The words sustainable, eco and responsible when it comes to tourism get interchangeably thrown around on a regular basis. To give a clear meaning of what responsible tourism is, we can look to SustainbleTourism.net, who defines it as "travel that minimizes negative social, economic and environmental impacts; generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities; [and] improves working conditions and access to the industry."
When you travel responsibly you put the place you're visiting before yourself. Forget the Instagram-worthy photos, the like-generating selfies and the bucket list items you must do before you die. Riding elephants, rolling around with tigers and Full Moon Parties may make for great pictures; however, widely-publicized irresponsible experiences like these are doing more harm than many tourists realize.
Do you want to make sure your next trip not only leaves you with cherished memories, but also makes a positive impact? Here are four simple ways to make your next trip more responsible.
Look Beyond Greenwashing
Greenwashing refers to companies that market themselves as green or responsible in an untrue or exaggerated sense. One big issue in the industry is the lack of regulation on claims made by hotels, airlines and tour operators. Just because a brand avows to be green or eco-friendly doesn't mean they are, so you'll need to do your research, ask questions and read reviews.
For instance, have you ever stayed in an eco hotel, only to find their labeling is merely because they ask guests to recycle their towels? In 2015 recycling towels should be the standard and not something to brag about, especially when there are so many great properties crafting buildings from locally recycled materials, sourcing local farm-to-fork ingredients in their restaurants, making use of solar energy, educating guests on local issues, sourcing local art and working to get LEED certified.
Another example: maybe you've been on an eco tour where you were encouraged to feed or touch animals. Just because a tour takes place in a natural setting does not make it eco-friendly, especially when Leave No Trace policies - leaving a place you visit in the same exact condition it was before you arrived - are not respected, and wildlife are handled in ways that can make them comfortable around humans, in turn making them less wild and more susceptible to predators. The best way to observe animals is from a distance.
Also don't be fooled by awards, especially ones not given by major responsible tourism organizations. Anyone nowadays can give themselves or their friends an accolade to throw on their website - just like they can pay to rank higher in a Google search.
Many travelers sadly book solely based on price; however, those who want to travel in a more conscious manner should take other factors into consideration when booking with a tour operator. Are they hiring locally? How are they putting money back into the local community? How are they ensuring local cultures and landscapes aren't harmed by tourism? Do they operate under a Leave No Trace philosophy? Are accommodations and businesses frequented run by locals?
Benefit Local Communities
As stated above, one major aspect of responsible tourism is putting money back into the local economy. This is a question you should be asking yourself over and over again, avoiding non-local tour guides, hotels run by foreigners and those Made in China stickers (unless of course you're in China) as much as possible.
When you opt to eat local, shop local and stay at locally-owned properties, you're placing money directly into the local economy, benefiting the destination and the people in the community. You're also helping the population become more self sufficient and less dependent on imports. Moreover, you benefit personally through fresher food, more authentic souvenirs and accommodation with personality.
Think About The Big Picture
Before acting, think about impact. Sometimes even the most well-meaning gestures - giving a begging child money or taking your family to swim with dolphins - can lead to negative impacts that aren't immediately apparent, like contributing to a culture where children are abused to gain pity from tourists and bring in money for gangs, or taking wild dolphins from their pods into captivity and essentially imprisoning them for human entertainment.
Often, it's as simple as asking yourself "Does this seem unusual?" - a dancing monkey or an elephant painting a picture, for example - or "What impact will this ultimate have?"
What do you do to travel more responsibly?
Before your epic adventure make sure you take out the right travel insurance policy for your trip.