12 Ways to Travel Responsibly

Candi Hurst Avatar
12 Ways to Travel Responsibly - Natural fauna in Parcel of Concordia in St. John, USVI.
Natural fauna in Parcel of Concordia in St. John, USVI. Photo credit: Candi Hurst

When I first began traveling as an adult, my goals were to see and do as much as possible. All those picturesque places that immediately come to mind with the utterance of the word “vacation?” They were as far as my wanderlusting brain got.

But as I began to cross off places on my travel bucket list, I realized those places had become more than dots on a map.

They had somehow become places I cared about. They represented people I had met. Landscapes I had traversed. Things I had experienced.

Although I didn’t have a name for it, the idea of responsible travel had been born in my mind.

Since you’re here reading along, I’m betting the notion has become important to you as well.

As travel has become more accessible, responsible tourism initiatives have grown throughout communities too.

Tourists as well as the tourism industry are asking how we can have a positive impact while traveling.

Nowhere is that question more prudent than in places like Maui. Having experienced a devastating natural disaster, the island and its people must now recover and rebuild. With tourism the major component of Hawaii’s local economy, questions remain about how travel to the island plays into that. We have an entire post on how to travel responsibly to Maui now.

But it shouldn’t take a natural disaster for travelers to think deeply about how to travel responsibly. Here, we weigh in with 15 ways travelers can be part of the solution.

12 Ways to Travel Responsibly - Antigua, Guatemala.
Antigua, Guatemala. Photo credit: Candi Hurst

Travel Socially Conscious

Supporting local communities is the hallmark of responsible travel. Some of the best ways to do that are:

1. Follow local guidelines when visiting places that have recently experienced natural disasters or are in rebuilding phases.

For example, Maui, like many popular vacation spots, relies heavily on tourism for jobs and economic stability. So while having tourists visit while recovery is taking place presents obvious problems, so too does a complete halt to tourism.

Maui Guide has THIS essential info on when and where tourists should plan trips to Maui. Finding similar, reputable online resources for other areas affected by disasters is crucial for responsible travelers.

Read More: A Mom of 12 Shares Tips for Solo Teen Travel

2. Think local.

Keep as much as your vacation dollars in the place you’re visiting.

Shopping in small stores and locally owned businesses helps ensure that. Utilizing homestays and boutique hotels over international hotel chains also helps.

When this can’t be done, choosing brands that support local causes makes a difference too. For example, Omni Hotels’ Say Goodnight to Hunger supports local food banks.

If you have a hotel brand you love, be sure to let them know you care about the way they treat the communities in which they operate.

In other words, those feedback forms aren’t just for telling hotels how comfy their beds are. Use them to tell the hotel it’s important to you as a customer that they’re a positive force in the town you visited. Remember little speaks as loudly as your spent dollar. Use it to support a way of travel that is important to you and the communities you visit.

Religion in Nepal invites sharing small gifts and gathering in public spaces.
Gatherings in outdoor spaces to share prayer, blessings and gifts of nuts, flowers and grains are Monday worship settings in Nepal. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

3. Lean into people-focused travel.

Striving to make travel more about the people you meet than the places you go, is a key to responsible travel. (And to the best travel experiences, I would argue.)

Obviously in Maui as in other disaster-affected areas, sensitivity to current hardships goes a long way.

Yet everywhere we travel, focusing on meeting people from the place we’re traveling creates an authentic experience for us and a positive experience for others.

Connecting with local people for tours and activities is another great way to support a community.

Tour operators who are native to the area not only have the inside scoop on all the best travel tips. They also have a vested interest in the community and your business makes a difference to them.

People-focused travel also means being careful to not over-barter. Bartering is customary in some cultures. Yet, expecting or demanding an unrealistically low price for goods or services is unfair to those providing the goods or services.

4. Think about connecting to local organizations doing good.

The fact remains that many popular tourist destinations are also places that are affected by poverty. Giving back to the communities in which we travel helps ensure our travels have a positive impact.

Some travel companies make this easy. For example, Travel on Purpose is a boutique travel agency that connects travelers with vetted organizations doing charitable work in various destinations. While trips through the agency have all the benefits of luxury vacations, guests have opportunities to connect to organizations that address social problems.

ResponsibleTravel is another travel company that seeks to support local communities and address climate change as it relates to the travel industry. Additionally, for every trip booked, the company donates a day trip to a disadvantaged child so he or she may experience the benefits of travel.

12 Ways to Travel Responsibly - Seeing animals in natural habitats in small group wildlife tours.
Seeing animals in natural habitats in small group wildlife tours. Photo credit: Candi Hurst

Travel Environmentally Conscious

Ecotourism has become a bit of a buzzword. But what does it really mean? And how can you travel in a way that supports a healthy environment?

5. Consider going smaller.

Embracing small group travel is the secret sauce for sustainable travel.

Smaller groups carry a much smaller carbon footprint than their big group counterparts. Small groups can more effectively use public transport. They can traverse through an animal’s habitat with less impact. And they have less impact on the day-to-day functioning of people in the place they’re visiting.

Some places, like Venice, Italy, have embraced the “smaller is better” approach by banning large cruise ships. Large vessels are too damaging to the port city. And the cruise industry has long been dinged by environmentalists for high emissions and environmentally damaging practices. Going smaller and with companies that are seeking solutions to the problems provides a positive impact.

6. Practice sustainable tourism by staying in eco-friendly accommodations.

These are hotels that recycle and use renewable energy and ecological cleaning products. Hotels can also foster sustainability by providing car-free access, serving local or organic food, and installing water flow reducers.

7. Reduce carbon emissions and your carbon footprint by choosing transportation wisely.

Being mindful of transportation while traveling can do a lot to reduce your carbon footprint. Walking, biking, or using public transportation is a good way to start. Taking a train instead of an airplane when possible also reduces carbon emissions.

And if you really need that rental car? Opt for an electric vehicle when possible.

Snorkelers in the aqua waters off Aruba
Snorkeling in Aruba. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

8. Protect an area’s biodiversity.

Being mindful of an area’s wildlife, native trees, and flowers is important in responsible travel.

Visitors should only use reef-safe sunscreen (sunscreens that do not contain oxybenzone and octinoxate). Be diligent about following regulations in protected areas. And avoid stepping on or touching coral when in the ocean.

9. Be aware of best animal practices.

For generations, well-meaning tourists who value and love animals have unknowingly caused harm. Now, thanks to better education, we know better. And can do better.

Whether you’re traveling to a national park or much farther away on that bucket-list African safari, the rules remain the same. Keep wildlife wild.

Don’t participate in activities that involve riding or interacting with animals that are not normally domesticated. Check for certifications from reputable wildlife organizations. (Hint: They can differ vastly from customer reviews.) And don’t buy any souvenir that contains an animal part or takes away from an animal’s habitat.

12 Ways to Travel Responsibly - Traditional dancing in Costa Rica
Traditional dancing in Costa Rica. Photo credit: Candi Hurst

Travel Culturally Conscious

Travel really is learning and doing a bit of homework about the customs of a destination is where the learning can begin. Doing so also allows travelers to be welcomed and informed visitors. Visitors to new places can also take a few other steps to become culturally conscious travelers.

10. Consider a vision trip over a mission trip.

Short-term mission trips have long been ways for travelers to connect with communities in need. And such trips have undoubtedly provided aid and fostered connections.

However, in certain instances, they’ve caused unintended harm. Well-intentioned mission trip participants have sometimes unintentionally supported unethical practices and been perceived as a “white savior” approach.  

Vision trips differ in that they allow travelers to learn about and support communities. Vision trip participants still provide benefits to visited communities while not getting in the way of local self-sufficiency.

The primary focus of a vision trip is to gain an understanding of a culture, to listen more than speak, and to learn more than teach. There’s still often an opportunity to give back financially. But, it’s done in a way determined by the self-identified needs of the recipient rather than the assumed desires of the giver.

11. Educate yourself about local culture prior to visiting an area.

One of the great things about travel is learning about new customs, foods, and ways of doing things. Educating ourselves prior to a trip about things that might be most appropriate is essential.

For example, while shorts or shirts with bare shoulders are customary in western cultures, they aren’t so everywhere. Knowing what to wear, how to address people, and what is considered good manners in a destination is important. Learning a bit about other customs and common practices can go a long way in being a culturally sensitive traveler.

12. To help prevent overtourism, plan to explore places a little off the beaten path.

Making it a point to discover some smaller areas brings positive economic consequences to those who need it. And avoiding overcrowded areas eases things like crowded public transportation for those who live near large tourist destinations.

Tourists can also consider a path less traveled with “this over that” trips. Visiting iconic places like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Colosseum in Rome are undoubtedly good travel goals. But, spending some vacation time at smaller and less popular sites can help us learn even more about an area’s culture. Smaller places often need the business and you’ll find hidden gems along the way.

Think of trekking Peru’s Kuelap instead of Machu Picchu. Consider exploring Spain’s Toledo instead of Madrid. Or opt to spend more time in Costa Rica’s less busy Caribbean side as opposed to its Pacific coast.

I believe travel is one of life’s great educators. I use it to inspire my kids and myself to learn. In between shuffling kids to sports’ practices and homeschooling 2 of my children, I love to get away on family trips, couple’s retreats, and girls’ getaways. With 2 boys and 2 girls and 10 years between my oldest and youngest child, I know traveling can also be challenging. It requires a great plan. So, once the house is quiet, you’ll often find me with iPad in lap, researching my family’s next great adventure. I’ve found some travel gems, made lots of memories, and had my share of travel flops. I believe knowledge isn’t to be owned, but rather to be shared. So sharing what I’ve learned makes me (almost) as happy as getting the window seat on a plane. What really makes me happiest is writing about how we can use travel to make the world better than we found it. (What can I say? You can take the girl out of social work but you can’t take the social worker out of the girl.) You’ll also find a huge smile on my face when I’m writing about my first love (Disney), my newest love (traveling with teens), or my never ending love (practically anyplace I haven’t been before).
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