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As one of the largest industries in the world, tourism is only growing bigger and will continue to boom as we enter the new decade. Many frequent travelers are quick to share the benefits travel has on the mind, body, and soul, but through all the broadening of world views; experiencing new cultures; and excitement, rejuvenation, or relaxation we gain from traveling, do we stop to think about ethical tourism, sustainability, and the effects travel has on the very planet that is blessing us with all its beauty and opportunities for exploration?
Many fail to realize that whether by car, boat, train or plane especially, traveling is negatively impacting our planet as one of the biggest generators of carbon emissions. But the damage doesn’t end there– being a responsible traveler is not only about environmental consciousness. Local communities are also feeling the effects of over-tourism which is leading to the destruction and displacement of indigenous people and animals.
So what can we as travelers do to both reduce our environmental footprint while positively impacting local culture? These 20 tips will help you be a more conscious, responsible, and sustainable traveler. Just remember: it’s not about being perfect, but about making better choices, being culturally sensitive, and doing our best to minimize the negative economic, environmental, and social impacts travel has on the earth and local communities.
How to be a Responsible Traveler: 20 Tips for Sustainable and Ethical Tourism
1. Pick eco-friendly and socially responsible tour companies.
Our oceans are the single most natural environment that is taking the hardest hit from the absorption of heat created by carbon emissions and human neglect. Sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting, sea creatures are being killed by small plastic particles, and literal trash islands are compiling out in the water. Sadly, our beautiful coral reefs are also suffering the most.
Carbon absorption has increased the acidity of our oceans inhibiting coral’s ability to thrive and survive. Not only is this ominous for future of marine diversity (that we get to enjoy via snorkeling and diving) but without healthy reefs to act as a buffer between shorelines and storms, as the climate crisis continues, the coral will no longer be able to protect coastal communities from frequent and more powerful storms.
The best way to enjoy the beautiful underwater eco-system while traveling is by making sure the snorkeling, diving, or boat tours you take have good marine-conservation practices, especially around coral reef preservation. On an ocean tour of any kind, be mindful not to touch or feed anything, and do not take anything natural out of the water such as coral, shells, or starfish for a photo, souvenir, or otherwise.
Be especially aware of tour companies that feed chum to sharks on swimming with shark tours, or tours where you can “pet” stingrays. For any type of tour–involving the ocean or not–read reviews and do your own research on tour companies to ensure the one you are booking with is responsible.
2. Make the “green choice” at hotels.
Many hotels offer green choice programs where visitors can opt-out of having their sheets and towels replaced daily. Replacing towels and bedding only when absolutely necessary is a great way to help hotels with their conservation efforts.
Other ways to make green choices at hotels include turning the lights off and unplugging electronics when not in use, not leaving the water running, taking shorter showers, and shutting the a/c off when you leave your room.
3. Stay in eco-friendly accommodations.
If you want to take it one step further, consider staying at certified eco-friendly hotels resorts, and eco-lodges who are green-certified by organizations such as Green Seal, Green Globe, Green Key, Earth Check, LEEDS and STEP.
Expedia.com’s “Green Hotel Program” offers thousands of green properties around the world, making it easy to search for eco-friendly accommodations in any destination. As one of the largest travel brands in the world, Expedia makes it so easy to find the top-rated green hotels in any destination.
The top 3 most eco-friendly travel destinations in my experience have been Bali, Costa Rica, and Tulum, Mexico. There are no shortages of eco-friendly hotels in these places ranging from very affordable to ultra-luxurious.
4. Shop Locally.
Skip the malls and megastores and shop locally from villages, street markets, and farmers’ markets to better support the local economy. Instead of purchasing mass-produced souvenirs such as magnets and shot glasses that were not even manufactured in the country that is selling them, buy hand-made crafts, clothes, and jewelry to take home as gifts and souvenirs instead.
5. Cut back on travel-size plastic containers.
Bring your own refillable toiletry products to minimize the use of the small one-time-use bathroom products provided by hotels. You can even consider traveling with your own solid shampoo, conditioner, and lotion bars to eliminate the use of plastic toiletries entirely.
To further your efforts, you can also collect any unused mini shampoo and soap bottles to bring back home with you and donate them to local shelters who are always in need of hygiene product donations.
6. Donate to local communities in need.
Take part in programs such as Pack With a Purpose, a non-profit that partners with hotels and tour companies to help travelers donate school and medical supplies brought with them on trips. Utilize unused suitcase space to pack things like pencils, deflated soccer balls, bandaids, and pet supplies which can then be dropped off at a partnering hotel or tour company.
Another way to give back is by packing and wearing clothes that you will donate to communities and people who need them at the end of your trip. Not only will your bag be lighter, but you’ll have more space to buy new clothes and souvenirs from locals to take home with you, too.
7. Contribute to carbon offset programs.
Every time you fly, consider making a donation to a carbon offset program such as one that plants trees, puts up wind turbines, or creates cleaner cooking stoves in countries that need them. There are many organizations that are committed to carbon offset, and finding the one that resonates with you most is as simple as a Google search.
Expedia.com’s carbon offset program in partnership with TerraPass offers bundles based on distance flown to donate to clean energy and carbon offset programs. You can add TerraPass to your flight by using the “Travel Accessories” section on the trip customization page.
8. Don’t engage with unethical animal tourism.
Riding an elephant or taking a photo with a Tiger in Thailand may seem like a good idea because of how common these attractions are, however, the exploitation of animals for tourism is wildly unethical. Elephants, who have delicate spines are beaten into submission to be domesticated enough for people to ride them; and tigers are drugged and sedated for tourists to be able to pet and play with them.
If you’d really like to spend time with animals on your trip, find a legitimate animal sanctuary or rehabilitation center. Just make sure to do plenty of research on the organization as many centers will pose as ethical rehabs only to chain up and mistreat the animals in private. In Thailand especially, if the elephant sanctuary allows riding, even without a saddle, it is unethical.
Other common unethical animal tourism traps to be aware of are zoos, swimming with dolphins, and animal performances to name a few. Remember: wild animals belong in the wild.
9. Get involved in “voluntourism.”
There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer while traveling whether you want to spend a couple hours, a day, or even go on a full-on volunteer trip. There are trips dedicated to serving local communities, building schools or houses, or volunteering with animals such as at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. Just make sure to research before deciding on an organization you wish to volunteer with to make sure it is ethical. (Yes, even “non-profits” can be extremely unethical.)
Voluntourism should not be about white saviors coming in and “fixing” a place, but rather, the best volunteering organizations are ones that empower local communities to grow and thrive from within, and maintain their dignity while utilizing volunteer skillsets to help achieve their goal. Having the right intentions and giving back while traveling no matter how much or how little will not only help the places you visit, but will give a greater purpose to your travels.
10. Walk, bike, and take public transportation.
Venturing by foot is the best way to explore a new place and the added benefit of exercise will contribute to your overall health and wellbeing on the trip. Walking or biking whenever you can while traveling will help reduce carbon emissions from vehicles. Many hotels offer bike rentals and more cities are implementing bike-share programs on the street.
When walking or biking is not an option, using public transportation will help reduce the number of vehicles on the road thus reducing carbon emission, and will also help you save money. If you do want to rent a car, consider an electric vehicle whenever available. Many hotels around the world now offer electric vehicle charging.
11. Don’t give money to beggars, children, or animal handlers.
It may feel as though you are helping someone in need when handing off money to a beggar and his pet monkey/elephant in Thailand; the snake charmer in Morocco; a small child, woman, or anyone else asking for money on the street, but you must remember the element of exploitation that is often involved with putting children, animals, and women on the street to beg. Giving money in this manner encourages parents to keep their children out of school, perpetuates abuse and neglect of animals, and encourages more of this behavior.
If you’d like to be charitable toward the country you are visiting, the most helpful thing to do is search for a reputable local organization online or visit a local school, religious site, or nonprofit to make your contribution.
12. Use environmentally-friendly sunscreen and bug spray.
Sunscreen and bug sprays are the two products that tourists use which cause the greatest damage to our ecosystems. Reef-safe sunscreen while swimming in the ocean is a must to protect the natural environment from dying off. Certain sunscreens contain harmful chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate which cause damage to coral reefs. Read the label to make sure your sunscreen doesn’t contain those two harmful ingredients.
In hot and humid places especially, mosquitos which often carry diseases are a big problem. When visiting protected jungles and forests such as in the case of Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica, using a non-toxic bug spray is imperative to the well-being of the animals.
13. Leave no trace.
We all know that littering can severely negatively impact the natural environment. Whether you are on the beach, hiking in the mountains, or in the city, absolutely do not leave any trash or anything else behind. If you do not see a garbage bin, collect your trash to dispose of it later.
When hiking or trekking without access to toilets, do not leave any tissue around and do not “go” near any streams or rivers, lakes, at least 50 meters away, as people will often drink from these water sources. Do not carve your name or otherwise deface or vandalize anything. You also don’t want to get too close or disturb any wildlife.
Lastly, keep on the path and be mindful not to step on, trample, or pick the flora and fauna. Stay out of closed off or “do not enter” areas and follow the rules if for nothing else but your own safety. Most importantly, leave every place you visit better than when you arrived. This is how we will ensure these beautiful natural landscapes will be able to be enjoyed by others for years to come.
14. Bring a reusable water bottle with you.
Having a reusable water bottle on hand will reduce the need to buy plastic water bottles, which is especially helpful if traveling to a destination where strong recycling programs are lacking. Even in destinations where tap water is not safe for drinking, many hotels will have systems for clean drinking water which you can use to refill your bottle.
If you want to bring your own filtration device, consider investing in something like the LifeStraw or SteriPen. When purchasing other beverages such as a cocktail or iced coffee, try to say no to straws, unless they are environmentally-friendly in some way, such as in the case of paper, bamboo, metal, or glass.
15. Don’t over-bargain.
In places like the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia, bargaining is a big part of the culture and to be expected whether it’s negotiating over food, transportation, or goods and services. Sometimes businesses and vendors will charge astronomical “tourist prices” which can seem unfair, but other times the price you are trying to haggle for is the difference of no more than fifty cents or a dollar.
In developing countries especially, many local’s lives depend on making their livable income through selling goods, services, and food to tourists; so while that extra dollar two might not put a huge dent in your pocket, it can make all the difference to a local running their business.
16. Travel off the beaten path and choose less popular destinations.
Because of social media, there has been a rise in popularity for certain destinations that may not have the infrastructure to handle the number of tourists who visit. Increases in tourism also leads to higher costs for rent, food, and goods, which puts an economic strain on local communities.
The once-pristine and untouched destinations are quickly feeling the effects of over-tourism such as in the case of the increasingly popular Maya Bay in Thailand and Boracay island in the Phillippines, which were both forced to close to combat the negative impact.
Instead of the overpopulated locales such as these islands in Asia, opt for somewhere more off the beaten path, like one of these equally beautiful top 10 hidden gems in the Caribbean found in Expedia’s 2020 Travel Trends Report. If you’re based in the U.S., you’ll also have the added benefit of these islands being much closer and therefore requiring less plane time, which will reduce the amount of carbon emissions you’re contributing to the planet significantly.
If you do wish to go to very popular destinations or sites such as Machu Picchu in Peru or the Taj Mahal in India for example, consider Googling if the destination has a tourist management plan in place, or consider visiting during the off-season when it is much less crowded.
17. Seek out authentic experiences.
Skip activities like bus tours, theme parks, and generic guided tours and opt for a locally authentic experience such as a cooking class, art class, music class, or language class. If an area is known for a certain crop such as coffee or chocolate, consider going on a plantation tour. Anything you can do to interact with locals and learn about their heritage and/or daily life is a great way to culturally immerse yourself and connect to the people and surroundings.
To take it a step further, do as the locals do and live as the locals live in culturally enriching activities such as spending a night at a desert camp with Berbers in Morocco, or taking a Thai cooking class where you visit the street market with your local instructor to source your ingredients. Find tours that are locally-owned and operated, such as TakeMeTour in Asia, who sets up travelers with a local guide to have one-on-one cultural experiences with. Experiences like these could very well make for some of your favorite travel memories.
18. Make conscious dining choices.
Staying in hotels while traveling often forces us to eat out more often than we would at home. Choosing to eat locally, farm-to-table, vegan, raw, or from establishments that use ingredients that are organic (which uses fewer fossil fuels) and sustainable (such as in the case of seafood), as well as cutting back on red meat (which is a huge contributor to greenhouse gasses) are all small and simple steps we can take toward helping the planet while traveling.
Skip the large chain establishments that cater only to tourists and dine at a local mom and pop restaurant or street food stalls. Places like these usually have the best food and help support the local economy. A good bet is to choose establishments that have many locals dining there, or a mix of locals and tourists, as opposed to solely tourists. If you’re on the go and just want a snack, skip the convenience stores and go for something like fresh-cut fruit or pastries from a street vendor instead.
19. Be mindful about your selfies and photos of others.
Photos make great memories, but we must remember to be respectful of people and the places we visit. Do not take anyone’s photo without their permission and don’t take photos to exploit people, children, or cultures.
If someone is kind enough to let you take a photo of them while they’re working, compensate them with a tip. There are some cultures, such as people of India, who often enjoy having their photos taken, while in comparison, in Latin America, there are native tribes that believe being photographed steals their soul.
Do not take photos where prohibited or in places where it would be inappropriate, such as the dreadful mistake some tourists are infamously known to make when visiting concentration camps in Europe.
Remember that just because the religion or culture does not belong to you, you must still respect it. Do not pose inappropriately at religious or sacred sites, or photograph people while they are worshipping without their consent.
Lastly, do not take selfies in dangerous situations or put yourself in harm’s way for a photo. You may be safe doing it, but the person who sees your photo and tries to replicate it next may not be as lucky.
20. Learn about the local culture.
Researching the local culture of the destination you are traveling to before you arrive will help you be a more respectful traveler and reduce the risk of doing something offensive. Learning the local customs such as what is appropriate to wear/not to wear, when to remove your shoes, how to communicate, when photography is or isn’t ok, how to dress or behave at sacred and religious sites, and even the customs around negotiating (in countries that have bargaining practices) will all help you be a more socially responsible and respectful tourist.
Even learning how to say hello, goodbye, and thank you in the local language can go a long way. Most importantly, however, remember to be tolerant and open to customs, laws, or values that seem strange or are different from yours, and participate in new experiences with an open mind.
With all the damage we as travelers have caused, there are also many benefits to being such a mobile world. Many countries thrive off tourism as it provides economic resources and creates jobs for people in developing nations. Social justice traveling and voluntourism help with the development and prosperity of nations in need. Traveling also helps make the world a more tolerant place as we learn how people around the globe are more alike than different. On a planet that brings us so much beauty and joy, it is our responsibility to be responsible, conscious travelers and take care of it. Thanks to one-stop sites like Expedia.com, I’m able to better plan my responsible travel by picking responsible destinations, booking green hotels, and finding eco-tours, all while easily engaging in carbon offset, too when booking my flights.
A large part of sustainable and responsible tourism is simply being aware of the impact we leave. There are many ways to take part in responsible travel, and by implementing even just a few of these tips at a time, we can continue to enjoy traveling and ensure its benefits and longevity for years to come.