Responsible travel defined: Small decisions with a lasting impact
Responsible travel is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of sustainable, environmental, and culturally sensitive ways to practice tourism. Proponents of responsible travel argue that tourism, rather than being a source of harm, can be a tool for conservation and sustainable community development.
Responsible travel is about choices
We live in a time when air travel shrinks distances to provide unprecedented access to almost any place we want to visit. With sufficient time, energy and money, we can reach the most remote corners of the earth. But what happens to the most coveted destinations when we go there? In South America specifically, what happens when we unload by the train-full at historic sites like Machu Picchu or when we venture to the deepest Amazon or when we visit a traditional community in search of authentic culture? As conscious travelers, it is important to ask ourselves what effects we make on the local environment, the people who live there, and the economy.
For the individual, traveling responsibly is being aware of the impacts of tourism and acting to make those impacts positive when possible. It’s about choosing where to travel (or not travel); what mode of transport to take; what to pack; and where to buy, sleep, and eat. These are choices we make. When we book with a travel agency or tour operator, it’s about ensuring that their policy is to educate travelers about the local culture and the environment, to give back to the communities they work in, to fulfill and exceed minimum workplace standards in their countries, and to support sustainability projects.
Get off the big tour bus
In the long run, mass tourism is an unsustainable way to travel. Large packaged tours organize huge groups of travelers who move around in big buses, get on and off to gawk at sights, snap photos, and interact only amongst themselves. This mode of travel stretches the limits of natural resources, it dilutes authentic local traditions, and it often benefits a few big players at the expense of impacted communities.
When booking tours, it’s important to know whether the company employs local guides; people who grew up in the area can lend an insider perspective and a deeper understanding of the local culture and community.
Before you travel, take time to learn about the history of a place and bits of language. This will create a more meaningful travel experience and opportunities for connection and conversation. Pause to soak in a landscape, to ask questions, to absorb the local flavor and feel. Patronize locally-owned and operated establishments. Getting off the beaten path is not just about seeking novel experiences, it’s about making real connections to the place we visit and the people who live there.
Practical tips for responsible travel
Before your trip: read about the place you’ll visit; ask questions about local guides, group sizes, accommodations; remove product packaging and leave them at home; inquire about offsetting carbon emissions; research volunteer opportunities.
On your trip: recycle, don’t litter (even if the locals do); buy local foods; conserve water and energy; respect local culture; ask first before shooting a photo; tread on marked trails only; take local transportation whenever possible; inquire about local sustainable projects.
As conscious travelers, we can harness our love of travel to improve the places we visit for the people who live there and for the visitors. (See the Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism.)