When we travel, we often focus on what we’ll get from an experience. We think about the lessons we’ll learn, the challenges we’ll face, and the things we’ll see. Rarely do we think about the impact we make as travelers. As my family and I have been traveling throughout the world, I’ve been thinking more about how my family’s actions impact the places we visit. I really want to make sure that my family and I are practicing sustainable and responsible tourism.
We’ve been visiting a lot of popular tourist destinations lately. I can’t help wonder how tourism has impacted those destinations over the years. While I’m sure these places have benefited economically from tourism, I’m curious if the cultures and demographics have changed as a result.
I still hold to the idea that travel is ultimately a force for good. But as the travel industry evolves, and as more and more people travel, I think it’s time that we start thinking about socially responsible tourism.
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What is socially responsible tourism?
Socially responsible tourism involves being mindful about the impact our actions have when we travel. It’s making sure that what we’re doing isn’t hurting the people, the environment, or the destination that we’re visiting.
Sometimes we think that a certain activity is harmless. Staying at a beach resort. Posing for a picture with an animal. Eating at a popular ethnic restaurant. But when we dig down further, we realize that these activities are actually causing harm.
That beach resort may have been built on land that was formerly the habitat of an endangered species. The tiger that tourists pose with for photos was drugged by its handlers so that it could stay calm. The ethnic restaurant that’s all the rage is owned and operated by people who have no connection to that culture (or even worse, never even traveled there).
Socially responsible tourism means looking beyond the surface to see the consequences and impacts of the things we experience as travelers. We need to look at the long term effects of tourism in a destination, and choose things that will benefit (rather than harm) the destinations in the long run. As travelers, it’s time we start practicing sustainable and responsible tourism.
Ways to practice sustainable and responsible tourism
I’ve written about how to practice sustainable and responsible tourism before. But I felt like there was so much that I didn’t get a chance to cover. As we continue on our travels, we come across new situations that force us to pause and think about how to travel responsibly.
Practicing sustainable and responsible tourism is no simple feat. It’s complicated and nuanced, and there will always be areas that fall in the gray. Something that you think might be helpful can have unintended negative consequences. It’s sometimes hard to know how to be a responsible traveler.
If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to socially responsible tourism, here are a few tips on how to travel responsibly with your family.
We hardly ever stay in hotels, mainly because it can get quite expensive for our family. When we do stay in hotels, our aim is to choose locally owned ones. Sometimes it can be hard to determine whether the owner of a hotel is a local or a foreigner until after you get there. One way we maximize our chances of supporting a locally owned hotel is to avoid staying at international chains. Even on Booking, you can find non-chain hotels.
Another thing to consider is the environmental impact of staying at hotels. How often are they changing sheets or washing towels? A family we know puts the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door when they go out, so that housekeeping will skip their room. We don’t go so far as doing that, but we do small things like shutting off the AC when we leave, or making sure to hang our towels instead of leaving them on the floor.
A more complicated issue to consider is the physical space that your hotel is taking up. Is it a sprawling resort, occupying acres of grounds with one-room bungalows? Or is it a high rise in a city? Consider what occupied that land before the hotel existed. Is the hotel employing local staff? Do they seem to enjoy their jobs? A big part of sustainable and responsible tourism is being mindful of the travel choices you make, and understanding the implications of those choices.
Airbnb gets a bad rap among those who advocate for socially responsible tourism. Many are quick to point out how Airbnb is pushing out locals from the tourist-heavy destinations, as owners start to favor short-term rentals over long-term ones. But I personally think the issue of gentrification is more complicated than simply pointing the blame to Airbnb.
From a family traveler perspective, the one thing that Airbnb has done is help make travel more accessible for more families. Our Airbnb in Puerto Vallarta cost us roughly $60 per night. If we had stayed in a hotel, it would have cost us $15 more per night, not to mention the added costs of eating out for every meal (rather than being able to cook our own meals from time to time). For a full-time traveling family like us, that extra $15 a night equates to over $5,000 over the course of a year!
I can’t deny that Airbnb hasn’t had an impact on the travel industry since its inception. But one way that we can practice sustainable and responsible tourism when it comes to Airbnb is to choose properties that are owned by locals. Take a look at the owner’s profiles and see where they’re based. And try to choose owners with only one or two listings, rather than multiple listings.
I got into a heated online debate with someone about the topic of tipping. This person was saying that over-tipping, especially in countries where wages are low, helps compensate for the low wages that person is getting. I argue, though, that over-tipping is harmful to people in the long run.
For one thing, in places where the locals make a low wage, tourists tipping high at a restaurant will eventually lead servers and restaurants to favor tourists over locals. Ultimately, the locals are driven out, or out-priced. When it comes to tipping, being mindful of the long-term impact of your tip is important for sustainable and responsible tourism.
On a much longer term scale, the existence of tips provides no incentive for employers to increase the wages of their employees. If employees are making good money from tips, then employers can justify keeping the wages low, since the tips will cover the remainder of pay. You see this in the US, where the minimum wage for tipped employees in at least 18 states is $2.13, even though the federal minimum wage is $7.25.
Teaching our kids how to be a responsible traveler
For families, my best suggestion is to do your research beforehand. You can have them read books about the cultures of the places you will visit, or books about ocean conservation. One of our kids’ favorite books is a comic about coral reefs called, Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean. But actually, the best way to teach your kids is by engaging with them.
Practicing sustainable and responsible tourism is so important for parents, because your kids are learning from what you do. Whether you know it or not, you’re teaching them how to be a responsible traveler just by modeling behavior.
I have to admit, my family and I don’t live this every day. We’ve stayed at international chain hotels. We’ve booked Airbnbs that were owned by foreigners. And we have given high tips to servers or tour guides. The thing with practicing sustainable and responsible tourism is that it takes a conscious effort every day. And sometimes, you have to weigh the benefits with the consequences.
In the end, the main key for how to be a responsible traveler is to be a mindful traveler. Don’t just consume travel purely for entertainment. Think about the big picture.
Do you practice sustainable and responsible travel? Share how you do this with your family in the comments!
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