Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries and continues to grow at a staggering rate. But while this influx of travel money can breathe new life into economically struggling countries, it can also cause serious disruption for local communities and, in the worst case scenario, do more harm than good.
From Barcelona to Bangkok, London to Laos, increased tourist numbers have driven up local rent prices, displaced local communities and caused untold damage to natural environments, historical landmarks and wildlife reserves.
And this is where ethical travel becomes increasingly important. Whether you refer to it as ‘sustainable’, ‘responsible’ or ‘green’ travel, the core objective remains the same: to ensure that tourism remains a force for good and not a source of friction.
Being an ethical traveller needn’t be about making sacrifices. It’s simply about making better choices. Every pound or dollar you spend, every action you make, is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in – and a genuine opportunity to help empower the destinations you visit.
From quick and easy tips on reducing your impact on the environment to simple ways to ensure your money is going to the local community, here are 8 ways to be a more ethical traveller.
1. Travel light
You may not have thought of the impact our luggage has on the environment, but it really does. If you’re paying to check in a bag, it can be tempting to fill it as much as possible to get your money’s worth, but the more cargo on a plane, the more the plane will weigh, and this means that more fuel will be required to fly it, resulting in higher CO2 emissions. So keep your bags as light as possible.
2. Stay at eco-conscious hotels
Even the most luxurious of modern hotels and resorts have started paying close attention to their impact on the environment. But that’s not to say that you have to pay extra to stay at a ‘green hotel’. In fact, even small independent hotels now have sustainable practices in place. From complex waste management and energy consumption rules to simple initiatives that cut down on water use, these small efforts make a huge difference as more and more hotels get involved. All you have to do is have a quick look to see if the hotel you want to book has some sort of commitment to the environment.
You can also do your bit in smaller ways whilst staying at hotels. Don’t waste water by letting taps run and run, avoid keeping all the lights on in your room, take showers rather than baths and don’t ask for your sheets and towels to be changed every day.
3. Be conscious about where you eat
Eating local dishes at local restaurants is a great way to learn about a new culture. It’s also one of the best ways to ensure these cultures and food traditions thrive and prosper for generations to come.
And it’s easy to do. Simply avoid eating and drinking at multinational chains like Starbucks and McDonalds and seek out local restaurants and cafes instead.
4. Shop like a local
As well as eating like a local, it’s also a good idea to shop like one, too. Whether you’re travelling to a rural destination or a large city, you’ll always find opportunities to shop at local markets and stores, where you can meet and buy directly from local producers, designers and artists. Made with locally-sourced materials and drawing on traditional techniques, these are the kinds of souvenirs you will hold dear to your heart for years to come.
I recall watching a video clip from someone who had visited Al-Aqsa Mosque. He briefly interviewed a local market stall holder and asked him what Muslims like him could do for Palestinians when they visit. The man said that coming there and meeting with the locals and buying souvenirs from them really helped them provide for their families.
5. Ask what your tour company is doing for local communities
Don’t be afraid to ask your tour company how they help the local communities in their destinations. At Adventuress, for instance, we hire local guides and drivers and make sure we organise experiences that will ensure money is ploughed back into the local economy. We also choose to dine at local or family-owned restaurants. Not only does all this help local communities, but our customers can also enjoy more authentic travel experiences, which is what we’re all chasing at the end of the day. Furthermore, we avoid touring in a way that exploits or underpays the local community.
Always try to book with companies that restrict their group sizes, too. Smaller group sizes cause less disruption to the local way of life and have less impact on the environment.
6. Think twice about the activities you participate in
Try to avoid activities that exploit people or harm wildlife and the environment.
You may have been dreaming of climbing that mountain – but who will be carrying your luggage and equipment up the mountain? If you’re not doing this yourself, then please look into how the locals who will be carrying your gear are treated. Are they paid a fair wage by the tour company? Are they provided adequate clothing and footwear for the trek? Are they given sufficient food, water and breaks to rest? Where will they be sleeping? Are they offered medical assistance if required? Any reputable, ethical company will be able to provide this information to you, and the more we as travellers question these practices, the more likely it is that companies will start to treat their workers fairly and humanely.
Also consider the environment around you when you travel. When planning a winter trip, I learned how some winter sports are quite damaging. Snowmobiles, for instance, are said to harm winter ecosystems. Not only does driving them cause damage to plants, they also create noise pollution, which disturbs and stresses wildlife and causes some animals to move from their natural winter habitat, which can be harmful to them.
If you plan to do any water sports, be sure to choose non-toxic sunscreens that are safe for marine life.
The use of animals in tourism has also been hotly debated. It may be tempting to get a photo of yourself riding an elephant in Thailand, but it really is much better to enjoy wildlife in its natural habitat. Demand for animal tourism can often lead to the exploitation of local wildlife. If it’s important to you that you interact with local animals, then do your research and look for ethical wildlife trusts and rescue centres that rehabilitate animals before releasing them back into their natural habitats.
7. Be kind to the environment
There’s no denying that it’s harder to think about the environment while travelling than when you’re at home. But, as the old saying goes, a responsible traveller leaves nothing behind but footprints.
Be conscious of the fact that many countries around the world do not have good (if any) recycling schemes. Before I travel, I try to remove all unnecessary packaging from any items I am packing for my trip, so that I can make sure it’s put in a recycling bin. Be careful when disposing of any rubbish you do have whilst on holiday. You can ask your hotel if they have recycle bins or if there is anywhere you can safely dispose of it yourself.
Another simple tip is to take your own refillable water bottle. This allows you to keep yourself hydrated during your travels without having to buy countless plastic bottles throughout your trip. Think of it this way, every plastic bottle you buy is going to be on this earth for around 450 years, in the ocean or in a landfill site, before it decomposes. Imagine all the millions of people who travel and how many bottles of water that equates to and you’ll soon begin to realise the scale of the problem.
8. Spread the word
The travel world depends heavily on word of mouth and recommendations from people we know and trust. If you come across companies, people and destinations doing great or terrible things for the environment during your travels, then be sure to tell your friends and family all about it. Leave reviews online to inspire other travellers and contact companies to question any unethical practices you come across.
You may have family and friends who travel regularly – talk to them about how we can reduce our environmental impact when on holiday. They may not have realised how damaging some of our travel activities are.
By doing these simple things, together, the travel community can help the world thrive from tourism and protect this beautiful planet we call home.