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What Is Responsible Travel?

By Tracey Bell

"I take very seriously the sense of our living these days in a global neighbourhood. And the first sensible thing to do in such circumstances, as well as one of the most rewarding things, is to go and meet the neighbors, find out who they are, and what they think and feel. So travel for me is an act of discovery and of responsibility as well as a grand adventure and a constant liberation." - Pico Iyer, Renowned Travel Writer

Travel today is littered with new vocabulary: sustainable, responsible, ecotourism, community-based, fair trade, voluntourism. There has been a shift in consciousness, and conscientiousness, for travel and tourism to "create better places for people to live in, and better places to visit". This essay will discuss the concept of Responsible Tourism, its benefits and what you can do to make sure you are a responsible traveller.

The 2002 Cape Town Declaration describes the major pillars of responsible tourism as tourism that:

  • Minimises negative economic, environmental and social impacts
  • Generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well being of host communities
  • Improves working conditions and access to the industry
  • Involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances
  • Makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage embracing diversity
  • Provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues
  • Provides access for physically challenged people
  • Is culturally sensitive, encourages respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence

These pillars seem like common sense, so why has responsible tourism only recently become an important tenet? There are three reasons, namely climate change, customer demand, and corporate social responsibility.

The conversation about climate change has increased environmental awareness globally, and we are more aware of our personal impact on the Earth. Carbon offsets when booking a flight, eco-lodges, and hotels saving water by not washing towels everyday are examples of businesses buying into the climate conversation.

Consumers' awareness extends beyond climate change however with increased demand for a holistic approach to responsible global citizenship. Travellers want to ensure their holiday is less invasive and more beneficial to local communities. There is interest in engaging with communities and understanding different cultures, rather than sitting in a tour bus gawking at foreign lands from behind the safety glass. Tour operators are almost required to incorporate community visits, and communities are realising that it is beneficial for them to open their villages to tourists (the question of the ethics of this is another matter, for another article).

Thirdly, Corporate Social Responsibility means it is good for business if consumers believe that organisations are good global citizens. The fair trade movement is evidence of this, as consumers willingly pay much more than standard brands for fair trade chocolate, coffee and other goods. Capacity development programs are a way for large corporations to demonstrate their commitment to responsible global citizenship. Staff are offered the opportunity to volunteer in a developing country, training local people in their field of expertise. Done well, these programs can be enormously beneficial for both parties.

But why is it necessary to travel responsibly? Perhaps it is better to consider the question in reverse: what happens if we do not travel responsibly? We can already see evidence of centuries of irresponsible travel with the growing list of endangered species, prostitution and sex slavery, poverty, intolerance and racism, and exploitation. To prevent these terrible things happening, we must treat the entire Earth as our own home. We need to protect the world's treasures for future generations.

So how do we do it? There are already two important promises responsible travellers can subscribe to. One is the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. Second is the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you. Responsible travel is treating others the way you wish to be treated. For example, thrusting cameras in a person's face without asking permission or entering a stranger's home uninvited are probably not acceptable behaviours in your home country, so why while on holiday?

It is up to individuals to travel responsibly and positively contribute to other's well-being. Some actions you can implement right now include:

  • Not littering and educating those that do. For example, while riding the Trans-Siberian Railway carriage attendants often empty the rubbish bin out the window. You can ask them to keep it in the smoking area and dispose of it yourself at the next station.
  • Buy local. This usually means you must haggle, so be fair. When you find yourself quibbling over 50 cents, ask yourself what that 50 cents means to the vendor compared to you.
  • Don't give hand outs. Instead of creating a hand out society we should be encouraging the attitude of earning. That means if someone assists you, it is good to give them a small tip.
  • Choose local guides. Not only does this support the local community, but it also gives you access to the best knowledge, for who knows their homeland better than a local?
  • Stay in locally-owned accommodation.
  • Respect local norms. If locals are dressed conservatively, also dress conservatively

There are some things to consider in choosing a tour operator:

  • An operator calling itself responsible, is no guarantee - ask questions
  • Research their accommodation
  • Look at their other services; are they in line with what is being offered to you?
  • Is the operator part of a conglomerate? What are the values of that conglomerate?
  • Use travel forums to ask travellers' experiences with the operator. Check they delivered on promises, treated people well, etc
  • Do they give back to the community?
  • Check the operator's activities against the Cape Town Declaration

Five years ago the World Travel Market and the UN World Tourism Organisation designated November 7 as World Responsible Tourism Day. It is an event of global significance, bringing together travel and tourism professionals to build a solid and sustainable future for the industry.

Partners' combined experience of 17 years

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