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How to be a responsible tourist: 30 tips for ethical travel

Almost everyone who travels has probably heard the phrase “responsible travel.”

It’s become something of a buzzword… and rightly so.

And today, with so much that’s gone so wrong in the world lately – from climate disasters to the pandemic – many of us want to know how to be a more responsible tourist in future.

The path to being a responsible tourist

It’s important to us that the way we travel shows respect for this planet.
It’s important to us that the way we travel shows respect for this planet

Responsible travel is everyone’s responsibility

Being a responsible traveler is going to be even more important in future.
Being a responsible traveler is going to be even more important in future

Before we launch into specific responsible travel tips, it’s helpful to gain a little more insight into the issue.

Travel is a mainstream passion. It’s certainly ours!

Pre-pandemic, inspirational images and information enticed people to visit places they might never have considered in times gone by. (Sri Lanka? Lombok?)

From digital nomads who spent years jetting around the globe to weekend warriors who escaped to the hottest new hotels for pick-me-up getaways, the world was full of travelers of all types.

The travel and tourism industries accounted for more than 10% of global GDP. Around one-quarter of all new jobs created around the planet related to travel and tourism.

That alone was one of the many good reasons to travel!

It still is. Tourism is vital to many economies around the world – and travelers who can gobble up Mexican souvenirs and spend their money are much needed for economic recovery and growth in many destinations. 

We personally can’t wait for the world to heal so we can venture to far-flung places we once visited in a carefree fashion. Like Bali and Thailand.

But. And here’s the but… Increased travel can also mean increased problems, many of which have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals, communities, countries and the world.

Overtourism ruins the quality of life for locals. Global travel can diminish cultures. Tourism can harm the environment, disturb wildlife, hurt local economies and create a whole slew of other problems.

Responsible travelers stay away from places plagued by overtourism.
Responsible travelers stay away from places plagued by overtourism

Everyone makes some mistakes on the way – and we’ve made our fair share of mistakes!

But we’ve also learned a few things from our years of travel and travel writing. Making conscious decisions while traveling can have a huge positive impact. From the big things to the teensiest details, being more responsible is every traveler’s, well, responsibility. 

And as the world opens up again, perhaps no time is a better time than now to think about how to travel responsibly, right?

(BTW, you’ll find a number of resources on ethical tourism below. Figuring out how to become more responsible travelers is a journey for us too. If you want, you can just skip to the 30 responsible travel tips.)

What is responsible tourism?

So exactly what is responsible tourism?

In a nutshell, responsible tourism is about travel being positive – for you, as the traveler, and for the people and places you visit.

Cape Town Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations:

The Declaration on Responsible Tourism was signed in Cape Town.
The Declaration on Responsible Tourism was signed in Cape Town

A responsible tourism definition was first conceived in 2002 in South Africa’s Cape Town, when 280 tourism reps from 20 countries met at the Cape Town Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations.

That conference was held just before the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, which brought together thousands of people, including government leaders and delegates from NGOs and businesses.

The combined meetings led to an agreement known today as the Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism.

This Declaration sets out several conditions for responsible travel.

According to the Cape Town Declaration, responsible travel has these goals:

  • Responsible tourism should cut back on negative social, environmental and economic impacts.
  • Responsible travel should boost the economic benefits and wellbeing for local people.
  • Responsible travel includes locals in decisions.
  • Destinations should be accessible to travelers with physical disabilities.
  • Responsible tourism embraces diversity and helps natural and cultural conservation efforts. 
  • Responsible tourists gain greater insights into the local culture, society and environment, and build more meaningful connections.
  • Responsible travel fosters respect between visitors and local communities, and is sensitive to cultural issues.

Essentially, responsible tourism aims for everyone in the travel biz to work together to make a positive difference – from governments, tour operators and hotels through to local people and individual travelers.  

Second International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations:

In 2008, the Second International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations took place in Kerala, India.

The Kerala Declaration on Responsible Tourism confirmed the need for an integrated approach and made a number of further recommendations (e.g., asking the media to help promote responsible travels).

Future of Tourism Coalition:

More recently in 2020, several organizations banded together to form an alliance referred to as the Future of Tourism Coalition

Taking guidance from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, the group has outlined a responsible way forward, which includes 13 main principles (e.g., choosing quality tourism over quantity of visitors and discouraging “resort sprawl” from taking over islands and coasts).

Many organizations have already committed to uphold the responsible travel values.

The World Wildlife Fund, Hilton Hotels, Ecotourism Australia, easyJet Holidays, Intrepid Travel and the Jordan Tourism Board have all jumped onboard. (Speaking of Jordan, we were fascinated by the ancient rose-red city of Petra, and we’re happy to see protections for this marvelous site.)

Better travel for all:

As you can see, responsible tourism covers many aspects.

But the overall focus remains the same – beefing up the positive impacts of tourism and making places better for both locals and travelers.

Everybody benefits!

Connecting with locals can often be the most meaningful part of your trip! (Janice gets her face painted here in Mozambique)
Connecting with locals can often be the most meaningful part of your trip! (Janice gets her face painted here in Mozambique)

Responsible tourism vs sustainable tourism

The terms “responsible tourism” and “sustainable travel” are often used interchangeably. But they’re not quite the same.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization defines sustainable travel as: “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”

Sustainable travel is about “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Garbage in the oceans, deforestation, misappropriating indigenous territories, extinction of animals, reducing our carbon footprint – these are all issues of sustainability. If we’re not careful with these things now, we can really mess up the well-being of future generations.

Sustainable tourism and responsible tourism have the same goals at their heart.

In a nutshell, a collective approach to responsible travel is the way to reach the end goal of sustainability.

Examples of responsible tourism

Whew! Now that the definitions are out of the way, what does responsible tourism actually look like in practice?

From a responsible traveler’s perspective, it means making decisions that align with the fundamental principles of responsible and ethical travel. (Handy tips to follow!)

From a hotel or tour operator’s side, it means operating in a way that supports the responsible travel ethos.

Travel philanthropy is a major way that travel companies can further responsible travel aims. To put it more simply, they “give back” to local communities through travel.

Many luxury travel companies lend a helping hand to the countries they work in.
Many luxury travel companies lend a helping hand to the countries they work in

As more luxury travelers seek to experience meaningful trips, more and more resorts and tour companies are donating to charitable foundations and partnering with non-profit travel and tourism organizations – to help boost local conservation and economic development efforts.

It’s a win-win all around.

The resorts and tour operators set themselves apart from the competition by showing they have a heart – and they lend a much-needed helping hand too.

At the same time, their affluent guests are introduced to charitable projects, which they often end up supporting as well.

To give some responsible tourism examples from around the world:

Tanzania:

Micato Safaris is a luxury African safari operator. Their non-profit foundation AmericaShare pays for orphaned and vulnerable children from Nairobi slums to go to reputable private boarding schools. Micato pays all of AmericaShare’s administrative costs.

Another example just off the coast of Zanzibar is andBeyond Mnemba Island Lodge. It’s not only an amazing private island paradise (which we had the good fortune to stay at). It’s also put into action its company ethos of “care of the land, care of the wildlife, care of the people.”

The island is one of only two protected nesting sites for endangered green turtles in Zanzibar.

For more than 20 years, andBeyond Mnemba Island conservation teams have been working to find out where nesting turtle mothers travel to once they’ve finished laying their eggs. They patrol the beaches daily to record turtle activity.

This monitoring information about turtle activity on Mnemba Island is shared with the World Wildlife Fund and other conservation organizations and ultimately helps with turtle conservation.

A baby sea turtle makes its way back to the sea.
A baby sea turtle makes its way back to the sea

Elsewhere on Zanzibar, the Zanzibar Collection of privately-owned luxury hotels and resorts helped finance and build a new maternity and children’s clinic on the island. We have particularly fond memories of The Palms on Zanzibar – a romantic Zanzibar Collection hotel with lots of heart.

Zambia:

Chiawa and Old Mondoro are two of Africa’s finest safari camps – elephants ate noisily just feet away from our outdoor bathtub at Old Mondoro! (If you want to know more about this authentic safari experience, read our post: Chiawa Safari Camp Nails Glamping in Zambia.)

Watching elephants up close while lunching on a river boat is all par for the course on safari at Chiawa (Credit: Chiawa)
Watching elephants up close while lunching on a river boat is all par for the course on safari at Chiawa (Credit: Chiawa)

And conservation and sustainable tourism aren’t just catchphrases here. They’ve been a way of life for these family-owned camps in Lower Zambezi National Park ever since they welcomed their first guests. (Chiawa opened in 1989.)

How?

They employ local Zambians. Through Chiawa’s training and mentoring programs, some have risen from laborers to become guides and camp managers. Importantly, they pay fair wages.

They supply school uniforms, stationery supplies and sporting goods each year to 300 AIDS orphans.

They use red filters on spotlights for night drives, which don’t disturb the lions and other wildlife (white spotlights used in many other African safari camps could be blinding and disturb their natural behavior).

They give guests refillable stainless steel bottles (no plastic water bottles are used). We still use ours at home – a nice memento of our trip.

They helped establish the charitable Conservation Lower Zambezi to support anti-poaching.

They’re the first operator to practice catch-and-release sport angling in Zambia. And they successfully lobbied the government to impose a ban on the killing of any fish species in the Lower Zambezi National Park. They’re now lobbying the government to extend the ban to other parks in Zambia.

Chiawa and Old Mondoro are also the first safari lodges in Africa to become carbon-neutral.

While they create a very light environmental footprint, they still use generators for electricity, vehicles for game drives and boats for river transportation. But to counterbalance this impact, they buy carbon credits from BioCarbon Partners, an African-headquartered social enterprise working to reduce deforestation.

Indonesia:

In Bali, Alila Villas Uluwatu was the first resort in Indonesia to be awarded the highest EarthCheck certification for eco-friendly design. One of the best luxury hotels in Bali, the resort is one of several unique design hotels in the luxury Alila group.

In addition to its commitment to the environment, Alila Villas Uluwatu also helped build a new orphanage to house up to 60 children for the Bali Life Foundation. The charity helps abused, abandoned and orphaned kids, street children and women in need.

The Bali Life Foundation runs several charitable projects, including a children’s home, street kids shelter and women’s shelter.
The Bali Life Foundation runs several charitable projects, including a children’s home, street kids shelter and women’s shelter (Credit: Bali Life)

Alila Villas Uluwatu also supports the R.O.L.E. Foundation, which helps women break out of the poverty cycle. It trains underprivileged female students onsite in housekeeping, cooking and restaurant service, giving them the necessary practical skills they need to find jobs.

Global:

We like this: “Buy a Trip, Give a Trip.” That’s the motto for Elevate Destinations, a luxury adventure travel operator founded in 2005.

Every trip organized through Elevate Destinations allows a group of local children to go on an outing in their own country. Working with local NGOs, they sponsor trips for kids who’d otherwise never get to see the places in their own country that visitors see.

In South Africa, for example, kids who had never ventured outside their township in Cape Town have been taken on one-day trips to see penguins at Boulders Beach and to visit Table Mountain. Peruvian youths have climbed Machu Picchu. Cambodian students have visited Angkor Wat.

Just look, and you’ll find responsible travel companies:

As awareness grows and positive action increases, it’s not hard to find tour operators and companies in all four corners of the world involved in socially responsible tourism.

Being a responsible traveler is thus getting easier.

The importance of responsible tourism in a post-pandemic world

The Covid-19 pandemic brought global travel to a grinding halt. Borders closed and numerous restrictions were put in place. Domestic travel also stopped for long periods of time in many countries around the world.

Thankfully, as vaccine programs make progress, restrictions are being eased – and we can travel again. Domestic travel has already made a huge comeback in the U.S., and it’s resumed in Canada and many other nations too.

But what about international flights?

It will likely take a couple of years before international travel reaches its pre-pandemic levels, with much speculation about air travel recovery (maybe by 2024?), limits on long-haul travel and the global economy in general.

From airlines, hotels and tour companies to attractions, restaurants and shops, almost every business (big and small) and individual associated with the travel, hospitality and related sectors has felt a huge impact.

Millions of jobs are at risk (or have been lost). Many businesses have already folded.

There has been some good news in all this darkness though – especially with the environment.

In many places, water and air quality have improved.

Witness Italy’s Venice – the city of canals and bridges. With fewer tourists, meaning fewer water taxis belching out exhaust fumes, Venetians have been breathing less polluted air during the pandemic.

Wildlife has also thrived.

Dolphins are swimming and jumping in the waters of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Canal. Wild baby boars have even been photographed snuffling around in city streets in Haifa, Israel!

Ecological systems have had a chance to recover. Coral reefs are rebounding in Hawaii, and tropical fish are flourishing.

The pandemic may have created a much-needed pause to rethink responsible tourism practices moving forward.

From tragedy, there may come positive change.

The International Tourism Fair in Berlin (the biggest travel trade fair in the world) adopted the motto: “Rethink, Regenerate, Restart – Tourism for a Better Normal.”

There’s a big push towards responsible and ethical travel now – and the time is ripe for everyone to change their habits and practices to be more in line with a sustainable ethos.

How we can be responsible tourists

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably keen to think about ways to be a responsible tourist on future trips, right?

Luckily, there are many things you can do – and most require little more than some conscious decision-making.

Being a responsible tourist isn’t a burden. It won’t make you enjoy your trip any less. (Don’t worry, you can still sleep in luxury digs!)

Actually, you’ll probably find your travels will be more meaningful. Plus, the feel-good factor of knowing you’re making a positive impact will be well worth it! Don’t forget that no action is too small – everything makes a difference.

30 Responsible travel tips

Here are 30 things you can do as a responsible tourist.

1) Be destination aware

Before even setting off on a trip, think about the destination(s) carefully.

Several places have suffered greatly because of the effects of overtourism.

Overtourism can:

  • dilute local customs and traditions
  • damage local ecology and put wildlife at risk
  • lead to gentrification of areas (and squeeze lower-income locals out)
  • raise costs for locals
  • be a nuisance for people trying to live their everyday lives
  • worsen noise pollution, air pollution and water pollution
  • put a strain on local resources
  • burden the local infrastructure

Yep, too many tourists is not a good thing!

We’ve already mentioned Venice, Italy – a classic example of overtourism. So many tourists swarmed the streets of Venice in the past, driving up prices, that pretty well all Venetians were forced to leave and live outside the city.

Responsible travelers will choose destinations where tourism is beneficial, not harmful.

Don’t be one of these tourists – go where you’re welcome!
Don’t be one of these tourists – go where you’re welcome!

Does this mean you should never visit popular destinations? Not necessarily.

Admittedly there’s only one Taj Mahal, one Venice, one Angkor Wat and one Louvre.

Consider visiting your must-see popular place off-season – this helps to stagger tourist arrivals throughout the year.

Off-peak travel is typically cheaper and more peaceful too.

In Mexico, for example, for great deals and fewer people, Cabo San Lucas in early summer and late autumn are especially appealing times to visit. (The beaching is better too!)

Of course, conditions are constantly changing around the planet, as authorities limit visitor numbers or introduce other responsible tourist practices. So check on current conditions before planning any trip.

2) Go off the beaten track

There are so many amazing places to discover on this planet that there’s really no excuse for simply following the crowds and contributing to harmful tourism.

Choose places that see fewer tourists, whether it’s a lesser-visited country, region, city or even an under-visited attraction.

Not only will you lessen the negative impact of overtourism, but your visit may help locals financially and promote cultural awareness too.

Plus, you can typically have more authentic exchanges and experiences away from the masses. We got to swim with dolphins in the wild in northern Mozambique (which sees few tourists) – an unforgettable experience not readily found in the world.

But you don’t have to travel to the wilds of Africa to get off-the-beaten-path.

It can be as simple as choosing Puglia instead of the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Or hitting smaller towns rather than European capitals. Or giving Santorini and Mykonos a miss and visiting more under-the radar islands or unique places in Greece like Kythera or Folegandros.

3) Don’t venture too far off the beaten path

This might seem to contradict the above responsible travel tip but hear us out…

Some lesser-visited destinations actually don’t want tourists.

It’s important to visit offbeat places where your presence is actually welcomed, rather than going too far off-the-beaten-track and inserting yourself into a community that feels uncomfortable with outsiders.

Remote traditional communities and strict religious societies are two possible examples.

Take the case involving an illegal attempt to visit the tribal community of India’s North Sentinel Island. The place is one of the world’s forbidden islands. The Sentinelese get violent and attack you if you try to visit.

If there’s no infrastructure for visitors, that’s a huge red flag. Talk to people to find out whether tourists are welcome before venturing too far away from the tried-and-trodden path.

4) Use social media responsibly

Think twice before sharing every travel photo on social media.
Think twice before sharing every travel photo on social media

Many people love snapping tantalizing images on Instagram – and Instagram “influencers” have a powerful hold on people.

Social media has played a huge role in changing tourism. Information is easier to share and previous hidden gems remain hidden no more.

Lots of tourists plan trips based on places they’ve seen on social media, eager to replicate stunning photographs and seek supposed life-changing experiences.

But Instagram tourism is far from real. And many time it’s a problem, sometimes even going so far as to be irresponsible tourism.

It can lead to overcrowding – people shoulder-to-shoulder trying to capture the same sunset photo in Oia, Santorini, or the same Trolltunga selfie in Norway.

The locals may not appreciate it.

How would you like hundreds of people lining up for the “perfect picture” in your tiny village? Locals may also stop going to their favorite eateries or places of worship because of hordes of tourists waiting for the perfect café or temple shot.

It’s an even bigger issue when visitors don’t even buy anything, thus ruining the livelihoods of owners.

Consider too that sacred sites can become commercialized and commodified. Natural sites can be trampled and destroyed.

So how should a responsible tourist behave when it comes to social media?

Why not find your own special places, as opposed to following the Instagram crowd?

Importantly, responsible tourists shouldn’t promote tourism in every single place they visit.

Use caution when tagging locations and perhaps withhold exact details.    

And sometimes, it’s better to simply observe and experience – and keep the moment private rather than sharing.

5) Fly less

Oh, the ugly truth. Flying is among the most environmentally damaging ways to travel.

Some activists discourage flying completely, with the concept of flight shame used to try and convince travelers to opt for more eco-friendly methods of transportation.

While fewer flights mean less carbon emissions, is eliminating flying altogether the answer?

Maybe not.

If everybody stopped flying, some places would see a lot less visitors. This could be catastrophic to certain Caribbean islands or other destinations that rely on tourism for jobs and money. In some instances, it could even hurt wildlife.

When people who rely on tourism for survival don’t have incomes to put food on the table and educate their children, they may be forced to turn to poaching, hunting, logging and theft.

On the flip side, tourist income can help communities to develop. Funding from tourism can contribute to conservation initiatives and the building of community facilities, enable clean water sources, improve health care and more.

Flying is often the only practical way to access some tourist-dependent destinations.

Still, if we want to be responsible tourists, we should try to fly less.

In some situations, catching a long-distance train or bus is a more responsible way of traveling from A to B. Apart from being kinder to the environment, it can be a lot of fun too – and you’ll see scenery you’d otherwise miss.

Taking the first-class bus in Mexico between cities turned out to be an eye-opener for us.

The first-class buses were like flying in first-class! The seats reclined, there was air-conditioning, we had foot rests and on one route, an attendant even walked the aisle offering food-and-drink service. The bus was a much more comfortable (and scenic) way of traveling between different colonial Mexican cities than flying.

When you do fly, direct flights are also more eco-friendly than routes with stopovers.

And instead of flying off on two vacations in a year, maybe take one longer trip (where you hop on a plane) and several shorter closer-to-home breaks (that don’t involve flights).

6) Choose environmentally-friendly airlines

Who knew! Not all airlines are equal when it comes to eco-friendliness.

When faced with a choice of carriers, don’t just choose the cheapest; consider also the airline’s attempts at going “green.”

Book with the most climate-efficient airlines.

The British-based TUI Airways (the world’s largest charter airline) is currently the leader in sustainable airlines. LATAM Airlines Brasil, Air New Zealand and Vietnam Airlines are also serious about sustainable aviation.

Research airlines with green-aware policies like:

  • reducing onboard plastic use
  • decreasing noise pollution
  • installing lighter seats
  • limiting in-flight magazines
  • taking part in recycling schemes,
  • furthering philanthropic travel goals through donations and community projects and similar

New airplanes are also more earth-friendly than older ones.

7) Book eco-friendly cruises

Sailing ships like the Royal Clipper are among the greenest cruise ships in the world.
Sailing ships like the Royal Clipper are among the greenest cruise ships in the world (Credit: Star Clippers)

This is a tough one, as we love and write about cruises often! But here goes…

Cruising has a bad rep for its impact on the environment.

From carbon emissions and fatal pollution generated by enormous diesel engines to huge amounts of onboard waste and poor sewage treatment, many cruises are far from being eco-friendly.

But with the pandemic, the cruise industry has really upped its game in terms of health and safety standards. Likewise, cruise lines are getting more serious about taking steps toward sustainability.

Some cruises and cruise ships are already very green.

No form of cruising is greener than sailing.

And when it comes to sailing cruises, Star Clippers is king.

We’ve sailed on the Star Flyer in the Caribbean, as well as several other Star Clippers cruises around the world. The joy in watching the sails catch the wind (not to mention the pleasure of visiting under-the-radar ports) can’t be beat.

New cruise ships also tend to have greener fuel and other clean technologies.

8) Take public transport, walk and/or bicycle

Take the train! It’s better for the environment.
Take the train! It’s better for the environment

When exploring destinations, use the most environmentally-friendly transport that you can.

Choose public transport instead of rental cars and taxis. To get from the airport to your hotel, airport transport links or shared shuttles are better than private taxis.

Using buses, trains, trams, shuttles and water taxis that are already operating cuts down on pollution.

Many destinations are perfect for exploring on foot or by bicycle too. Walking and bicycling not only lowers your carbon footprint, it’s also great exercise and free (or low cost if you have to rent a bike).

9) Slow down

Stay longer in one place. Ride a bicycle there. Slow down – and breathe easier.
Stay longer in one place. Ride a bicycle there. Slow down – and breathe easier

More travelers are starting to embrace the idea of slow travel.

Slow travel doesn’t mean taking years to amble your way around the world. Rather, it’s more about not racing through a bucket list and, instead, spending more quality time in one place to build more of a local connection.

Personally, we’d suggest exploring one particular area of Spain or Italy or France in depth, rather than doing a grand European tour and touching on only the highlights.

Visiting fewer destinations is more sustainable than trying to pack as much into a trip as possible.

Staying in one place for longer is also much less tiring and stressful than constantly moving around and packing and unpacking.

10) Offset carbon emissions

Whatever way you travel – by air, water or overland – it usually leaves a carbon footprint.

Consider making donations to offset your carbon emissions.

There are ongoing projects across the globe that actively work to reduce the impact of carbon emissions through activities like reforestation and investing in sustainable energy.

Some airlines allow you to make a donation at the same time as booking your tickets. British Airways, Delta Airlines and Air New Zealand, for example, allow you to donate for your carbon emission costs, and the money is used to fund environmental programs.

Alternatively, making a voluntary donation to Gold Standard, Carbon Fund, Cool Effect, My Climate and similar organizations really makes a world of difference.

11) Make mindful lodging choices

Instead of just searching for the cheapest place to stay in Yangon (Myanmar) or the most convenient accommodation in Mallorca, Spain, pause to consider if there’s a more sustainable way of spending your tourism dollars.

Accommodation is one of your biggest travel costs, so it’s an area where you can really have a positive impact.

Be wary, however, of just relying on an accommodation’s description of being eco-friendly.

Many hotels have cottoned on to the fact that guests hold accommodations to higher standards these days. Sadly, some use the “eco” tag as a marketing ploy, without actually taking any meaningful steps towards being kinder to the environment.

Few places are perfect, but some are much better than others.

Things to look for at eco-friendly hotels:

  • Do they use renewable energy, such as solar power or geothermal energy?
  • Are they built from sustainable materials?
  • Do they actively work to recycle and reduce waste?
  • Do they hire local staff and pay fair wages?
  • Do they contribute to community or environmental projects?

You can also look for accommodations approved by Rainforest Alliance, EarthCheck and similar. These companies work with properties to help them to become more socially and environmentally aware. For example, One & Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico (and other One & Only hotels), along with many Sandals Resorts are EarthCheck “platinum” certified.

In general, avoiding large chain hotels and staying at local family-owned hotels helps to drive money back into the local economy.

Smaller accommodations may not have a big online presence – but can still turn out to be totally charming. We found some lovely places to stay in Bocas del Toro (including the  boutique and very beachy-chic Island Plantation Resort), even though there wasn’t much available about them on the Internet.

Sometimes it’s worth looking for places to stay once you arrive at your destination.

Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner) and Airbnb can also be a terrific way for local people to earn extra money. (But sometimes such platforms have a harmful effect on communities; local housing prices have risen leading to fewer viable housing options for locals. So you have to do your research on this one before booking.)

Essentially, though, the key takeaway point for a responsible tourist is to make informed choices when selecting environmentally and socially responsible hotels.

12) Be a responsible guest

No matter where you stay, be mindful of the impact of your actions on the environment and community.

Do you really need your bed linen or towels changed every day? More laundry equals more water, detergent and energy being used.

Some hotels still swap out the towels even if you leave them hanging and haven’t tossed them on the floor. So you could put the “Do Not Disturb” sign on when leaving the room.

The same goes for personal laundry. Only make use of laundry services (or use self-service machines) if you have a full load.

Also be careful not to leave the air-conditioning on or the heat blasting out around the clock.

And turn lights out and appliances off when you leave.

Simple steps, yes, but they all add up when it comes to being a more responsible tourist.

13) Eat local

Tropical fruits for sale in a market in Papeete, Tahiti.
Tropical fruits for sale in a market in Papeete, Tahiti

Another easy way to travel responsibly is to eat local.

As with accommodations, eating local helps to support local businesses. Plus, you’re much more likely to get authentic dishes and cheaper prices than at international chain eateries.

Many small-scale eateries make the most of local produce too, reducing the environmental impacts of food transportation.

Imagine sinking your teeth into a delicious Pad Thai from a local restaurant in Thailand, a flavorful samosa from a good Indian take-out place or a hearty bandeja paisa from a local Colombian restaurant – all made that much tastier knowing you’ve done your bit to help out.

While you’re at it, do your tastebuds a favor and try local fruits and veggies (when safe). In Hawaii, try local Hawaiian fruit like lychee, longan and egg fruit. In Mexico, starfruit and zapote negro (chocolate pudding fruit) are two Mexican fruits you should definitely try.

14) Avoid some exotic foods

While eating local food and dishes is all part of uncovering the culture, you shouldn’t eat anything harvested in a cruel or harmful way

For example, shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in some countries. As only the fin is needed, fishermen cut the fin from the creature, leaving it to die bloody and in pain. Shark finning is not only inhumane, but has also led to many shark and ray species being threatened.

And, if you need any more reasons to avoid shark fin soup, it’s also often full of toxins.

From snake wine and “health” remedies containing bear bile to poached sea turtle eggs and pangolin meat, there are sadly many examples of destructive food practices.

15) Shop local

Responsible travelers look for crafts by local artisans when buying souvenirs.
Look for crafts by local artisans when buying souvenirs

What happens when you buy from small locally-owned stores?

You got it! More of your money goes back into the local economy.

Whether it’s clothing, toiletries, souvenirs or everyday essentials, opting to purchase from mom-and-pop-type stores, local markets and independent retailers has a greater positive impact than shopping in a large international outlet.

Pro tip: If buying several items, try to spread your money around among different vendors.

Buying locally produced souvenirs in Hawaii or any other place you’re visiting has the added benefit of preserving skills and local crafts.

Source handicrafts from ethical cooperatives or directly from local artisans to make sure your money is going into the hands of the people who need it the most.

16) Don’t buy unethical souvenirs

Souvenirs made from shells and coral. Some pearls. Sea turtle products. Gifts made using fur, ivory or feathers. These are just a few examples of souvenirs that are harmful to wildlife or that support cruel practices.

Buddha head statues are also offensive to followers of the faith and, in general, Buddha merchandise can be culturally insensitive.

When it comes to traditional clothing, make sure you’re not disrespecting local beliefs or contributing to cultural appropriation.

Ethical travelers are mindful about what they buy.  

17) Bargain and tip like a local

Don’t get too carried away when bargaining.
Don’t get too carried away when bargaining

Bargaining in Mexico, Morocco, Egypt and other places around the world is a fun part of the shopping experience.

But do research local bargaining customs and typical prices before you go.

Don’t be that obnoxious person who digs in over a small amount of money. What’s a pittance to you could be a day’s worth of food for a family.

The point of haggling is so both parties get a fair deal.

Haggling too much can keep people in poverty. On the other hand, not haggling at all (when part of the local custom) can also be harmful to communities, as it can drive prices up for locals and lead to hardship.   

Similarly, find out whether to tip or not to tip.

Undertipping can be disrespectful and deprive people of a livable income, yet regular over-tipping can cause imbalances in the local economy.

Responsible travelers know how to balance financial transactions fairly, without being too stingy and without flinging cash at people.

18) Use responsible tour operators

As with responsible hotels (#11), there are more and more responsible tour operators to choose from these days. To do your bit, you just need to do a little research.

Socially responsible travel companies:

  • Work with the local community
  • Maintain sustainable working practices
  • Pay fair wages
  • Include indigenous people or marginalized groups in their operations
  • Honor local customs
  • Respect local traditions
  • Protect the natural environment
  • Don’t use wild animals
  • Are either locally owned or give back to the local community

Supporting responsible tour operators (as opposed to those that disrespect and abuse people and the planet) is an almost effortless way of making a positive impact.

Further, you’re more likely to build positive connections with people and places and learn more about a place’s heritage, culture and nature.

19) Enjoy local experiences

Along with sleeping and shopping local, favoring local tours and tourist initiatives helps put money in the pockets of local residents. You help to nurture local traditions and keep skills alive. And you get to enjoy truly meaningful experiences along with cultural understanding.

Think cooking classes run by locals, where meals are prepared using locally-grown produce and just-caught fish. Traditional dance classes with local instructors. Pottery workshops. Calligraphy classes. Language lessons.

The possibilities are endless!

20) Reduce waste

A monkey rifles through garbage.
A monkey rifles through garbage

A huge part of responsible and sustainable travel is considering the environmental impact of your trip.

Many places don’t have the proper facilities for dealing with waste. In worst cases, trash is left to rot in the countryside or makes its way to the oceans. Poorer countries don’t have advanced recycling programs.

A big way you can help is to cut back on your waste.

Some ideas for reducing your waste when traveling:

  • Carry (and use!) a reusable water bottle rather than buying bottle upon plastic bottle of drinking water. We like the Nomader collapsible water bottle – it squishes down for packing, is tough and, most important, is leak-proof.
  • Say “no” to plastic bags.
  • Carry your own reusable bag or tote.
  • Say “no” to plastic straws. If you just can’t handle your cocktails or soft drinks without a straw, you could buy a reusable metal straw for your travels.
  • If on a road or camping trip, bring your own containers for takeaway meals rather than using Styrofoam or single-use-plastic boxes.
  • Download maps onto your devices rather than grabbing paper maps in every place you go. (Those paper maps may be convenient and readily available, but think about all those trees and all that paper waste.)

Also make sure you dispose of waste appropriately. Please don’t just toss a wrapper on the street or into the bushes.

21) Use eco-friendly products

This one’s a no-brainer for having a responsible vacation.

If you’re planning to swim, always make sure to use a reef-safe sunscreen.

Use eco-friendly insect repellents. And look for environmentally-friendly toiletries and beauty products.

For camping (and in places where waste water may not be treated effectively), use laundry detergents and dishwashing detergents that don’t harm the environment.

22) Conserve water

Clean water is a precious commodity in lots of places – don’t waste it.
Clean water is a precious commodity in lots of places – don’t waste it

Clean water is scarce in some places around the globe, especially in Africa. Water can be a valuable commodity that many travelers take for granted.

A responsible tourist will always try to conserve water when they can.

Take shorter showers and definitely don’t fill up a hotel bathtub for a nice long soak. Don’t leave water running while you brush your teeth. And, as mentioned above, only use a washing machine when you have a full load of laundry.

Essentially, only use as much water as you need.

23) Don’t support animal abuse

As times change, people are becoming more aware of the ethical implications of animal tourism.

Animal interactions when traveling can come in many forms.

Some examples: Riding elephants, donkeys and camels. (Guilty confession: Janice rode an elephant in Thailand years ago, something we wouldn’t do now.) Posing for selfies with captive creatures. Animal shows and animals in circuses. Cage-diving with sharks and swimming with captive dolphins. Watching monkeys harvest coconuts. Attending a bullfight. Stroking a tiger. Holding a snake.

Many of these interactions aren’t ethical.

Caring for a baby elephant for a day is fine, just don’t ride one.
Caring for a baby elephant for a day is fine, just don’t ride one

We recognize animal tourism isn’t black-and-white.

Cultural elements and traditions blur the lines of right and wrong. Consider, for example, the traditional role of elephants during wars in Asia, the importance of camels for nomadic tribes in North Africa and the Middle East, and the use of sled dogs in Scandinavia and Canada.

As an outsider, it isn’t our place to tell communities how they should live. But it is our responsibility not to fuel practices that, in modern times, are seen by many as unethical.

While ethical zoos and beneficial animal sanctuaries do exist, a responsible traveler should properly research any animal tour or experience before signing up.

Or, stick to spotting animals in the wild – where they belong. 

24) Act responsibly around wildlife

There are several dos and don’ts associated with spotting animals in the wild:

  • Don’t feed wildlife. It can make animals ill, encourage reliance on humans and lead to aggression.  
  • Check the credentials of any safari operators to ensure they follow sustainable practices.
  • Avoid companies that feed animals to coax them closer, disturb animals, separate mothers from their young and so on.
  • Watch animals quietly from a distance without making too much noise or otherwise disturbing the wild creatures.
  • Back off. As tempting as it can be to get closer for that perfect picture, respect animals’ territory.
  • Definitely don’t try to touch animals in the wild, for their safety and for yours.
  • Disturb natural habitats as little as possible, and leave no trace of you having been there.

25) Respect local culture and laws

A Buddhist monk at prayer.
A Buddhist monk at prayer

Brush up on local customs, culture, norms and laws before visiting a new place to avoid committing any social faux pas or offending people.

It’s important to remember that you’re a guest in a community. You may not agree or understand certain cultural practices, but it’s not your job to judge. (Side note: If it’s things like ritual female genital mutilation or other abuses of human rights, then obviously you don’t want to support communities that think such practices are acceptable.)

Dressing modestly in Muslim and other countries avoids causing offence. Plus, locals know how to dress suitably for their climate and conditions, so you’ll likely be a lot more comfortable too!

Asking genuine questions is a way to increase cultural knowledge.

But know which topics are taboo and don’t force uncomfortable conversations. For example, criticizing the monarchy in Thailand is a criminal offence and thus a subject that most Thai people aren’t happy to talk about. It can get you into big trouble too.

Act appropriately in places of worship and sacred sites. Don’t smooch in public if public displays of affection are frowned upon. Don’t get uptight if you find everywhere closed up for siesta. Be mindful of gestures too – common gestures in one place can be super offensive in another.

Also ask before taking pictures of people and their property. In some cultures, for example among indigenous and animist groups in the Americas, people believe that photography can steal their soul.

It’s polite to ask for permission before taking photos of people.
It’s polite to ask for permission before taking photos of people

One more thing about photos… Keep in mind that it’s illegal to take pics of military bases or government buildings in many parts of the world.

26) Engage with locals

Remember that everyone you meet on your travels, from tour guides and hoteliers to market-stall owners and drivers, are people. We’re social creatures, and people love to share their experiences and connect with others!

Treat everyone you meet as an equal, with compassion, dignity and respect.

And take the time to learn something of the local language.

People like it when you try and communicate with them in their local language, even if it’s just “Thank you” or “How are you?” It shows you’re making an effort to learn about their country, culture and way of life.

Happy travelers
Happy travelers with a happy local

27) Don’t give money to children or beggars

While it can really pull on the heartstrings to be asked for money by people less fortunate, try to resist giving money to beggars or children.

Unfortunately, giving in to these situations often does more harm than good.

Giving money to beggars can perpetuate begging and encourage others to seek a living by asking for hand-outs. It provides no motivation for people to improve their conditions and may fund exploitative practices.

Children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Child begging may be part of a larger criminal organization, and child beggars could be victims of trafficking. Also, being on the streets means they’re not getting an education.

Similarly, don’t buy from street kids either.

28) Give back ethically

Donating to a school is a responsible way to give back when traveling.
Donating to a school is a responsible way to give back when traveling

Rather than giving money to beggars (#27), make a donation instead to reputable charities that work with disadvantaged members of society.

Consider giving supplies to local schools, donating food to animal shelters or giving unwanted clothing to a (genuine) orphanage.

In Myanmar, when children ran up to us with their wide pleading eyes and hands out, we were advised to donate instead to the local Buddhist nunnery which ran a free school – and we were taken there for a visit.

Sometimes just being a responsible tourist is the perfect way to give back to a community.

29) Volunteer responsibly

Some people love the idea of volunteering as a way to be a socially responsible traveler.

Unfortunately, voluntourism can be both good and bad.

Some volunteer projects are simply fronts for money-making schemes. Well-meaning people with good intentions can end up harming the environment and exploiting villages. Short-term volunteers in schools, particularly when volunteers aren’t actually teachers, can be detrimental to educational development.

If you have the time and necessary skills to commit to an ethical cause that empowers the local community, great! Do your homework, and you’ll find that suitable ethical volunteering opportunities do exist.

But if you don’t have relevant skills, volunteering isn’t really the way to demonstrate that you’re a responsible tourist.

30) Promote responsible tourism

One of the best ways to be a responsible tourist (as well as actually acting like one, of course!) is to promote responsible practices and encourage other travelers to embrace responsible travel.

Companies react to what tourists want, so use your money to help shape responsible practices in the tourism industry by opting for responsible tour operators and accommodations.

Spend locally to funnel funds into the local community, respect people and places, be mindful of the environment and make your travels even better by knowing that you’ve played your part in something essential for travel in the future.

Final thoughts on enjoying a responsible vacation

Hopefully this post has helped to answer the question “What is responsible travel?” and you’ve found these 30 ethical travel tips useful.

With time, you’ll probably find that many things become second nature and – with very little effort – you’ll soon be a glowing example of responsible tourist behavior!

Do you have other ideas on how to be an ethical traveler?

We’d love to hear from you. Please let us know in the Comments section below.


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How to be a responsible tourist

Photo credits: 5, 15, 20 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

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