At the risk of starting this post with a generic travel cliche, being a responsible tourist is a journey – not a destination. You make responsible choices little by little, learning from your mistakes and aiming to do better each trip. There may never be a 100% ethical way to travel, but there are hundreds of informed, thoughtful steps along the way that can help, a little bit at a time, to make a positive impact. And some of those steps may actually be missteps, and only helpful in hindsight.
But importantly, the choices you’re making in an effort to be a more responsible tourist don’t exist in a vacuum: as a traveler, you are a consumer of the tourism industry, and your demand – what you’re willing to pay for – determines the direction that the industry takes.
As a tourism consumer, demanding more transparency, more ethical travel experiences, and a more inclusive and sustainable travel industry pushes the tourism industry forward. And the tourism industry represents a stunning 10% of Global GDP. That’s huge. The potential for positive impact is enormous.
Before we dive into how you can be a more responsible tourist, I want to begin this post by saying that I am not an “expert” in ethical tourism. I am not an academic or a “thought leader.” I’m just a member of the tourism industry with a large platform, and a lifelong learner who is constantly striving to do better and to make a positive impact. I’m really more of a work in progress than an expert.
But over the five years that I’ve been working professionally in the tourism industry, I’ve come to realize that whether or not I’m a Certified Expert, I have a responsibility to be as informed as possible about ethical tourism and a duty to use my platform as a way to educate other travelers – many of whom may be even less knowledgeable than I am.
So, consider this guide, much like myself, a work in progress. I’ve researched and read and compiled a bunch of information and resources, and as time goes on and I learn more and make more mistakes, I’ll revisit this post and update it. I invite and welcome discourse and corrections on the information in this post.
Long story short, I am imperfect, but I am trying – because it’s important to try. If you feel the same way, you’re not alone: I’d love for you to join me as we take our responsible travel journey and learn together.
In this post, you’ll find an overview of ethical tourism as well as a number of resources, further reading, academic sources, and content creators in the ethical tourism space to follow. Let’s dive in!
Psst: This post has been adapted from a chapter in my best-selling book, How to Quit Your Job & Travel.
Looking for more travel tips? Take a look at some of our other posts:
The Impact of Travel
Before we go any further, here’s a quick definition so we know exactly what “responsible tourism” means:
Responsible Tourism: Tourism that maximizes the benefits to local communities, minimizes negative social or environmental impacts, and helps local people conserve fragile cultures and habitats or species.
Way back when I first dipped my toe into the tourism industry, when I was busy planning our year-long honeymoon and publishing my first (objectively terrible) posts on this blog, I didn’t spend much time thinking about how my travels would affect the places I was visiting. After all, as a backpacker I prefer follow along on well-trodden paths; surely I was just a drop in the bucket, one tiny part of a wave of tourists.
But during my year-long trip, I started to notice things that didn’t feel right. Like how many tours advertised to backpackers like me boasted of interacting directly with wild animals: letting monkeys sit on your shoulder, feeding wild sea turtles, taking a photo holding a parrot or riding an elephant.
Those tours had all sounded like so much fun when I was looking them up online back at home; the animals seemed happy enough in the photos, and all I really wanted in life was to make friends with llamas and snuggle with sloths. Was it really harmless fun? Was interacting with those wild animals a deeply embedded part of local culture?
Or did a wave of visitors, which I was now part of, actually create an entire industry that profits off of disrupting the habitats of those wild animals?
Similarly, my impact on local culture and communities also wasn’t something I spent much time mulling over as I planned my gap year. I was excited to meet locals, and I wanted my interactions with them to be “authentic” rather than a typical, canned tourist experience. I didn’t stop to ask whether, by nature, “authentic” interactions between local communities and visitors are themselves a tourist experience — or whether “authenticity” through the lens of an outsider exists at all.
And it wasn’t until I took a photo of a traditionally dressed Indigenous person in Peru and then was asked to pay for the photo I’d taken that I stopped to wonder: are locals actually standing around this plaza dressed up in traditional clothing because it’s part of their culture and tradition, or because visitors like me want to see a spectacle of Indigenous people wearing costumes?
I didn’t come up with many answers during my year-long trip, but it was the first time I started asking questions about ethical and sustainable travel: how does tourism impact local communities, environments, and cultures? Is that impact positive or negative? How can I ensure that when I travel, I am contributing positively?
Thankfully for me as I fumble my way through exploring these questions, there are a number of academic institutions dedicated to studying and answering these very questions, many of which you’ll see referenced throughout this post and linked at the bottom for further reading.
I still don’t have all the answers, but in the years since my round-the-world trip, I’ve joined the tourism industry and become a member of the media, complete with an audience and a platform that reaches millions of travelers each year. My role is not only to prepare those travelers to take life-changing adventures by giving them advice and tips, it’s also to carefully consider the effect that travelers will have on the destinations they visit and provide education about their impact.
And as someone with a platform doling out travel advice, when someone visiting a destination has taken my advice in preparation for their trip, I feel a deep sense of responsibility for their actions as they travel. Understanding the impacts of tourism on local destinations is no longer just a personal curiosity; it’s a critical part of my job.
- Side Note: This veers a little bit into “the ethics of travel blogging,” but long story short, this is also why you’ll never see us recommending visiting somewhere illegal, trespassing, or geotagging wilderness destinations. You will never see us stepping off a path or climbing over a barrier just to take a photo, or touching or interacting with a wild animal without an explanation of the nuances of that interaction. And if you happen to be along with us on a tour or press trip and break one of these cardinal rules, there’s a good chance we’ll call you out on it. When the world is watching — whether that’s through a blog or on social media — it’s your responsibility to act as a role model.
And so, let me briefly adjust my nerdiest pair of glasses and take a brief dive into the moral and ethical implications of travel. I know — things just got REALLY juicy.
I’ve learned — and seen firsthand — that travel can be a powerful force for good: encountering different ways of living widens cultural perspectives (Maddux, W. W., Adam, H. and Galinsky, A. D. 2010) and encourages empathy and kindness. Travel has a wonderful tendency to make us better people.
Tourism can also be a vital source of economic growth and a valuable source of revenue for a community by increasing overall GDP, creating jobs, and providing opportunities for employment (Lemma, Alberto 2014).
It can even positively impact the environment by raising awareness of the value of the local environment and contributing to a desire for environmental protection, as well as directly financing conservation (Islam, Faijul. 2013).
After all, if visitors are drawn to a destination’s beautiful local environment, preserving that environment becomes a matter of economic importance.
But tourism can just as easily bring negative consequences. Locals can be displaced to make room for tourism-related infrastructure, cultural heritage sites and native habitats can become degraded from overuse, and the carbon emissions from mass tourism are significant contributors to the warming of our planet (Lenzen, M., Sun, Y., Faturay, F., Ting, Y., Geschke, A. and Malik, A., 2018).
Mitigating your negative impact as a traveler while supporting the positive effects of travel can feel like a balancing act.
Responsible Tourist Takeaway: The impact of tourism on a local destination, economy, and community can be positive as well as negative. It’s nuanced, which means that being a responsible tourist is also nuanced.
When is Tourism Beneficial, & When is it Harmful?
The tipping point for when too much tourism shifts from being a net positive to a net negative is often described as “overtourism,” an academic term that describes the phenomenon when too many tourists converge in one specific place to the point where it negatively impacts locals (Dodds, R. and Butler, R. 2019). This can lead to destabilizing economies, negative social impacts, and even civil unrest.
If you’ve crossed this tipping point, you won’t just feel unwelcome as a visitor in these places, but you might encounter downright hostility; which makes sense, because your visit is adversely affecting the lives of locals.
Knowing where your presence will contribute to overtourism, and where your visit is more likely to have a net positive effect on the local economy, is incredibly tricky to do.
But one thing that helps is to keep in mind that tourism has a life cycle (Doxey, G.V., 1975.)
- At first, tourists to a destination are welcomed. They’re bringing income, creating jobs, changing the prevailing narrative by showcasing the positive attributes of a destination, and so on.
- As the number of visitors rises, the relationship becomes less euphoric and moves towards apathy. The tourists aren’t a cause for celebration and excitement anymore, but they’re also making locals’ lives more difficult. They’re just… there.
- The third phase, as tourism reaches a saturation point, is irritation. Tourists are annoying. There are too many of them! They’re always walking slowly on the sidewalk, looking at maps and not understanding local nuances and cultural norms. Tourists: ugh.
- The fourth phase is antagonism. Residents actively push back against tourists and view them as the cause of local problems. They protest and literally write messages on the walls telling tourists to screw off and. go home. The message is clear: tourists are no longer welcome here.
In other words, in places that are “up-and-coming” destinations, tourism is new and exciting and generally welcomed by local communities. But as time goes on and tourism grows, that sentiment shifts, and tourism is no longer seen as beneficial.
Even as locals in one major city may be protesting in the streets and demanding that tourists leave, just a few miles away there could be a smaller town that would love the opportunity to welcome tourists.
If your goal is to be an ethical traveler, understanding why the “rules” of responsible travel vary by destination can help you make informed, responsible choices.
How can I figure out where a destination is in its tourism life cycle?
It’s difficult to figure out, and unfortunately, I don’t have an easy and sure-fire way to answer that question. Most likely, it’ll take a little bit of digging. Here are a few things you can do that might help:
- If you’re visiting a popular destination, try Googling “[Destination] Overtourism” and seeing what comes up. If the destination is experiencing over-tourism, you’ll probably get a number of think pieces and articles about the impacts of tourism on the local economy in the results.
- Consult some locals. Local sentiment is usually the best indicator of whether or not tourism is currently welcomed or viewed with hostility. Personally, I like to go to the most honest place on the internet: Reddit. If locals want tourists to stop coming, there will probably be a few angry discussion threads in the local subreddit. Not seeing anything? Make a post and ask! Just prepare yourself for difficult truths.
So can I just like, not go to popular destinations?
That’s definitely not what I’m saying! You don’t necessarily need to cancel a trip – or feel guilty the entire time.
But understanding local sentiment can help you frame your experience, as well as make decisions about your trip. And yes, one of those decisions is whether to not go at all – but that’s only one solution.
You could also decide to change some aspects of your trip in light of local sentiment. For instance, you might change the time of year you visit to coincide with tourist off-season. You might adjust your accomodation to a local homestay to ensure you’re supporting a local family. You might change the length of your visit to be shorter – or much, much longer. You might choose to visit less-popular attractions within the destination. Or, you might donate your time or finances to a local organization working on solving the problems that tourism exacerbates.
We’ve got a whole bunch of practical, actionable solutions later in this post that can help you make these kinds of decisions.
Responsible Tourist Takeaway: Because each destination is different, there is no one-size-fits-all approach or a single way to be a responsible tourist. The best you can do is to take steps to mitigate your negative impact and learn as you go.
Experiencing the Tourism Life-Cycle Firsthand
Looking at my travel experiences through the tourism life-cycle framework helped me to come to some difficult realizations. And although this story makes me cringe, I feel that it’s important to open up about my mistakes in order to move forward, learn, and destigmatize these kinds of conversations.
I’ve been traveling to Colombia every year or so since 2014. I fell in love with the country on my first trip, brought back my husband a few years later as the first destination on our year-long honeymoon, and have returned numerous times since – on one occasion, bringing a group of my husband’s high school students from Oakland along with us for an educational, impactful field trip.
Whenever I’m asked what my favorite destination is, I don’t hesitate to answer: it’s Colombia! I LOVE Colombia. The follow-up question is always, what is it that I love about it so much? The delicious food? The diversity of scenery? The complex history?
Well yes … but also, I answer, it’s the people.
And then I make an number of generalizations.
The first time we visited Colombia, I explain, we felt so welcomed everywhere we went. Locals literally stopped us on the street to ask us how we were enjoying our stay, and encouraged us to share stories from our travels with friends back home so they would come visit too. So many people went above and beyond to make us feel welcome and safe, and everywhere we went, we experienced a huge outpouring of generosity and kindness.
Colombian locals, it seemed to us, were overjoyed to welcome tourists — which makes sense when you consider that Colombia has spent decades trying to shake off a characterization as a war-torn, dangerous country caught in the crosshairs of violent drug cartels. Decades later, Colombia is only just beginning to be universally recognized as a beautiful and safe place to visit — and that is an important part of reframing its identity.
While Colombia is still thought of as a “dangerous” place to visit, tourists like me are likely to be welcomed with open arms.
Would I have fallen in love with Colombia the way I did if it were full of other tourists, or if locals were apathetic to us rather than overly welcoming? Would I love it as much if I wasn’t a white woman from the USA? I’m not sure. (But I can say that the experiences of my husband’s Black & brown students from Oakland during our trip to Colombia were very, very different from mine – and yes, on too many occasions, both unwelcoming and overtly racist.)
Contrast my experience in Colombia to a place that I didn’t “vibe” with: Cusco, Peru, where tourism comes on the back of a century of colonialist archaeological “discoveries.” Here, I felt significantly less welcomed – but I didn’t have the perspective to understand why.
What I didn’t understand was that tourism to Machu Picchu — with its complex legacy as both an icon of Incan heritage as well as an example of cultural commodification, cultural appropriation, and the romanticization of Indigenous culture (Ross, J. 2016) has reached a tipping point, and decades of a growing tourism industry have resulted in a worrying over-dependency on tourism.
Worse, the financial benefits of tourism often leak out of the local economy, as the money earned by tourism often does not recirculate locally, but is used instead to pay for imports required by tourists or pocketed by international corporations and foreign investors, a concept known as “tourism leakage” (Jönsson C. 2015).
Decades of mass tourism has not only done little to resolve Peru’s rampant poverty, but it has served to widen the inequality gap. No wonder local sentiment wasn’t exactly enthusiastic in regards to my presence.
Without understanding the factors that led to the different experiences we had in these two countries, it was easy for me to draw a dangerously inaccurate conclusion during our trip: Colombians were friendly and welcoming; Peruvians, not so much. Yikes. (Even bigger yikes: I published an ill-informed, whiny, and offensive article complaining about Peru on my travel blog; it’s long since been deleted, but I still feel ashamed of it to this day).
How many people did I gush to about Colombia while making massive generalizations about its friendly and welcoming people? And much worse, how many people did I discourage from visiting Peru by complaining about how unwelcome I felt?
Thankfully, I now know better than to fall into the trap of making harmful generalizations, and I hope that you will too. If you catch yourself making similar generalizations about a destination or its people, I encourage you to think critically about the way your presence may be perceived by local communities (and where those communities may fall in the tourism cycle), as well as the cultural and historical context that frames your visit.
By doing so, you’ll improve your worldview, increase your empathy, and be a more ethical traveler.
Responsible Tourist Takeaway: Different destinations have different needs, which evolve and change over time as more tourists visit. Understanding where a destination falls in that tourism cycle helps to understand the impact of your presence, and how it may be perceived by local communities.
Responsible vs. Irresponsible Tourism
Tourism isn’t always good or bad: it’s got like, at least 50 shades of gray. All jokes aside, it can be incredibly confusing to navigate your impact. on a destination, and black-or-white thinking isn’t super helpful.
The table below helps to provide a few summarized examples of the many different ways that travelers can impact a destination, both positively and negatively.
|Impact||Responsible Tourism||Irresponsible & Over-tourism|
|Social||‣ Increases cultural understanding between travelers and local communities
‣ Raises awareness of global issues that other communities are facing
‣Improved infrastructure results in improved standard of living
‣ Encourages the preservation of traditional customs and fosters civic pride
|‣ Decreases quality of life in local communities
‣ Leads to the erosion of traditional cultures and values
‣ Appropriates local customs and spiritual practices without consent
|Economic||‣ Creates jobs and new business opportunities, especially in rural communities||‣ Bypasses local business owners and supports multinational companies, resulting in decreased financial support for the local community (known as “tourism leakage”)
‣ Can increase local property prices and living expenses, out-pricing locals from their own community
|Environmental||‣ Helps promote and fund the conservation of wildlife and natural resources through ecotourism and tourism revenue from parks and preserves
‣ Creates alternative sources of employment for those previously employed in industries with a large carbon footprint (such as deforestation)
|‣ Increased pollution through litter, increased waste and transportation emissions
‣ Threatens overuse of natural resources
‣ Exploits local environments and wildlife, causing long-term and sometimes irreversible damage
Although this is a short summarized list, hopefully it gives you an idea of the far-reaching impacts of tourism!
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “travel is inherently political,” this may help to explain why. Tourism is tied to government and can be used to grow the economy or to affect the global perception of a destination – and it can irrevocably change a place or community.
That’s also why most of the research you’ll find about responsible tourism is academic or government-funded: it’s primarily the tourism industry’s responsibility to ensure that its impact is positive. As a traveler, your role is to drive demand for transparent, ethical tourism options!
Responsible Tourist Takeaway: Tourism affects a very wide variety of things, and the impact of tourism can be both positive and negative. Although it’s primarily the responsibility of the tourism industry and local governments to balance the impact of tourism, your role as a traveler is to drive demand for transparent, ethical tourism.
How to be a More Responsible Traveler
By now you’ve got some context about why travel matters and the kinds of impacts it can have on destinations and local communities, as well as the nuances about how it varies by destination. And that’s all well and good and super important, but like … what do you do with all that?!
Don’t worry: I’ve got lots of actionable, practical tips and suggestions.
My goal is for you to keep some of these considerations in the back of your mind as you plan your trip and embark on your adventure. But at the same time, remember that you are only one person and the responsibility of the entire tourism industry is not on your shoulders. (Although, if you’re a travel blogger or content creator, it’s definitely more on your shoulders than a regular person, so … keep that in mind.)
The tourism industry – tour operators, destination marketing organizations, government-funded tourism boards, hoteliers, and so on – owns the lion’s share of responsibility for making ethical, responsible tourism more mainstream and accessible.
Your role as a traveler and tourism consumer is to vote with your wallet to drive demand for responsible travel offerings.
Above all, always remember that when you travel, you are a guest in someone else’s home — and your presence has a real impact on local cultures, economies, and environments.
Traveling responsibly means taking steps to enhance the beneficial impacts of travel, while working to mitigate its negative impacts. By personally committing to travel responsibly, you’ll be an agent of positive change.
There are a few rules of thumb that will help you to be a more sustainable travel, which we’ve broken down below by category.
Responsible Travel Takeaway: Make the best decisions you can, and keep learning as you go. The best you can do as a tourist is to vote with your wallet.
Here are a few ways you can travel more responsibly:
Responsible Tourist Choices: Destinations
It’s easier to have a net positive impact when visiting places that are actively seeking and encouraging tourism. When visiting places experiencing overtourism, it will be harder to mitigate your negative impact.
When visiting a popular destination, traveling during the tourism off-season is a good way to avoid contributing to over-tourism — plus, it’s cheaper! A quick Google search is often all that’s needed to figure out when “off-season” is. When in doubt, just assume that off-season is whenever the weather is least desirable, like during rainy season or when it’s very hot or very cold.
Aim to include smaller or lesser-known destinations on your itinerary in order to balance the time spent in (and impact on) more popular places.
However, the important caveat here is to make sure that a smaller destination actually WANTS tourism. Otherwise, you are potentially inserting yourself into a location that does not want you there! When a destination doesn’t have very much tourist infrastructure, that’s a sign that your presence may be unwelcome. There is such a thing as traveling too far off the beaten path.
Researching local sentiment regarding tourists will also help you determine whether your impact is more likely to be negative or positive. There may be news articles available with a quick Google search, but often, you have to dig a little deeper. I like to browse through a destination or country’s local Subreddit on Reddit.com, where locals post unfiltered commentary. If you see a lot of posts or comments about the negative impact of tourists, that’s a sign that your presence may be harmful or unwelcome. This can also be a good place to learn about how to mitigate your impact by reading comments or asking locals directly.
You can also choose to financially support destinations that are committed to encouraging and enforcing responsible and sustainable travel behaviors. The non-profit Global Sustainable Tourism Council maintains a list of certified sustainable destinations, and GreenDestinations.org hosts an annual awards ceremony for the top 100 sustainable destinations of the year. They’re both excellent places to start compiling ideas of sustainable destinations to add to your itinerary!
Ethical Tourism Takeaway: Try to visit popular destinations during their off-season, and balance your itinerary with smaller, less popular destinations that are actively seeking tourism.
Responsible Tourist Choices: Lodging
Accommodation will likely be your largest expense while traveling, which also means that the money you spend on accommodation also has the biggest potential economic impact.
Make staying with locals or in locally-owned businesses a priority, whether that be in a locally-owned hostel or guesthouse, an eco-lodge run by a local Indigenous community, a community homestay, or renting a private Airbnb room in a home owned and lived in by a local resident.
Not only will you ensure that your dollars are supporting the local community, rather than giant multinational hotel chains, but your travel experience will benefit as well; local hosts can show you the hidden gems of the city and recommend where the best restaurants and hole-in-the-wall places are.
- Note on Airbnb: Depending on the destination, Airbnb can be either a fantastic way for a local resident to earn extra cash, or a disruption to the local housing supply and economy which contributes to gentrification and displacement. In other places, it may be completely illegal. Before you book an Airbnb, do some research to evaluate local sentiment. I typically start by Googling “Airbnb controversy [destination],” which usually pulls up a few local news articles about protests, pushback or legal battles if any exist. When in doubt, stick with a private room in an occupied home, as that ensures your money is going to a local resident and not disrupting the housing supply.
You can also direct your efforts to financially support accommodation options that focus on reducing their environmental impact, such as “eco-lodges” or “eco-hostels,” or hotels that focus on sustainability.
But just like “green” products on grocery store shelves, know that the word “eco” is just a marketing term. I usually do some digging on an accommodation’s website to find out what, exactly, that means! Sometimes hotels have a page on Social Responsibility or Social Impact explaining their approach (here’s an example).
On the other hand, often a small, locally owned hotel or guesthouse won’t have a website at all.
Responsible Tourist Takeaway: Seek out locally owned accommodations to keep your tourism dollars in the local economy and benefitting the community. Look for marketing words like “eco” to find accommodations that focus on reducing their environmental impact.
Responsible Tourist Choices: Experiences
Booking a tour can be a fantastic way to experience a destination or get to know the local communities. You might learn about a city’s history on a walking tour with a local resident, or stay in a local home and enjoy authentic home-cooked meals on a community homestay, or go on an adrenaline-inducing adventure.
But not all tours are created equally, and not all tour operators are concerned with responsible or sustainable tourism! We try to read a wide range of reviews and do advanced research before booking a tour or activity, but that’s not a failsafe method – and it can exclude small cottage industry tour operators who may not have an online presence.
So, while there’s no perfect method, a few tips can help.
- Booking directly with a locally owned and run tour operator is a great way to ensure that you’re benefitting the local economy. These small tour operators may not always have a website, so you’ll often need to book in person, on the phone or through email. However, keep in mind that local tour operators may not always be subject to strict oversight or regulations. We try to vet and recommend specific tour operators in the destinations we visit based – a few of our favorites are New Orleans Secrets, PacWhale Eco Adventures in Maui, and Backstreet Academy in Nepal & throughout Southeast Asia.
- Some tour aggregate sites independently vet and evaluate small tour operators, such as Travganic. And some tour operators specialize in sustainable and ethical tourism, such as Intrepid Travel. When booking a tour through them, you can trust that they’ve done the heavy lifting to make sure the tours on their platform are ethical!
- Consider having a local plan your trip and recommend experiences that benefit their community, using a service like ViaHero. With ViaHero, 70% of money spent by travelers directly supports locals — 60% more than industry average — so you can feel good about how your travel experiences support local communities.
We’ve included a few more resources for booking tours and experiences in the “resources” section at the end of this post.
Responsible Tourist Choices: Transportation
Flights are, unfortunately, a significant source of carbon emissions which contribute to global warming.
However, there are some ways to mitigate your impact. In fact, if you’re a budget traveler, you may already be an envrionmentally-friendly traveler without realizing it!
Low-cost budget airlines are typically more environmentally friendly and are often pioneers in sustainable aviation and biofuel development. They’re not necessarily doing it out of the goodness of their hearts — fuel efficiency means better profit margins — but still, it’s a win-win.
Whenever you fly, you should consider offsetting your carbon footprint. Purchasing a carbon offset for a 10-hour flight costs around $15-$30 and goes towards funding a sustainable project, like one that captures carbon (such as planting trees) or reduces the release of more carbon emissions (such as renewable energy project in a rural community).
Some flight-booking platforms will offer you the option to offset when booking your ticket, but you can also calculate your carbon emissions and buy an offset from a third party such as Cool Effect or Sustainable Travel.
Cruises are a notorious source of environmental pollution. This guide to sustainable cruise travel offers a more in-depth look at how to mitigate your impact.
Once you arrive at your intended destination, try to reduce your carbon footprint by traveling overland and using public ground transportation whenever possible. It’s not only more environmentally friendly, but it will stretch your travel budget further!
Responsible Tourism Takeaway: Purchasing carbon emission offsets helps mitigate your climate impact from travel. Traveling overland and using public transportation is also earth-friendly! And budget airlines are a surprisingly eco-friendly choice for flights.
Responsible Tourist Choices: Reducing Waste
As a responsible tourist, it’s important to make an effort to reduce waste wherever you go in order to minimize your travel footprint. (It’s also fantastically helpful to reduce waste at home, where it’s easier to manage your habits.)
Keep in mind that when traveling abroad, many countries don’t have recycling infrastructure (frankly, including the US, but I digress), so plastic water bottles have nowhere to go but into a landfill. And even things you may not think about can have a massive impact when magnified by thousands of tourists, such as wearing regular sunscreen into the ocean instead of biodegradable reef-safe sunscreen.
But this is actually one of the easiest ways to begin being a more responsible tourist: pack a few sustainable solutions in your luggage to help reduce waste during your trip!
Here are a few of my favorite travel-friendly sustainable products and tips:
- To reduce your plastic bottle waste, bring a sturdy reusable water bottle and a water sterilization solution. One of my favorites is the SteriPen, a small, rechargeable device that kills bacteria with UV light. Another favorite water purification device that I use frequently is a LifeStraw Water Bottle.
- Pack a shampoo bar rather than a heavy plastic bottle. Shampoo and conditioner bars are fantastically travel-friendly! They never spill or leak, no plastic waste, and they last for ages. My favorites are made by LUSH. Just don’t forget a container to store them in – an old plastic tub works just fine, and LUSH also sells reusable aluminum containers. We’ve got tips in our travel beauty guide.
- Bring a small container for restaurant leftovers. These are also fantastic for holding travel snacks while on the go!
- Bring a reusable bag for shopping. It doesn’t have to be fancy; a balled-up plastic bag does the trick!
- Bring a washable cloth to use as a handkerchief, paper towel, and napkin. We cut up all of our old t-shirts and towels into rags and use them at home as well as on the road.
- Bring a collapsible cup to use instead of plastic cups. No more plastic cup waste from hotel rooms and airplanes!
- Wear a Reef-Safe Sunscreen or a Swim Shirt into the ocean. Ordinary sunscreen harms marine life, pollutes our oceans, and contributes to the death of coral. If you’re going in the water, bring reef-safe mineral sunscreen or wear a swim shirt (… or just any shirt) to protect yourself from the sun. (Personally, I prefer mineral sunscreens in general!)
I’ve actually found that it’s easier to reduce waste on the road when everything you own must fit into your luggage. Travel has made us so used to minimizing waste that a few years ago, we started transitioning towards a zero-waste household! Many of the same principles that apply when you travel can be applied at home, too.
Responsible Tourist Choices: Indigenous Tourism
An important way to practice responsible tourism is to recognize that many of the destinations you’re visiting have been shaped by colonization. Acknowledging the violence of colonization, taking steps to educate yourself about local Indigenous communities and their history, and supporting local Indigenous peoples is an important part of being a responsible tourist.
The first step is to figure out whose land you’ll be visiting or traveling through. Native-Land.ca has an interactive global map that you can use to find out which Indigenous communities live in the areas where you are traveling.
When visiting an area with Indigenous communities, you may want to seek out opportunities for Indigenous tourism, which can be an excellent way to learn about and support marginalized communities.
But before doing so, it’s important to carefully consider who your visit will actually benefit: you, or the Indigenous community? Reflect on your intentions so as not to tokenize Indigenous peoples; “primitivist” tourism is damaging, even with the best of intentions.
Likewise, Indigenous peoples should not be a selling point or commodity. While an Indigenous-owned community or cultural center is a fantastic and responsible resource for learning about and supporting the community, be wary of attractions that advertise or cover Indigenous history or culture but are not created by or in partnership with the local community, because “Indigenous people may or may not have much agency in how that interaction transpires and how much profit they directly derive.” (MacCarthy, M., 2020).
An easy-to-remember rule of thumb to follow is “nothing about us, without us.”
That said, in other cases, tourism may be embraced by Indigenous communities as an opportunity for economic development and cultural expression. Book Indigenous-owned and run tour companies whenever you can, especially when you’re looking to experience and learn about those Indigenous communities.
On the flip side, don’t just barge in. Entering an Indigenous community without a guided tour or an invitation can be seen as an invasion of privacy, denying their dignity and respect, and reducing a community to objects of the “tourist gaze.” Instead, book a guided tour to ensure that you are financially supporting the community and giving them full agency.
To find a vetted and responsible tour or homestay created and led by Indigenous communities, you can book multi-day tours through an organization like VisitNatives. Also keep your eyes open for Indigenous-owned businesses, artisan markets or handicrafts, and tour companies to support during your travels!
For more tips, Impact Travel Alliance has a helpful guide to Traveling Mindfully To & Through Indigenous Communities.
Responsible Tourism Takeaway: Be aware that the destinations you’re visiting have often been stolen from Indigenous communities through the violence of colonization. Acknowledge this history, educate yourself about Indigenous communities in the places you visit, and respectfully and mindfully patronize local Indigenous communities.
Responsible Tourist Choices: Animal & Wildlife Tourism
There are many ways animal lovers can responsibly enjoy wildlife, while ensuring the humane treatment of animals is the top priority.
As a rule of thumb, always avoid directly interacting with wild animals in their natural habitats. All wild animals should be observed from a distance, and every care should be taken not to disrupt their natural habitat.
That includes never feeding, touching, petting, or capturing wild animals, as this can harm wildlife, create unsafe dependencies and attitudes towards humans, and in some cases even result in an animal’s death.
There are many attractions that promise a closer experience with captive animals. Many of those tours or attractions use words like “sanctuary” or “rescue,” or claim to give back to conservation efforts. And while some may be telling the truth, it’s smart to be skeptical; too often, those terms are no more than marketing buzzwords. One helpful resource is the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), the only animal sanctuary accreditation program, which has a “find a sanctuary” search page.
It can be hard to tell, but it helps to see if they partner with any reputable wildlife conservation organizations or if they are accredited by professional associations.
To determine whether an attraction is treating animals ethically, consider whether what is being done is for the benefit of the animals, or whether the animals are being made to do things outside of their natural behavior for the benefit of visitors.
Steer clear of any organization that advertises animals doing shows, tricks, rides or any behavior that is unnatural for that animal. Ask yourself, “Would this animal be doing this in the wild?”
Another red flag is when an attraction advertises a lot of physical touching as part of the experience, such as petting a dolphin, holding a tied-up alligator, or riding an elephant — that can be physically painful as well as incredibly stressful for the animal. Controlling the animal in any way so that visitors can take a photo with them is also a huge red flag, as that kind of unusual behavior typically involves cruel training techniques or drugs.
To avoid these kinds of unethical animal attractions, do your due diligence before patronizing a tour or attraction that involves animals. Browse through the attraction’s website and read multiple online reviews to look for:
- Photos taken with animals
- Evidence of visitors touching, holding, or feeding animals
- Advertising experiences with baby animals, as this may indicate breeding, and young animals should never be interacting with crowds or separated from their mothers
An extra layer of nuance comes into play when animal captivity is part of the traditions or cultures of certain Indigenous communities, such as elephants in captivity in Nepal which are used by local Indigenous communities to safely travel through the jungle or to grow food, or reindeer herding in the Sámi Indigenous communities of Northern Europe. (More details about each example in this blog post about Nepal as well as this post featuring my Sámi homestay.)
Personally, I do my best to weigh these experiences carefully in their greater cultural context rather than passing judgement on them through the lens of my cultural expectations.
Ultimately, if you’ve done your research, you can only do so much. On several occasions, we found ourselves on tours we originally thought were ethical, only for our tour guide to start tossing food to wild animals to bring them closer, or picking up animals to show visitors.
If this happens, don’t beat yourself up about it — but don’t participate, either! Speak up if you feel comfortable doing so, or post a review online afterwards letting other travelers know this experience is not ethically or responsibly treating animals.
Tourist demand has a huge impact on the way these tours are conducted, and a negative comment or negative press online can drive real change — but at the same time, please don’t let your guilt keep you up at night. We all make mistakes, and it’s how we learn!
You can find a list of animal tourism experiences on Impact Travel Alliance.
Responsible Tourist Choices: Supporting Marginalized Communities
A huge part of the appeal of travel is to learn about other cultures, places, and people. And yet, many travelers spend most of their time learning about the dominant narrative rather than exploring the history, culture, and legacy of marginalized communities.
To understand why that’s harmful, I highly recommend watching this excellent Ted Talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “The Danger of a Single Story.” To summarize very briefly in her words:
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
As a storyteller myself – one who tells the story of destinations, the stories of which are inherently both political and historical – I think about this a lot. How can I help amplify the stories of those who have been marginalized, whose voices have been stifled? As a traveler, seeking out those stories helps to give back power to marginalized communities.
It sometimes takes a bit of extra work and effort to support marginalized communities as a tourist. Too often, those communities and their stories and history are not part of the dominant cultural narrative, and unless you go seeking the full story, you may not even realize you’re missing it.
Here’s an easy example: how many museums, historic house tours, and castles represent the history of the non-wealthy? And yet, tourists seeking education and history gravitate towards touring old castles and perfectly preserved wealthy homes. Which, I might add, is not inherently a bad thing – but by sticking to these kinds of tourist attractions, you’ll only be learning about only one small piece of the full story of a destination.
Of course, there’s a reason why wealthy people feature so prominently in historical preservation: they’re usually the ones paying for it. But with a little bit of effort, it’s often possible to seek out the lesser-told stories.
For instance: you might take a tour of Prague’s Jewish Quarter in addition to touring the Prague Castle. You might take a break from touring the National Mall in Washington D.C. to explore the murals on U Street and learn about the history of Black Broadway. In Memphis, you might visit both Sun Records to learn about Elvis Presley, and also Stax Records to learn about the legacy and history of American Soul Music – which directly influenced Elvis and American Rock ‘N Roll.
In any of those examples, you’d be balancing out your learning about the dominant narrative with learning about lesser-told stories about the place you’re visiting.
But sometimes, seeking to learn about marginalized communities and untold stories is a little more challenging. For instance, you might visit New Orleans with the best of intentions, hoping to solemnly acknowledge the legacy of slavery. And to do so, you might visit a plantation.
But the plantation you visit may not be telling the story you’re seeking to learn: you might visit Oak Alley, which focuses almost entirely on the wealthy slave owners and the “beauty” of the plantation, while off-handedly referencing the enslaved humans who made their wealth possible with cheerful signage that makes it seem like slavery seem like it really wasn’t all that bad. I really wish I was exaggerating.
But then visit Whitney Plantation, which was designed as a powerful memorial to the enslaved people who lived and died there, and you’ll come away with a deep, guttural ache for the legacy of slavery and its lasting impact on Black Americans today. For more details about the stark differences between those two plantations, as well as a recommendation for exploring more of New Orleans’ marginalized stories – such as the Voodoo community – head over to our New Orleans itinerary.
So, picking any old historical tour that claims to tell marginalized stories isn’t always enough: you’ll need to do some due diligence to see whether that story is really being accurately represented. Seek tours and cultural activities that are operated by, owned by, advised by, or led by members of the marginalized communities they are about.
Responsible tourism encompasses both cultural and historical learning about marginalized communities, as well as your economic impact on marginalized communities across the globe.
Remember that in addition to actively educating yourself about marginalized communities in the destination you’re visiting, it’s important to economically support those communities by patronizing them, such as eating at Black-owned businesses in the USA, or purchasing Mola clothing and textile art made by the Indigenous Guna community in Panama.
You can also support and learn about marginalized communities in tourism from home! Diversifying the travel content you consume – including social media, blogs, and even books and articles – is an important part of responsible tourism. Below are a few of our favorite organizations and accounts that focus on education and awareness about marginalized communities in travel:
- Disabled & Outdoors (Instagram) posts content about disabled people enjoying the outdoors on their terms and promoting outdoor access for all.
- Indigenous Women Hike (Instagram) posts about Indigenous women in the outdoors, Indigenous issues, and the connection between Indigenous communities and their land.
- Everyqueer (Instagram) inspires the global queer community to boldly seek adventure and is a fantastic resource for LGBTQ+ travel content as well as finding queer content creators to follow.
- Black Travel Alliance (Instagram) is a tourism industry group fighting for equal opportunities in the travel space and holding the travel industry accountable. They are also a great resource for finding other Black content creators in the travel space!
- Nomadness Tribe (Instagram) is a BIPOC travel lifestyle brand & community of Black and brown travelers that posts about Black travel.
- Fat Girls Traveling (Instagram) posts about fat activism through the travel lens. This fat-positive community and platform is dedicated to telling fat stories, highlighting fat bodies, and changing the landscape of travel, fashion and lifestyle brands, and is a great place to find other fat-positive travel content creators to follow.
- Bani Amor (Instagram) is a non-binary travel writer who writes about decolonizing travel culture. Their articles and content are particularly helpful for travel writers and content creators, like me.
Responsible Tourism Takeaway: Stories have power, and seeking out the history, culture, and legacy of marginalized communities helps to challenge the dominant narrative. Seek to balance your cultural and historical activities and self-education while traveling with non-dominant stories to learn about and economically support marginalized communities, and diversify the travel media and content you consume.
Ethical & Responsible Travel Resources
We’ve barely scratched the surface of ethical tourism, the impact of the tourism industry, and the research and activism being done within the tourism industry. So, for further education (both yours and ours!) we’re continually looking for resources to deepen our understanding. Is there a resource we should know about? Drop us a comment below!
Here are a few responsible tourism resources that we’ve recommended in this post:
Responsible Travel: Further Reading
Looking to further your understanding of responsible travel? Below are a few recommendations that go more in-depth about some of the subjects we’ve touched on above.
Do you know of other books that we should add to our list or read ourselves? Please leave us a comment!
|Going Local: Experiences and Encounters on the Road||This enjoyable read lays out the how-tos of responsible and experiential travel, from choosing ethical tour operators to sharing meals with locals. The book also contains case studies, expert interviews and information on how to place protecting local societies and the environment at the forefront of any trip.
Sharing personal travel stories throughout the book, author Nicholas Kontis demonstrates how travel can be so much more than checking a destination off a bucket list – it is an immersive experience that should lead to greater understanding between people and places.
Buy on Amazon | Buy on Bookshop.org
|Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism||Elizabeth Becker, a former New York Times journalist and NPR editor, delivered a disturbing exposé of the dark side of the travel industry and how this growing industry produces ripple effects across the global economy, the environment, and culture. Employing approximately one out of twelve people in the world, the tourism industry is booming but must evolve to protect the world’s irreplaceable sites and spaces. Elizabeth Becker draws from her own travels and meticulous research to illuminate case studies of this evolution and offers examples of how to tread more lightly while traveling.
Buy on Amazon | Buy on Bookshop.org
|The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present||The story of Native America didn’t end at Wounded Knee. Written by an Ojibwe National, this book describes the thriving vitality among indigenous Americans in the 21st century. Treuer writes that “The usual story told about us—or rather about ‘the Indian’—is one of diminution and death, beginning in untrammeled freedom and communion with the earth and ending on reservations, which are seen as nothing more than a basin of perpetual suffering. This book is written out of the simple fierce conviction that our cultures are not dead and our civilizations have not been destroyed. It is written with the understanding that our present tense is evolving as rapidly and creatively as everyone else’s.”
Buy on Amazon | Buy on Bookshop.org
|An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States||This book brings to light what mainstream U.S. history books fail to teach (or actively deny) about the last 400 years of Indigenous history.
Buy on Amazon| Buy on Bookshop.org
|Between the World and Me||Renowned Atlantic journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates authored this book as a profound letter to his son about what it means to be Black in America in the 21st century. This book won the 2015 National Book Award for non-fiction and presents a powerful new framework for understanding U.S. history and the current crisis of systemic racial inequality.
Buy on Amazon | Buy on Bookshop.org
Academic Studies About Responsible Travel
Although I am very much NOT an academic, when it comes to anything as high stakes as responsible travel, I prefer to defer to the advice of experts. Many amazing individuals, organizations and academic institutions are actively studying ways that travel has a positive or negative impact on global communities.
In order to accurately provide recommendations for this post as well as for my book and the blog in general, I referenced the following sources and academic studies. I’ve included links wherever possible, as well as an academic citation in case you’re the type to know how those work (I’m not, so I had to ask my PhD-having sister to help!)
- “Commodification, Culture and Tourism” by Shepherd R. Tourist Studies. (2002);2(2):183-201. doi:10.1177/146879702761936653
- “The Phenomena of Overtourism: A Review” by Dodds, R. and Butler, R. International Journal of Tourism Cities (2019), Vol. 5 No. 4, pp. 519-528.
- “A Causation Theory of Visitor-Resident Irritants; Methodology and Research Inferences” by Doxey, G.V. In: Travel and Tourism Research Association Sixth Annual Conference Proceedings, San Diego (September 1975), pp. 195-98.
- “Environmental Effects of Tourism.” Islam, Faijul. American Journal of Environment, Energy and Power Research (2013).
- “Tourism and Indigenous Peoples” by MacCarthy, M. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology (2020).
- “When in Rome … Learn Why the Romans Do What They Do: How Multicultural Learning Experiences Facilitate Creativity” by Maddux, W. W., Adam, H. and Galinsky, A. D. (2010) Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 36(6), pp. 731–741. doi: 10.1177/0146167210367786.
- “Tourism Impacts: Evidence of Impacts on employment, gender, income” by Lemma, Alberto (2014) Overseas Development Institute, Economics and Private Sector Professional Evidence and Applied Knowledge Services
- “When Culture is for Sale: Tourism and Indigenous Identity in the Andean and Amazonian Regions of Peru (Unpublished master’s thesis).” Ross, J. (2016). New York University.
- “Leakage, economic tourism.” By Jönsson C. (2015) In: Jafari J., Xiao H. (eds) Encyclopedia of Tourism. Springer, Cham. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-01669-6_527-1.
Do you know of any others we should include or be familiar with? Please drop us a comment!
I hope our introduction to ethical tourism has helped give you some insight into being a more responsible tourist! Have suggestions for us, or questions? We are constantly learning and welcome feedback in the comments below!
Psst: Planning a trip? Check out some of our other posts!