When pitched along the idea of traveling — which should invoke images of being carefree, fun, and spontaneous, responsibility seems like such a vulgar word. It certain brings thoughts of stress, rigidity and rules. But responsible travel is not stressful if done right.
Au contraire, traveling responsibly leads a more authentic, and in many cases a more fulfilling experience. Responsible traveling at its core boils down to this: don't be ignorant. I know this sounds harsh but how many times have you been to another country, only to see your fellow countrymen act obnoxiously? It's embarrassing to see people who have no care for the local culture and faux pas, then go ahead to leech off the community they're guests to.
Doesn't responsible travel cost more?
Responsible travel is not a type of travel. It does not automatically equate to spending more money to be “green” or “eco” when you travel. Traveling responsibly is a good goal for all travelers (and tourists) seeking to fully enjoy what their destination has to offer. Your budget, destination or interests should not affect your ability to travel responsibly.
Being a responsible traveler simply means taking the time to immerse yourself in the local culture, and appreciating what you paid good money to experience in the first place. It means making conscious choices to not harm the community, and to leave a positive impact where possible.
Wouldn't it be nice to give back to the locals who welcome you into their homes? Your simple act of showing respect for their culture, and not exploiting them brings you so much gain! You earn goodwill, have a more authentic experience, and maybe even make some new local friends.
How tourism impacts the local community
Essentially there are three areas which tourism tends to affect the most. The local community (people), the environment, and the wildlife.
The community / people
Ads tend to paint a misleading picture of tourism. Tell me the last time that you've seen a travel ad that shows big hotel chains buying up land to build their next resort, buying out locals from their ancestral homes for dirt cheap. And that's just the tip of the iceberg!
These big companies would have you believe that they're providing jobs for the locals. The truth is, companies that honestly support the local community instead of exploiting them are not the norm — it's just not good for the bottom-line.
Being aware of the customs and faux pas goes a way long way to earning you goodwill with the locals. It also makes you a better informed traveler. It allows you to fully appreciate the depth of the community you're visiting. It may also help you avoid embarrassment.
For instance it is highly disrespectful to touch the head of a Thai person, because the head is sacred and the cleanest part of the body.
Learning the language of the country you are visiting not only puts you at an advantage at bargaining and asking for help, it is also a sign of respect for the local culture. I've been in many situations where speaking the language garnered me more hospitality with the locals.
Whatever you do, please refrain from speaking slooowwwerrr and RAISING YOUR VOICE when the locals struggle to understand what you're saying; I've had to resist the urge to bitch slap my fellow countrymen on several occasions for that offense.
I get it, who doesn't love a good bargain? But when you bargain, refrain from excessive bargaining. It affects the vendors' livelihoods — a few dollars may make a huge difference in their lives.
The environment and ecosystem
Do you remember the last time you traveled abroad? Did you leave your water running while brushing your teeth, or the lights on the entire day, or use a new towel each day because you paid for it?
Most of us don't make the effort to research the impact that tourism has on the local environment and ecosystem. We simply show up, use what we paid for, and leave once we've gotten our money's worth. How entitled of us!
There is an increased load on the local ecosystem when tourism booms. Many cities do not have the necessary infrastructure to handle the increased amount of trash, sewage and resource-use that occurs with tourism.
While it is true that you are a paying customer, lets leave behind the consumer mentality and appreciate that water may be a finite resource in the country you're visiting. Don't leave your water running! The same goes for reusing your towels.
Reducing our waste by avoiding to-go containers will contribute largely towards reducing your environmental impact. Also, please do not litter — you wouldn't enjoy if someone came in your home and left trash all over.
Thankfully with increased exposure, animal exploitation has been brought to the forefront. However that does not mean that it's no longer a problem. Sure it is fun to ride an elephant, pet a tiger, or swim with the dolphins. But please do your research on the organization hosting such activities, to ensure humane treatment of the animals, and that they're focusing on the rehabilitation of such animals.
There's nothing cute about petting an animal that has been snatched from their parents and natural habitat, just to be caged for our amusement.
Wow this is a lot of work…
While all this may sound like a lot of work, it is our duty as travelers to be informed and responsible for the impact we cause. Instead of focusing on getting the best bang for my buck, here's what I'm personally choosing to do:
I want to remember where I've been: the sights, sounds, people, and culture.
I want to share my love of traveling with all you lovely readers out there.
I want to advocate for responsible travel [see above], and leave a positive impact on the places I visit.
I want to evangelize the love of adventures, travel and put behind our mediocre lives, and go do something awesome and impactful.