We think of traveling sustainably as a movement of respectful travelers who live at the intersection of deeper travel experiences and caring for our planet and its people. This is a journey of awareness and travel decisions that aim to respect and protect the local environment, culture and economy. These 20 tips to be a more sustainable traveler are ones you can use every day…whether on your next trip or at home.
Travel holds tremendous potential. For the traveler, it offers a path to experience, education and personal transformation. For local host communities, it provides a means to economic benefit and cultural exchange. It’s this magic “travel equation” that among other things first inspired us to quit our jobs for the road over ten years ago, and to this day encourages us to continue traveling, exploring, learning, and sharing.
However, developments across the tourism industry are not always rosy. Over the years, we’ve seen our share of rapacious tourism development and the cumulative effects of thoughtless individual actions conspiring to harm local cultures, economies and the environment.
Sadly, overtourism dominates the headlines as more and more destinations and environments feel the negative impacts and pressure from high visitor numbers. Awareness of the “invisible burden” of tourism is rising.
So what can a traveler do? The cynic says nothing, the hopeful say plenty. And that's where sustainable travel comes in as part of the journey.
First, there’s a process. We’d like to think of it as a chain beginning with one’s core values. Couple those with an evolving awareness and informed decision-making, and you have a platform to take action. Recognize your right to choose, vote with your feet, exercise the power of the purse, and appreciate that your actions — even at their smallest — have consequences. Micro changes to macro differences; over time this makes change.
“But what does all this gibberish mean on a personal level?” you ask.
What does it mean in terms of some simple actions we all can take on our next trip? In other words, what does it mean to be a good global traveler? To align your values of caring for this world and its people with your travel decisions and spending?
Here are a few sustainable travel tips that address cultural, economic and environmental considerations that we've picked up and applied along our travels.
Human fallibility caveat: Think of the following as suggestions — not hard and fast rules but guidelines to supplement your own better judgment.
Note: This post was originally published in April 2012 and was updated on June 5, 2019 with more sustainable travel tips, examples and resources.
Cultural Responsible Travel Tips
1. Remember first that you are a guest.
Come bearing respect for your host country and its people, and demonstrate this by your actions and engagement. In return, you’ll maximize the likelihood that you will be treated in kind.
2. Dress respectfully.
If in doubt, err on the side of more clothes, less skin. Not only does dressing appropriately help you fit in, but it also reduces the possibility of offending. Remember that this is their country and their home, not yours. Buying and wearing a local piece of clothing (e.g., a headscarf or an outfit in the local style) can help you fit in. It may even jumpstart a few conversations.
3. Release your inner child.
Don’t be afraid to show your curiosity when you travel. Not only does asking questions satiate your curiosity and enable you to learn more about the place you are visiting, but it offers a gateway of exchange and engagement with local people. Consider starting with simple, non-threatening topics like food, markets, and children (ages, names, etc.) and you just might find a conversation that leads to family, life, politics, and more.
4. Use open body language.
Smile, be polite, be gracious. These simple acts and their spirit can take you a long way. On the smile front, we don’t advocate fake, goofy grins, but a genuine smile does make a positive first impression; it can help build goodwill, especially when you don’t share a spoken language. Remember that over 50% of communication is non-verbal.
5. Learn a couple words of the local language, at least.
Even if you consider yourself a foreign language lost cause, try to retain at least 4-5 key words in the local language that you can use for greeting people, niceties, and politely ordering food. The big three (hello, please and thank you) offer a good starting point. We also try to learn an oddball word that will throw people off, break a smile, and start a discussion.
6. Become aware of child welfare issues and engage responsibly with local children.
Several years ago when we traveled through East Africa we were confronted repeatedly about what the responsible or best thing to do is when it came to issues like begging children, school visits, volunteering at orphanages, or photographing local children. What we quickly realized is that some actions we travelers (as well as companies) think are “helping” may actually have unintended negative consequences for those same children. That's why awareness and education about child welfare in travel is so important.
7. Ask permission before taking photographs of local people.
This may sound self-evident or obvious, but we've seen so many instances where a traveler sticks his camera in a person's face to take a photo without ever engaging or asking permission. Don't be that person.
It dehumanizes the whole photography process and creates even more barriers between travelers and local people. Instead, interact and ask permission first. If there is no common spoken language then use charades to communicate that you'd like to take the person's photo. If you do speak a common language then explain why you would like to take the photo. For example, that you don't have markets like this in your home country or that you want to show people back home about that country.
It may take a little more time, but your portrait and people photography will much better for it as there will be a human connection and memory.
Economic Responsible Travel Tips
8. Eat local. Stay local.
Patronize local businesses. When you travel, maximize the likelihood that local people are benefiting economically from your visit.
This isn’t to say that you should avoid businesses that are foreign-owned, but try to determine whether these establishments hire local people and are invested in the local community. It’s important to point out that some foreign-owned establishments (especially smaller ones) are there because a foreigner fell in love with the place and hoped to stay and contribute.
9. Don’t spend all your money in one place.
Consider patronizing a variety of restaurants and shops in order to spread the economic benefit of your visit around the community. An added bonus of this approach is that it affords you variety, such as the opportunity to try different foods and to engage with different people.
10. When it comes to souvenirs and handicrafts, try to buy direct.
Buying souvenirs directly from the craftsperson or from a cooperative puts more money in the hands of the artisan rather than in the hands of middlemen. Seek out artisan markets where you can buy directly from the artisan. Look for cooperative shops that are transparent regarding the percentage of sales that go to the artist. Particularly when it comes to fair trade cooperatives, the quality of the artwork is often higher, as is your feel-good quotient.
11. Frequent social enterprises.
Social enterprises are businesses that focus on training people (e.g., hospitality training for street kids) for better futures. Sometimes they support a separate charity with the profits of the business. Our experience is that the quality of the food, crafts, and services is often above average.
Provided you ask a few questions (or read the organization's literature), you'll know what percentage of the proceeds is going where. Next time you travel, consider doing a bit of research to see if social enterprises are at work where you are headed. (Southeast Asia destinations in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are loaded with them.)
12. Choose tour and homestay providers that are invested in the community.
Homestays, community-based tourism and community visits offer some of the best opportunities to engage with local and indigenous people and to better understand how they live. Ask questions of the agency or of your guide regarding their relationship with the community you hope to visit. Consider choosing programs where operators are transparent regarding what percentage of the fee goes directly to the family or community.
Travel Tips to Reduce Your Environmental Impact
The more we travel, the more we see how plastic and other waste — water bottles, straws, take out food containers, plastic utensils, etc. – is contaminating water sources and destroying the environment in places big and small.
While I've always been concerned about plastic bottle waste and have always carried my own refillable bottle, it wasn't until a recent trip to Koh Rong Island in Cambodia that I realized the full extent of plastic waste and pollution. Every morning as the tide would go out, piles of trash – much of it plastic connected to drinking and eating items – covered the beach. It was a visual reminder of how all that use and consume — plastic cutlery, drink cups, styrofoam food containers, etc. — can eventually end up in our oceans and fields, even if we technically throw them away in trash bins.
With more and more travelers each year the negative impact of traveler-related waste is increasing, especially in the more remote and fragile environments. With a few small changes we collectively can reduce our plastic waste footprint considerably — not only on the road, but also at home. Here are more ideas for responsible travel products, from collapsable tupperware to shampoo bars, that help you reduce your environmental footpring.
Here are a few recommendations to reduce plastic waste when we travel:
- Bring your own refillable water bottle with you and refill it with ultraviolet (UV) purified and/or filtered water. More and more hotels and restaurants have big filtered water jugs with free or a low-cost refill. We carry with us a Camelbak BPA Bottle as our standard water bottle. If you're going to more remote areas, consider using something like the Steripen to kill all the bacteria yourself (note: this doesn’t get rid of bad taste, so you may need to buy some rehydration salts or lemonade powder to make it taste better).
- Bring your own chopsticks and utensils. Yes, you may feel a little strange bringing out your own utensils at a street food stall. But, when one adds up the amount of plastic forks, spoons, knives and chopsticks that we use when eating out it's a convincing argument. This is something that we are trying to get better about remembering and actively applying during our travels (and at home). Here are a few travel utensil options in to get you started.
- Say no to plastic straws or bring your own. This takes a bit of foresight, but letting a waiter know that you don't need a straw with your cocktail, beer (in many Asian countries they think women prefer to drink beer with a straw), juice or shake will greatly reduce the amount of straws being used and discarded. We recently purchased bamboo straws as an alternative and are looking forward to trying these out during our next trip.
- Bring your own reusable coffee cup or tea cup. I have to admit that takeaway coffee is a weakness of mine, but I'm not more aware of the waste that comes from this habit. Pack a reusable coffee cup with a lid so that you can have your caffeine fix and take it with you on your walk, bus, or whatever activity you're doing. Some coffee shops are even offering a discount if you have your own cup with you. Here's a starter on some of the best reusable coffee cups out there.
- Keep a fabric tote bag in your pocket or purse. This greatly reduces the need for plastic shopping bags at grocery stores or other shops, and it allows you to carry a lot of stuff as fabric is stronger than plastic. Not to mention, you look more stylish and local walking down a city street with a fun tote bag vs. a plastic bag. For the foodies out there, check out the food-themed tote bags on offer by our friend, Jodi, from Legal Nomads.
- Re-use Ziploc and other plastic bags for packing, if you need to use them. Let's face it, sometimes having a plastic bag is useful for packing as it serves as a sort of waterproof container for clothes and other items in the case of rain. This is especially true when you're doing a lot of outdoor activities or trekking. Try to replace Ziploc or other plastic bags with dry sacks of different sizes as they last longer and are stronger. But, at the least save and re-use your packing plastic bags over and over again.
14. Respect the boundaries of animals.
If you are asked to keep your distance from animals, or not to touch them, heed the request. Unwanted attention can cause stress and anxiety on animals, sometimes resulting in altered behavior or even worse, abandonment of their nests and young.
When we were in the Galapagos Islands we saw travelers deliberately stray well off the path because of the “I can do what I want because I paid for this!” mentality. Kudos to our guide who would have none of this and continually herded them back on the trail and educated them on the potential damage caused by their actions.
In addition, avoid activities like elephant riding, photo shoots with tigers, swimming with dolphins in swimming pools and other wildlife encounters where the animals are kept in captivity only for the tourist attraction. For more on the behind the scenes of these wildlife tourist attractions, read this insightful article on the dark truth of wildlife tourism from National Geographic.
15. Choose tours and activities that have a conservation focus.
It may sound counterintuitive to think that tourism and tours can actually help conserve and preserve wildlife and nature. But, we've seen it in action with some impressive and remarkable results.
For example, our recent G Adventures tour to Madagascar was part of their Jane Goodall Collection focused on conservation and wildlife. So as part of our trip we not only visited national parks, but we also visited community parks that were driven by local villages who replanted forests to bring back the lemurs and other wildlife. At Anja Community park they were able to increase the lemur population from 20 to 400 in less than twenty years.
16. Reward environmentally friendly hotels and establishments.
Consider giving preference to businesses that recycle, source produce locally and engage in environmentally friendly development.These days, this means more than not washing the towels and sheets every day.
Mind also how the establishment treats and invests in its local employees. Do your research to be sure that the establishment is the real deal (e.g., look for reputable sustainable tourism certifications), and remember that actions speak louder than words.
17. When it comes to trash, set a good example.
Don’t just throw away your own trash, but on occasion, consider picking up errant pieces of trash in otherwise clean areas, especially if someone is around to view your good deed. You may think, “Well, this isn’t my responsibility and this isn't my country,” but we’ve noticed that local people take note of what tourists do. Your deed may actually begin a conversation about trash and the environment.
Our experience: When we picked up plastic bottles on a beach at the Bay of Bengal in southern Bangladesh, several Bangladeshi tourists took note and began to help us, embarrassed by what others had done.
18. Don’t take what you shouldn’t. Don’t buy from others who do.
Visit places to appreciate their natural resources and their culture, but be careful what you take home. Some governments keep strict regulations on what sorts of cultural artifacts and bits of nature visitors can collect or purchase and take out of the country. Respect these rules and don’t buy from people disobeying the law (e.g., selling protected shells, skins, antiques, etc.).
19. Use public transport.
Public transport is not just a way to get around, it’s an experience in and of itself. We understand that public transport in a new city where you don’t speak the language can seem downright scary, but we cannot recommend enough that you give it a try. Not only is public transportation an environmentally sound way to get around, but you’ll interact with and meet local people and get to observe “real life” away from tourist sites and shops.
20. As much as you can, walk. Or, rent a bike.
Not only is walking and bicycling environmentally friendly, but these modes of transport also offer a closer, more engaged relationship with the people and places around you. Some of our most memorable experiences happen while walking or bicycling because we are able to meet people and see things that we otherwise would have missed if we happened to be zipping by in a car or bus.
And for the final twist: The above doesn’t just apply when traveling. We can all be good global and responsible travelers, even at home.
By no means is this an exhaustive list, but rather the beginning of a conversation. What other responsible travel tips or actions would you add to be a good global traveler?