Cabana in a Lacandon family's backyard.

10 Ways To Be Responsible Travelers

Responsible travelers are aware of their impact on the environment and the local economy. Sustainable travel and ethical travel also express the same idea: we need to be aware of our impact when we travel.

In the end, that also translates into having a better experience overall. After all, we travel to learn about new places, to expand our horizons, to make new friends, to experience other cultures. All this can only be done if we are responsible travelers.

Sometimes that translates into staying away from well-known tourist destinations, being aware of overtourism and finding lesser-known places to visit. We all want to be welcomed, not yelled at by locals to “go home” since we are contributing to ruining their home.

1. Visit Off-The-Beaten Track Destinations And Communities

While overtourism is destroying some well-known and loved places around the world due to the “call something paradise, kiss it goodbye” syndrome, other parts of the world could benefit from visitors. As responsible travelers, we should seek out places that could benefit from our visit.

Some local communities, forests and wild places are threatened by development or deforestation due to ranching. But if we visit these places, and bring in money, we could help them survive without selling out to ranchers and the cattle industry.

When we seek out off-the-beaten-track small communities that don’t get many visitors we have a more authentic experience, and we often meet locals who appreciate our visit.

Cattle ranching is destroying the environment more than anything else, even carbon emission. Communities in and around the Amazon forest for example, keep loosing their land to cattle ranching, which also strips the forest and causes fires.

Responsible travelers could offer an alternative, a sustainable livelihood to these communities. With revenue from tourism, they wouldn’t feel pressured to sell their land to cattle ranchers. Visitors would also benefit from the experience, since they can see some beautiful, wild areas and gain an insight into a culture that still lives close to nature.

Visitors and tourism can give nature value of its own. Poorer countries might not have money to protect their wilderness, nature for its own sake. But if people are interested in visiting their wild areas, the money earned could help them do it.

Other threats to the environment come from mining, logging, oil and gas industries. Again, if enough travelers visit these places, local governments might focus on tourism instead. Which has its drawbacks, too, but if done responsibly, it won’t be such a negative impact on the environment.

So, in these cases, by being responsible travelers you could help protect and even save wild places.

2. Visit Well-Known Tourist Destinations During Off-Season

But what if you have a bucket list that includes some of the best-known tourist destinations? You don’t need to give up on seeing them altogether. Instead, travel there off-season. After all, even responsible travelers should be able to see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the pyramids of Egypt, Chichen Itza, the Grand Canyon, and other wonders everyone is talking about.

I’ve visited some of these overcrowded wonders myself. But, when possible, we timed our visits off-season. Not only we enjoyed our visits more with fewer crowds, we also minimized our negative impact (at least I hope so).

While most of these well-known and loved by everyone places are always crowded, most have off-seasons, when you’ll encounter fewer people. Not only will this be better for locals (their town is not overrun by tourists), but it will give you a much better experience.

3. Stay In Locally Owned Hotels Instead Of Big Resorts

No matter where we go, we try to stay in locally owned hotels, when possible. Big resorts rarely give back to the community, if at all. Besides, resorts are the same all over the world, which defeats the reason to travel. After all, why travel when you can stay in the same resort in your own town?

Instead, staying a small, locally-owned hotels helps the local economy, while giving you a chance to experience life like the locals. As a bonus, it usually costs a lot less. Besides, local hotels have more personality, even if they are not quite as comfortable.

Staying in local family-owned hotels are considered responsible traveling.
A local, family-owned hotel in Coba, QR

And, as responsible travelers know, small, local hotels produce less waste than large chains or resorts.

We made some very good friends in Cobá, Mexico when we first decided to stay in a local hotel. We spoke broken Spanish, they spoke mainly Maya, and broken Spanish in addition to some English. Between the three languages we managed to communicate quite well, and we ended up learning some Maya and they learned more English from us. It was a fun learning experience, which we would have missed out on if we stayed in a resort on the Riviera Maya.

4. Bring Your Own Toiletries

Large hotel chains and resorts throw away single-use toiletries, even after one use. Think about all that waste and the plastic it is packaged in. Small, local hotels might reuse them if they can. But they are happy if you don’t need their single-use tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner or their little packaged soap.

If you really want to be a responsible traveler, you could also find out how sustainable the hotel of your choice is beforehand. Most try to give you choices like asking you to let them know if you need the bed sheets changed or new towels, otherwise, they will leave them.

To be really green, you can make your own toiletries, or buy them from locals who make them, instead of using commercially packaged ones.

5. Reuse The Towels If You Stay Longer Than One Night, And Opt Out Of Room Cleaning

When we stay in the same hotel for multiple nights, we hang up our towels to reuse them, and leave a note on the door asking to skip room cleaning. You don’t change your towels, and your bedsheets every day at home, so if you were the only one using them for several days, why would you expect it in a hotel?

By opting out of all these, we save energy and water, and cut out chemicals used in washing detergents.

6. Eat Where Locals Eat

When we want to eat in a new place, we follow the locals. They know the best restaurants, where to get the best food, for the best price. Of course, it will be authentic, local fare. Try it.

After all, you are traveling for new experiences. So maybe you are not adventurous enough to eat fried grasshoppers. I didn’t, though I’m told they are tasty, (maybe I’ll try it next time I have the opportunity). But every culture has so many different dishes, you’ll find something you like. Besides, locals make the best food and use their freshest ingredients in their authentic meals. In my experience, even my pickiest child always enjoyed a good meal in small, local restaurants.

7. Hire Local Guides Instead of Commercial Tour Companies,

Commercial Tour companies give back very little to the community, if any at all. I read somewhere that only about 5% of their revenue goes back to the community. Besides, their guides usually only know things they learned about the place you are visiting. You could’ve learned the same from a book.

On the other hand, if you hire a local guide, you’ll get a better understanding not only to the place you are visiting but also about the culture around it.

Rio Bec stela
A local guide took us in places we wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Humberto showing us a stela in Dzibil-Tun

You’ll gain a better insight into a different culture than your own, and by helping the local community, you’ll feel like a responsible traveler. As a bonus, you might make friends for a lifetime.

In my experience, locals off the tourist paths are friendlier, they make you feel like you are their best friend.

Some communities struggle to survive and protect their forests, but constantly face an uphill battle with ranchers. Visiting the communities that try to survive in balance with the forests around them not only helps them but helps the environment.

While traveling through Mexico, we met a few local guides we learned a lot from. In Rio Bec, Campeche, we hiked through the jungle with a local guide and learned more about wildlife, the ancient Maya ruins we visited, the local culture, and family life. Besides, we made a friend we still keep in touch with.

8. Learn A Few Basic Words And Phrases Of The Local Language

Today, no matter where you go, you will find people who speak English to one degree or another. You’ll get by, no matter what. However, locals appreciate it when you try to speak their language.

Even if you mispronounce words, they will smile and correct you. Or, they just answer, since even if you pronounced it wrong, they understand what you mean. If they don’t, they will switch to English, but you’ll make friends when trying. As a bonus, you will probably get better service; People everywhere appreciate you trying to speak their language.

As a rule, we never expect locals to speak our language. After all, it is the visitor who is foreign, not the other way around.

9. What About Transportation? How Can We Be Responsible Travelers At All?

When it comes to transportation, responsible travel seems to be an oxymoron. After all, airplanes and cars pollute more than anything else, as far as we know. Although, ranching pollutes more than all the transportation combined. So, maybe don’t feel that guilty about flying.

But try to travel close enough to home to drive to your destination. Cars pollute less than airplanes. Better yet, drive an electric car or a hybrid. I know, electric cars are not very convenient yet; you can’t go to many places with them since you won’t find charging stations. This is changing now, at least in urban and well-traveled areas.

Hybrids don’t have the same restrictions though, and rental companies offer them. I admit I don’t drive a hybrid or an electric car. Instead, we have only one car for the family, as fuel efficient as we could find. We also try to minimize driving in town. We try to combine errands to get things done in one trip, and we carpool when possible.

Though I live in a city where public transportation is not easy – almost impossible at least in the area I am – when traveling to places where we can use buses, trains, ferries, we chose them instead of driving. Since they carry more passengers, we are sharing the negative impact of emission, getting less into the atmosphere.

When flying, we book a direct, non-stop flights when possible, and choose the least number of layovers. Revving up and slowing down the engines emits the most carbon, which means airplanes pollute most during take-off and landing. So if you minimize that, you already took one step, however small, in the right direction.

10. Offsetting Our Carbon Footprint

Still, flying has a negative impact on our environment, no matter how we sugarcoat it. As responsible travelers, we can donate to a carbon offset program. Major airlines started to offer them as a choice when you book your flight. But you can do it yourself, through the Carbon Offset Fund.

How does this help? You are still flying, so you are polluting. But if you choose the offset, the fund uses your donations to pull carbon out of the atmosphere by planting trees or investing in a renewable energy program. The cost is usually between $3 and $15, depending on how far you fly.

By Being Responsible Travelers, Our Positive Impact Might Outweigh The Negative – At Least We Hope So

Those of us who really care about saving the environment might be tempted to give up travel altogether. Sometimes it seems that traveling and being environmentally responsible are incompatible. But travel has so many benefits, we can’t give it up. It opens our eyes to the world around us, it makes us more tolerant and humble.

The trick is balance, and a bit of planning and research. If you think about what you do, and how you travel, your positive impact on the environment will outweigh the negative.

Look up the companies you use, no matter if you plan on taking a guided tour or booking air travel. Make sure they are environmentally responsible and local. Visit places that benefit from tourism, avoid those oversaturated. And when you travel to wild places: leave no trace, and take nothing but photos. Respect wildlife, and respect locals. And always use a common-sense, zero-waste (or at least minimal waste) attitude.

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