The term sustainable travel is a phrase that is being thrown around a lot these days and frankly I couldn’t be happier. I feel so passionate about sustainable travel because I truly believe that if we choose to travel in socially and environmentally responsible ways, we actually have the power to create sustainable development in under developed countries. I definitely consider myself to have won the birth place lottery – what I mean by this is that had I been born in a different country where jobs are scarce or currency is worth very little the gift of travel wouldn’t be as accessible as it is. I therefore truly believe that having the ability to see our world’s beauty is a gift and one that we shouldn’t take for granted.
So what exactly is sustainable travel, eco-tourism, or responsible travel? I like to think of it is traveling to a destination but leaving the lightest footprint. Let’s compare communities and places we visit to ecosystems. For a community to thrive there must be a delicate balance between those who live in the community, the land in which they live off of, their economy and finally their governing body. Throwing in a new element such as tourism into the mix can definitely disrupt this balance. In developing countries, this can be extremely detrimental in so many ways. Thus, I think it is important as tourists to become more conscious about the choices we make while traveling and how they affect the existing ecosystems.
Throughout my travels I can definitely say that I have made my fair share of mistakes. Like anything there are growing pains; the more experience we have under our belt and the more people we are able to learn from, the more we are better equipped to travel responsibly.
Even though this may just scratch the surface I have compiled my top 5 suggested practices for responsible travel.
- When booking your trip consider booking through a tour company that directly supports and benefits local communities and promotes sustainable practices. There are many tour companies that give back to the community and finding the perfect one only takes a little bit of research. Some even invest their profits back into education and other local causes. A few examples of tour companies that I know have great practices are both G Adventures and Intrepid.
- Support local businesses whenever possible. This usually means staying at smaller locally owned accommodations, shopping at markets instead of larger grocery chains and frequenting locally owned businesses. This not only empowers the locals, but it also opens up opportunities for you to meet more people and experience local life. There are many websites out there that make finding smaller accommodations like guest houses and bed and breakfasts quite simple. A great site that I’ve used that specializes in accommodation throughout much of Asia is Agoda.
- Respect the local traditions, customs and people. Try to remember that you are essentially a guest in someone’s home. Doing a little bit of research and understanding the culture before getting to your destination goes a long way. Being able to travel is a privilege and far too often I have seen others abuse this privilege. Even though we may have the money to get us to certain destinations or into monuments, this does not give us the right to abuse local traditions. Be respectful of people. This should be common sense but all too often I see travelers throw this out the window when they stumble upon the perfect photo opportunity. Although capturing an authentic photograph is such a great feeling no one should ever feel like they are an animal in a zoo. There is definitely a fine line when capturing photos of people. My biggest suggestion would be try to put yourself in their shoes. If you would feel uncomfortable then please refrain from putting your subject in that position.
- Do not give money to child beggars. Every time I am faced with an outstretched arm and a cute little face I can’t help but feel my heart break just a little bit. Saying no to anyone is absolutely heart wrenching but I believe that we as travelers can’t be responsible for adding to the cycle of poverty. The list is endless as to why handing out money or things like candy actually add to the problem. Children learn quickly and if begging is successful, then more and more children will take part. It has been known that desperate parents will often take their children out of school so that they can work the streets. Begging has also become a business where Begging Mafia kidnap, exploit and injure children just for that extra buck. Instead of creating that kind of dependency seek out organizations or social enterprises that directly benefit the local community.
- Leave nothing but footprints. No matter where we go, humans create waste. Try to leave as little behind as possible. Use reusable containers, shut water and electricity off when you are not using it and keep your garbage to a minimum.
As I mentioned before, these five points only scratch the surface when thinking about how we can actively participate in responsible tourism. I have read that approximately 10% of the world’s total GDP is derived from the travel industry and the number continues to grow each year. My hope is that by educating ourselves and sharing that knowledge we can minimize the detrimental economic, social and environmental impacts and instead help sustainable development while maintaining traditional cultures.
There is so much to see in this great big world of ours and I really hope that each and every one of you get a chance to travel either near or far and truly explore the beauty that is all around us.