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.
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.
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.
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 local water instead of buying bottled brands.
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. Now using local tap water or water from an untreated source isn’t the best idea when you are travelling either as it can lead to a lot of potential health problems. So what do you do? You carry a water filter bottle like the Water To Go 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.
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.
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.
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