How To Make Your Gap Year Responsible, Ethical And Sustainable.

Responsible, ethical and sustainable tourism has become a big issue in the tourism and gap year industries in recent years, and this trend will only continue to grow as travellers and tourists paradigms shift toward a more responsible model of travel. So how exactly do backpackers make sure their travels are responsible, ethical and sustainable?

The big problem is that sustainable tourism is such a huge topic. Is it eco tourism? Wildlife tourism? It is all of these and many more and encompasses a lot of separate issues from wildlife exploitation to ecological or even cultural and ethical issues  and this has led to a lot of confusion as to what sustainable tourism is, and more importantly how people can actually do it.

The raft of buzz words created by the industry itself, ecotourism, green travel, responsible travel and many more have in many cases been used to ‘greenwash’ purely for profit businesses and unscrupulously sell packages to unsuspecting tourists and travellers.

But responsible travel is not just about booking a trip with a travel agent who uses a lot of fancy buzzwords or conservation facades. It is about making yourself more aware of the various issues involved, thinking about your own practices as a traveller and how the choices and decisions you make can affect your envioronment. It is about avoiding making some of the bad choices that have negative affects and being more conscious of how you can make a positive impact on the world around you as you travel.

What it boils down to is respect and understanding. Respect the environment, respect local culture and traditions, respect wildlife and understand the issues that are involved.

Orang utan animal conservation

So how do you do this? With the sheer amount of issues involved, how can you ensure that you are a responsible traveller? How can you travel more ethically and sustainably? It really isn’t as difficult as you think. Whatever measure you choose to define it by, here are some easy tips on how to travel responsibly, ethically and sustainably.      

Don’t Be A Tourist.

This is a little facetious, but what it means is try to adopt an open, curious and respectful ideology when you travel. Don’t be a typical tourist and travel to a rural part of the tropics and expect local waiters to bring you cocktails by the pool or complain when there isn’t satellite TV in your room or fish and chips on the menu.

This also means respecting and honouring local customs and traditions instead of forcing your own attitudes and beliefs onto the local community. This may mean for example women who are travelling through Muslim countries respecting the norm to dress conservatively or covering up to different degrees dependent on what country you are in, and certainly not waltzing straight off the cruise ships in Egypt wearing nothing but hotpants and a bikini top (I have seen it)! It may mean not sticking your camera in the face of every interesting looking local or even something as simple as trying to learn a little of the local language and not expecting everyone to speak English.

Just think about your actions.

Embrace the wonderful diversity of traditions and cultures. Embrace the local cuisines. Your mind will be infinitely expanded as a result.

Don’t Support The Abuse And Exploitation Of Wildlife.

Elephant conservation and exploitation

Unfortunately a huge part of the tourism and gap year industries still involve activities, tours and excursions that involve in some form or another the abuse or exploitation of wildlife. Dolphinariums, Tiger Temple selfies, Elephant trekking, all these and so many more are doing irreversible and incalculable harm to animals all so that tourists can have their ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. The sad thing is there are ways in which to see and interact with wildlife in an ethical way that contributes toward their care and their welfare, if only people would take the time to educate themselves on the issues involved.

Use Local Services.

Wherever possible try and support the local community you are visiting instead of just lining the pockets of the tourism and gap year industries or multinational brands. This is actually a lot easier to do than people think, and all it takes is just a little thought on your part.

Instead of buying a mass produced souvenir from a gift shop, try and buy a locally produced piece by a local artisan or something more meaningful. If you are lucky you can even use this as an opportunity to learn about traditional crafts or local ways of life. Try and utilise local guides instead of going on a prebooked tour (there are exceptions to this rule and some gap year companies do take measures to employ local guides which is great), use the local family run cafe instead of the Starbucks across the street, it all helps to ensure that you as a traveller are making a positive contribution to the local economy and the community you are visiting.

Travel Light.

Keeping your packing to a minimum and refraining from bringing 3 family size suitcases plus half a dozen oversized carry on bags per person, you will not only save yourself money in baggage fees and make your trip a hell of a lot more easy and comfortable, you will also be helping reduce carbon emissions by reducing the amount of fuel it takes to lug your 23rd pair of shoes half way across the Atlantic and back. This packing list is generally enough to sustain a traveller for an entire gap year and can easily fit into a roughly 65 litre sized pack. See, you really don’t need all that much.

Use A Water Bottle.

Bottled water makes up a huge chunk of plastic waste that is produced every single day, and a large part of that waste isn’t recycled. When you can carrying a refillable bottle is always a great idea, but depending on the country you are visiting using local tap water or water from an untreated source isn’t always the best idea as it can lead to a lot of potential health problems, so what do you do? You carry a water filter bottle that allows you to get safe, clean water from any source and also saves you money in the long run and reduces plastic water bottle waste!

Don’t Buy Souvenirs That Come From Unethical Sources.

This may seem like common sense, but even in this day and age travellers buy a range of souvenirs made from ivory or animal teeth or bones, furs and pelts or skin, coral reefs are raided for souvenirs to sell to tourists and even some traditional medicines contain ingredients from wildlife, including endangered species. You may find carvings or trinkets made from non sustainable materials or even in some cases ancient artifacts that belong in a museum! (And yes, I did just quote Indiana Jones!)

Just be aware of the issues that are involved in producing or selling these products and vote with your money.     

Be Aware Of What You Eat.

Unethical tourism sharks fin soup

Indulging in local cuisines and discovering new dishes and new tastes is one of the absolute, undeniable joys of backpacking around the world, and one that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone. However, there are a few dishes that unfortunately include ingredients that go far, far beyond the arguments for and against vegetarianism or eating a burger or a steak. Sharks Fin Soup, Birds Nest Soup, Bush Meat and many more dishes around the world involve methods of barbaric slaughter or flagrant disregard of conservation laws -or both – and are threatening many species with extinction entirely. Don’t support these practices by making it profitable for restaurants to keep supplying it.

Save Water And Energy.

Do you really need to stay in an air con room when a fan room is cheaper, just as comfortable and uses less energy? If you are staying in a hotel with room service do you really need fresh towels and linen every day? Can you wash your own clothes in a sink instead of using laundry facilities? Do you really need an hour long shower in a country that has limited or basic water infrastructure? These are basic questions that you should be asking yourself that can have a positive effect on your – and the – environment. Get used to thinking about your own behaviour and asking yourself how can you make this better?

Don’t Support Unethical Practices.

This is a slightly more complicated rule because it is so varied in it’s scope. Throughout your travels you will undoubtedly come across practices such as orphanage factories (where tourists are bussed in en masse to look at and photograph the poor local children, buy a few trinkets and then leave), the sex trade, slum tourism, voluntourism  and countless more examples where the tourism industry creates a negative impact in a variety of ways. Again, education and awareness of the issues before you travel is the key. Many unethical and unsustainable practices and services are created and fuelled by the tourism industry, if tourists and travellers stop making these practices profitable, they will stop.  Educate yourself, be aware of your practices and change them where you can.

Be Careful About The Footprints You Leave.

Michael Huxley Jungle Trekking in Malaysian Borneo

A big draw on any gap year is exploring the countryside and wilderness of the countries you are visiting, and rightly so. Jungle treks, desert treks, mountain hikes, coral reef diving, all of these are integral parts of many peoples backpacking trips. It is obviously important however to respect the environment you are in by sticking to established trails, researching any guide or company that you decide to go with to ensure that they abide to conservation ideals, not removing anything such as coral, flora or fauna that may damage the ecosystem and carrying all your rubbish and waste with you.

This isn’t by any means a full and comprehensive checklist of things to do. It is only here to act as a guide, to make you think about how your actions can have a positive or negative impact. There is of course the old argument of what impact can one person have, but if everyone just put a little more thought into their actions, if everyone just made a few changes to their own thoughts and actions, then collectively we can all make a difference.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

The Dark Truth About Orphanage Volunteering.

The Horrible Truth About Animal Sanctuaries.

What Type Of Volunteer Are You?

What You Need To Consider Before Volunteering On Your Gap Year.

Wildlife Tourism On Your Gap Year, The RIGHT Way.

Wildlife Tourism Without Wildlife Harm. Is It Possible?

Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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Posted in Responsible Travel
64 comments on “How To Make Your Gap Year Responsible, Ethical And Sustainable.
  1. Stephanie Lathom says:

    Excellent article. I wish more people would think responsibly when they travel.

  2. Jessi says:

    This is great advice for anyone, not just a gap year traveler. I’ve seen far too many people with complete disregard for their surroundings. I would add respecting historical sites onto the list. I was especially stunned in Rome — so many of the archeological sites are covered in modern graffiti. It was really, really angering.

    Great tips!

  3. Lauren says:

    Fantastic article. I totally agree with everything and wish that everyone could follow this in everyday life, too. It makes me feel awful when I read travel blogs about people going to these places where tigers are kept in small cages so you can pet them or take your photo with them, and the whole swimming with the dolphins thing…people need to stop exploiting animals for their own personal gain! And the awful thing is, most people who visit these places love animals and don’t think about how bad it is for them.

  4. Bianca Malata says:

    I love your article and I come across may travel posts that just seem so disrespectful of the customs in the places they visit for their dress sense, to the taking of pictures without asking to those cruel animal rides. Like you said…people just need to take a moment to think about these things when they travel including those so-called eco-tourism.

  5. Dave Cole says:

    Very nice post, Mike! Although an adventurous eater/imbiber, I always adhere to your ethical eating guidelines. No food experience is worth the ecological harm engendered in the preparation of the dishes you mentioned. Also, your point on using local services is very important. While those multinationals may add an element of stability, using local guides will help them improve, which in turn will benefit the development of guide services with ties to the local community.

    • Thanks Dave, I know exactly what you mean. I love trying new foods and local cuisines myself, but there are limits and the ethical considerations are mine. I completely agree with your point about local guides too. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  6. Axelle says:

    Great post. Not too many people think about the eco and ethical consequences when they travel. Thanks for sharing this 🙂

  7. Pascal Christiaens says:

    Well said! That is an awesome blog article.

  8. Brianna says:

    Great points Mike. We need to be aware of how our travel affects the areas we visit long term.

  9. 2foodtrippers says:

    This article is an excellent resource for all travelers, not just those embarking on a gap year.

  10. revatidifferentdoors says:

    This is such a double edged sword. As a foreigner in any country, it’s really difficult to navigate and really know whether for eg. an elephant camp is a money making gimmick or a real rehabilitation centre. But your other ideas seem so easy to replicate, and still so powerful. Definitely going to be more aware of the souvenirs I buy from now on!

    • I know exactly what you mean, I have fallen for the ‘greenwashing’ of animal attractions in the past myself. That is why raising awareness on such issues is really important and something I try to do as much as possible. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  11. Marie-Carmen says:

    Got to agree with you, while bird’s nest and shark fins are specialties here in China, for the life of me, I will not try and eat them. Not because I’m not tempted but because I can’t agree with it. It’s the same with “Turtle soup”and so many other dishes.
    We’ve got a big problem in China, while people start to care much more about animals, they still don’t get the “how to treat them” part. Markets are full of fish colored with fake dyes, laser tattoos, etc… I could go on and on…
    A good country on the ethical part is surprisingly Laos! While I love homestays, I don’t want to be giving money to the governement or an agency and nothing to the actual village that needs it, Laos has got a good grip on this, the money does go to the village.

    Basically I agree with you and think that if travellers show concerns and try to adapt better to the country and to a good ethic, they might help to change things, put an end to those dreadful voluntourism place, make things move on.

    • I totally agree Marie-Carmen. Things are changing, just very very slowly. That is why all we can do is try to raise awareness as much as possible and follow best practice as much as possible. The more people that try, the better things will eventually get. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  12. Bente Vold Klausen says:

    This is not only important for a gap year, but for everyone traveling. You have many good tips and it is important that we all learn more and consider how we travel. It is a complicated field though!

  13. Anne Klien says:

    Be responsible traveller, its a good article

  14. Kristen says:

    Great and informative post and all valid points. I love that travelers are starting to become much more aware of these issues and I do think positive change has taken place in recent years, especially when it comes to wildlife exploitation. Awareness is well on its way to reaching an all time high and posts like this help to continue to raise that awareness. Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks, you’re right – there is still a massively long way to go of course – but I do think responsible travel is just beginning to enter people’s consciousness now. No one is expecting everyone to get it right straight away, but if everyone just THINKS about how their actions impact their surroundings and TRIES to have a positive affect, it would make such a big difference. Thank you for the comment. 🙂

  15. marghenick says:

    Fantastic article Mike. In my early travelling days I have been guilty of a mistake or two, due to my naivety and ignorance. I still feel bad about that, and ever since I’ve tried to travel as sustainably as possible. You’ve done a great job of outlining good and bad practices in this article. I’ll be sharing this.

    • Thank you. 🙂 You aren’t alone, we all have. No one is perfect. I am in the exact same position as you, having made many mistakes myself due to naivety in my younger days, but as you say we have learned from them and changed our ways and that has to count. Now all we can do is try to raise awareness as much as possible. And thank you for the share. 🙂

  16. wanderingeducators says:

    Excellent tips – especially for integrating yourself as much into the culture as possible, re: language, etc.

  17. Christina says:

    Good tips especially the one about using local water with a water filter bottle.
    When I hear “Shark Fin Soup” and food similar to that I can´t believe how cruel people treat animals. Cutting of the fin and throwing the sharks back (alive) into the water. Hopefully we all will learn from it and stop treating animals like they are worthless.
    But it´s good to see a rethinking is going on.

    • Thanks, I know what you mean the thought of it makes me sick too. The fact that so many people continue to support the industry is just unfathomable. I hope this rethinking starts to get a lot more widespread a lot quicker.

  18. Chris says:

    Hi Mike, I think there is a link missing from the “travel light” section. The bold ‘packing list’?
    I would be interested to read what you have put in your packing list for the whole year as I need some tips myself!
    Great article though, green-washing is a real problem nowadays, so you are right in wanting to raise awareness

    • Hi Chris, thanks for the heads up! Damn Gremlins! ;D It’s rectified now so feel free to browse my packing list suggestions. There is plenty more advice in the Travel Tips section too. 🙂 And I totally agree about green washing, I get really annoyed at all the businesses claiming to be ethical and responsible and then advertise elephant treks or any number of unethical activities. Raising awareness is key to ending that. Thanks again for the comment. 🙂

  19. alliblair says:

    I really like your last point, be aware of the footprints you leave – can go on to mean so many things and it really makes you think! Also, the local water with a filter bottle is honestly one I never thought of before!

  20. She Dreams of Travel says:

    You make a lot of great points here! Sometimes even people with the best of intentions can be so oblivious to how they are affecting others when they travel. I think it all boils down to having respect, and the blatant ways I see other people sometimes disrespecting other people, cultures and the environment is so disappointing. I will never forget this guy who was in the same study abroad program as me in Spain. We were getting on a bus to go on a field trip sort of thing and he threw his empty candy and chip wrappers on the floor. There was literally a garbage can two feet away if he had just stepped on the bus. I asked him why he didn’t just throw it away right there in the can, and he literally said to me, “This is not my country. I don’t care.” It took all the will power in my body not to scream at him. He proceeded to tell me how he couldn’t wait to get back home (two weeks away from mom was too much from what I could see). I just told him, “I’m sure the Spaniards can’t wait for you to leave either.” SO RIDICULOUS!

  21. Elaine says:

    Great tips Mike. I try to eat and shop locally but I still worry about the footprint I’m leaving.

    • Thanks Elaine, I think it is important to remember that no one is perfect, we will all leave some footprint, it is all a matter of degree. The important thing is that we try and reduce it as much as we can, and raising an awareness is an important part of getting people to take those simple steps. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  22. The Bohemian Diaries says:

    This is a great set of guidelines for traveling responsibly and many of these points we should consider during our lives while we aren’t traveling as well. I have noticed that these buzzwords of ecotourism and sustainable travel are being thrown around by tourist groups more often than ever but fail to actually applying these principles which is so irritating! It’s extremely important to be aware of how your tourism impacts communities, for better or worse, and keeping these points in mind will help make the right decisions in supporting organizations that exploit animals/wildlife, that profit at the expense of smaller businesses, and that don’t take into account their possibly unethical behaviors. Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks so much, I agree that so many tourism businesses now greenwash themselves with ‘eco’ buzzwords. It is important that travellers are as aware as possible to stop them from pulling the wool over their eyes. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  23. Will Hatton says:

    Some great tips here; I’ve been travelling around the world for about four years now and it is often hard to try and travel on the cheap in an ethical way; this guide has certainly helped point me in the right direction, cheers 🙂

    • I don’t know I think you can still easily travel on a strict budget and still remain ethical and responsible. I’m glad you found the article useful though, thanks so much for the comment. 🙂

  24. brmsimmons says:

    Ethical and sustainable travel needs to be a concern at every level of traveler, not just the backpacker set.

  25. uptravel says:

    Gap year is a great opportunity and those who choose to spend it travelling has some responsabilities. Agree with your post.

  26. francaangloitalian says:

    Amazing tips that I’d tell and share with other travellers too not only with the gap year ones. Be a responsible traveller and sustain the local economy is so important, thanks for helping spreading the word and raise awareness 🙂

  27. Victoria says:

    A very inspiring post with lots of helpful tips- thanks! Animals often play a role in family adventures so the RIGHT Tourism Dos & Don’ts for being an Animal Friendly Tourist is a very useful checklist for parents to be aware of.

  28. Lisa Hudson says:

    I wish more people would take all this to heart.

  29. Excellent article and as always THANK YOU for everything you do to support animals, the enviroment and people of course! All the very best, Janice (Bali animal welfare)

    • Thanks Janice, all I do is try and raise awareness, I really wish I could do more. It is you who deserves the thanks for all you do at BAWA! And let me know if there is anything more I can do to help. 🙂

  30. Just stumbled upon this and now going to read some of your other articles… so refreshing to read some decent advice, so important to consider these things. Two other things I’d add is that many people buy cheap clothes specifically for travel and then dump them after a couple of weeks wear – not sustainable at all! And I’m also shocked at the number of articles about “travel hacking” and ways to get free stuff/entrance/discounts in other countries. If you are privileged enough to be able to travel, whatever your budget, you should be looking to support the local economy, not scam your way into attractions.

  31. Kyle says:

    Good on you for raising awareness on these issues. Love your blog btw!

  32. Jamie says:

    Amazing points! We should all do more to make a positive impact when we travel.

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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