responsible travel

What does it mean to be a responsible traveller

If we look at the Cambridge dictionary for a reference about responsible travel then as good judgment (skipping duty and blame) it means: having good judgment and the ability to act correctly and make decisions on your own. 

Responsible travel is to act correctly while you are on the road, as simple as that, right? Not exactly, now we need to know that does it mean to act correctly.

As far as we understand it, responsible travel encompasses so many other concepts (look at it like an umbrella) like eco-tourism, ethical travel, social impact travel, etc. 

So for us, and it seems like a consensual approach, being responsible while you travel is to try to minimize the impact on the social, economic and environmental aspects of where you are. 

It’s like zero waste mentality, you will never reach zero unless you cease to exist, but you mindfully mitigate what you can.

Looking at an attempt to define it (Cape Town Declaration in 2002):

  • Minimises negative economic, environmental and social impacts.
  • Generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the wellbeing of host communities, improves working conditions and access to the industry.
  • Involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life changes.
  • Makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, to the maintenance of the world’s diversity.
  • Provides enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues.
  • Provides access for physically challenged people.
  • Is culturally sensitive engenders respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence.

A good example would be what’s happening in Thailand with the elephants. Before, there was no concern how the elephants were treated and what you could do with them, now you find everywhere advertisement for ethical elephant activities where riding, for example, is not allowed.

Like this, there are many activities, tours, and courses that are now advertised under the responsible flag, either because they help local cooperatives, or because they promote gentler tourism that tries not to damage so much the original cultures. 

With this commercial surge also comes the greenwashing, so beware when everything is organic. One needs always to be critical to what is advertised, and double check as much as you can.

volunteering purpose travel responsibility
  Joao digging a trench while volunteering in Belize

Want to have some more travel inspiration?

Our tips to be a conscious traveller

Where should you go, choosing your destination

The first decision anyone makes about their travels is where to travel in the first place. Although it may sound difficult to make this first decision in a responsible way, some countries give you more tips than others. Places like Costa Rica that are world leaders in what Eco-Tourism is concerned, the same going to Namibia in Africa. Traveling to those countries you will have an extra insurance that you may be inflicting less harm to the planet, although you always need to be aware of greenwashing.

To have a broad idea of which countries are being responsible so traveling to them would probably be positive is to use studies like the Global Green Economy Index (2018 is coming out soon). There you will see North European countries leading the way with no surprise but some other countries like Zambia, Ethiopia and Colombia ranking really well. Unfortunately, Asia does not look good in this regard, and after living for a while in Thailand we can already see why.

When considering traveling to a place and stay for a longer period why don’t you look at the good signs of a green city? Lots of green areas, walking, and bicycle friendly, farmer markets, good transportation system, close to nature, green fairs and activities, etc. With this criteria, lots of big cities like Tokyo, and Cape Town come up, as Portland and Melbourne and of course Berlin. The star city in most reports is Copenhagen, thanks to their green forward-thinking mayor, we would definitively consider spending Summers over there.

How to get there, looking at transportation

There is a myth, or let’s call it a depends-on-myth about traveling by plane and its impact on the environment. By default everyone considers flying always the worse option, but is it the case? I’m not dwelling on details with this here, planning to write extensively about it in another article, but I’ll leave you two sources to read about this. (source 1 and source 2)

The bottom line is that it depends, if it is a short haul 200 miles flight (like London to Paris or New York to DC) then flying would be a catastrophe to the environment. But as soon as you stretch the leg, and get to medium haul flights closer to 1000 miles then a filled air flight would beat cars by far.

hitchhiking purpose of travel shared transportation
Getting a ride in a van while crossing Guatemala

When we consider going from Europe to Asia for example, your mind should be in peace as you are most likely choosing the most efficient way of transportation. As long as riding your bicycle for months is not an option, or taking the Oriental express train. And let’s not start the discussion that you should not travel at all, to save the environment. I’ll hit you with my above arguments of travel as an education tool for your mind and soul and how it will make you more aware of the planet itself.

For smaller distances then trains and buses are always the best options, and if you need to go by car then carpooling is the way to go. You can even consider giving a ride to people using apps like Bla Bla Car, that allow you to share costs and be more environmentally friendly.

If you think spending hours by train is a waste compared to flying then you may consider slowing down your travel speed. Slow travel has a major impact on our planet and on yourself. 

Bottom line, long distances (above 500 miles) a full flight will probably be a good option for the environment, below that distance then trains or buses are the way to go. If you decide at the end for a car then look for electrical car rentals, some companies now have fleets for that, like Hertz with their Green Traveler Collection. (video below)

Read more: Our Sustainable Travel Kit we take everywhere

 Where to stay, looking at green lodging

Looking for a place to stay is where you can probably have more impact on the environment, and if you are a slow traveler then it’s a huge decision to make. If you are staying for many months, why not look for a house with a nice garden where you can even get some food from it? You don’t need to become a gardener, think on herbs and some fruit trees that you can easily get food from. This is also relevant because you should try to stay healthy when traveling.

But before we get to that realm let’s think on shorter stays, and ways to find green options. When we are discussing the shared economy, there is no better place to go than Couchsurfing type options. You will stay at someone’s house at no expense and share the resources with them. I’m not even going to explore the benefits of staying with locals, just looking at the positive impact to share a home.

Now, you don’t want to share, you want a place for yourself, then before heading directly to booking.com or agoda.com let’s discuss other ways of doing it.

First, let’s start with the premium hotels and chains. You should be aware that some of them are making positive efforts to minimize their footprints, and although greenwashing is at large in this industry you do have genuine options. One way to find them is by using official certificate entities like http://www.greenkey.global https://www.gstcouncil.org and search their databases

Besides the hotel chains, you can also look for eco-lodges or eco-villas using search engines like https://www.bookgreener.com and https://www.bookdifferent.com/en/ . Book different website also searches for hotels and has a very particular approach, they developed a mathematical formula to calculate the impact of each lodging offer and give a ranking in carbon kilos which you can see on their listings. It is still too early to be sure of such measurements but we do need to start somewhere. Another amazing selection of eco-lodges compiled by National Geographic is here

purpose of travel housesitting
A house we stayed in the middle of a reserve in Costa Rica

But If you want to go to the next level of responsible travel and time is on your side then you could look for houses with a low carbon footprint like farmhouses, tiny houses, tree houses or just houses with a nice garden. Airbnb now has search features for all these kind of features in their database, just look for more filters and choose Unique Homes option.

We did that for our trip to Malaysia and found this amazing gem in the heart of Penang Island, called the Vivarium. Lots of plants, eco cleaning products, natural ventilation (no AC needed) and a garden downstairs where we could compost and get some fresh produce. It felt like an extension of our lifestyle but on the road.

What to do, what activities are more responsible

This is the part where it is easier to find earth-friendly options, but also a mined field too so what out to greenwashing. As long as they don’t damage the local ecosystem any outdoor activities like biking, hiking, diving, climbing, bird-watching, you name it are always great things to do. Very good for your health too, we are not made to be indoors all the time and some moderate adrenaline and sun catching vitamin D will do wonders to you.

Research well those activities, to be sure they are not abusing the system, too much of anything good can be damaging too, so have that in mind. Activities with animals are also subject to some abuse, just like the Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand that have been severely criticised for abusing the forcibly domesticated animals.

Consider doing some volunteer activities, or joining a local cause to help improve something of the community. There are many websites to help you with that like workaway.com and idealist.org that can help you find the suitable option for your stay.

Helping local communities by joining responsible tours to ethnical centers, that are created to help the local economy. Local crafts and heritage activities are sometimes the only means of subsistence for smaller populations. If you want to buy souvenirs or any kind of purchase you may feel the need, try to make sure they were locally produced and they will receive their right income. If you find the Fairtrade certification is an extra assurance that you are spending your money on something good.

Responsible Travel is a mindset, not an exact science

Like I said before, zero waste does not mean you produce no waste at all in your life, it means you thrive to do so, in other words, you do the best you can. And trust us, zero waste while travelling is really hard. 

Responsible travel is the same, you cannot say everything you do will be responsible, will have a positive impact and will not harm anything or anyone. But you know you did the best you could, and you are mindful of your decision.

We believe that by slow traveling, and trying to choose places to stay and to do with more sustainability concerns we are already doing much more than unfortunately the majority of travelers. 

And if we look at the numbers, that 2018 may get a billion of travelers worldwide then we have an idea what kind of impact this is having. Do what you can and share as much as you can for a more mindful travel lifestyle.

Curious about some travel inspiration? Head to our inspiration hub.

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30 October 2019

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