Now that people are getting back out there and thinking about traveling abroad again, many are hoping that a more responsible tourism industry will emerge. Even if it doesn’t, there are a lot of steps and habits you can integrate that will make you a more responsible traveler who makes a difference.
We can talk all day about carbon credits, voluntourism, and luxury eco-hotels, but it’s the little decisions you make day after day, for months or years of travel, that really make a difference. Responsible travel and sustainability are not one-off projects you undertake. They’re a journey, a set of systems, and hundreds of small decisions on a regular basis.
If you care enough to learn how to reduce your impact, go read Transitions Abroad or Green Global Travel on a regular basis. But here’s an opinionated cheat sheet on the good and bad outcomes from how you spend your money.
Long-term responsible travel expenditures that help local people better their lives:
When it comes to the “teach a man to fish” rather than “give a man a fish” philosophy, we can look to the entire history of post-colonial Africa to see how the latter turns out. No honest appraisal of what has happened to those trillions in aid dollars can show real long-term progress. Aid during a famine or humanitarian crisis is great. Aid that becomes habitual and institutionalized only helps NGO workers with those white Land Rovers.
Instead, look at what kind of economic impact you can have by spending your money to empower people instead. Support local business at the local level and reward those who are putting out a real effort. If you do that and so do dozens of others, that can support a whole village.
1) Buy direct from artisans and craftspeople who are adults.
When you do this, there are no middlemen, no 5X markups, there’s much less exploitation, and the artisans don’t need to find some other more nefarious way to make money.
2) Buy from cooperatives that commission quality work for a fair price.
This is similar to #1, but with a dose of teamwork. Most tourist cities like Delhi, Mexico City, or Cusco will have at least one of these. Or you can shop at a local 10,000 Villages store or find great items for your home at Novica.
When I was in northern Peru there was a coffee cooperative that also owned a chain of coffee shops. Drinking there meant the farmers were getting a fair price for their beans. Everybody wins.
3) Buy from street vendors, food carts, and market stalls.
Big restaurants are often owned by corporations, or real estate developers, or the tour company that makes sure the buses stop there. Unless it’s a family-owned restaurant that benefits many, it’s usually a top-down affair. Sure, they employ people, but the profits often go to an owner who is not even around.
Street stalls and market stalls are a different story. These are the vendors who can’t afford to rent a commercial space with a kitchen. These stalls are generally owned by people living on very thin margins, to the point where a few dollars makes or breaks their day. So go help make their day and you’ll probably eat better as well.
It’s no secret that if you want to bump into a famous chef south of the border, for instance, your best bet is to go to the Mexico City markets. It’s where you’re most likely to find them shopping and eating. This is true in most of the world’s great culinary capitals, from Lima to Paris to Bangkok. Eat well and do well at once.
4) Support (good) local guesthouses and hotels.
Sure, it may be fun to stay at that corporate chain of co-working hostels that have yoga classes and everything a proper flashpacker needs, but that money is probably flowing to Tel Aviv or Amsterdam, not staying in the town where you’re staying.
New, well-run local hotels especially need your support because they haven’t yet been rewarded by the opaque algorithms or TripAdvisor and they may not be able to afford to pay for better placement on Booking.com. If they’re putting sustainability first instead of pleasing every selfish jerk that walks in, they need the support of responsible travelers to succeed.
If they’re trying hard, help them succeed, especially if they’re trying to be low-impact. Recommend them, spread the word, leave a good review.
5) Support businesses that don’t pay kickbacks to taxi/tuk-tuk drivers.
If a hotel or restaurant has to compensate drivers to recommend them, something is probably wrong with the picture. Be doubly suspicious if the same person says negative things about where you were planning to go. Those payoffs are usually a sign of poor quality or service and those commissions raise the price for everyone.
6) Remember that real conservation costs real money
Do you get enraged when you hear about animal poaching, cruelty, or the loss of habitats? Then be willing to pony up some cash to support ecotourism projects. These are never cheap, so if you look for a bargain safari lodge or a cheap way to gawk at some animals, you’re probably doing more harm than good to the animals.
Save up some money and go on a real vacation in a lodge owned by the local community or a sustainable game reserve that is effectively balancing the needs of the humans with the needs of nature. Don’t try to “do the Galapagos” on the cheap.
While a lot of good came out of the pandemic in terms of dialing back overtourism and pollution in some spots, it dealt a real blow to ecotourism projects in Africa, South America, and elsewhere. If they’re going to survive, they need responsible tourists with an ample budget.
Be Careful With Donations and Tips
Responsible tourism can be as much about what you don’t do with your money (and gifts) than what you do. Many people give generously without a thought about where the money is going and many of the people photos you see on Instagram are feeding a system of paying someone who got dressed up for the tourists to provide an “authentic” photo for the IG feed.
In some countries you’re also inundated with beggars who are part of exploitative syndicates. So you need to think twice before assuming you’re doing good by handing over your cash.
Many well-wishing tourists hand out candy to kids with no toothbrushes, toothpaste, or dentists. Or they hand out pens, which replace the sustainable pencils used instead in the local schools. Both do more harm than good.
1) Donate money, clothing, or medicine to reputable local charities helping people who really need it.
Low-overhead charities mostly run by volunteers are usually trustworthy, efficient, and clued in to what’s really happening on the ground. These people know who’s needy and who’s just a scammer.
These are not usually the corporate NGOs worth billions with logos you recognize unless it’s the Red Cross. These are usually local charities run by churches and civic organizations. You’re almost always better off donating to them than giving personal handouts.
Personally, I think it’s fine to give money to street performers, but not beggars. For the former, it’s their job to entertain you with a skill built up through practice. It’s an entertainment tip more than a handout. For the beggars, it’s a public nuisance that encourages bad behavior. A hundred mimes and buskers may become mildly annoying. A hundred beggars demonstrates a major breakdown in society, especially if they’re children.
2) Tip people who are truly helpful and are working for the money.
Sure, it’s hard to part with any extra cash given out of the goodness of your heart, but if someone does a great job and went above and beyond, reward them. A small amount from you can be a huge amount for them.
Tipping is a big part of the local culture in many countries and it’s what keeps some people (and their families) out of poverty. Sure, sometimes it’s just a shakedown, especially in notorious tout countries like Morocco, Egypt, and India, but in others you request a service and then you provide a tip in return.
Carry a Water Purifier or Filter
One of the biggest impacts you can make on the planet is to stop buying single-use plastic. It’s a relatively painless responsible travel step to carry one of the best water purifiers for travelers or a water filter of some kind.
The two I use the most are a SteriPen and a CrazyCap, both using UV light to purify tap water. In the long run, either will also save you a small fortune when you take bottled water out of your budget, so it’s a win for you, for Mother Nature, and for the less littered local community.
Things that don’t help with responsible tourism and will probably make the situation worse:
1) Buying gum/candy from children or giving coins to street kids.
If it works, the numbers just increase. Kids learn that badgering foreigners for money is easier than getting a job or providing a real service. And so do the parents telling them this is okay.
2) Buying from factories/workshops that employ children.
3) Giving to city beggars who most likely belong to a syndicate or are paying organized crime.
This is not just some urban legend or a plot line to an Oscar-winning movie. The practice has been highlighted since before Charles Dickens and is widespread in countries like India, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Begging is a full-time job for many and there’s someone in charge they’re reporting to who is keeping most of your money.
4) Buying crap trinkets from shops full of crap.
If you buy junk from junky places, we end up with more crap shops with shoddy goods bought for cheap. Very few workers in the shoddy goods factories are making a living wage, even by local standards. Plus you get into the lamentable practice where what’s in the tacky tourist stores isn’t even made in the country you’re visiting, but is a knock-off from China instead.
Plus you’ll get home and ask, “What was I thinking when I bought this?” (If it doesn’t fall apart on the way there.)
5) Buying items that come in single-use plastic containers.
In a thousand years you’ll be gone, but the plastic you bought will still be close to where you left it—if it hasn’t been washed out to sea. Stop trashing Mother Nature just because you’re lazy. Carry a reusable shopping bag, carry a water purifier (see above) and think about the impact of your take-out purchases when they come with a mountain of plastic.
6) Always looking for the cheapest tour
A guy who runs the Cheapest Destinations Blog can’t preach too hard about trying to save a buck, but the adventure operator who is cheaper than everyone else is almost surely cutting corners somewhere. They’re paying workers less, taking more chances on safety, or taking fewer pains to protect the environment. Do a little research before booking and ask the hard questions. The guides on my Guanajuato tours make far more money from each client than the company does and that’s the way it should be–they don’t have to rely on begging for tips to make it worth their time.
How about you? What steps do you take to promote responsible tourism and have a positive impact in places you visit?