you want to contribute to that country’s economy and future well-being.
Or if you’re choosing bigger chains, do your research about how they act in accordance to sustainability and responsibility to the destination.
Choosing eco-friendly and sustainable accommodation is the best thing you can do but it is not easy to come across, so this is why I would encourage you to start support accommodation owned by locals first and then slowly integrate more eco-friendly options as you go.
12. Choose sustainable tour operators
There are millions of tour companies out there but a large part of them, sadly, still choose profit over anything. This is why when choosing a tour operator, you should look into the values that they stand for and whenever they actually work according to them.
Do they actively work with local communities? Do they pay a fair wage to their workers? What kind of tours do they offer? How do they help to protect the environment?
These are all important questions to look into when deciding if the tour you want to take will be responsible travel option. It kind of baffles me how many unethical tour operators there are, especially those who specialize in wildlife tours.
13. Do your research before emerging in wildlife tourism
Wildlife tourism is probably one of the biggest businesses in the tour industry. Lots of people dream about visiting exotic nations and taking photos with tigers, monkeys, swimming with dolphins or even riding elephants. But most of the time those activities do more harm to the animals than good.
If you want to actually see those animals in their true beauty (and well-being!), contact reputable NGOs to gain information about their practices and only then do visit such “sanctuaries”, and always make sure that you aren’t causing distress to animals by taking photos or even touching them.
The best thing is obviously to see animals in their natural habitat, freedom, such as Borneo’s jungle, African Savannah and so on. Of course, just be mindful and watch them from a safe distance without disturbing the animals.
14. Eat in local restaurants, cafes
Another good way to contribute to local economy is to eat locally.
How many of us are guilty of visiting a new destination and still sticking to eat at McDonald’s, Pizza Hut or any other international food chain?
I know, I have because I know what it’s like to sometimes crave that familiarity in a completely unknown land. For this reason, I do think it’s okay if you have one meal or so from a familiar place in times of need, however, it shouldn’t become a habit.
As with any other big chain, food chain take money away from the destination and leave very little to its local economy.
Plus, you simply aren’t experiencing the destination to its fullest if you aren’t tasting their local cuisine. Trust me, the best way to learn about a destination is to taste their food. I don’t mean restaurants, I mean real, authentic meals that locals eat and enjoy almost every day.
15. Leave no trace
This is a sacred code of all outdoors travellers. What it means is very simple: wherever you go, when you leave there should be no physical trace that you have ever been there.
This means, don’t carve your name into anything (trees included!). Don’t litter. Don’t leave love locks or any other kind of “sentimental reminders” in nature.
The only thing you’re allowed to leave behind is footprints. But even those should be according to the local rules, meaning don’t go off the path if it’s not allowed, don’t trespass and most certainly don’t damage anything while going by.
If you want to learn more about this code, a good resource is Leave No Trace program which focuses on sustainable outdoor tourism.
16. Walk or use public transport as much as possible
This is the easiest way to become more responsible while travelling. Always choose to walk if it’s possible. You definitely don’t need to hop on a bus or train for one or two stops, trust me. Your body is more than able to carry you those few stops.
If you want to reach something a bit further away and walking or bicycling is not an option, always choose public transport first. It’s not only helping the local economy but it’s also more environmentally friendly than ubering or taking a taxi.
When I travel, I spend the majority of my time exploring the place on foot which sometimes means that I walk 15-20 km daily. It’s not that hard, trust me. If you aren’t able to do so for any reasons (health, physical, etc), walk as much as YOU can and then choose public transport.
Public transport isn’t as scary as some might think, especially in more advanced countries. If you ever find yourself a bit confused by something or unsure, you can always ask locals or use your Google Translator / Maps.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t get lost while using public transport. I think I always get lost at least once during a trip but I view it as a challenge and a new lesson rather than an inconvenience. You might be surprised how much you can discover and see when you get lost or spend time walking around unknown streets.
17. Think before taking a photograph
I love taking photos when travelling, it’s such a wonderful way to capture moments and keep them as a reminder of your adventures. However, it is important to remember photography etiquette even abroad (yes, such thing exists!).
Being a responsible traveller means thinking before snapping a quick photo. Did I get the consent of that person? Would I be comfortable if such photo would be taken of me? Would I take such photo back in my home country? Is this photo culturally and ethically right?
All these questions should be asked. The biggest mistake people do when travelling is assuming that they can just come to a local market or see a street artist and just snap a photo of them for their social media before asking for that person’s permission.
Always engage with the person you want to photograph and ALWAYS ask if they are comfortable being photographed. I’m sure you wouldn’t be pleased to see someone randomly taking photos of you while you walk down the street, so why do we assume that it’s okay to do so in a foreign country?
18. Engage and have a conversation with locals
If you truly want to experience a destination and learn about the culture, don’t only trust Google. Go and talk with locals.
Ask about their traditions, about their struggles, about their most joyous life moments and about their daily life. Engage with them on different topics and open up your viewpoint even more.
You will always learn something interesting, inspiring or even heartbreaking and that’s part of travel.
The only thing you shouldn’t do is judge or start a shouting match over who’s culture is better or more “right”. You are not travelling to teach others your way, you should be travelling to learn how many different ways there out there.
19. Practice slow travel
Slow travel means that you visit fewer places but you visit them better, meaning that you immerse yourself into the rhythm of that place and go with the flow instead of trying to see everything there is without truly admiring it.
I only came across slow travel a year or so ago. I always was one of those travellers who wanted to do more, to see more and to get as much as possible from a trip.
Now I do see how that could be viewed as damaging and less environmentally friendly as stuffing so much into one trip adds up to carbon footprint and deprives a person of truly engaging with the destination they are visiting.
While for now, I can’t call myself a slow traveller, I do try to slow down more with each trip I take. This is what I would encourage you too. Take more time to explore each place, let yourself be emerged in that culture and everyday life before hopping on to the next destination.
20. Do not feed wildlife
Human food is not made for wild animals, if anything it could be very damaging for them and even cause some serious health issues.
Also, feeding animals by hand makes them lose their natural fear of people which could lead to wild animals posing as a threat to people and to themselves as well. What is more, it could lead to increased risk of various diseases which we all know by now how harmful they can be, given the recent situation.
There are so many reasons why you shouldn’t feed wild animals and you definitely should take some time to read more about the risks, so the next time you travel you can be a more responsible traveller.
21. Don’t take “souvenirs”
It might be tempting to take that one rock or sea shell and bring it back home as a souvenir but is it really something you need?
In most instances, it is even illegal to take anything home from nature, especially in natural reservoirs and closely protected areas. But for some reasons, people still tend to overlook millions of signs and take what’s not theirs.
If you want to be a responsible traveller and take something with you, take all the plastic and rubbish that you find or come across while hiking, walking down the beach or exploring a natural reservoir.
22. Say no to plastic straws
I am not even going to talk much about this one. I feel like everyone by now knows how harmful straws are for marine life.
It’s definitely not the only thing you should do but it’s a good place to start.
When ordering a cocktail, ask for no straw if it’s a plastic one or bring your own reusable one. In some instances we don’t even need a straw to drink a specific drink, we only do it because of habit.
23. Be polite
Just be polite and a good person, in general.
It is not hard to smile, respond to questions politely and be patient with people. Even if those people are trying to sell you things you don’t need. Treat people with kindness no matter what and you’ll be surprised how easy life becomes.
Whining, complaining, constantly looking for conflict or even being negative about every little inconvenience is such a slippery slope. Instead do as you would like others to treat you.
If you constantly look for bad things and surround yourself with negative energy, you might as well stay home because you will only be ruining your own travel experience with that attitude.
24. Promote destinations and share stories
Being a responsible traveller doesn’t end with your trip. If you came across an authentic and sustainable experience, tour, accommodation, business or whatever, let others know.
Share your travel experience with your friends and family, don’t hold it to yourself. Share stories that you found inspiring or thought-provoking and have an important conversation with others back home.
Promoting less-visited destinations and local businesses is a good way to say thank you and show your gratitude. If more people spoke about all those different experiences, it could contribute to a reduction of over-tourism in certain destinations and would improve so many economies that rely on tourism.
25. Spread the word about responsible travel
Last but not the least, if you practice responsible or sustainable travel, spread the word about it.
Show people how easy it can be and where to find the resources needed. Have conversations about it. Challenge perspectives of others. In a friendly way, of course.
By no means appear hostile or even angry when conversing because it won’t do any good. Simply help people understand and transition towards more responsible travel choices over time.
If you ever need, you can even send this article to your friends or family to show how easy it is to be responsible while travelling.
Everyone can be a responsible traveller
If being responsible traveller doesn’t come naturally to you and you feel very much overwhelmed with all this information and different ways to be responsible while travelling, I want to tell you one thing.
Everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, can be a responsible traveller no matter your financial, physical, mental or any other situation.
Simply reflect on how you travel and whenever everything you do while travelling is completely ethical and responsible.
If you’re new to responsible and sustainable travel, take it slow. Don’t overwhelm yourself with all the information at once. I am still on the road to a completely sustainable way of travelling and that’s okay.
I don’t always choose the most sustainable accommodation and I do fly quite frequently sometimes because I have no other choice based on my personal situation. We might do better in one area and might do a bit less good in another and that’s okay.
It’s all about learning and evolving as we go. So if you decide to adopt at least a few of these choices in your travel life, I would be more than happy and proud of you.
If you practice responsible travel, what more can I add to the list? Let me know, so I could update it as I go.