If you are lucky enough to travel, then you have a responsibility to the places you visit…
We already know tourism has an impact. Now it is time we recognised how solo and adventure travel also has an effect – no matter how good our intentions.
You only have to look at places like Koh Phi Phi (famous for being the paradise island in Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’) to realise how negative the impact can be. Not only for the locals, but also for the environment, wildlife and general beauty of a place.
While we can’t stop every negative effect single-handedly, we can make a difference in how we impact a place individually. It’s not until we take this seriously, that the tourism industry as a whole will start taking notice too.
So rather than asking ‘where’ you want to go next, ask ‘why’ you should go somewhere. Make those small gestures like passing on plastic bags, straws, bottles when travelling – but also make bigger gestures, such as potentially changing your plan to visit a dream destination because you know it is already suffering from overtourism. Take the time to research why you should go somewhere else and note there are smaller, less visited areas that could really benefit from our tourist dollar.
Remember, it is through how we choose to act – as someone with the means to travel – that determines us as a ‘responsible traveller’.
We usually go away to escape our reality – but remember, where you are escaping to is someone else’s reality. So, integration is important. After all, we don’t want our behaviour offending, restricting or getting in the way of what the locals do. This is the basic rule of responsible travel.
Research customs, expressions and dress before you go – and ensure you respect those guidelines. If they dress more conservatively, follow suit. If baring skin is frowned upon, take a full swimsuit rather than a bikini. Some places of worship such as temples, mosques and some churches ask that visitors to cover knees, shoulders and sometimes even hair when entering the building. Do so, and show you do respect the country you are guest in.
If locals are fasting during the day time, don’t flash your lunch around – instead subtly consume any food, and then go out when the fast ends and celebrate with them. It will help you understand a more meaningful side to a new culture, and you might even have fun.
If you would like to photograph someone, ask them politely first. If they decline, understand and leave them be. If they say ‘yes’, then show them the picture after and express your gratitude. Think about how you would feel if someone random came up to you in the street and asked for a picture. Understand that locals, and their culture, aren’t there for your entertainment.
Think, think, think
As much as it is lovely to indulge sometimes, pay attention to where you are doing it.
Are you planning to laze by a pool all week in a country where locals struggle to find clean, drinkable water? (If so, really?)
Are you splashing out thousands on a luxury place where those looking after you barely get paid?
Look up local tipping guides and leave an appropriate service charge based on those numbers. Just because tipping isn’t a thing in one country, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a vital form of earning for someone in another.
If you are lucky enough to be invited into someone else’s home, take note of how they live before you bed down for the night. Ask questions. Is their water supply plentiful enough for you to take a long shower? Have they cooked especially for you and how easily do they come by food like this? Do they minimise the amount of electricity consumed around the house, and if so, should you be switching the lights off earlier?
In these cases, you can thank them by contributing something or by showing them a little of your culture. Go out to the market and buy the produce for the meal or ask for a cooking lesson so you can assist in the kitchen. Offer to teach them or their children basic English words. Perhaps even investing in a battery-operated long-life torch to leave with them once you move on.
Understand the background
This is something I would suggest doing regardless where in the world you go: learn the history of the country you are visiting. Has the country you are visiting ever been through a hardship, war, natural disaster, institutional prejudice? Take note and make sure you respect new customs that have developed as a result of this history.
Take time to learn about the indigenous communities and their history. If you blog or put pictures up on social media, embrace these lesser spoken sectors of society and discuss them openly with those you meet, even if it is a hard conversation to have. Do your research by visiting community charities and museums that tell the real history of a place.
Responsible travel and food and drink
Go local and don’t hesitate to indulge in traditional dishes.
If the region is predominantly vegetarian, don’t be disappointed – instead eat what they eat – who knows, maybe your eyes (and stomach) might just be opened to a new way of life. Don’t be afraid to try the exotic vegetables you have never seen before (they are often the most delicious).
If alcohol isn’t the focus in their culture, don’t make it a main part of your experience either. Remember, a responsible traveller isn’t there to twist the culture to make themselves more comfortable, rather adapt themselves to enjoy the culture.
Pay a little more attention
If you’re travelling in an organised group, make sure you really understand how your chosen agency gives back to the places you visit. Look at their mission statement and how they operate: do they work with locals in creating an itinerary? Do they give donations or contribute to the local life in any way? Choose someone who does involve the locals in planning their agenda, so you know the communities you visit are happy to have you there.
If you are travelling solo, shop around. Don’t book into large hotels or go to big agencies to organise a bus booking. Find the small outlets that are trying to make an honest living and give them your business. Your custom will mean so much more to them, and you know you’re getting a more personal service. Of course, your safety should be a priority at all times.
Think before you give hand outs
Facing real poverty can be one of the most heartbreaking things you encounter when travelling, and it might be tempting to whip out your wallet and hand over some cash to someone in need. Don’t do it. Often, that one person will have many eyes on them – and giving a single handout can result in jealousy from others in the same situation. Unfortunately, this could result in the person you helped being mugged, assaulted or threatened for that money.
When it comes to visiting children, it is hard not to hand out sweets, chocolates and other goodies – because of course you want to make life a little happier. But remember, in those same areas, dentists and healthcare may not be as readily available and introducing a child to unhealthy habits such as eating sweets isn’t a good thing in the longterm.
Instead, bring along educational materials like colouring or study books, stationary and word games and donate them to a local school. These gifts are likely to reach more children and bring them something positive. Donate in person and locally rather than go through an agency, who will always take out a commission.
Avoid the big chains
The almighty tourist buck is powerful, so spend it wisely. We have already talked about going local with food, drink and accommodation – but this also applies to shopping, buying bus tickets and everything else in between.
The fact is government run organisations, big travel agencies, chain hotels, chain restaurants etc… benefit from having the monopoly – i.e. pushing out the local small businesses. Once they have achieved this, they can bring in those same workers for much less money, because those small operators still need to work. Plus, let’s face it, we’ve all heard the line “everyone wants to work for us” at some point. This can lead to the locals being exploited; working long hours for little money, their trade being diluted and devalued and who gets the earnings? The big boys of course. Give the right people your hard-earned $$$.
One last thing… pity is not pretty
Just by having the ability to travel, we know we are incredibly fortunate. But don’t underestimate what good comes out of a simple life – one built on genuine contentment and acceptance. For example, perhaps some of the kids you meet won’t have access to technology in the way we do – but as a result, they are likely to really appreciate the natural environment that surrounds them, being outdoors, the freedom to play in the sea or run around in open spaces. Just because we have access to this stuff, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are happier. So appreciate the different world you are visiting and enjoy it with the locals you meet. This is responsible travel.