Responsible tourism to preserve our planet

Lizet Wesselman - 13/06/2023

Responsible tourism to preserve our planet

Lizet Wesselman - 13/06/2023

In a world that seems to be getting smaller and smaller thanks to social media and the still-growing offer of flights, among other things, tourism is a booming business. Travelling is becoming easier and more accessible, which means we are discovering the world’s beautiful places en masse. Unfortunately, this also has considerable side effects. Over-tourism is a serious problem, causing damage to nature and cultural heritage all over the world. Responsible tourism, a form of travel that respects the places we visit, is becoming increasingly important. But how do you travel responsibly?

What is responsible tourism?

I talk a lot about sustainable travel, which is mainly about carbon emissions and conservation of nature. But responsible tourism goes the extra mile, also revolving around the social and economic aspects of travel. It’s about the idea of travellers, tour operators and local communities working together to ensure that tourism is developed in a way that preserves and enhances the natural and cultural value of a destination.

Responsible tourism is about balancing both your experience as a traveller, which of course shouldn’t be restricted (too much), but also the impact it has on the local community. It should be beneficial for them to receive tourists, rather than a burden because the place gets polluted and destroyed. So it’s up to you, as a traveller, to treat your holiday location responsibly and consider what kind of local impact you’re making. Do you support local businesses, run by locals, or do you only visit the international chains, and leave all your junk on the beach?

Why is responsible tourism important?

Responsible tourism, like sustainable travel, is important for preserving the world as we know it. Of course, things are constantly changing and often we don’t really have a say in that. But there are certainly changes we can prevent, by being aware of our local impact.

For instance, the growth of tourism also always generates a growth in competition from multimillion-dollar international companies. Think chain hotels, fast-food restaurants, and big clothing brands. The owners of these chains are probably not even in this country, so your money on site isn’t going to the local community at all. Sure, local people work in those businesses. But in shops with locally produced products, you not only support those employees, but also the local producers, who may in turn buy their materials locally, etcetera.

Some examples of the local impact you can make

Preserving culture and heritage
With responsible travel, we respect the local traditions, cultures, and heritage of the places we visit. Imagine what would happen to local restaurants if we only ate at international chains. Those go out of business, which means you suddenly have to search for an authentic, local restaurant. But the same applies, for instance, to local specialities like handmade art and products. When you buy a handmade souvenir, you contribute to the preservation of cultural heritage. When you buy a souvenir made in China in a souvenir shop, you contribute to China’s economy, but not the country you are in. (Assuming for a moment that you aren’t in China wink)

Environmental protection
Responsible tourism is also about sustainability. For example, choose the local B&B that serves you breakfast from their own garden produce in the morning, instead of the chain hotel that has their breakfast items flown in from all over the world. Some chain hotels really do try to be sustainable. But by opting for the local sustainable option instead, you are thus, in turn, helping to preserve cultural heritage. Because that breakfast is most likely made according to grandma’s recipe, unlike your continental “western” breakfast at the chain hotel.

But also, for example, choosing local tours, with tour guides who are proud of their heritage, and do their best to preserve it, is a more environmentally conscious choice than a big company that simply wants to make a profit. For example, consider a boat tour of the mangrove, where a local guide sails slowly and keeps a distance from animals and nature that could be damaged. A tour operator working on a profit basis will make sure you sail the fastest route, regardless of the consequences. Only to make sure you’re back on land as soon as possible so the next group can board.

Social welfare
Responsible tourism can contribute to the social-economic development of local communities. Again, if you spend your money at local shops, restaurants and accommodation, you contribute to local culture. While chains and international shops, mainly generate turnover for the rich owners who live in their villas elsewhere.

Moreover, local businesses may have initiatives that give back to the community. Think, for instance, of revenue sharing, providing retail space for local designers or making the location available for local activities. International companies have less connection with the local community, making these kinds of initiatives much less common. Or else from a profit motive rather than for the local impact.

Animal welfare
An important aspect of responsible tourism is respecting animal rights. This means avoiding activities that cause animal suffering, such as riding elephants or visiting inhumane zoos. Unfortunately, this is still a vague subject that many know little about. People are still unaware of their impact and how these animals should be treated. All animals can become stressed when people get too close. So bathing with an elephant is just as bad as riding them, despite us often being told this is “ethical”.

The same goes for marine animals. Consider, for example, a whale watching trip, with the boat chasing the animals to get closer. How do you think such an animal experiences that? As sociable, or as possible hunting? So make sure you do your research and go for the tour where distance is kept, and the animals are given the chance to decide for themselves if they want to get closer. This certainly happens, as many animals are very curious. But chasing them creates a lot of stress. This can result in you not seeing any whales on the whale spotting trip. A pity, of course! But then you can go home with peace of mind, knowing that you haven’t disturbed their habitat.

How to travel responsible?

I’ve already given some tips above, which alternative choices you can make. But here are some tips on what you can do to make your trip more responsible.

Do your research
Learn about the culture, customs and ecosystem of the places you want to visit. This will help you be respectful of the destination and its people. AND it helps you get the best local experience because now you know where to go.

Choose sustainable accommodation
Look for sustainable accommodations that are preferably run by locals. For a local impact, it’s better to choose a small, local business, rather than a mega hotel that is carbon-neutral. Make your own assessment of whether emissions or local impact is most important for your next travel location.

Support local communities
Buy local produce and eat at local restaurants to boost the local economy. But also book tours with locals instead of through big corporations. For example, when you book an organized trip, you can still take a bus to town to book a tour with a local organisation instead of booking it with the travel organisation you came with.

Respect nature
Follow the rules of nature reserves and protected areas, and definitely don’t litter. Also, reducing your water consumption in usually dry areas, has a positive impact on the nature around it.

Make conscious transport choices
Also check with tours about the steps they take for sustainability. Do you go on a private tour for two and still get driven around in a bus for eight? Then that’s obviously not very sustainable. But also, for example, a tour with pick-up service is less sustainable than taking public transport to a meeting point yourself. Perhaps a little more effort, but more sustainable. Read more about sustainable means of transport.

Be aware of animal welfare
Don’t blindly rely on a label that says an animal activity is “ethical”. Unfortunately, such labels are often fake. Make sure you research what is and isn’t ethical, and then check whether these rules are followed.

Photographing responsibly
Be respectful when photographing people, especially in culturally sensitive situations. Ask permission if you want to photograph someone, especially if you want to share it online. In some cases, they’ll ask for a small fee. And even with street performers, for example, it’s proper to give some money if you take a video or photo.

Show respect for local cultures and religions
Make sure you’re aware of local customs. Whether cultural or religious, in every country there are things that are perceived as disrespectful. This could be anything from dress codes in a mosque to the way you address elderly people.

With responsible tourism, we can ensure that future generations can also enjoy the beautiful places we get to enjoy today. Responsible tourism isn’t just a trend, it’s a necessary step to protect our planet and ensure that our travel behaviour contributes to a better world. Let’s all work together to make responsible choices and enjoy exploring the world in a way that creates positive change.

Read an example of how our trip to Moldova made a big local impact.