What is responsible travel?

Imma try not to lecture you all now, but these are things worth considering and being aware of when you travel. So here goes.

Responsible travel is about the attitude you take and the choices you make when travelling – to respect local people, their cultures, economy and the environment, and act wherever possible in a way that will benefit the local community you are visiting. It’s the least you can do in return for the amazing experience you are having while you’re there right? This might be by using public transport, staying in locally owned hotels and eating at locally owned restaurants so that the money you spend goes back to the people you meet. You can also support local artisans by buying your souvenirs from them. You should think of the environment – even in small ways like not buying multiple plastic bottles of water while travelling. And of course try to be culturally sensitive and avoid supporting practices that exploit the vulnerable.

Some ideas and things to be mindful of:

  • Drink tap water (when safe) rather than buying plastic bottles that contribute to waste. If the tap water is not safe to drink you can take your own refillable flask and use water purification tablets or buy an ultraviolet purifier – there are several options on the market. It’s especially important in developing countries to be mindful of the waste you leave behind, as they often do not have the benefit of good waste management and recycling systems in place.
  • Avoid car hire and private charter buses – use public transport where possible and share rides with others.
  • Unfamiliar customs can be confusing and sometimes frustrating, but try to always be polite and respectful. Try learning a few words of the local language – even just hello and thank you can make a huge difference.
  • Enjoy haggling and bartering if it’s acceptable, but keep perspective about paying a fair price to the seller.
  • Do some research about local customs. Be prepared to cover your head or remove your shoes if asked. I find it useful to carry a sarong to cover my head and shoulders (or to shelter from the sun if you’re caught out)
  • Don’t take photos of strangers without asking their permission! Even if you don’t speak the same language, they’ll usually understand if you hold up your camera and smile while asking.
  • It can be hard to see beggars, especially children, on the streets. Unfortunately giving them money or sweets, while understandable, is not the best reaction to have. If you want to help, look at supporting a local school or development project – again, a little  bit of research might be required (if you are travelling in a tour group your tour leader can often advise an appropriate way to help)

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You could try volunteering when you travel: ‘voluntourism’!

Ecotourism

Responsible travel and ecotourism go in hand in hand. Ecotourism is about sourcing and support responsible tourism companies that take care of the land – for example by not overdeveloping land or extracting resources that can’t be renewed. The aim is to put back as much or more than you take.

This raises the carbon footprint debate, which I struggle with sometimes. I love to travel, but air travel is a huge part of that, and it has a terrible impact on the environment. At the same time, can you imagine a world where nobody travelled, they just stayed on their own patch and didn’t mingle with other cultures, experience different countries and make friendships that spanned the globe? Travel can be a force for good.

My personal solution is to fly only when there is no other viable option, and to ensure that I give back where I can. Spend those couple extra dollars towards your carbon footprint when you see the option (although don’t let this be your licence to then fly the same amount or more). Support local communities and development projects.

At the end of the day, I think you need to read up on the issues and make up your own mind about what you are comfortable with.

Ethical travel

This confuses me, I’m not gonna lie. The arguments for and against ‘ethical travel’ just go round and around. I travelled to Myanmar in 2013 when I was told it was no longer taboo. But was it helpful to the people of Myanmar (or Burma – I’m still not sure what to call it!) that the world stayed away for all those years? They all seemed quite pleased to see their country opened up to foreigners and their tourist dollars.

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Bagan, Myanmar – notice knees and shoulders are covered as I’m in a temple.

 

There are so many things to think of and everyone has their opinion and reasoning. Sometimes I pretend I am a doctor and live by the motto ‘first, do no harm’. That’s a pretty straight forward principle to live by. Think before you act, consider others and the world around you, and do your best to show kindness. After all, you are there having a lovely holiday from your life. The people serving you in that restaurant or guest house may not ever be so lucky.

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