Wherever we go in the world, we take a responsible attitude with us. That means travelling in a way that both respects and benefits local people, their culture, their economy, and their environment. But if you’re not familiar with the term, sometimes it’s hard to know what people mean by the words ‘responsible tourism.’
The UN has declared 2017 the Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development — an entire year dedicated to reminding us that tourism just isn’t about seeing the sites: it’s about connecting with local people and local cultures, and making a difference in each other’s lives no matter where we are in the world. That’s why, for all of 2017, our In Focus tours are all 30% off, with all proceeds going directly to the partnering NGOs, non-profits, and social enterprises in those communities.
As well, to to guide you in the right direction in this very important year, we’ve compiled our top 12 tips to help you be a more responsible traveller on your next trip.
1. Educate yourself
Before leaving home, learn as much as possible about the countries you are visiting — the religion, culture, and the local rules and values. You don’t need to know everything, but the basics such as how to dress, how to greet locals, and how to act respectfully will not only make your experience more responsible but also far less stressful for you as a stranger in a new land.
2. Get down with the local lingo
Learn some of the local language and don’t be afraid to use it — simple pleasantries will help break the ice. Even if your accent is terrible and you can’t get the grammar right, just keep practicing and show the locals you are making a special effort to learn their language. They’ll appreciate it!
3. Know your customs
Learn what’s appropriate behaviour and body language in the country you’re visiting. The two-fingered peace or V sign means something very different if you aim it the wrong way in London, and the head wobble in Delhi will totally confuse you if you don’t know what it means. Do a bit of pre-trip research to know what gestures are a-okay and which ones are totally offensive.
4. Go local in everything you do
Support locally owned businesses, hotels, restaurants, and other services whenever you can. These are the businesses that benefit from your tourist dollars the most — not the big-name chains that you can find back home. Eat local food and drink local brands and brews. Use public transport, hire a bike, or walk when it’s convenient — you’ll meet local people and get to know the place much better than behind the window of a private car or taxi. Use our local travel practices as a guideline.
5. Know what you’re supporting
Think critically when it comes to deciding what activities and experiences to include on your itinerary. Avoid local shows, markets, or zoos that exploit animals, such as riding elephants in Thailand or lion walking in South Africa. Many of these activities are presented to tourists as conservation efforts or animal-friendly fun, but the reality may be far darker than you think, with animals being bred in captivity, mistreated, and neglected. Skip activities that use locals as props, such as orphanage visits, where often the children aren’t orphans at all, but rather kids from families that have been coerced into believing that sending their child away will give them a better education and better life.
If you want to take a tour that’s guaranteed not to exploit while also giving back to the community, our In Focus tours are 100% sustainable and responsible. They’re run in partnership with local NGOs and non-profits, and all net proceeds go back to the organisation and local community. Always be aware of where your money is going as you travel.
6. Shop smart
When it’s time to pick up a few souvenirs, head to the shops of traditional artisans for locally made products. You’ll be helping to keep traditional crafts alive, while also supporting small, independent business owners and artists. Always favour local products over imported items, but avoid buying things made from the tusks or horns of endangered animals, or from at-risk plants. Bargain if that is a local practice, but bear in mind that a small amount to you could be extremely important to the seller.
7. Dress appropriately
Dress respectfully with an awareness of local standards. Dress modestly at religious sites and check what swimwear is suitable for pools and the beach. When in doubt, cover up. You may find out later that you didn’t really need to wear long sleeves or pants at that temple, but you’ll feel far more comfortable than if you show up somewhere with your knees showing when they shouldn’t be. For women, it’s a good idea to always travel with a scarf or shawl. Throw it in your bag and you’ll have it handy for any time you need to cover your shoulders or head.
8. Always ask permission for photos
Always ask first before photographing or videoing people. Not only is it rude (how would you feel if someone was sneakily — or not so sneakily — snapping your photo while you were going about your day?), but in some cultures, it’s also a violation of their spiritual and cultural beliefs. Plus, asking them before you click gives you a chance to have a conversation and to connect, and that’s what travel is all about, right? If you want to go that extra mile, send them back copies of photos to help make it a two-way exchange.
9. Support the local community responsibly
Be wary of giving gifts or money to beggars, children, and people you have just met. We know it feels like a good deed, but you’ll just be perpetuating the tourist-as-saviour stereotype, and oftentimes those dollars you give aren’t even landing in the hands of the person you gave them to, especially with child beggars who are frequently part of a larger ring run by a leader at the top. Tourism can be hugely beneficial to the local economy, but only when it’s provided in a sustainable way. Supporting the community through a local school, clinic, or development project may be more constructive than just handing out donations to people you pass. This issue is one of the main reasons that we launched our In Focus tours, which don’t recommend throwing money at local causes and walking away, but rather supporting local initiatives to bring in money in a way that remains sustainable for years to come.
10. Leave only footprints…
Take care of the environment as you would your own home. Use alternatives to plastic and say no to plastic bags, recycle wherever possible, and try to keep your waste as low as possible. Avoid using bottled water if you can (the bottled water industry is killing the environment), and use re-fillable toiletry bottles instead of buying new travel-sized samples every time you take a trip. And of course, never take pieces of coral or other endangered plant life home as a souvenir.
11. Help from home
After returning home, think about how you can support programs and organisations that are working to protect the welfare, culture, and environment of the places you’ve visited. Even if you choose not to support these groups financially, you can spread the word to other travellers about local issues, organisations, and causes, keeping the cycle of responsible tourism going.
‘Keep calm and carry on’ may be a cheesy t-shirt phrase, but it’s also the truth when it comes to travel. Yes, things will go wrong on your trip and you’ll no doubt have a few days that frustrate you. But remember that you’re having a travel experience that many people can only dream of having — so embrace it all! Plus, a smile is an international sign of warmth and friendship, so if in doubt, give ’em a grin!