As more travelers are asking for ethical experiences, tour operators, accommodations and airlines are rushing to meet the demand; however, you can't always trust what's marketed to you. Moreover, certain tourism practices that may at first seem innocent, could in fact be activities to avoid. To assist in your efforts to be a more globally conscious traveler, here are six easy ways to travel more responsibly.
1. Ask Questions
One mistake many travelers make - even those with good intentions - is believing exactly what a tour operator or hotel website tells them and booking without question. The truth is, greenwashing, which refers to companies that market themselves as green in a way that doesn't entirely convey the truth, is all too common. For example, some hotels boast being eco-friendly simply because they put a sign in your bathroom asking you to recycle towels. Sure, that's a great program; however, they should be doing more than that if they're truly an environmentally conscious hotel.
There are also those that tell blatant lies, or who don't paint the entire picture. One example is a tour operator that claims to be the #1 Tour Operator in Responsible Tourism but then offers elephant rides, an irresponsible experience that may be buried under 100 tour offerings.
Before booking anything, ask questions. What specific environmentally friendly practices do they have in place? If they work with a non-profit, how exactly is money allocated? Do they hire locally? How is food sourced? Think about what issues are important to you and ask away.
2. Question Animal Encounters
While there are many aspects of tourism that can be irresponsible, one major area is wildlife tourism. It's important to remember that just because a tour operator offers an experience, that doesn't mean it's responsible. As stated above, elephant trekking is one excursion you see plastered in countless beautiful magazine photos; however, the reality is usually much more grim for the elephants than those pictures lead you to believe. Along with asking your tour operator questions and doing research, always ponder this question: Does this seem like normal behavior for [insert animal here]? A tiger cuddling a human, perhaps, or a captive dolphin playing volleyball - this is not what these animals do naturally.
Also wonder if your interaction with the animals will cause them to become less wild. Feeding wild animals may seem like a fun idea; however, the more they get used to humans the more their natural survival instinct lessens.
If you're unsure about an animal experience, try contacting an organization like Born Free USA to get their opinion. You can also consult the Association of British Travel Agents Animal Welfare Guidelines.
3. Go Local
Before you book or buy anything, make sure the company is locally owned and operated. When you go local, you support the community and keep money in the destination. Additionally, it helps you have a more authentic cultural experience. Who would you rather have cook your mole poblano in Mexico: an international chain restaurant with an American chef or a native using their grandmother's recipe? Where would you rather sleep: a bed-and-breakfast opened by a local family who are happy to swap cultural stories, or a big brand resort that could be located anywhere?
This is also pertinent when looking for souvenirs, as purchasing local handicrafts and goods provides a true glimpse into the destination.
4. Understand Voluntourism Isn't Always Positive
According to MovingWorlds.org, 1.6 million travelers volunteered abroad in 2008, with that number likely higher now due to a more technologically connected planet and the ability of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to more easily market themselves. While many of these organizations are running positive programs, others are innocently or intentionally doing more harm than good.
Most people who volunteer abroad are well intentioned, not realizing they may be hurting a community more than helping. What's important when choosing a volunteer experience is to understand what you're getting into and to ask the right questions.
Some of these include:
- Am I taking a job from a local?
- Am I qualified for the position?
- How exactly is the money I'm spending allocated?
Note: Don't take Project Development as an answer - find out what that means exactly.
5. Wander With A "Leave No Trace" Philosophy
When you travel, especially in nature, you should always be exploring with the idea that whoever comes after you should have no idea you were there. There are seven specific principles when it comes to Leave No Trace, dealing with everything from pre-planning to traveling in small groups in low season, to respecting wildlife and observing them from a distance, to minimizing the effects of campfires. A few other tips include not feeding animals, not being too loud to allow others to enjoy nature sounds, leaving natural objects be, being careful not to bring seeds or plants that aren't native and washing with biodegradable soap away from natural water bodies.
6. Research The Local Culture Beforehand
Traveling responsibly means doing your part to not disrespect local customs. Before arriving in your destination, research the culture. Don't assume what's okay to do in your home country is okay to do in another. For example, maybe in your home country it's okay to eat with your left hand; however, in India, Africa and the Middle East this is unacceptable. Perhaps in your home country giving the peace sign with your fingers is okay. In the UK, its not. It'll be much less awkward if you understand these customs before leaving home.
Is sustainable and responsible tourism important to you when you travel?
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