Responsible Travel (Beyond Carbon Credits And Voluntourism)

mom and daughter standing on edge or ocean

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Earlier this month, I attended the Traverse travel conference in Trento, Italy. One of the topics discussed in the closing session of the conference centered on the idea of responsible travel.

Coincidentally, I prompted the discussion by posing a question to the panelists about what our role is as travel influencers. And it sparked a conversation about our responsibilities as travelers, and the need for a travel code of ethics among influencers. It was good to hear that I’m not the only one who cares about ethical travel.

One thing I’ve been trying to do since becoming a travel blogger is to marry my desire to share travel stories and destinations, with my background in international development. I know that these two are interlinked, but the connection may not always be obvious. As a blogger, it’s not enough, in my opinion, to write about travel without thinking about the true impact of travel.

Playing in the sand on the Oregon Coast (July 2018)

Going beyond the obvious with responsible travel

Underscoring all my travel experiences is the understanding that we have a responsibility as travelers to make sure that we leave the world just the same as we saw it (or even better). This is the essential idea behind responsible travel. But many people limit responsible travel to helping the environment or volunteering somewhere.

There’s actually more to responsible travel and ethical travel than that! Being responsible means being mindful of your actions as a traveler. It’s thinking about the unintended consequences of all the things you do when you travel, from booking a hotel, buying a meal, or taking a picture. I’ve written about how to practice ethical family travel before, and have provided several simple tips for how families can engage in more ethical travel.

If all of this sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. Traveling responsibly doesn’t have to be hard. But it does take a bit of education and effort. I don’t claim to be the perfect responsible traveler. There are definitely moments in our travels where I question whether what I do is the right thing. But to me, the most important thing is mindfulness. It’s being aware of your actions.

A family practicing responsible travel when hiking at Arches National Park. A father, daughter, and son on large red stone as they walk under an arch.
Hiking at Arches National Park (August 2018)

The travel code of ethics

One thing that helps with awareness is following a travel code of ethics. In 1999, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) issued the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism. It’s not widely publicized, but it’s a perfect set of standards that tourists can follow if they want to practice responsible travel.

The travel code of ethics outlines ten principles that governments, travel companies, travel communities, and even individuals can follow to make travel a force for good.

Walking through a park in Mexico (November 2018)

How to use the travel code of ethics as a guide for ethical travel

You can use these principles as a basis for the choices you make as a traveler. At first, it may seem like a chore to think through these principles. But once you start doing it, the practice will eventually become second nature to you.

Here are some ways that you and your family can use the travel code of ethics as a guide for ethical travel.

Promoting respect between peoples and societies

The first principle of responsible travel involves being respectful of the places you visit and the people you encounter. Specifically, it means making an effort to know the basic cultural norms and respecting the laws and social rules of that country.

When we travel to a new destination, we try to spend some time getting to know the do’s and don’ts of that place. We’ll do this by watching YouTube videos, checking out books from the library, or reading blog posts about that country.

We also like to learn a few key phrases in the language of that country. Again, YouTube is a great resource as there are countless language-learning channels to choose from. But language learning apps like Duolingo are also good resources. Their lessons allow us to practice speaking simple phrases. If you’re into phrasebooks, getting one in the country that you’re visiting can also be helpful. For our time in Italy, we’ve been using Rick Steve’s Italian phrase book to learn some Italian phrases.

Attempting to communicate in the language of the country you’re visiting, rather than assuming that people speak your language (in our case, English) goes a long way in showing people that you respect their culture. It’s an easy first step to practicing ethical travel.

Watching Aztec dancing in Mexico City (October 2018)

Travel as a form of enrichment

A second principle in the travel code of ethics is that travel shouldn’t just be a form of entertainment. Travel can also be something that is enriching for yourself and for the greater community. When you travel somewhere, take some time to learn something from your travels. This understanding can come at both the macro level (understanding the role of that destination in the greater context of world) and the micro level (understanding the roles that groups play WITHIN that country). Essentially, take some time to learn something about the place you’re visiting.

We like to take cultural or historical tours when we travel to a destination, particularly from someone who has a personal connection to that culture. We did this recently in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where we did a food tour to learn about the local culture and history. Another thing we like doing is taking a class or a workshop. For example, in Mexico, we took a cooking class in Puerto Vallarta. And in Costa Rica, my daughter and I took a chocolate workshop and learned all about the history of chocolate. If you prefer to learn on your own, visiting a local museum, cultural center, or historical center can also be an easy way for you and your family to gain some enriching traveling experiences.

A child engaging in a responsible travel activity of learning how to make chocolate, pounding cacao beans in a small mortar and pestle
Making chocolate in Costa Rica (March 2019)

Finding activities that promote sustainability

A key component of responsible travel is a focus on sustainability. In the context of the travel code of ethics, this means a focus on the environment, but it also means a focus on the local community. Essentially, whatever you do in travel, you want it to be something that future generations can also enjoy, and that will benefit the local community.

Families can implement this principle by doing activities that help to preserve the environment in a responsible way. For example, in the United States, we like to support and visit the National Parks. Our kids like taking part in the Junior Ranger programs, which helps them learn about nature, and also how to be good stewards of the environment. And when we were in Mexico, we had a chance to release baby sea turtles into the ocean.

When it comes to sustainabile travel practices, making an effort to reduce our reliance on plastic and fuel is also important. When possible, avoid using plastic, especially straws. We carry a GRAYL water bottle that has a filter and water purifier, so that we don’t have to constantly buy bottled water. We also like to carry around stainless steel drinking straws, which are fairly easy to clean and wash. And when it comes to transportation, try and choose the most fuel efficient mode of travel. In some cases, it may actually be flying.

Two children’s hands and two adult’s hands holding four plastic bowls with baby sea turtles inside, as part of a responsible travel experience
Releasing baby sea turtles in Mexico (January 2019)

Preserving and enhancing our cultural heritage

The fourth principle in UNWTO’s travel code of ethics is a focus on preserving historical, archaeological, and cultural sites and activities. When you’re traveling somewhere, find ways to learn about the historical significance of a destination. For our family, we like visiting UNESCO world heritage sites. Over the years, we’ve visited 23 UNESCO sites together, in North America, South America, Asia, and Europe!

Remember that when you’re visiting historical places, it’s important to be respectful of the rules. They’re meant to help preserve the historical artifacts, so that future generations can visit that place too. Too many times, I’ve seen travelers disregard the rules, just for a selfie or a photo op. Just recently, we were visiting the Leaning Tower in Pisa, and there were tourists posing for pictures in the grass, even though there were clearly marked signs advising people not to walk on the grass.

A tall tower with windows made from stone and built into a cave at Mesa Verde National Park for visitors to visit as part of responsible travel.
Mesa Verde National Park (August 2018)

Supporting the local community

When it comes to responsible travel, supporting the local community is extremely important. We like frequenting local businesses and restaurants, and shopping at local markets. However, the intention of supporting the local community can be a complicated issue, as actions that you may think are beneficial may have unintended negative consequences to locals.

One example is accommodation. Our family has always been a supporter of Airbnb since its inception. For traveling families, it just makes more sense financially to choose an Airbnb over a hotel. You get more space, you often have access to a kitchen, which allows you to cook your own meals, and you are staying in a residential area rather than a commercial area. But over the years, as the company has grown, Airbnb has received criticism for pushing renters out of neighborhoods, as property owners choose to offer their units for short-term rentals rather than long-term rentals. For our family, we try to counter some of the negative impacts of Airbnb by choosing units owned by locals.

Another area that we often struggle with is money. Specifically, when it comes to paying local prices, tipping for services, and giving money to people. As much as we can, when it comes to giving money, we try and think about whether what we’re paying will disrupt the local economy or negatively impact the person that we are supposedly benefit. Overpaying for an item may create a precedent or expectation that all tourists are willing to pay more, inadvertently raising prices for locals. Giving unsolicited money to people, with the intention of ‘helping them out”, may breed animosity among others in their community who didn’t receive any money. As always, it’s important to think about the context of the situation.  

A father with a backpack and a son behind in a t-shirt and shorts, facing away from the camera and walking through a Mexican market as they engage in responsible travel. They are walking to the right of to a stall with fresh fruit such as oranges, peaches, pears and grapes. Ahead of them is a stall with various bottles of liquids. Also ahead of them is a woman in a pink jacket, her back turned to the camera, who is walking to the left of a stall full of party supplies.
Walking through a market in Mexico (December 2018)

Holding travel companies, promoters, and influencers accountable

Responsible travel isn’t just for travelers, but also for the other players in the travel industry: governments, travel companies, travel promoters, and even influencers and writers. All players in this industry need to make sure they are being honest in the services they offer, and the information they provide.

As travelers, part of our responsibility is holding others accountable for their actions. If a company is doing something ethically wrong, let them know in an email or send a message. If a blogger is providing misinformation about a destination, make a comment about it to correct them. My biggest peeve is when I see bloggers and influencers refer to Bali as a country, rather than an island in Indonesia. I have no hesitation in correcting them when I see it happen.

One thing to note, though, is to always be respectful. Public shaming on the internet should not be okay. We should always extend common courtesy and manners towards others, even if we are providing criticism.

Stopping by a local attraction in Arizona (October 2018)

Advocating travel for all people

One of the principles I love from the UNWTO travel code of ethics is the idea that travel is a right for all people. Essentially, everyone should have the right to travel. It doesn’t need to be limited to a select few. This idea is a part of my own personal beliefs, and I often work to advocate for all kinds of people to travel, including advocating for more diversity in travel. I love seeing and encouraging families of color and LGBTQ families to travel in the world.

As you’re thinking about how your family can practice responsible travel, consider whether you’re supporting companies that allow their employees to travel. This information may not be readily available, but you can always ask by sending an email. Another consideration is to look for companies that make travel accessible for everyone, including people with disabilities. This group of travelers is often overlooked, because their needs are so varied, but it’s important to support the companies that are making the effort to allow people with disabilities to travel more.

A young girl sitting on the sand on the beach, her back to the camera and looking out onto the water. In the the distance are fishing boats scattered throughout the water.
Hanging out on the beach in Mexico (April 2019)

Acknowledging your privileges as a traveler

As a traveler, we have certain rights. According to UNWTO, tourists should have the right to travel within their own country, and into other countries. They have the right to have access to accommodations and transportation. Unfortunately, not everyone has the ability to exercise these freedoms.

Passport privilege refers to the ability of passport holders from certain countries to travel more freely (and cheaply) among countries, in comparison to other passport holders. The Global Passport Power Rank is a site that ranks passports by the number of countries they are able to enter (without a visa, or with a visa-on-arrival). Currently, passport holders from United Arab Emirates have the most powerful passports, allowing them to enter 173 countries either without a visa or by getting a visa-on-arrival. The United States currently ranks as the 15th most power passport. As US citizens, my family and I can enter 167 countries, 117 of those countries are visa free.

Acknowledging your passport privilege is an important part of ethical travel. It’s understanding that not everyone has the ability to travel the way that we might be able to. Currently, citizens from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan have the least powerful passports. For passport holders of these countries, at least 159 countries require them to apply for a visa before entering the country. In some cases, it can make travel prohibitively more expensive.  

A pair of fashion sunglasses, a USA passport, and a leather-bound journal on a wooden counter.
Preparing my passport for travel (May 2017)

Promoting the rights of workers in the travel industry

Another important principle of responsible travel is advocating for the rights of workers in the travel industry. Workers and entrepreneurs in the travel industry have a right to a fair wage, fair prices, and fair labor standards. How ethical is it to be sipping mai tais on the beach, when the server who made that mai tai is working 16 hour days (not by choice)? When possible, try and choose hotels, restaurants, and companies that do not exploit their workforce, and that treat their employees fairly.

Another aspect of promoting workers is when it comes to voluntourism. You may think that taking a volunteer trip to work on a farm or build houses is a noble and selfless activity. But consider the worker you may have displaced in the process. Unless you’re a contractor or carpenter by trade, do you really have more skills to build a house than a local carpenter? Working on a farm may be unskilled work, but are there others in that country without jobs that could be doing that work instead? Is the organization or company asking for volunteers because they don’t want to pay for labor? If so, should you be supporting an organization or company like that? There are no right answers on this. But it is important to consider whether your presence as a volunteer is preventing a local from receiving a job.

A local tour company in Puerto Vallarta (April 2019)

Making responsible travel a priority for your family

Making responsible travel a part of your family culture may take time, but it is possible. Our family didn’t start thinking about this until a few years ago. But it wasn’t until we were traveling full time that we started making an active effort to practice ethical travel. Even now, there are still moments when we question whether a particular choice was the right thing to do. We still struggle with finding sustainable forms of transportation, and choosing where to stay when we travel.

For your family, mindfully practising these principles from the travel code of ethics is a good step towards becoming a more responsible traveling family. Discuss what responsible travel means for your family with your partner and your kids. Make ethical travel an important part of your travel decision making. Eventually, it will become second nature to you.

Do you already practice responsible travel? Share how you and your family travel ethically in the comments!

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The Wandering Daughter

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5 Responses

  1. I love this article! All of these things are so important, and as travelers, we need to be mindful of all of them. Thanks for sharing…

  2. What a thorough article! I really feel like there are always ways we as a family can improve as responsible travelers. This definitely gives me more ideas on different things we can work on. Thank you so much for putting this together.

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I'm a travel-loving mom of three from Seattle. Join our adventures as we explore the Pacific Northwest and the world!

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