On a personal level, nothing gets me going like the prospect of a new travel, even if it’s just within a 100 mile radius, for the simple reason that I will be lucky enough to see and experience something new.
As the history of our species clearly proves, we are travellers by nature, eternally longing for knowledge and eager to discover new places and cultures.
More than two thousands years have passed since Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth and it is pretty safe to say that almost every inch of the planet has been scoured and mapped; in fact we are arousing our interest in exploring other planets.
Surely we cannot all call ourselves Columbus or Sir Walter Raleigh… in reality not everyone loves climbing mountains or hiking in the desert, and going on a holiday generally means resting our weary limbs on the sand with an adult beverage in our hands.
Either way, when embarking on a trip our choices and behaviours have a large impact on the planet, and it is essential to assess our options in order to organise the perfect, ethical vacation.
Responsible tourism doesn’t mean setting out on a 70’s hippie revival, giving up on soap and growing a beard, but nor does it mean spending a lot of money to book a fancy green tree house in a remote forest far from civilization.
Travelling in an ethical way is more about envisioning yourself as a part of the world community and being willing to respect and help the places you are visiting and all the living creatures which inhabit that country.
Evaluating what is ethical and what is not can be hard because there might be some blurred lines and confusion here and there, but there are some behaviours that should definitely be avoided and condemned, such as irresponsible wild-life watching, animal, adult and child exploitation, cruise liners, canned hunting, anything that involves polluting or littering, cultural insensitivity… the list is endless.
Good reasoning and common sense are our best allies to defeat ignorance, disrespect, pollution, water waste and last but not least, our own prejudices.
Here are 6 simple tips to help you become a more ethical traveller:
1. Means of transport
It is no mystery that the environmental impact of aviation is massive and it’s dangerously contributing to climate change: the CO2 released by the burning fuel of an airplane can last in the air for centuries and since aircraft emissions are projected to triple in the next 30 years (http://tinyurl.com/zwbpjwu), we should at least consider, where possible, other means of transport.
It is imperative that we limit our carbon footprint, therefore… do you really need to book a flight for a minor trip within the country? Is it absolutely necessary to get on a plane in order to visit your parents?
More than that, what about your commute? Could you possibly switch your traffic jammed car journey, to a stress-free train or bus ride? Or better still,to a bicycle?
Naturally we cannot give up flying entirely (how does one get to Australia?), but the only responsible choice is to fly less and above all, to make it count.
It goes without saying that walking and cycling are the best ways of travelling without harming the environment, so when on vacation why not use your legs instead of sitting in a rented car: you may discover things you would never learn while leaning on your seat, staring at your phone.
2. Rent-eat-buy local
Tourism is a great source of employment in the Western World as much as it is (or even more so) in the other parts of the planet and consequently choosing how and where to spend our money is one of the key factors for being responsible tourists.
What’s the point of travelling all the way to Jamaica if we are letting some big foreign company hotel or holiday resort make all the profit?
Locally owned inns, b&bs and hotels are the preferable option because the men and women who have worked hard to build their activities are the ones that will truly benefit from our visit to their country.
The same goes for restaurants, bars and shops in general if we want to make sure that our travel makes a difference and helps improve the locals’ quality of life.
Being a sustainable traveller means being a sensitive customer who cares about social equality, bearing in mind that a little can go a long way.
Let’s face it: more often than not, back at home, we squander money on a fancy ethnic restaurant probably owned by a bloke named Jack. Instead it’s time to eat real traditional food in locally owned businesses. Try to visit as many restaurants as you can in order to spread your money equally and contributing to the economic growth.
Likewise, why buy bric-a-brac and plastic pieces of junk at the airport or at the mall when you can purchase wonderful handicrafts made by local artisans?
Furthermore, don’t buy products made at the expense of endangered species (plant and animal), these are not the kind of souvenirs you want to take home with you.
Supporting the community which is hosting us and contributing to the economy is certainly the best way to give back.
3. Bargain / Local currency
For us Westerners bargaining can either be a nuisance or greatly entertaining,but when doing so we should always remember that it isn’t a game : we must learn to bargain fairly.
Hammering out a deal in a market without keeping in mind the reality of the local currency is not going to help anyone except ourselves; while we save one or two inconsequential pennies the counterpart might lose a considerable sum.
Being a responsible traveller means respecting the income of the locals and their way of earning money, never forgetting that when we travel abroad we always take advantage of the local soft currency.
A lot of traders, depending on the country, will actually expect you to bargain and they might even try to charge you a little more because they know that you, in comparison to them, can afford to spend some extra cash here and there. It is your right to friendly wrangle with your mischievous partner, but you should be able to compromise a beneficial deal for both parties involved.
Besides, there is no point in trying to make Ebenezer Scrooge proud!
4. Listen and speak
Language can be a dividing barrier and first and foremost, a difficult wall to climb.
Tackling Swahili or Punjabi (but also French, Dutch or Japanese for that matter!) is daunting but it shouldn’t prevent us from at least trying.
Learning one or two simple phrases can take us a long way in regards of getting the best out of our hard-earned and well deserved vacation: a simple thank you and a smile are powerful weapons.
Whist on your trip, instead of getting frustrated with the lack of communication and the mounting pile of misunderstandings, you can prevent anything bad from happening with some useful courtesy phrases.
At the same time, open your eyes and ears, carefully listen to the people you’re speaking to at the market, on a safari, on the top of a mountain.
Let me tell you, ignorance is not bliss.
Wouldn’t you prefer, when in your own country, that tourists and visitors tried to speak your language?
We expect everybody in the world to speak English, but what about the other 6000 languages out there?
Surely we can’t get mad at an old lady in China for not understanding our thick accent, can we?
Again, ignorance is a no-no.
Bookshops, libraries, the internet, travel agencies… It’s essential and imperative to learn as much as possible about the country you are going to visit before your departure.
Being respectful of other’s people culture, customs, traditions and taboos is fundamental when travelling abroad and will help us see things under a new perspective.
Before anything else we should remember that we are guests and in that capacity we need to behave responsibly and respectfully, be polite and enjoy our hosts different mindsets: only by doing so we will enrich our experience.
If we are visiting churches, temples or other places of worship, we should ensure we are informed beforehand whether there is a particular dress-code to respect.
Also, smoking and drinking alcohol may not be accepted in a particular region or country. While it would be wonderful to travel in a completely peaceful, open-minded and liberal world, some countries unfortunately are not, and we must respect their different values and beliefs. In this regard, LGBT travellers (sadly) should be extra careful to avoid troubles with locals and law enforcement.
Try to get along with everyone and don’t exasperate difficult situations, respect elderly people and always ask before taking a picture because it may not be permitted or appreciated. Someone could also ask you to pay a small fee, but it’s up to you whether you take the picture of not.
When it comes to beggars and to begging children in particular, the debate is rife.
Sending a child to beg on the streets is a violation of his or her rights and they should not be encouraged to engage in that upsetting behaviour. On the other hand, they need to survive.
Of course, seeing a child begging on the street breaks our hearts, but if we really wish to do something to improve their condition we should enquire about local charities or NGOs operating in that territory.
6. Don’t forget the environment
You wouldn’t travel thousands of miles to a beautiful, exotic destination only to litter and trash the place, would you?
In addition to the assumed basic notion of cleaning up after yourself, another thing to take into account is the possible shortage of water supply in the remote destination of your choosing, as well as the precarious conditions of that particular natural habitat.
Don’t let tap water run incessantly, take shorter showers, don’t overuse tools powered by electricity: as we are well aware of, producing power and distributing water can take a toll on the environment.
Be respectful of wildlife, strongly refuse any opportunity of taking a picture with an elephant or a chained monkey: encouraging any kind of abuse towards animals, who are kept in unnatural circumstances and forced to interact with humans means tolerating unethical behaviours.
Carefully choose a tour operator with a responsible policy on wildlife preservation and never engage in dangerous activities while in the proximity of animals.
I know, I would like to pet a lion cub too… But trust me, his mother wouldn’t be pleased and nor your surgeon!
Bonus Track! Where do I go?
Now that you know all about being a responsible tourist, are you ready to pack your bag and leave for an adventure?
Yes! But where to?
Ethical Traveler (http://ethicaltraveler.org/), a famous non profit organization, can help you choose your next destination without forgetting human rights and the preservation of the environment.
Here is their list, in alphabetical order.
Cabo Verde, Dominica, Grenada, Micronesia, Mongolia, Panama, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Uruguay.
U.S. News & World Report also suggests, for your 2017 vacation, these other beautiful countries:
Canada, Norway, Aruba, Mongolia, Bhutan, Costa Rica and Colombia.
But hey… before embarking on an international flight, are you sure you have visited every square inch of your own country? All those beautiful cities, villages, museums, landscapes, mountains, beaches, hills… all reachable, all amazing and oh-so-close.