What is responsible travel?
Responsible travel was formally defined in 2002 at a World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Cape Town. It can be simply described as:
Travelling with an awareness that we, as travellers, have an effect on the people and places that we visit.
To put it succinctly– responsible travel is respectful travel. Respecting the people, the place, the culture, the customs and everything else.
But how do we do that without making things complicated?
I’ve written before on the topic of sharing your stories responsibly. However, in this post I want to discuss behaving responsibly. This isn’t a post focused on particularly on ethics, sustainability or human rights but rather, goes back to the fundamentals of basic etiquette.
‘I know how to behave myself… why do I need to read this post?’, is what you are probably thinking.
But we live in an age where most people are consuming their travel information from other travellers- bloggers, influencers etc. What I have noticed is that those other travellers- the ones who are reaching the largest audiences- seem to disregard all common sense when travelling. Basic etiquette flies out the plane window. Sadly, no one holds those people accountable for lack of responsible travel or their damaging actions.
I’m not here to name and shame.
But I would like you to hold YOURSELF accountable for your actions when you travel which is why I have written this list. I hold myself accountable for the things I do and the way I behave when I travel as well. Just because you may see your favourite influencer doing something, doesn’t make it right. Responsible tourism is about being aware of YOUR impact and what effect your behaviour can have. With the help of Totoro, lets look at a few ways to travel responsibly.
Let’s go back to the absolute basics about responsible travel…
Pre-departure, learn about the culture
Have an idea about the place you’re going to visit so you don’t end up looking like an ignorant fool. In this way you also have an idea of what to expect. Learning how to say hello and thank you in the local language is always a plus as well as educating yourself about the local customs in a place so you don’t cause offense to anyone.
This, to me, seems like the most basic thing to have to say but it seems that people just do not have a clue about the place before they go there. They will spend hours looking up, “The most instagrammable places in Oman” but will have no idea that they shouldn’t wear a thong to swim in while they’re there.
Follow the rules & obey the signs
Influencers have recently come under fire for flagrantly disregarding the rules and signs of places by climbing onto the roofs of peoples’ homes, flying their drones near wildlife and bribing people into bending the rules for them. All of this happens so that they can get a magical picture/video. Are you so eager to see people post photos that it doesn’t matter at what cost these photos are taken?
Signs and rules are in place for reason and aid responsible travel. Maybe they are to prevent tourists from getting hurt at potentially dangerous sites or to preserve the structural integrity of others. Its not pioneering when you decide to break the rules, just dumb. Following the rules also involves respecting gender segregation, wearing appropriate clothing, removing shoes at religious sites and any other principles that a country may wish to enforce. You’d like people to abide by your rules when they come to your home so why not abide by their rules when you’re in their home country?
Try to pump as much money into the economy of the place you’re visiting
Tourism helps a country if the money is spent supporting the people of its country. So instead of booking your tour operator through some internet company that is ‘cheap’ or a big agency who is going to get the majority of your money, why not just go straight to a 100% locally owned company?
I personally try not to book anything until I have landed at my destination. This way I know that the money will go straight to the locals. In Kenya, I did pre-book the safari portion of my trip but went with a locally owned company, guide and driver. No middle man costs and the money went straight into supporting their family and running their business.
Besides that, eat local food at the small restaurants, buy artwork straight from the artist at the markets and generally try to spend your money in a way that will benefit the people of the country. Eating at Burger King or buying your clothes at the local H & M isn’t supporting the country’s economy.
Leave it as you visited it
Again, I want to say that this such a fundamental thing that it doesn’t need to be said but my travels have led me to see otherwise so people:
Don’t litter! Put your trash back in your bag and wait to dispose of it properly!
Don’t pick flowers, break branches, pick up marine life, break coral, vandalize property or any other act which changes the nature of the place that you’re visiting. These are basic factors of responsible travel.
Again, you wouldn’t like if someone threw their waste on the floor of your home or picked all your flowers from your garden when they came to visit. So why do that when you visit somewhere else?
Ask for permission
For some reason, everybody wants to be some kind of National Geographic photo journalist and I see people sticking their camera lenses anywhere they can in order to take photos of people.
I have seen photos on Instagram where the subject in the photo looks upset and the person snapped and published it anyway.
While I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to take photos of the locals, I would make sure that they are ok with their photos being taken first. I personally don’t think that having consent is less important than having a ‘natural’ shot.
Asking for consent shows respect.
Don’t take photos of children without their parents’ consent. As a teacher this is constantly drilled into our brains about how parental permission is needed for everything so I understand how important it is. When you do that, so you actually realise what you’re doing?
You are taking a photo of a random child away from their parents and putting it on the internet.
And no, its not ok if you offer sweets or money in exchange for a photo. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this leads to begging and early school leaving.
Always ask yourself, would you take this photo if it was a child/person in your home country? I bet you wouldn’t so why do it here?
Here is a detailed post about How To Take Portraits Ethically.
Be mindful of your reaction
I have been in situations with other travellers where the locals were explain local customs and people burst out laughing. The guide looked a bit surprised and sheepish but smiled along.
Why would you want to make people feel uncomfortable about the way they live?
It doesn’t matter if its strange to you, its their way and it should be respected. Often I find that people from white, western countries have this ‘Our way is better attitude’ when traveling abroad. Why travel if that’s your attitude? If your country and lifestyle is perfect then there should be no need to travel?
There’s a show on Netflix called Travels With My Father which follows a British comedian and his dad as they travel around South East Asia together. I watched 20 minutes of the 1stepisode and switched it off. If you want a guide on how to be a pompous & disrespectful imbecile when travelling, definitely watch it.
To me, these few points are the very basic tenets of etiquette that travellers should be observing. No number of Instagram likes is worth risking jail time for. So let’s stop making our travel companions, wild animals and fellow tourists suffer as we seek to capture the perfect photo.
I certainly won’t stop Instagramming my own travels, and I wouldn’t suggest anyone else does either, but I’m determined to maintain some perspective and keep my own behaviour in check.
To me, being a responsible travel isn’t just about reducing the plastic you use and recycling (although those are important too). It’s also about being aware, using sense and purpose to make inform decisions that will affect the people around you in a constructive way.
This list isn’t comprehensive- far from it in fact. There are a lot more ways to be a responsible traveller like visiting destinations with tourism management plans and investigating wildlife interaction practices which can all seem overwhelming at first.
But just be patient, think first, and stay respectful—the rest will come with time. For a more comprehensive list that covers topics I don’t feel knowledgable enough to comment on, check out this post by the Wandering Redhead.
What do you think… are these points ones that you adhere to when traveling? What other basic rules should we add to this list? Let me know in the comments below!