I’ve always been a glass-half-full kind of girl and try to view problems as opportunities. That’s why I decided to make use of my reduced hours at work and lockdown during the corona crisis to learn more about sustainable travel and tourism.
I enrolled in two MOOCs offered by the University of Wageningen on sustainability and travel. It’s a subject I became increasingly interested in during the last few years. Traveling full time around the world as a digital nomad showed me different ways in which our wanderlust is harming the planet and local communities. In our attempt to see the world, we are slowly destroying it.
Even with travel restrictions slowly being lifted, the ways in which we can still travel are ironically the most sustainable: slow, local, and with intent. And it is not just the pandemic that has inspired me to take sustainable travel more seriously, it is also the Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movement. The travel industry has a long-standing problem with white privilege and exploitation of POC. As a white traveler, I have to do my part to change that.
Sustainable travel is about more than eco-friendly travel, it is also about responsible tourism and ethical travel. Traveling in ways that benefit local communities and support equality. And sustainable tourism isn’t hard! All it takes is a bit of education, mindfulness, and making better choices. So, here are a few ways you can practice sustainable tourism:
Support the local economy
The number one way you can support local communities as a traveler is with your money. More and more people are financially dependent on tourism, so spend your money wisely and make sure the right people benefit from your wanderlust.
Avoid the big chains
Big corporations, chains, and tour companies have the lowest money flow to local communities. They often hire foreigners for the highest paying jobs and use foreign suppliers, with very little money trickling down to the locals. Instead, opt for locally owned businesses and guides. That money goes directly to the people who should benefit from your presence rather than a huge multinational.
Buy local goes for everything you spend money on during your trip: transport, food, accommodation, clothes, souvenirs, and activities. Pick small local restaurants (they serve the best food anyway), don’t buy the “made in China” souvenirs (unless you’re in China), stay at a locally owned hotel or, even better, a homestay. Kind traveler is a platform for booking responsible and sustainable accommodation.
Book local tours and guides
I highly recommend booking tours with local guides. Not only to spend your money locally, but they know their home better than anyone. I’ve gotten amazing deals (it pays to haggle!) with tuk-tuk drivers in Southeast Asia, small tour companies in Morocco, and local walking tours in Europe. Those tours were more customized and memorable than a cookie-cutter group tour from an American company. Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path, your local guide knows the way.
It is a bit less convenient than booking everything online, but it’s usually a lot cheaper! Not sure where to find those tours? Ask at your accommodation, they always have recommendations, especially hostel staff. Or walk around town and ask at different tourism offices.
Respect local culture and customs
This seems obvious, yet I’ve seen so many ignorant tourists commit a huge cultural faux pas. The number one thing to keep in mind while traveling is that you are a guest. Whatever cultural norms and customs you grew up with become pretty irrelevant as soon as you go somewhere else. I’m not saying you need to abandon your own morals, but keep an open mind and adapt.
Be flexible and openminded
For me, it’s the cultural exchange that makes travel so interesting and rewarding. Experiencing other cultures gives you a whole new perspective of your own. You suddenly realize that all the things you thought were normal, may not be so conventional at all.
So do your research before you go and open yourself up during your trip. Travel can be such an enriching experience if you let it be. And the more open-minded and flexible you are, the less of a culture shock you’ll experience. Everyone and every place is different, and that diversity makes life interesting. Remember that they’re not weird, you are the anomaly.
Respect the rules
Follow both the written and unwritten rules. I hate when tourists go on vacation and act like the rules don’t apply to them. I’m looking at you white backpacker buying drugs or riding a motorbike without a license in Southeast Asia! Tourists (especially white tourists) have a lot of privilege and can often get away with things forbidden for locals. Which doesn’t mean you should do it.
Be especially mindful of local customs so you don’t accidentally offend anyone. Wear clothing that is appropriate to the local culture and/or religion. Gestures, clothing, or something as small as which hand you use to eat, are all culturally coded. Learn about these things and keep them in mind. Meeting with locals is the best and most fun way to learn about the funny little ways in which we are different.
Learn the local language
Of course, no one is expecting you to be fluent in the language of every country you visit. That would be impossible. But in some cases, it can be necessary to learn at least a bit.
English is not the only language
Don’t be that tourist who assumes everyone in the world speaks English. It’s not a good look and you’ll be in for a rude awakening when you’re stuck somewhere with no means of communication. Although English will serve you fine at most major tourist destinations, do your research to find out if you’ll be able to get by with just that. In some parts of the world or more remote areas, you might have a hard time as a monolingual traveler.
Even if you can get by with English, I recommend you make the effort to learn a few basic words and phrases before you go. Things like “hello” and “thank you” are easy to learn and always appreciated by the locals. It shows that you care enough to try.
Get clever about communication
I’ve rarely gotten into situations where I couldn’t communicate at all. Even if you don’t speak the same language, it’s amazing how far you can get with nonverbal communication. Pointing, signing, and gesturing can be pretty effective ways to get your point across. Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself!
The wonders of modern technology also offer some assistance. I always download the language of whatever place I visit in the Google Translate App on my phone. That way I can translate even when I don’t have an internet connection and it can even translate written text through your camera!
Respect the environment
Being a sustainable tourist has two sides: socially responsible travel and eco-friendly travel. But the two aren’t separate. To be truly sustainable and have a positive impact, you have to be both.
Respect the environment
After all, part of being a good guest is respecting your host’s living environment. That means not exhausting their resources (like freshwater), not polluting their forests and oceans, and not littering in their streets. You wouldn’t throw trash on the floor in your friend’s house, so why would you do it in a foreign country?
Want to be a more eco-friendly traveler? I have a whole blog post dedicated to green travel
So when traveling, respect local wildlife and nature and only book tours with reputable sustainable travel companies. Support local wildlife preservation efforts and learn about the local environmental challenges. And never, ever go wandering into the wilderness alone without proper training, knowledge, equipment, or guide. You could cause serious harm to yourself and nature.
Check your privilege
We all share this planet, but it’s wealth and resources are not equally divided. And developing countries largely carry the burden of climate change and pollution. As rich western tourists, we have to be mindful of our privilege when it comes to the environment and adjust our behavior accordingly. We have the money and power, so we should be working the hardest to reverse our negative environmental impact. Be part of the solution, not the problem!
Don’t support unethical tourist practices
Like I mentioned before, spend your money wisely. This not only pertains to the goods and services you buy but also the tours and activities you go on.
Tourism has a lot of potential for positive economic impact, but it also has a dark side. The promise of money from tourism has led to an increase in unethical practices. Some rip off tourists themselves, like pick-pocketing and tourist scams. Others exploit animals, the environment, and local communities for financial gain.
It seems like an obvious statement, but don’t support these unethical practices. Always do your research to make sure that the tour you’re being offered is as good as it sounds. Lots of activities that are presented as fun outings are actually anything but.
Leave animals alone
By now, you all know not to take pictures with drugged-up tigers or ride elephants in Thailand. But did you know about the issues around fake wildlife sanctuaries or swimming with sharks? It can be hard to know the difference between a harmless attraction and unethical tourism. And we all love cute animals and mean them no harm. That is why I avoid animal tourism altogether. Pretty much any activity where animals are used to entertain tourists is a no for me. Better to draw a hard line than to accidentally support animal abuse.
Not to say that I am a perfect person and have never paid for shady things in the past. I, too, have ridden elephants and camels. I didn’t know better then, but I do now. Learn and grow.
Racism and cultural exploitation
Another issue that I struggle with is cultural appropriation and exploitation. Basically the use of traditional cultural elements in hollow and stereotypical ways to entertain tourists.
Cultural interaction and learning about local traditional is an invaluable part of travel. But unfortunately, the modern tourism industry is built on racism and white privilege. Wealthy white tourist travel to far off places to marvel at the “exotic” locals. Exploitation, othering, and fetishization of communities of color are still disturbingly common in travel.
So be mindful of the distinction between someone willingly teaching you about their culture and an empty stylized show. Always ask yourself: is this educational, what am I contributing and who is profiting?
The cost of the tourist tax
The last one is a bit tricky: how to deal with being ripped off. Most people would say that they hate being ripped off, yet many tourists happily go along with it. I understand how awkward it can be to haggle over prices when your monthly income equals what a local makes in a year. A little tourist tax is fine, it is completely justified to charge us more than locals. But just because you’re rich, doesn’t mean you should pay top dollar for everything.
Haggling is an important part of many cultures around the world. It’s part of the social code, a game, and a fun interaction. It isn’t about getting it cheap. Haggling shows that you know what a product is worth and respect the person selling it. As a rich tourist, it is important that you participate, even if it makes you uncomfortable. As a local explained to me in Thailand: when tourists don’t negotiate, it drives up the prices and tuk-tuk drivers will refuse to drive locals because they know they can make more money driving a tourist. So respect the local market and don’t just allow yourself to be ripped off.
I hope you found these tips helpful and will make an effort to become a more sustainable and responsible tourist. How do you feel about your responsibilities as a traveler? What efforts are you making to have a positive impact and support local communities? I’d love to discuss it in the comments.
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