Do I Really Travel Responsibly?
My first international trip was a solo jaunt to Iceland. I was dizzy with the heady feeling of being completely free, juxtaposed by the Icelandic countryside's sweeping otherworldliness. The entire trip, I felt almost drunk on the island itself. I really needed that trip to cement my wanderlust and understand my love of the new and exciting world of travel.
I spent my short trip on a strict budget, eating out only once at a vegan restaurant. The rest of the time, I ate what I could afford from the local supermarket. I ate my breakfast every morning on the volcanic-rock levee by my hostel. My day in Reykjavik was spent on foot, learning about the local culture. I split my rental car with two other travelers and spent most of my free days hiking and exploring nature. I even brought my own water bottle. However, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a responsible trip.
At the time, I was really only thinking of myself. 20-somethings can be like that regardless, honestly. However, my trip did have the makings of a responsible vacation. I certainly could have done better. Fast forward quite a few years, and I am a hard advocate for sustainable travel, complete with a degree in Sustainable Ecology and Tourism. I can see now that the potential for responsible travel was there, and I can see where I could have improved.
Recently, Amadeus found that 55% of the travelers surveyed said they would travel for 14 days or more in 2021. However, 60% of travelers said they were only planning on taking a handful of trips. This suggests that when people get back to travel, they plan on going big wherever they end up. This is an important statistic because it opens the- as we’ll learn, slow travel is responsible travel.
That same study also found that 8% of travelers want their travel dollars to benefit the community they’re visiting. Meaning that a rising population of travelers and tourists is looking to give back their travel into the future.
Responsible Travel vs. Sustainable Travel
Responsible travel is not necessarily the same thing as sustainable travel. However, you might hear these terms used interchangeably or in a similar context. You might also hear the concept of regenerative travel, which is not the same thing.
The idea is that in responsible travel, you are concerned about taking responsibility for your presence in the country you are visiting. “Travelling responsibly” is like drinking responsibly - you consider local ethics or legalities. You know your limits; you know what right or wrong actions to be taken while traveling is. Alternately, responsible travel can seem like the onus of the hotel or travel board of your visiting place. Ensuring that tourism minimizes its negative impacts is the purview of responsible travel. Not only those who undertake it but those who organize it.
Sustainable travel seeks to consider the three pillars of sustainability and, at a bare minimum, do no harm while traveling. They can, in many ways, be similar. Sustainability is largely concerned with a holistic approach between economic, cultural, and environmental balance. This is on the onus of both the traveler and the travel entity - like a Tourism Board.
Finally, regenerative travel takes these two ideas to the extreme. Followers of the regenerative travel method insist that it isn’t enough to do no harm or minimize the impact. Instead, a traveler must actively regenerate and lift the communities they are visiting. This includes ideas like voluntourism. A beach cleanup while in Bali is a great example of regenerative travel.
How to Make Your Travel More Sustainable
There are three “pillars” of sustainability, and they are essential to consider when trying to make your travel plans more sustainable. The environment, society, and the economy must function equally for the world to be a more sustainable place. These concepts are intrinsically intertwined, and neither leg of the sustainable stool can be placed above the other.
Sustainable environmental travel must consider things like your carbon footprint and your impact on the local ecosystems. The health of the local watershed, plastic pollution, and how much CO2 your transportation puts into the atmosphere are all environmental sustainability facets. They are also all concepts that travelers need to take into mind when galavanting around the world.
Can you take a bus over a plane? Bring your own water bottle instead of purchasing single-use plastics? Is your “nature” trip really animal exploitation in disguise? Is your beachfront property eroding barrier islands or decimating the local fish population? Does your hotel use twice as much water and energy as a local would? We need to have discussions about the travel industry if we are to make it more environmentally friendly.
The second aspect we need to consider is culture or society. Our travel plans must actively support local cultures - this might seem a bit like a no brainer. Think about this: the Maldives is a Muslim nation, concerned about holiday-making tourists bringing differing (and radical) views to their conservative country. So they sectioned off “tourism only” portions of the island chain. A good idea, or a bad one? To the Maldives, it was a good idea - their citizens can retain their way of life without tourism's negative impact.
Consider this also: Machu Picchu is overrun with tourists. So much so that the site caps its daily visitors around 5,600. In 2000, a piece of a sacred sundial was chipped while a crew filmed a beer commercial. Is that responsible tourism?
To engage in responsible cultural exchange, we must remember that it is not our land we are visiting. We are invading (sometimes quite literally) the homes of other people. Culturally, there are tourism benefits - but there are huge drawbacks when tourists do not put themselves into their hosts' shoes and act respectfully.
The final pillar of sustainability is the economy. One in every 10 dollars made around the world is estimated to be in the tourism sector. The economic benefits can be seen as a no-brainer in this case.
However, are your dollars staying local? Are your actions causing it harder for locals to live in the place you are visiting?
Consider the lifestyle of digital nomadism. It is not uncommon for a digital nomad to choose a location due to the “low” cost of living. Think about Westerners settling in Chiang Mai because “it’s so cheap!”. Many Native Hawaiians can’t afford to live in their own homelands. Is this responsible tourism?
To ensure that our travels are positively impacting the economies, we need to reject things like enclave tourism. That is, reject all-inclusive resorts. Most of the money in these situations leaves the country, and these resorts often have incredibly negative socio-economic impacts on the surrounding area.
Indeed, to be fully present in the economic world of tourism and do the most good, we need to ensure that our dollars stay local. Shopping locally, eating the regional food, and purchasing your souvenirs from local shops all have important parts to play in the sustainable travel world.
Takeaways About Responsible Travel
Responsible or sustainable travel doesn’t necessarily mean giving up traveling altogether. Instead, it means being conscious of the impact you have on the communities you’re visiting.
Social, economic, and environmental wellness must live in harmony in the travel industry - and all those who plan on traveling into the future - if our travel is to be responsible.
How are you committed to being a more responsible tourist in 2021?