What Is Responsible Travel?

What is responsible travel?

The term “responsible travel” has been thrown around a lot recently. But what is responsible travel? How does it work? Why does it matter? And how can we, as travellers, put the concept into action?

As we begin to see more and more negative consequences of mass tourism in our favourite destinations, the answers to these questions become increasingly vital.

I’d like to start by saying: don’t be daunted by the phrase “responsible travel.” People can become wary and turned-off by buzzwords like this as it can sound like preaching or guilt-tripping. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a strong message behind the responsible tourism movement — because there definitely is — but it’s not as preachy as it may sound. It’s simply about encouraging people to be more switched on, ethical and thoughtful when they travel.

Ultimately, responsible travel does not involve limiting yourself. It actually opens you up to the world a little more, encouraging you to scratch beneath the surface and understand your surroundings. The goal is to try and make people aware of the impact tourism can have on local environments, economies and communities, and ensure this impact is a positive one.

In this article, I’ll define responsible travel, take a look at where the concept came from, explore its principles and discuss how we can all do our part to ensure our travels make a positive impact.

Mass tourism on Maya Bay, Koh Phi Phi
Mass tourism on Maya Bay caused the government to ban visitors — a consequence of unsustainable tourism.
Photo by Francesca of Gluten Free Horizons.

What is responsible travel?

The definition of responsible travel is as simple as this:

Responsible travel pertains to being socially, economically and environmentally aware when you travel. You understand how your actions can impact a destination and strive to ensure this impact is a positive one.

In short, responsible travel is about taking responsibility for making tourism sustainable and how we address this challenge. Perhaps we could say that sustainability is the goal, and travelling responsibly is the action.

Confusion arises thanks to the range of similar buzzwords within the travel and tourism industry. For example, you may have heard of the following terms: ecotourism, sustainable tourism, ethical travel, green travel, mindful travel and conscious travel. These buzzwords do have their own specific definitions and principles, but they all aim to make a positive impact.

Regardless of what you call it, they all share the same core principles:

  • Conserve and protect wildlife, biodiversity and the environment
  • Respect and conserve traditions, values and heritage
  • Contribute to cultural understanding and tolerance
  • Ensure viable long-term economic and social benefits

Responsible tourism is all about leaving a positive impact on not only the environment, but also the people who live in the places we choose to visit. The result being not only a more ethical and responsible trip when it comes to travellers’ impacts, but also a more authentic, exciting and culturally immersive one for them too.


A brief history of responsible travel/ecotourism

The origin of ecotourism arguably has its roots in the Sierra Club back in the early 1900s. The Sierra Club took annual expeditions into the Sierra Nevada to show hikers the natural beauty of the mountains and forest, with the hope that they would want to help protect the environment there.

However, ecotourism officially developed with the environmental movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Growing concern for the environment coupled with dissatisfaction with mass tourism led to increased demand for alternative styles of travel — travel that was kinder to the planet and more rewarding for tourists.

Around the same time, less developed countries began to realise that nature-based tourism, or ecotourism, could offer a healthy income. This gave incentive for them to protect their environment and move away from more destructive methods of making money, such as animal agriculture and logging.

By the mid-1980s, a number of these developing countries had identified ecotourism as a means of achieving both conservation and development goals, as well as a good way of securing foreign exchange.

Megan Epler Wood, a wildlife biologist, is renowned for being one of the first advocates for the ecotourism movement. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Colombia in 1986, and in 1990, she founded The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), the first not-for-profit in the world dedicated to economic development through sustainable tourism.

Today, ecotourism and responsible travel are considered one of the fastest-growing sectors in the travel industry.

Ecotourism hiking in the Sierra Nevada
Hiking in the Sierra Nevada – where ecotourism arguably started

Principles of responsible travel

1) Provide long-term economic benefits to local people. Responsible travel aims to achieve a measurable reduction in poverty among local communities. By employing local people in tourism, staying in locally-owned accommodation, and putting money directly into the pockets of local communities, the economy is strengthened over-all. Tourism can also stimulate local business growth and generate investment in infrastructure where it’s needed.

2) Provide long-term social and cultural benefits to local people. Tourism should positively influence international understanding and respect for local traditions, customs and values. Tourists should act sensitively and respectfully towards local people and help to strengthen natural heritage.

3) Conserve and protect wildlife, biodiversity and the environment. Tourist activity should not cause negative consequences for wildlife or the environment. This can be as simple as taking litter away, sticking to marked hiking trails and not participating in animal tourism, such as swimming with dolphins or riding elephants.

A bird sitting on a twig
Responsible travel involves protecting wildlife and the environment

Consequences of unsustainable tourism

Mass tourism and unresponsible travel can have a variety of negative consequences on a destination. I often use Thailand’s Koh Phi Phi as an example of how unsustainable tourism can contribute to the demise of a destination: mass numbers, pollution and trash caused the government to completely close Maya Beach.

1) Destruction of the environment. Overdevelopment, pollution and overconsumption of natural resources all contribute to the destruction of an environment. High tourist numbers place high demand for more restaurants and hotels to be built; sunscreen-clad tourists pollute oceans and damage coral reefs; litter and waste are left behind, and natural resources are drained.

2) Disturbance or abuse of wildlife. Habitats are often cleared to make space for resorts, hotels and tourist attractions, which directly impacts wildlife. Not only this, many animals are exploited for the tourism industry — think of “swim with dolphins” programmes, elephant riding and big cat encounters.

3) Inflated living costs. High tourist numbers cause land, food, water, housing and transport to increase in price. The phrase “tourist tax” is not a myth. You’ll pay more for just about everything in tourist areas — even if you’re a resident.

4) The commodification of local cultures and traditions. In many countries around the world, tourists can pay to visit “local tribes” or “ethnic groups” who are, in essence, taught to put on a display in order to satisfy paying customers. This is just one example of how cultures and traditions can be commodified.

Responsible tourism: cultural tours in Africa
Many “cultural tours” in Namibia exploit local people for tourist dollar

How to be a responsible traveller

Now that you know why responsible travel is so important, let’s look at some ways you can put the concept into action.

1) Conserve energy, electricity and water. This is something that you should be doing at home anyway. But ensure you limit your use of energy and utilities as much as possible, such as keeping showers short, limiting your use of A/C and only doing laundry when you have a full load.

2) Shop and eat locally. Shop and eat locally wherever possible. Supermarkets ship food from all over the world, resulting in increased carbon emissions and plastic packaging. Not only is eating local better for the environment, but its usually cheaper and also supports the local economy.

3) Respect the environment, culture and people of the places you visit. Cultures all over the world have very different customs, traditions and societal rules. Take the time to learn what these are so that you can ensure you’re being respectful.

4) Make eco-aware accommodation choices. When deciding on your accommodation, opt for locally-owned guesthouses or homestays. This means you’ll be supporting the local people. You should also look for eco-friendly hotels and hostels that work to reduce their impact on the environment, specifically by using renewable energy or having a recycling scheme.

5) Choose responsible tour companies. If you’re looking to travel with a tour group, do your homework and choose a company that adheres to sustainable and eco-friendly travel policies. G Adventures and Intrepid Travel are good examples of responsible tour companies.

6) Avoid animal tourism. If you want to see wild animals, opt for sanctuaries or national parks that offer a “hands-off” approach and who rescue/rehabilitate/protect the animals. Under no circumstance is there any need to touch, ride or watch a wild animal perform.

7) Get off the beaten track. Although tourism can have lots of positives for the local economy, too much of it can have dire consequences. Get off the beaten track and discover locations which would benefit from tourism, rather than contribute to the demise of already over-touristed destinations.

READ MORE: 13 Ways To Travel More Responsibly

Ala Kul Lake
Get off the beaten track and enjoy less touristed destinations. This photo is from the Ala Kul Trek in Kyrgyzstan.

Responsible travel is easy

Responsible travel is mostly just a whole lot of common sense. There are lots of misconceptions about it, though, as many people seem to think it involves shelling out for five-star eco-lodges. Or, they think the exact opposite, and that responsible travel is for folk who spend their time exclusively camping, hiking and observing wildlife. While both these styles of travel could be great examples, the reality is that everyone can adopt responsible tourism principles.

Unfortunately, there is no magic solution. For change to occur, people must really do their part to ensure they are travelling consciously, ethically and sustainably. This will also require local communities to realise that their home is not to be exploited for tourist dollar, but to be celebrated and protected.

More on responsible travel:

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  1. This is a super great post! I kept seeing the phrase responsible travel but had no idea what it really meant! And I totally agree that overcrowding and over tourism is ruining a lot of places around the world. Definitely need to see some change 🙌

    1. Thanks Alice! Yes it’s popping up everywhere at the moment so I wanted to share what I know on the subject as it’s important to me. Hopefully change will occur soon 😊

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