According to the U.S. Travel Association, travel spending increased by 4% in January 2023 compared to January 2019. While there’s reason to celebrate that, an increase in travelers can spark responsible tourism issues for destinations, many of which are still recovering economically from the pandemic.
A Piece of Travel reached out to experts in the tourism industry for their input on responsible tourism and how travelers can ensure their trip is a positive experience for the destinations they visit.
What Is Responsible Tourism?
Responsible tourism has many branches, including but not limited to:
- Behaving respectfully
- Choosing tours that pay fair wages to locals
- Avoiding overcrowded destinations
- Eating at local restaurants
- Reducing your carbon footprint
Jared Sternberg is the founder and president of Gondwana Ecotours, an agency that supports local programs and runs carbon-neutral tours. He explains, “Responsible tourism supports local environments, cultures, and communities. It seeks to minimize impacts and maximize local experiences.”
Responsible tourism also has a significant emphasis on personal behavior. Chief Sustainability Officer Tasha Hayes from Contiki weighs in. “As simple as it sounds, tourists need to be mindful that they are visiting someone else’s home and to treat it like their own home.”
Hayes offers examples of how tourists can practice responsible tourism. “Simple things like keeping noise to a minimum, traveling via public transport, not littering, buying local, and staying local are easy ways for tourists to act responsibly when they travel.”
Sometimes, understanding how to be a responsible tourist is best described with examples of how not to behave.
Youssef Ettobi, the CEO of the magazine MarruecosHoy, recounts scenes he’s observed from cruise ship goers docking in Tangier, Morocco, and Cartagena, Spain. “I have witnessed tourists disembarking from the ships and behaving inappropriately, such as littering, being disrespectful to the locals, and expecting everyone to speak their language.”
Benefits of Responsible Tourism
Responsible tourism that encompasses the personal and local community levels can have many positive contributions.
Some of the potential benefits of responsible tourism include:
- Lifting locals out of poverty
- Job opportunities for minorities
- Increased government-funded social services
- Preservation of cultural heritage
- Maintenance of historical sites
- Lower ecological footprint
Tourist and Tour Operator Responsibilities
For a destination to feel the positive impact of responsible tourism, both the tourist and tour operators must be proactive in ensuring the well-being of host communities.
Tom Hall, the Vice President of Lonely Planet, says, “Tourists contribute [to responsible tourism] by coming to a destination informed on how to ensure their visit has the best possible benefit to communities visited.” He points out that host destinations can make it easier on tourists “by offering relevant, tailored guidance in advance and on the ground.”
But as Nora Livingstone, CEO and co-founder of Animal Experience International points out, the first step is ensuring the locals want tourists there in the first place. “Coercion is a real problem in tourism. Local communities my [sic] not want to take part in something but if it feeds themselves and their families they may go along with irresponsible, unsustainable practices.”
Livingstone adds, “It’s important for tourists and destinations to not take away the humanity of these host communities. We must remember that we are not here to just extract, take, exploit.”
For this reason, behaving responsibly as a tourist is a start, but it isn’t enough. A large part of steering clear of becoming an irresponsible tourist is investigating the tour operator before booking your trip to ensure they’ve developed genuine and welcomed relationships with the community.
14 Responsible Tourism Examples
Irresponsible tourism abounds in the travel industry. While some of the examples here will seem obvious, the chances are high that you’ve unintentionally been an irresponsible tourist during your domestic or world travels. I’m among the travelers in this category.
So, these examples aren’t to shame you; they’re to help raise awareness so that next time you can make more informed choices.
1. Research a Tour Company’s Background
Tour companies often boast about the positive experience they offer tourists. But you should dig deeper than the client reviews they curate on their website.
How much of your money will go to the community? Does the tour company offer detailed information about the relationship they’ve built with locals?
Rēnata West is the Managing Director of Pacific Storytelling. His family has been sharing stories for more than 200 years about their Māori heritage in New Zealand, and he shares the disheartening reality of what can happen in indigenous communities.
“I have seen it in my career of [sic] multiple times when a non-indigenous owned company established an indigenous cultural focused experience because it was the trendy thing to do and an opportunity to make some quick cash.” He explains, “the problem is that while a handful of local indigenous were employed the vast majority of the profits go back to non-indigenous sources and not for the betterment of the culture and community long term.”
West also highlights that visitors “leave thinking they have had an authentic experience” when it was far from that.
2. Don’t Purchase Products From Children
It’s common for children in poor areas to sell items to tourists. I know how these situations can pull at the heartstrings, and I’m guilty of buying souvenirs and food from kids during my early travel years.
My host mom in Peru brought the damage I was doing to my attention. She explained that when parents learn they can earn money by sending their children to the street to sell products to tourists, they become reluctant to send them to school.
Jamie Sweeting is the Vice President for Social Enterprise and Responsible Travel at G Adventures. He weighs in on the other end of this spectrum, with tourists giving out candy, pencils, and more to children. “This sounds on the face of it a nice thing to do. But in reality it can be very harmful to kids. It can expose them to risk from predatory adults, it can encourage them to miss school to beg for items that adults want them to collect that can be sold.”
Sweeting challenges travelers to consider what this situation would look like in reverse. He asks people to “take a moment to think, would this behavior be acceptable where I live? How would you feel about a stranger giving your kids or grandkids candies in your local town?”
3. Do Due Diligence on Tours Involving Animals
Awareness about animal abuse in the tourism industry is on the rise. In 2018, animal rights activists rejoiced when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ended the use of elephants in their shows.
But sadly, animal abuse and neglect come in a variety of forms in the tourism industry. From the donkeys painted like zebras in Tijuana to the baby alpaca in Peru, animals often spend long days in the hot sun without water in the name of tourists riding or snapping a photo with them.
Hilary Matson, the CEO of Yugen Earthside, candidly reflects on her experience in Thailand, acknowledging that “Every traveler probably has a personal experience with irresponsible tourism, even if it wasn’t on purpose.” She describes how she partook in elephant riding as a listed excursion on her study abroad trip and thought to herself, “I’m not sure this is right…” when the guide poked the elephant’s face to the point of breaking skin.
After learning years later about the abusive practices elephants undergo to become rideable for tourists, Matson returned to Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescued and recovering elephants. She says, “It doesn’t take away the fact that I did ride an elephant, but what’s important is for travelers to be mindful of their experiences, question if something really is responsible, and always be looking for alternatives that are more sustainable and kind in the long run. Use your experience, and learn from it.”
Responsible travel also involves doing your due diligence about tour operators that offer seeing animals in the wild. For example, swimming with turtle tours often involves tour operators putting food in the water. The sea turtles then become accustomed to people and may experience higher rates of boat injuries.
4. Steer Clear of Child-led Entertainment
Not supporting child-led entertainment might seem like a no-brainer until you realize the breadth of what it covers. Such entertainment can look as innocent as a child playing a wooden flute on the sidewalk with a donation bucket. It’s easy to drop some change in the bucket, feeling good about your contribution and not thinking of the child again.
While sometimes children perform on the street of their own free will, in many other cases, there’s an adult behind the scenes.
Sometimes that adult is a parent using their kid to help put food on the table that night. Other times the situation is much darker, with an orphaned or trafficked child under the hands of an abusive person.
Once you know what you’re potentially looking at, it can be gut-wrenching to watch tourists flock around children and clap as they perform on the street. I’ve witnessed young children breathing fire on the streets of Vietnam and breakdancing at plazas in Colombia hour after hour, night after night.
During my travels, I’ve learned that it’s easy to assume you understand what you see. But embracing responsible tourism often means challenging our perspective so that we’re cognizant of reality, allowing us to adjust our behavior accordingly.
5. Don’t Wander Where You Shouldn’t
One of the pillars of being a responsible tourist is choosing destinations that aren’t suffering from overtourism. That means going off the beaten tourist path, spending your money at local restaurants, and making connections with the people living in the community—something that would be hard to do in tourist-saturated destinations.
That said, respecting the destination you’re visiting is vital.
For example, don’t enter places of worship unless you’ve checked that it’s okay.
Likewise, an innocent exploration around town could result in you accidentally trespassing on someone’s property. So, until you get a feel for which roads are public and which lead to private homes or family complexes, it’s best to stick to areas that are clearly for everyone.
6. Research the Impact of Legal Drugs
Drug laws vary throughout the world. If you’re contemplating legal drug use, it’s your job as a responsible tourist to educate yourself before your trip to know what’s legal and how your purchase could affect the locals.
In the case of cannabis, it’s legal in varying degrees in countries like Thailand, South Africa, and Malta. Meanwhile, recreational marijuana is legal in certain states in the U.S., whereas driving to the wrong state with cannabis in tow could land you a hefty fine or jail time.
But even if a drug is legal in the destination you visit, be mindful before buying it. For example, cannabis is legal in Mexico for recreational and medicinal purposes. However, the Council on Foreign Relations states that cartels and the drug trade are the reason for “tens of thousands” of yearly homicides in Mexico.
Being a responsible tourist means being mindful of how your money could impact the communities you visit and making wise choices on how you spend it.
7. Investigate Volunteer Opportunities
Some people prefer swapping out the word “tourist” with “volunteer” when they travel. And indeed, volunteering can be a wonderful way to have an immersive experience while giving back to a community.
But of the responsible tourism examples covered here, volunteer-based tours are prone to prey on locals and deceive volunteers. Vicky Smith, Founder and Director of Earth Changers, explains a scenario she’s seen with orphanages.
“In volunteer tourism, people pay to ‘help’ orphans at orphanages. They’re often not orphans, their parents paid to take them off their hands (often unable to support them themselves in impoverished conditions) believing they will be well looked after.” Smith goes on to say that the children are often kept in poor conditions “to lure more sympathy money from western tourists.”
Perhaps most shocking of all to well-meaning volunteer tourists, Smith states that “The rise in orphanage tourism has been tracked to correlate with the rise in child trafficking, and doesn’t follow a rise in orphans.” She also says that the children often suffer from psycho-social issues, and many end up on the street, where they become involved in crime and drugs.
This isn’t to say that all volunteer tourism opportunities operate with bad intentions. However, it’s vital to do your due diligence as a responsible tourist to vet the tour agency and volunteer organization before donating your money and time to them.
8. Be Cautious With Adult Pleasures
The world’s oldest profession is illegal in many, but not all, countries. If you’re traveling to a country where prostitution is illegal, the responsible tourism decision is simple—don’t seek underground avenues.
However, if you’ll be heading to a country where adult pleasures are legal and want to partake, it’s crucial to do your due diligence about the conditions and freedom of the workers. According to the Journalist Resource, human trafficking cases are higher in countries where prostitution is legal.
They state that high-income countries are the biggest culprits of sexual exploitation in countries with legal prostitution.
The U.S. Department of State offers advice on its human trafficking page about human trafficking indicators, questions to ask, and how to help the victim.
9. Support the Local Economy
Tourism is the pulse of a community’s economy in many parts of the world. Even a small purchase from a local shop or restaurant can go far in helping a family put food on the table, save for their child’s education, and more.
In addition to buying souvenirs and meals from local venues, you can take it a step further by supporting businesses that sell local products. In the case of souvenirs, choose a local handmade item instead of a factory-produced one. When you’re researching restaurants, pick those that locally source their food.
Another way to support a community’s economy is by booking your trip with local tour operators who strive to break the cycle of poverty.
Deborah Campagnaro from Indigenous Kokoda Adventures shares her story of the irresponsible tourism she’s seen with tour operators running treks on the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. She says that foreign tour operators have run the treks for decades with little regard for how the communities struggle economically.
Campagnaro explains, “In my opinion, it has been in the foreign tour operators [sic] best interests to keep things as they have been as they provide a more ‘authentic’ trek experience plus the shock value of how the local people live.”
She also cautions about copycat tour operators. Since Indigenous Kokoda Adventures seeks to lift the communities along the Kokoda Track out of poverty, some of the foreign tour operators “are now incorporating our pillars as their own . . . because it looks good, not because it is good.”
10. Avoid Bootleg Market Purchases
Visiting local markets and shops is a wonderful way to experience a destination’s culture, products, and cuisine. However, some vendors may openly sell illegal items.
As a tourist, it’s your responsibility to educate yourself enough to know not to purchase such items. Examples of things you should never buy from vendors include:
- Exotic animals
- Natural souvenirs (elephant tusks, snake skins, etc.)
Furthermore, it’s best not to purchase animals from a market, even if it’s legal to do so. As Hania from Fundación HOPE in Peru experiences during her rescue efforts, animals sold at markets are often mistreated, and she’s seen puppies thrown in the trash alive when the vendors determine they won’t be able to sell them.
11. Be Honest About Your Dating Intentions
When approached with clear communication, dating can be a unique way to experience life in the destination you’re visiting. However, depending on the dating culture of where your partner is from, it can have devastating emotional and social effects on them if things go wrong.
So, if you’re interested in dating when traveling and aren’t familiar with local dating customs, research as much as you can before your arrival. It’s also wise to befriend locals and ask them questions about their dating culture before you embark on your romance escapade.
Above all, be honest with potential dates about your intentions. Are you looking for a weekend fling, or are you open to something more serious?
Depending on the destination, one or both options may be culturally appropriate as long as you take the responsible travel approach, leading with respect and communication.
12. Tread Carefully With Political Conversations
The topic of politics might arise if you’re lucky enough to visit destinations where you speak the same language as the locals. But as the Peace Corps advised during my service as a volunteer in Panama, it’s often better to listen than to speak during such situations.
Many people feel passionate about their political points of view. They may even be familiar with some of the political happenings in your home country and voice their thoughts on it.
Listening to locals’ political opinions can be a wonderful way to better understand their backgrounds, motivations, and priorities. Asking them questions is a great way to delve deeper and show that you’re listening.
What you want to avoid is getting heated over any viewpoints you disagree with. Raising your voice or putting down locals for their beliefs is a classic example of irresponsible tourism; it looks bad on you, and it can leave the locals with a poor impression of future tourists.
So, if you can’t embrace a diversity of opinions, steer clear of topics that trigger you.
13. Don’t Break the Law
Being a law-abiding visitor is among the most basic responsible tourism examples, but it’s easy to make a mistake.
For example, an international driving license is required to drive in many Asian countries. However, scooter and car rental companies usually don’t ask for a tourist’s international driving license, which could lead the unsuspecting visitor to believe they’re legally allowed to drive if they didn’t do proper research.
Helmet-wearing is another example of how tourists can break the law. Many countries require helmets for people on motorbikes even though you might not see all locals doing it. However, a lack of research or the desire to feel the wind in one’s hair can cause some to break the law.
A visitor can also be an irresponsible tourist by going against the grain even when they’re not technically breaking the law.
In Muslim-majority countries like Morocco, small public displays of affection are tolerated in most tourist areas, though you won’t see local couples being affectionate with each other. But you’ll gain more respect as a tourist if you do as the locals do (or don’t, in this case).
14. Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
Last but not least, sustainability plays a role in responsible tourism. Although travel takes a larger toll on the environment than staying at home, there are ways to reduce your environmental impact.
Traveling to nearby destinations and arranging your itinerary to avoid long-distance backtracking are excellent ways to reduce your negative impact on the environment. You can also keep it local by eating at restaurants that source food from nearby farmers. Eating organic is ideal when possible.
Unfortunately, travelers sometimes throw caution to the wind on their vacations.
Dr. Terika Haynes, founder of Dynamite Travel, shares situations that she’s seen. “Many travelers are wasteful on vacation, taking/ordering more food and drinks than they realistically intend to consume.” She also points out that “travelers take longer baths/showers and use more amenities such as soap since they are freely provided.”
So, being mindful of the resources you use when traveling can go a long way with local conservation in the destination you visit.
How to Be a Responsible Tourist
Now that we covered some responsible tourism examples, below are additional ways to be a responsible tourist.
1. Travel Slowly
Slow travel is trending, especially for digital nomads who aren’t strapped to a set number of annual vacation days. By staying multiple nights in a destination, you’ll have the opportunity to connect with locals on a deeper level and reduce your carbon footprint.
My favorite place for slow travel is destinations that tourists usually visit on day trips or as a single-night stay. I find that locals become pleasantly surprised by my longer-term stay, greeting me with energetic smiles and waves when they see me wandering around their community.
Another aspect of traveling slowly is opting to take public transportation over taxis and travel to nearby destinations instead of choosing to base yourself in destinations that are hundreds of miles apart.
2. Interact With Locals
Building meaningful connections with locals is one of the most rewarding aspects of responsible tourism. From my experience, the feeling is often mutual with the people in host communities.
No one will expect you to speak the local language fluently. However, apps like Google Translate fill the gap wonderfully, allowing you to have in-depth conversations with locals when it would have otherwise been impossible.
I also encourage you to learn how to say “hello” and “thank you” in the local language.
The locals will likely recognize and appreciate your effort even if you stumble over your words. I learned this firsthand when I realized I was saying “shut up” instead of “thank you” to the Vietnamese I encountered after arriving in Ho Chi Minh.
Once I discovered my error, I realized in hindsight that they had all taken it well (though I’m sure they were amused by my smiling and bowing as I enthusiastically told them to shut up).
3. Ask for Permission to Take a Photo
How would you feel if someone visiting your town deliberately snapped a photo of you without asking first?
Taking a local’s photo without asking for their permission is a classic example of an irresponsible tourist move. Many travelers think nothing of doing so, posting the photos on their Instagram or other social media pages as they boast about the enjoyable experiences they had in that destination.
There’s a small caveat: It’s nearly impossible to avoid taking photos of locals’ faces if you’re in a crowded space. The point is that you shouldn’t be singling out the face of a local person or group of people in your photos without their permission.
Furthermore, be a responsible traveler and don’t single out children in your photographs. Taking photos of children without the parent’s permission likely isn’t acceptable in your home country; have the same respect for the destination you’re visiting.
From my experience, many communities have local pride, and they’re often happy to let tourists take photos of them if you purchase goods they may be selling or build a rapport through slow traveling. They might even ask to take a photo of you or with you.
4. Respect Local Customs
Researching a destination’s cultural heritage, local dress codes, and religious beliefs before arriving at a destination is an excellent way to demonstrate responsible tourism.
In most cases, locals don’t expect tourists to dress as they do. But just because you can get away with meandering around in shorts and a tank top in, say, a Muslim-majority country doesn’t mean you should.
Furthermore, educate yourself and be respectful of local holidays. If you’re in Israel, plan your grocery shopping and any services you may need from local businesses around the weekly Jewish Sabbath. Similarly, research when Ramadan will be taking place in Muslim countries and avoid eating or drinking water in public areas during daylight hours if your travel dates fall during that time.
The more mindful you are of local customs, the greater your chance of connecting with the people in your host destination on a deeper level.
5. Know Your Drinking Limits
If you choose to drink during your trip, do so responsibly. Consuming too much alcohol can quickly undo any work you’ve done in building meaningful relationships with community members.
On the flip side, in certain parts of the world, like Latin America, drinking alcohol with locals can be a wonderful way to develop a deeper connection with them.
Nevertheless, being a responsible tourist means knowing your drinking limits and not letting things get so out of control that you damage your reputation or act in a way that’s harmful to the community.
6. Understand the Tipping Culture
As an American, tipping for restaurant and tour services runs in my blood. So, I used to cringe when travelers from countries where tipping isn’t a big part of the culture thought nothing of walking out of a cafe or leaving a tour guide without a tip.
But I’ve since learned to harness the responsible traveler mindset and think about the tipping culture of the destination I’m visiting rather than arriving with my opinions on how it should be.
For example, giving a server a tip in Japan is considered an insult. The same is the case for most places in China.
In contrast, many countries in Latin America expect tips from tourists, likely influenced by their tip-go-lucky northern neighbors.
Some restaurants in touristy areas around the world even tack on the tip automatically to a bill. Watch out for these situations; you don’t have to tip extra if that’s the case.
The Connection Between Responsible Tourism and Ecotourism
Ecotourism and responsible tourism are closely connected. Yank Moore is the Director of Conservation for the Jekyll Island Authority on the Georgia coast in the United States. He says that “being a responsible tourist involves making conscious decisions that have a positive impact on the environment and local communities.”
Moore offers the following advice for how tourists can be environmentally responsible travelers:
- Research your destination and choose those that prioritize sustainable tourism and the natural balance of nature and humanity.
- Choose activities that allow you to connect with the environment and gain a greater understanding of the local culture and community.
- Reduce your carbon footprint by choosing eco-friendly transportation options, such as electric vehicles or public transportation, or even bike-friendly destinations, and by minimizing waste and energy usage.
- Support local businesses and communities by shopping locally and choosing sustainable tourism options.
- Leave no trace by avoiding littering, minimizing your impact on natural areas, and properly disposing of waste, including broken beach umbrellas or beach toys.
Responsible Tourism vs Sustainable Tourism
Sustainable and responsible tourism go hand in hand, but they have some notable distinctions. Ben Thorburn from Wilderness Scotland explains.
“Sustainable tourism encompasses the three pillars of sustainability; environmental, economic and social, and the balance between these as we want to make a positive impact on people and the planet.”
On the other hand, Thorburn says that responsible tourism “is more focused on the actual elements of behaviour and action that individuals and businesses can have in order to generate positive outcomes for people and planet.” He offers an example where tour operators can source local consumables while striving to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
There also tends to be a time distinction when comparing responsible and sustainable tourism.
“I think of responsible tourism as a ‘behavior’ whereas sustainable tourism is about planning for the future,” says Dan Howard, Vice President of Communications at Park City Chamber of Commerce in Utah.
Howard offers examples of longer-term sustainable tourism practices, such as “creating transportation solutions, housing solutions and policies that extend the viability of the destination.”
One theme was clear during my outreach to tourism experts: They don’t want you to forgo taking action in the name of getting caught up in the lingo.
Shannon Guihan is the Chief Sustainability Officer at The Travel Corporation. She says, “While we certainly appreciate the curiosity surrounding the various definitions bandied about, sustainable, regenerative, responsible tourism – we believe strongly that definitions are a distraction from what matters, that being genuine positive impact.”
Guihan says she encourages “travelers not to be intimidated by terminology, rather to call on the travel industry to do better, and to look beyond the clever marketing to understand what actions are being taken.”
FAQs About Responsible Tourism
Below are some common questions people have about responsible tourism and other similar names for traveling responsibly.
Why is responsible tourism important?
Responsible tourism is important because it allows communities to receive fair wages, not change their culture for foreigners, and it allows locals and foreigners to make meaningful connections.
The importance of responsible tourism should be at the forefront of tourists’ and tour operators’ minds, as it reduces the risk of overtourism and can provide jobs for locals with disabilities and other minority groups.
What is socially responsible tourism?
Socially responsible tourism is the practice of making economic, environmental, and cultural choices that benefit the community tourists visit.
An example of the social impacts a tourist can have is choosing to visit a well-respected elephant sanctuary in Thailand instead of supporting a company that offers elephant riding.
What is a responsible tourist?
A responsible tourist is a person that tailors their itinerary to a destination instead of making the destination change for them.
Responsible tourists make wise behavioral choices. Examples include dressing respectfully, being friendly with locals, trying to get to know locals on a deeper level, spending a longer amount of time in one destination, and acting in ways that promote local conservation.
Can responsible tourism alleviate poverty?
Responsible tourism has the potential to alleviate poverty. Some irresponsible tour operators try to prevent communities from earning a fair wage because they want the community to remain poor, as they believe it gives tourists a more “authentic” experience.
However, responsible tourism helps tourists’ money go directly into the pocket of locals. The host communities receive greater economic benefits this way, as they have more purchasing power to lift themselves out of poverty.
What Does Responsible Tourism Mean to You?
The examples of responsible tourism here are by no means a complete list. But by putting communities first when we travel and considering their needs, we can help contribute to a positive impact.
I’d love to hear your take on responsible tourism and experiences from your personal travels.