As someone who’s lived on the road for six years, I’ve been lucky enough to explore all kinds of places and know many cultures in depth. But traveling is as unsettling and awakening as it is exciting. Beyond the façade of dazzling beaches and exotic spots lie the harsh reality faced by the host community.
As tourists, we can spend days or weeks in a place oblivious to the day-to-day struggles of locals. We indulge in food, adventure, and freedom without realizing that certain groups of people might be feeling chained to that same place. In some cases, while tourism improves the lives of locals, the damage brought upon the environment is overwhelming. It was when I started traveling better, cheaper, and longer that all the romanticism dissipated.
I’ve been an advocate of eco-tourism and sustainable travel since, and though the movement has made big strides over the years, there’s still so much work to be done. The biggest reason is that not many people are aware of what it means and how to be a responsible tourist. Allow me to offer tips on how to travel in an ethical, sustainable way.
1. Research Your Routes and Itinerary
Before you visit a foreign country, the first thing on your checklist is to do enough research about its culture and geography, its laws and its people. If you’re booking accommodations or tours ahead of time, take time to look for eco-friendly options. These include accommodations that promote eco-tourism and tour operators that are concerned about the welfare of their culture and natural heritage.
On top of organizing your itinerary, learn a few words of the local language. This will help you earn people’s respect and get around better. Keep in mind that responsible travelers learn about and immerse in the places and cultures they’ll come across with. There are many places where tourists are obliged to follow customs or even dress codes. Some countries have unusual laws that you may be alien to you. So before you hop on that plane, learn as much as you can about traditions, laws, and even health and safety risks present in the locale. Learning and following all these will make your experience much safer and more authentic.
2. Minimize Your Carbon Footprint
The growing popularity of travel means people are enjoying more financial and social freedom. However, as exciting and rewarding travel can be, it’s a big contributor to the rising global temperatures and waste problem. To counter this, tread the globe as lightly and sustainably as possible.
You can reduce your carbon emissions in a number of ways. The best place to start is transportation. When booking a flight, for instance, avoid transfers and choose direct flights. By all means, use public transportation or join group tours. Be mindful of the environment and your actions wherever you go. That means following established trails when you hike, cleaning after yourself, and skipping unnecessary activities or purchases.
While we all have our travel preferences, it pays to be aware that our options can have an impact on the environment. Likewise, one small environmentally-conscious decision can make a huge difference. You can also ask the tour operator or staff at your accommodation of choice for tips on how to travel responsibly.
3. Pack Ultralight and Reduce Waste
Many backpackers’ destinations are developing countries that suffer from waste management issues. Don’t contribute to this further. Part of traveling responsibly is generating as little waste as possible, and it starts at packing the right gear and items. Backpackers’ blogs are a good resource for the best items to bring to a specific destination. By researching and planning beforehand, you’ll avoid bringing things you don’t need or buying items you didn’t know you needed.
In many places, especially in South East Asia, restaurants and street food joints use plastic containers and utensils so they can serve as many customers as swiftly as possible. To reduce waste while eating out during your trip, pack light but reusable containers, tumblers, and cutlery. It’s not just eco-friendly, but it also gives you peace of mind knowing that you’re using clean implements. To minimize your plastic or paper waste while shopping, bring a reusable bag with you at all times.
4. Volunteer or Support Local Causes
One advantage of choosing an eco-friendly tour operator or hotel is that someone can point you to special projects that you can donate to or volunteer in. But don’t be too enthusiastic and volunteer without little knowledge of the cause. There are projects that have ethical issues, compromise the dignity of the people, and do none or little to the community. Take a step back and research your options carefully. Also, make sure that you can commit to the project you choose.
If your trip is short, a ‘voluntour’ is the ideal option. If you’re on a flexible itinerary, consider working directly with an organization so you can do more hands-on work. If volunteering is not ideal for your trip, there are other ways to support the community. One is choosing shops, tour operators, and enterprises that have an underlying social mission. Before your trip, browse websites of placement companies or organizations that have projects in your interest area. This allows you to get the nitty-gritty on the project or organization you wish to volunteer in. If possible, contact the organization beforehand and get input from other volunteers. Note that there’s nothing more wasteful and frustrating than volunteering for a project that doesn’t meet the needs of the people or place it claims to serve.
5. Think Local, Buy Local
To truly make the most of your trip is to be as authentic as possible. If you look hard enough and beyond the tourist spots, you’ll find many other places that warrant appreciation. Explore places where the locals will be, like markets, places of worship, or farms. And while you’re there, observe, listen, and communicate.
If you’re buying keepsakes for yourself and loved ones back home, opt for local handcrafted products. And try not to haggle too much. While it’s tempting to save that extra bit of cash, think about the people who might be needing that money more. The extra dollar you save could mean a meal for one family.
As travelers, we have the privilege to temporarily escape the monotony of modern life. But we can certainly do more than explore and collect experiences. Being in a new place opens up opportunities to make a difference. And it doesn’t have to be grand at all. It can be as small as being sensitive to the culture you’re immersing in or buying local products to support livelihoods.
We also have the responsibility to influence others to become responsible travelers. The more people we influence, the likelier we can inspire change. So, on your next trip, pack up these tips with you and be the best globe trekker you can be.
Bonnie is always on the road with some amazing adventures ahead. Her favorite continent is South America and she’s passionate about culture-focused traveling and ethical and sustainable tourism. During her time in university as a research assistant for a sociology professor, she realized she can’t fully understand cultures from a safe distance. She quit her job to become a full-time “voluntourist,” which brings her to places where she can immerse in local communities and support their causes. On top of writing, one of Bonnie’s priorities is offering women advice on how to stay safe while solo backpacking.