10 Ways to Be a Responsible Traveler

These guidelines will help you see the light. (Photo: Thinkstock) 

By Jarryd Salem and Alesha Bradford

As travel writers and photographers who live on the road 365 days a year, we are lucky enough to encounter all kinds of different cultures and environments on a daily basis. Consequently, we’ve become big advocates for “sustainable tourism,” also known as “responsible travel.” Simply put, responsible travelers believe that the way you travel, the regions you decide to visit, and the places you choose to spend your money can have a positive impact on communities and families in need around the globe.

You don’t need to be a full-time traveler, either, to jump on the sustainability bandwagon. There are plenty of ways that you can make a big difference to the people of the world when you travel — even if you’re only going on a week-long vacation. It’s all about being more mindful and educated about the decisions you make, both big and small, while overseas. Follow these guidelines, and you will be well on your way to a life of responsible travel.  

Your actions can help create a better future for local children. (Photo: Alesha Bradford) 

1. Volunteer some of your time.

Whether you are traveling for two weeks or two years, volunteering a portion of your time to reputable organizations with worthwhile causes can make a world of difference. If you have a skill that may be useful in a developing nation, such as medical or social care experience, or an engineering background, there are a whole multitude of avenues you can pursue to help put your expertise to good use.

But even if you are not highly qualified, you can still find beneficial ways to volunteer — a practice that’s referred to as “voluntourism” in the travel sphere. It may be possible to spend a few days teaching English in rural schools, for instance, or you can check out different animal conservation projects that are active in the places you are visiting. Another great option: Contact a local NGO and ask if they need any supplies brought over. Check out Pack For A Purpose and Grassroots Volunteering to get some ideas. 

A word of warning, though: Don’t get caught up with the idea of “voluntourism” for the wrong reasons. Do your research before committing to volunteering with an organization, and be sure to think logically. Ask yourself: Is spending a day at an orphanage really beneficial to the children there? If you have zero construction experience, are you suitably qualified to build a hospital in Tanzania? And by you volunteering, are you actually taking a job away from a local who could perform the same task? Instead of paying a high cost to give your time to an NGO, don’t be afraid to admit that perhaps it is better to just donate that money and let the experts handle the task.

Related: 9 Vacations That Make You a Better Person

Jarryd and Alesha teaching English at a monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar. (Photo: Alesha Bradford)

2) Shop locally.

When it comes to eating, sleeping, and buying souvenirs, choosing where you spend your money can have a massive impact on the community. By having dinner at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, staying in a family-run guest house, or purchasing a trinket from a street vendor, you are helping to inject money directly into the local economy. Aside from creating a more authentic travel experience for yourself, you are also helping someone create a better life for him or herself. If you buy from a multinational corporation, however, your tourist dollars won’t go as far — most will go straight into the pockets of shareholders and business directors.

Staying at a family-run place rather than an international chain helps the local economy. (Photo: Alesha Bradford)

3) Think before you act with wildlife activities.

A lot of people have exotic dreams of riding elephants, swimming with dolphins, or having their photos taken with tigers — but these irresponsible activities often do more harm than good. Wildlife tourism is a big business, and most of these operators think about their profits before the well-being of the animals. Remember that for one hour of entertainment for yourself, you could be contributing to a lifetime of distress for the animal.

If you are really interested in visiting a place that houses and protects animals, make sure you contact one that is a registered NGO, and is transparent about their business dealings. A reputable organization will have no problem sending you all of the information you would like.

Remember: Just because you have the right to do it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. (Photo: Alesha Bradford) 

4) Respect the local culture.

One of the greatest rewards we have when we travel is that we get to learn about different cultures and religions. The world and its people are diverse and fascinating, and it is an astonishing feeling to experience the wonder. We must always keep in mind how important it is to show respect to those local customs and traditions when we travel. 

Many countries are more conservative with their wardrobe sensibility, and wearing short shorts may be considered inappropriate — so be sure to do your research before you go. Also, learn a little bit of the local language, even if it is just “hello” and “thank you.” Study what the customs of your location of choice are to ensure that you don’t inadvertently offend anyone.

Related: How to Respect the Local Culture in Southeast Asia 

Try out local traditions and customs as often as you can. (Photo: Alesha Bradford) 

5. Minimize your waste.

Waste management can be a major issue in developing countries, and travelers often contribute to this problem, even if unknowingly. The education levels when it comes to recycling and minimizing waste in other countries may not be the same as what we receive back home, so it is important to take your own steps to help the environment. 

A couple suggestions: When shops offer you a plastic bag, say no, and instead, put your items in a backpack or a cloth bag. Eat and drink in the cafe rather than going for takeout. Carry a reusable water bottle with you, and fill it up from large water jugs that can be found in most hotels and restaurants. Or, if you really want to save waste, do what we do and carry a water sterilization tool on your travels. Our recommendation: a SteriPen.

Jarryd sourcing water and then sterilizing it from a waterfall in China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge. (Photo: Alesha Bradford) 

6) Choose sustainable accommodation and tour operators.

There are thousands of options available to you when it comes to finding a place to rest your head, or choosing an operator to take you out on that unforgettable holiday experience. It is possible to find businesses that actively work with local communities or have practices that help protect the environment, and these kinds of establishments should be rewarded for their efforts. 

They may choose to only employ local guides or workers from nearby villages, for instance, or provide extra training to help their staff improve their skills. Some places even donate a part of their profits to charitable enterprises, or pay their local staff above-average wages, without you having to do any extra work. The Mad Monkey Hostels in Cambodia are a great example of this business model. It may take a little bit more research to find other sustainable companies like this, but the benefits are worth the effort. 

Related: 5 TED Talks That Will Make You a Better Traveler

Thanks to tourism, Lin, a local porter from the small minority village of Tan Hoa in Vietnam, has more opportunities to better his life. (Photo: Alesha Bradford) 

7. Lower your footprint. 

There are a lot of great ways to lower your environmental impact when you are traveling. Instead of always taking taxis to get you from A to B, for example, see if a local bus can get you where you need to go. If the distance you need to go isn’t too far, walk instead of jumping on public transport for one or two stops. Or if you really want a great way to explore an area, rent a bicycle! Not only is it good for the environment, it’s also good for your health — and your budget

Getting around on two wheels is one smart move. (Photo: Alesha Bradford) 

8) Look at the bigger picture when bargaining. 

In regions like Latin America and Southeast Asia, bargaining for products is a part of the culture. It can almost be like a game! But even though bartering is great, it’s equally important to think about the bigger picture when you’re doing so. Before you start haggling over $1, think about how far that extra bit of cash could go for the person on the other side. Look at the bigger picture! If you don’t think twice about staying in an expensive hotel and drinking overpriced cocktails by the pool, then don’t try to bully a local out of a couple of bucks.

Don’t bargain hard with people over a few dollars, especially when they could very likely use the money more than you. (Photo: Alesha Bradford) 

9. Don’t give to beggars.

Now this one is really hard, as most of us feel completely heartbroken when we see people (especially children) begging in the streets. But it is important to remember that begging only encourages local people to continue asking tourists for money. As a result, there are many destinations that end up with people begging who are pretending to be worse off than they are in order to extort money off of foreigners. And in many places, parents often take their kids out of school to beg on the streets. In the worst cases, they may even be part of a larger network run by unscrupulous characters who keep the money for themselves.

Of course, it’s best to simply use your discretion on this one. But if you really want to help out, buy the beggar some food or water instead. Also, try to seek out local organizations who work with underprivileged people in the area, and ask if they require any assistance.

Giving to beggars doesn’t always improve the local economy. (Photo: Alesha Bradford) 

10) Educate other travelers. 

Being a responsible traveler might come naturally to some, but others may just not be aware about the implications their actions can have when they are abroad. And if that’s the case, it may be on you to show them the way. If you see someone unintentionally doing something that is detrimental to the environment, or to the local people and culture, consider mentioning something to him or her in a friendly way. Start discussions about responsible travel with people who are in your hostel, in your hotel, or on your tour. It is only through education that we can help spread the word about sustainable tourism.

Remember, our actions can have a very big impact on the world while we travel. Make sure it is a positive one.

Watch: How to Go Full Local in Jordan

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Check out our original adventure travel series A Broad Abroad.