Responsible Tourism - How to travel responsibly
The definition of travel has changed a lot over the last decade. Flights have become cheaper, basic itineraries have been modified to include as many sightseeing places as can be adjusted, and pretty photos on Instagram has changed the way how we view travel. Amid global warming, over-tourism and problems in waste disposal, there’s an urgent need to protect the world and make changes in the way we travel. Not many travellers understand what responsible travel means and it is need of the hour that they realize that travelling responsibly isn’t always travelling cheap or backpacker style. To most, the word ‘responsibility’ means burdensome, that often contradicts the fun of travelling. But in fact, travelling responsibly gives one more opportunity to connect with nature and indulge in authentic experiences. By adopting a style of tourism that minimizes the negative impact on environment, economy or culture, any traveller can contribute to responsible tourism.
Simply putting it, responsible travel is all about dealing with your own waste, conserving water and energy, abandoning the use of plastic, supporting the traditional way of life and contributing to the local community. Let’s take a look at how you can take baby steps to travel responsibly.
Here are some of our key tips to responsible travel that we have acquired over the years of travelling the world.
Start at home
Abondon plastic usage - Minimize your footprint
Support local community and local businesses
Give back or volunteer
Do a land journey or fly responsibly
Respect local culture and customs
Select less travelled countries or travel in the off-season
Say no to animal exploitation
Keep graffiti and artwork skills to yourself
Stay in eco-friendly accommodations
Be careful of your social media posts
Educate & spread awareness
Lets dive into each of them and understand them better -
1. Start at home
Responsible travel starts way before you leave home. Responsible travel is just an extension of responsible living. If you are conscious of your usage and wastage at home, you are bound to be conscious of these things when you travel. So to travel responsibly, start living responsibly as a first step.
Consider every drop of water as precious as your assets. Use as much as you need, but not a drop more which might be wastage. Double-check if the taps are properly closed and flush adequate less water. Turn off the tap when you are brushing. Many cities are encountering a shortage of energy and water. As with water, use electricity responsibly. Turn off lights, fan, television and charging points when not in use. Do not keep the bathroom lights switched on unnecessarily. Before setting off to travel, turn off or unplug all electronic appliances and check that no water taps are leaking.
While travelling, you might be in a five star hotel or a homestay, use electricity and water only as much as you need. Just because you are not paying for it separately, does not mean you keep the AC on even when you leave the room.
2. Abandon plastic usage – Minimize your footprint
We all know that plastic is bad for environment. But we often give little thought to how we manage it. Ask yourself a question whenever you visit a heavenly place - Do you want to convert the surreal paradise into a plastic land? Don’t you find it gross to see the food wrappers and coke bottles littering the pristine beauty of nature? If you visit beautiful small villages or hike in lush green forests or trek in snowy mountains, be extremely conscious of what you do with waste. These places do not have a way to get rid of the plastic garbage; neither do they have a waste segregation system or any recycling plant. Being a responsible traveller here was of utmost importance. Do not litter even if the locals do.
Carry a metal water bottle with you and get it refilled wherever you can. This will help you avoid purchasing plastic water bottles water every now and then while travelling. Say no to plastic straws. Even better, carry your own bamboo straw. Avoid buying and consuming packaged food; not only is it harmful to your body, but it also creates a lot of waste. If at all you buy them, dispose it responsibly in bins. And if you dont find bins, carry the waste food packets with you all the way back to cities and then dispose it in bins.
It is always a good idea of having one section of your bag for dry waste disposal. In fact, most backpacks today are designed such that they have a section in the bottom for garbage. If you don't have one, you can always carry one polythene bag in your backpack where you put any non-biodegradable waste that you generate. We recall while trekking through forests to Dudhsagar Falls and Tambdi Surla falls in Goa, we picked up every piece of plastic and stored it in a larger plastic which again we found on the way. By the end of the trek, we felt extremely proud and satisfied.
3. Support local community and local businesses
This applies to 3 facets – eating, sleeping and buying.
Instead of buying a soft drink, ask for a juice. Buy locally grown fruits instead of food packets. Try out local delicacies. Eat at local eateries. This is where you will find the tastiest and most authentic food.
Buy local souvenirs from government-run emporiums or local shops. Choose to buy locally made handicrafts instead of mass-produced mugs, keychains and magnets. Try not to bargain much. That meagre sum of money that you are trying to save will go a long way for the person whom you are purchasing from. However, to support local business, do not go around buying products made from endangered species or wood.
Choose to stay at an eco-friendly homestay with locals rather than splurging on a renowned hotel chain. Always remember that the shells and corals should stay at the shore and the leaves and shining stones shall stay where they belong to. Research legality and local ethics before you pick these up for your home decorations.
4. Give back or volunteer
Volunteer while travelling. Opt for a work exchange - where you get to stay for free in exchange for some work. Here, along with learning new skills, you also give back to society. Research for non-profit organisations in the area you are visiting and support in any way you are capable of. Volunteer only for worthwhile causes and with reputed organisations. If you possess some skills, put your expertise to good use. Like teaching a language in a rural school or helping paint a hospital.
While you may not have time and bandwidth to volunteer at every place that you visit, you do have money to donate or buy useful things for locals. Rural schools, old age homes and orphanages accept donations to support education and development. We donated stationery kits to local school kids in Spiti Valley. Just their excitement to receive gifts and the smile on their faces made our trip worthwhile.
While giving back to the community is a great idea, refrain from giving money to poor children begging on the streets. Doing so encourages them to skip school and beg for easy living. But if you really want to help out, buy them food instead of giving them money.
5. Do a land journey or fly responsibly
We have realized that a land journey is many times more fulfilling and adventurous than directly flying to the destination. When moving locally within and around a destination, choose to walk or cycle or hire a shared taxi or take a metro to emit fewer pollutants. Use public transport. Switch to a greener mode of transportation. Travelling by train, bus, or even hitchhike has gained a lot of popularity these days.
Take pleasure in slow travel. There’s only so much that we can experience in this lifetime. Do not try to pack 100 different places-to-see in your weekly trip itinerary. Instead, spend quality time in one place and grasp as much as the place has to offer.
It’s understood, that sometimes you just cannot avoid flying. While travelling across oceans and very long distances or if you have limited time in hand, there isn’t much option but to book a flight. In such scenarios, you can contribute by choosing direct flights instead of stop-overs or fly with an airline that promotes sustainable air travel either by using sustainable aviation fuel, by planting more trees or by other similar methods. Also, pack light. Every extra gram of your luggage adds to your flight fuel burn.
6. Respect local culture and customs
Being a respectful traveller is the first step to being a responsible traveller. Travel with an open mind. Research about the local culture before visiting any place. Learn to speak a few words and phrases in the local language and use them to greet people around. This will allow you to be readily welcomed by the locals.
Educate yourself on the social culture, customs and traditions and behave accordingly. Ex. At every holy place of worship in Bhutan, you are supposed to wear full sleeves clothes and cover your legs. In Golden Temple in Amritsar, everyone must cover their head – be it a man or a woman. Research and dress respectfully while visiting temples and monasteries. Follow rules at tourists’ attractions. If a signboard says ‘No photographs’, don’t click. If it says ‘Maintain silence’, do not create a ruckus.
‘If we liked noise we wouldn’t be here; if you like noise you shouldn’t be here’.
Beautiful! Isn’t it? Act responsibly – do not play music on your mobile or bluetooth speakers for everyone to listen. This is something very popular with hikers. You might be hiking in a beautiful peaceful forest or trekking in mountains with some scenic landscape and suddenly you will hear music coming from a bluetooth speaker of a passerby. Not only does it spoil the peace of a tranquil place, it also hampers peace of mind of every person on the way who did not choose to listen to it, but had to. Be considerate and use earphones instead. Respect the tranquillity and solitude of the place as well as the privacy of people. Do not try to shove cameras in the lovely faces of the locals. Instead, ask them politely if you could click.
7. Select less-travelled countries or travel in the off-season
Though the travel industry is growing, the number of attractions, more or less, remain the same. In Goa, the locals have started using their agricultural lands for commercial tourism. In Agra, the increase in the number of tourists has resulted in large scale deforestation for hotel construction. The sparkling white marble floor of the iconic monument, Taj Mahal, is said to turn yellow. Research where you want to go and see if you are adding to the existing problems.
Many popular destinations have started putting efforts to combat over-tourism by holding protests and campaigns. It’s advisable not to plan a trip to such destinations or you can choose to travel there in the off-season. Ensure you travel responsibly especially when it comes to these destinations. Find destinations that are more earth-conscious than party-conscious. Prioritize visiting places where the locals are still happy to meet you.
8. Say no to animal exploitation
In developing countries like India, there are no regulations on how animals are treated at major tourist attractions. Hence, it becomes a traveller’s responsibility to act sensibly and be accountable for their actions. While riding elephants in Dubare elephant camp (Coorg) or Camel riding in Jaisalmer (Rajasthan) looks like a great way to help locals earn a few bucks, the animals are generally mistreated, overworked, starved and taught unnatural tricks. They might be either abused, drugged or both. Plan for an animal-friendly holiday. If you are keen on spotting and clicking wildlife, sign up for ethical safari rides in national parks where the animals move freely in their habitat and are not caged.
9. Keep graffiti and artwork skills to yourself
We are pretty confident we don’t need to emphasize this point, but no harm mentioning it. You need not record or mark your presence everywhere you go. Don’t carve your name on anything, be it stones, monument walls or barks of trees. We have been disappointed so many times to see the inscribed love locks that irresponsible tourists would have left on so many beautiful monuments across India. As it is said: ‘Take nothing but memories and photographs, leave nothing but footprints.’
10. Stay in eco-friendly accommodations
There are plenty of eco-resorts and eco-villages that do no or negligible harm to nature without compromising the fun and adventure of a holiday. All that is required, is a bit of research and some thought. La Villa Bethany in Landour and Dudhsagar Plantation in Goa are a few such eco-friendly accommodations that we have stayed. They participate in reforestation projects, support local businesses, believe in effective waste management, believe in farm-to-table dining and give a chance to leave a smaller footprint. Over and above these green and eco-friendly measures that these accommodations partake, staying at such places enables you to gain a unique understanding of the local culture.
11. Be careful of your social media posts
Be alert about how you represent the culture you witness at the places that you travel to on your social media handles. Your pictures are the source for someone else to understand the customs and values that the place holds. Be careful about how you use your pictures. Think twice before posting those dreamy, 'perfect' images with a 'perfectly' flowy dress with a 'perfect' backdrop. Do you really want to showcase unreal images on your social media feed? Because life of travel and adventure is nowhere as perfect as it seems on Facebook or Instagram. Think before you post a photo and add the location of a perfectly pristine and isolated place that hasn’t yet been discovered by crowds. Do you really want those places to be the next Taj Mahal or beaches of North Goa?
12. Educate and spread awareness
Travelling responsibly might come naturally to some people, but others may just be unaware of the implications their actions can have. If you spot someone, unintentionally doing some harm to the community or to the environment, mention it and educate them in a friendly and polite manner. Villagers of Mawlynnong (Meghalaya), do not shy away from requesting the tourists to pick up their own waste. It is only through education that we can spread awareness about responsible tourism. If a restaurant, homestay or a tour organiser is doing good to the environment, tell the world about it. Teach your peers to travel responsibly. If you see animals treated inappropriately, report it. Remember - Little steps go a long way.
Do you still think travelling responsibly is a lot of work? Relax. You need not be 100% perfect in following these tips. Do what you can and enjoy travelling like you always did. Once the world is COVID-free and you get to travel again, remember to make a positive impact by travelling responsibly.
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What responsible travel tips do you follow while travelling? Is there any responsible practice that we have missed out? Let us know in the comment section below.