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Redefining Tourism: 20 Tips for the Mindful Traveler


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Previously, we collaborated with the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) to explore Why The Freedom to Travel Matters. In connection with another campaign we have been invited to examine how we might redefine tourism. In doing so, we reaffirm a connection between the freedom and responsibility of the modern traveler. We follow by considering how we might re-imagine our travel decisions to better satisfy our individual needs today while sustaining the wellbeing of the communities we visit tomorrow.

Dan Enjoys the View, Jyrgalan Trek - Kyrgyzstan
Reflections. Taken on a newly mapped trekking route in Jyrgalan, Kyrgyzstan.

Chief Seattle, a leader of the Suquamish Tribe, said: “Take only memories, leave only footprints,” a phrase now familiar as the mantra of responsible travelers. The problem today: our footprints are well beyond the trillions. What began as the promise of economic growth through tourism and the democratization of travel has taken a turn into the land of Unintended Consequences. As more of us travel — over 1.2 billion last year, expected to grow to 2 billion by 2030 – pressures build on everything from urban living environments to natural landscapes.

Always in travel, however, there is hope.

But it’s on us to ensure that what survives for future generations carries a spirit at least equal to what drew people like you and me to pack up, pick up and hit the road in the first place.

How?

First, allow me to invoke a psychologist, then a physicist.

Freedom and Responsibility: A Connection

Viktor Frankl, psychologist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning wrote, “Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsible-ness.”

Look all around your social media streams, travel and otherwise, and tell me Frankl wasn't onto something when he wrote these words 70 years ago.

The relationship Frankl describes applies also to our freedom to travel, a privilege that carries responsibility.

A responsibility to what, though?

For travelers: to travel mindfully and respectfully so that the places they visit are not degraded, either intentionally or incidentally. For industry leaders: to create engaging destinations and experiences that co-exist with and help to create more pleasant places to live.

I understand this sounds zero-sum, but it doesn’t need to be. We can achieve this so it doesn't feel like we are constraining ourselves and losing out. Quite the opposite.

It does require a bit of a rethink, however. That's where the physicist comes in.

Albert Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

The sustainable, responsible, and ethical tourism brigades have chipped away at the level of the conservation challenge wall with certifications, guidelines, and initiatives. However, the terms can be murky and confusing and exhibit a sort of exclusive ring, niche and expensive. And, at the level the problem was created.

We have to consider the magnitude of people involved here, now and in the future. If sustainability truly is the goal, niche won't cut it. Instead, the core principles ought to be inclusive and within reach, conceptually and practically, to all travelers.

So now it’s time to tunnel under the wall. That tunnel: mindful travel.

Mindfulness demonstrates that doing the right thing doesn't need to be constrained or boring, but rather is an experience enhancer. Mindfulness applied to travel tunes us into ourselves, then back out to empathically understanding our world. Engaging with the world in creative and respectful ways delivers simultaneously on our needs as individuals while contributing to the promise of livable communities.

The more we each demand this approach to travel – one that is grounded in awareness and respect for local people, environments and economy — the more our fellow travelers, the tourism industry, and policy-makers will need to follow suit. The niche then goes mainstream so that what we once knew as “sustainable tourism” simply becomes “tourism.”

Good thing is: all travelers can do this.

20 Travel Mindsets for Today That Can Redefine Tourism for Tomorrow

Note: Much ink has been spilled regarding tips to reduce our carbon footprint and travel more sustainably (see here, here, and here). We offer what follows as a mindset to help us transcend and reframe what’s before us.

1. Avoid drive-by tourism.

Checking off the Top 10 list may provide good photos for social media, but consider the possibility of the empty feeling left behind if we cannot speak more deeply to the place we visited, to its people and to the delightful similarities and mysterious differences between us all. Not only that, rethink speed and superficiality, and you’ll reduce the threat of exhausting yourself and wearing down the physical and emotional resilience of the destination and the people in it.

2. Enjoy being still.

Stillness has a way of taking the rapid filmstrip of life and our travels and slowing it down so we might appreciate each individual frame. When we consider each individual moment, we are less likely to require more from our experience to satiate our needs. How better to engage than by being, observing.

I noticed when I began traveling a lot 30 years ago, I would talk about going to Cuba or going to Tibet, and people's eyes would light up with excitement. And nowadays, I notice that people's eyes light up most in excitement when I talk about going nowhere or going offline. And I think a lot of us have the sense that we're living at the speed of light, at a pace determined by machines. And we've lost the ability to live at the speed of life. – Pico Iyer on The Art of Stillness

3. Seek more to engage than to escape.

We often look to travel as a getaway from the stresses, challenges, and constraints of our daily lives. My personal experience confirms this to a certain degree, but in my escape I sometimes find myself drifting from being mindful about the people and places I’m visiting. Instead of a singular mindset of escape, consider travel also as a way to engage with something or someone in a new and different way. Think of this ex-comfort zone discovery as the new manner of escape. This approach can help build confidence and worldliness, and enable us to return to our everyday “normal” life with fresh perspective.

4. Ask: What did I impact and how?

The first step to being mindful is to think, to consider the impressions you make made, and their impacts. To question the positive and negative, in part and in whole, of the actions you take. Conversely, consider how you may have been impacted – mentally, physically, and emotionally — by your experiences.

5. Seek to participate, rather than simply to consume.

It’s too easy to consume a thing or experience and toss away the packaging (literal or metaphoric) for someone else to deal with. Consider what it will take for the experience to become part of you, rather than a one-off. An experience that is integral is not only more satisfying, but it binds us to the people and place where we undertook it.

6. Consider every travel experience as a context for education and learning.

If we look at travel the right way, every venture into our world underscores that travel is the classroom. However, as we seek more from our travel experiences, we can see each interlude as a potential context for active education and continual learning, be it a language lesson, cooking class or exploration of one’s artistic skills.

7. Travel with an eye to depth, rather than breadth.

Travel with an eye to depth, rather than breadth. Traveling at the surface has a way of skimming the cream from the top of destinations. Dig into the place you are visiting. Consider its challenges and opportunities, and the people who live there. This approach will better serve you, and the places you visit.

8. Choose interdependence, too.

Think of travel as a continual exercise in cooperation. There’s a time to set oneself free, alone in the world to take on its challenges. That’s independence. However, whether we like it or not, the ease of travel brings and forces us closer together in this world. Depending on the circumstance, this can sometimes feel satisfying, sometimes frightening. To temper any sense of anxiety as our world evolves, we might consider falling into its embrace: our cultural evolution highlights every day more than the next that we are in this together, connected.

9. Think itinerary-light or itinerary-free.

There will never be a shortage of things to do. Even if there is, the thing we call “boredom” can be just the ticket to opening our eyes and showing us something new that we might have otherwise overlooked. Sometimes, just the thing we need is no-thing. Give yourself and the environment a break by going itinerary-light or itinerary-free.

10. Cultivate an inner sense of care and stewardship.

When you are inclined to think, “This place is all mine for a day,” consider also what you must do if that place were your responsibility for life, how you would care for it. Then act accordingly.

11. Deepen the process of reflection.

Examine what Daniel Kahneman calls “The Remembering Self”. What of all those photos you took? To better process our movement, we need to be still to allow the lessons of our travels to “land” and to allow time for the enjoyment of reflection upon ourselves, our planet and our place in it.

12. Bring it home.

Don't risk an acquisition-oriented attitude whereby you replaced the once competitive acquisition of stuff with a similarly competitive acquisition of experience. Be careful what you covet and consider doing more with each experience in all its dimensions, perhaps including connecting what you learned on that trip with your life wherever you call home.

13. Satisfaction as your talisman, rather than happiness.

Happiness is a short-term goal, while satisfaction knows a longer arc. Long-term thinking will serve you well and properly frame your needs and expectations, better in the moment and certainly for tomorrow. Long-term thinking — especially the sort that considers what happens after we are gone — can only positively impact the communities you come in contact with.

14. Embrace simplicity, leave room for nuance.

We humans have a knack for contriving the complex in the hopes that complexity will divert our attention from what causes us discomfort. The bigger the party, the greater the celebration, the shinier the object, right? Not always. Consider simplifying when you can — to reduce stress and overhead. However, do reserve a bit of complexity for the shades of gray in which you interpret the worlds you happen to be visiting. There’s often more going on in the nuance than you think. And that’s where wisdom awaits.

15. Aim for connection.

Connection to people and places in the wider world injects depth and breath into the constrained scope of our lives. Travel alone can do that, but travel in a way that emphasizes sharing, not just of goods and services but of the concept of the world we inhabit together, seeds long-term meaning and lends our lives a greater sense of continuity and purpose.

16. Re-orient the bucket list.

A shift in the bucket list from the physical and resource-intensive to the emotional and experiential.

An ideal travel sector would join up the inner journey (where I’m trying to go in my life) with the outer journey (which outward destination I visit and what I do there). – Alain de Botton

17. Understand everyone has something to share.

It may sound obvious on the surface, but truly understanding and absorbing this principle impacts how we view and engage with people very different from us. It drives us to pursue the democratic elements of travel, those aspects that encourage the sharing of the often overlooked stories and wisdom of locals with visitors, just as we share ours with them.

18. Journal your gratitude.

Keep a gratitude journal while you travel. The process of being grateful on a daily basis encourages you to regularly take stock and inventory your experiences. If you do this, you'll notice there’s a lot more than you might otherwise recall (even that day), and what once felt like less or little now feels like “enough.”

19. Use gratitude to encourage a sense of vesting in the world.

Once you are grateful for what is and all that you have seen and experienced, wonder what you are going to do to preserve it or improve it. What tiny things can you do to sustain the beauty you’ve been so fortunate to be part of? Though the world may change regardless, a sense of investment and ownership can help underscore and grow your sense of meaning and purpose.

20. Know that this is a human exercise.

It’s tempting to consider travel an exercise solely of place. It often can be. However, in the broader scheme, travel also requires the respectful navigation of the sea of humanity. Similarly, we must solve environmental and conservation challenges first by comprehending the human element. Without people, there might not be any problem. Without us, there will certainly be no solution.


At its purest, travel carries with it an almost unassailable beauty. Our ability to move freely, to set ourselves aloft and into the clutches of a new environment, in short order and at will, represents a remarkable liberty.

With that freedom comes great responsibility.

Deliberately minding the steps we take, individually and together, will determine the world that we — and those who follow us — will have to enjoy.

Now it's your turn. What are your thoughts? What does “Redefining Tourism” mean to you?


Disclosure: We teamed up with WTTC to write this article in connection to their Redefine Tourism campaign. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.
About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

8 thoughts on “Redefining Tourism: 20 Tips for the Mindful Traveler”

  1. As long as one is being a responsible environmental steward and is treating the locals with the respect they deserve, it is up to that person to define what their travel experience will be.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Kyle. It’s the travelers choice to do whatever he or she wishes when it comes to travel. I didn’t intend for this piece to be universally prescriptive. Though it contains a reflection of our values, my aim was to share some ideas for those travelers looking for some additional and alternative approaches to traveling (and living, quite frankly) in a mindful, respectful, and responsible way. Surely there are other approaches in that vein, and outside of it.

      Reply
  2. Thanks for this, it’s refreshing to have a take on sustainable travel that goes beyond the “take a reusable water bottle”-type advice. Which is useful too, of course, but I believe long-term sustainability and responsible travel requires a shift in mindset as well.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Laura. We really appreciate that feedback, noting that sustainable tourism and responsible travel discussions can often run a little shallow and thin. As you indicate, the explicitly environmental issues (reusable water bottles, for example) are necessary for the debate, but not sufficient.

      Reply
  3. I’m glad to have run across this article. In the Philippines there’s been an explosion of travel bloggers. It’s a land filled with tons of budget travelers where it seems much of the goals of travel are to check off the bucket list, snap the Instagram photo, and do so at the cheapest way possible. There’s been much discussion as to bloggers role in the proliferation of irresponsible tourism. I’ve believed that we’ve negatively contributed in many ways “tempting” others to create these bucket lists and check em off. For sure I’ve been part of that. These days my wife and I are building a glamping hotel centered around permaculture. We’re living in El Nido, a place starting to boom and have seen the horrors of tourism. As I write these I’m in my home overlooking the bay where jet skis are zooming across a marine sanctuary. Your advise for redefining tourism are a good start. I simply define travel as the art of stepping out of your door whether overseas or in your backyard. I hope more of this discussion is created. Thanks for your post!

    Reply
    • Interested to hear your perspective, Mark. One question that occurs to me: How do we balance motivating and inspiring others to “step out of their doors” while preventing or curbing the result you are witnessing firsthand out of the window of your home?

      Reply
  4. I love this so much. It’s such a different perspective on someone just suggesting to bring a water filter or doing a short walk instead of a taxi ride. I, too, look for sustainable ways to travel but sometimes have great difficulty in trying to be sustainable, as well as finding the right budget. Although, as I travel as a dedicated vegan, I feel as though I’m already doing a great part to help the world in terms of sustainability – but as most things, I can always do more good! Thanks for this. It was a great read!

    Reply
    • Sophie, thanks for your comment and so glad that this article resonated with you. I think that by focusing on the values behind mindful travel and making deliberate decisions, as you are already with veganism, there’s a lot we can do for sustainability even on a budget. But, it’s always good to keep thinking of what more we can do, not only on the road but also at home.

      Reply

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