I’ve spent almost a decade living and traveling all over the world. And, I would be lying if I said that it was all done responsibly. The fact is, it was only after years of working in tourism destinations and seeing firsthand the destructive power tourism can have that I had my wake-up call.
When I read an article that said one golf resort in a tropical country uses as much water as 60,000 villagers, or when I walked to a beach side restaurant that charges on average $15 to $20 a plate but pays their employees only $0.60 an hour, I knew that I couldn’t support an industry that took so much and gave so little.
That left me with two options: never travel again or find ways to travel where my impact was minimized and my contribution to the local community and environment was maximized. This is where responsible tourism steps in. More and more tour operators, accommodation managers and even transportation companies are working to incorporate responsible tourism practices into their operational structure, many choosing it as a core philosophy of their business plan. But, even more importantly, more and more travelers are making the effort to travel responsibly, moving responsible travel from a niche market to an industry requirement.
So how can you become a responsible traveller?
- Sleep Responsibly – Instead of staying at the hotel or hostel with the highest ranking or the cheapest price, spend a few minutes and research your top picks and check what their policy is on sustainability. Do they give back to their local community? Then, pick the one that does. That simple. There are many great party hostels that also operate responsibly, and there is no end to the amount of luxury eco-lodges combining 5-star comfort with sustainable operating practices and community development initiatives. Here are just a few examples of where to stay here in Nicaragua:
- Travel Responsibly – Responsible travel isn’t about perfection. No one expects you to do all your travelling by bicycle (though bike tours in Nicaragua are a great alternative to bus tours). But, there are ways to minimize your carbon footprint, such as traveling overland as much as possible. And when you do need to fly, pay that extra couple of dollars to offset the carbon emissions generated by those flights.
Here’s a great site that lets you calculate and offset your carbon footprint: http://www.climatecare.org/home.aspx
- Eat Responsibly – This doesn’t mean you have to go vegan. Though giving up beef reduces more carbon emissions than driving less, as an omnivore myself I can’t be hypocritical. What I mean by eat responsibly is eating locally. Dine in a local eatery, choose a restaurant that uses locally produced ingredients and buy produce at markets or from the carts on the street. Here in Nicaragua, locals and tourists alike enjoy delicious comida tipica in the comedores. These small eateries are usually attached to the owner’s home and feature gallo pinto, deliciously prepared meat and a side of salad and plaintains/tortilla/tostones for between $2.50 to 4. Eating locally saves you money and is a great way of supporting local families and farmers.
- Play Responsibly – Some experiences take a heavier toll on the environment than others. Some examples are golf courses and cruise ships holidays. When planning which activities to enjoy on your vacation, try and chose ones that have minimal negative environmental impact: biking and walking tours instead of motorcycle or car tours and local tour guides instead of foreign ones. When participating in activities involving animals make sure you know: whether or not you will be disturbing their natural habitat; how captive animals are treated and why they were captured in the first place; and avoid tours that let you pet or touch wild animals. Riding dolphins and petting turtles may seem like a great idea, but interacting with wild animals alters their behaviors and can have negative long-term impacts on their population.
- Leave no Trace – This is a philosophy developed to teach people how to behave in outdoor environments in order to minimize their negative impact. ‘Leave No Trace” is made up of 7 principals:
Not so obvious Responsible Travel Tips:
Most of what I have written in the previous section is old news to seasoned travelers. But, there are other ways to travel responsibly that you might not have thought about:
- Don’t rent a car! – Very rarely is this necessary as there are almost always public transport or even shared shuttle options that can greatly minimize your carbon footprint. They also save you the hassle of attempting to drive in a country where the rules of the road might differ slightly – or not so slightly – from your own. Of course there are some situations where you need a car to get to remote locations, but if you can avoid it, do.
- Ask before you snap – In the world of digital cameras and smartphones, we are taking and sharing more pictures than ever. You don’t need to walk around with a waiver form, but be respectful when taking people’s pictures and avoid taking pictures of private or intimate situations without asking permission. Sometimes it just takes a quick smile and a nod at your camera to turn an intrusive picture into a welcomed one.
- Check your souvenirs – Many souvenirs are made in factories in Asia, so make sure buy from local artisans. It may cost a bit more, but the quality will be worth it.
- STOP OVER BARGAINING! – I can’t stress this one enough. Don’t haggle over 50 cents when those 50 cents mean nothing to you and could buy a meal for their family. Haggling and bargaining is a part of many cultures and is expected in many places. But, maybe it’s ok that you pay a couple pennies more than a local person that earns a tenth of what you do. I’m not saying let yourself get ripped off, just don’t try to rip them off either. While bargaining may seem like a fun sport to you, it’s their livelihood.
- Don’t give money to beggars, especially children – I’ve probably given hundreds of dollars to beggars and children in my travels, because like you it breaks my heart to see. But ask yourself; is there something more I can do? Give your left over food to a street child instead so you know that money is being used to help the child. Really want to make a difference? Giving your money to a reputable charity or local organization does a lot more good and helps to address the problem behind the poverty, leading to more long-term solutions.
- Learn a little – Take the time to learn about the culture of the destination you’re visiting, try their local food, drink their local beer, learn the chorus to their biggest pop hit, learn at least a couple of words and cultural norms. It will enhance your trip and let you experience all the destination has to offer.
- R-E-S-P-E-C-T – Respect the cultural norms and practices of the destination you’re visiting (First step here is to do a little research so you know what these norms and practices are!). You are a guest in their country, and you should act accordingly. It is not them that should adjust to your culture, but you that should adjust to theirs. If there is something about the culture that you morally oppose (let’s say covering your head as a women in certain countries) remember that you chose to travel there. If you aren’t willing to at least respect their rules, maybe you shouldn’t be travelling there in the first place.
- Take only pictures, leave only footprints – Collecting shells and other natural souvenirs can cause long term damage to the environment and ecosystem of a destination. You may think you are only taking one or two, but think if all the thousands or tens of thousands of tourists to that destination only took one or two. There’d be nothing left!
- Fly Direct – I had no idea, but after some research, I learned that most of a plane’s carbon emissions are generated during take-off or landing. So you can shrink your carbon footprint by taking the most direct flight option available.
- Give Back – You’ve come home from a life-changing vacation in a destination that will remain forever close to your heart. Want to say thank you? Find a local organization or charity and give a small, or large, donation.
Remember that no one is perfect, and even I don’t travel responsibly 100% of the time. But if you try and incorporate these responsible travel practices as much as possible into your upcoming vacations, you know you are doing your part to keep this planet as beautiful as it is, and maybe even make it a bit better for the next wave of world travelers.
These are just a few responsible travel tips, but there are numerous other ways that you can travel responsibly. Have some responsible travel tips of your own? Leave me a comment and let me know what they are!