Responsible tourism is the future of the tourism industry. And being a responsible tourist is our obligation as visitors in countries and cities that are not our own. When you visit a destination for the first time, it can be exciting to experience a new culture. It is easy to get caught up in paradise and forget our impact on the places we visit.
That dilemma is where this post comes in to help! As someone who loves to travel and wants to do it most responsibly, I have acquired some tips over my years. This advice on how to be a responsible tourist can help you be mindful of your impact before, during, and after your trip.
Defining responsible tourism
There are many responsible tourism definitions. You may see some emphasize the importance of embracing the diversity of the destinations we visit—other economic purposes of responsible tourism focus on spending our money on local businesses while traveling.
Additionally, responsible tourism, ethical tourism, and sustainable tourism lump together. Sustainable tourism and ethical tourism both focus on the environmental impact and local community too. Indeed, these are all connected.
Responsible tourism is a combination of these definitions and a little more. The most straightforward and most concise explanation comes from the Responsible Tourism Partnership. They define responsible tourism as making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit.
Traits of a responsible tourist
How do we take the responsible tourism definition into action? What are characteristics we should embody as responsible travelers? While most think responsible tourism is about our external actions, that is not 100% true. It is more about our internal processing. The traits to be a responsible tourist work together with the tips to be better as we travel. Here are three of many to help you start.
Maintaining an open mind when you go to a destination is one of the top traits of a responsible tourist. We are in another country to learn and broaden our perspectives, not to assume. Our culture is not culturally superior to another culture we are visiting. That is ethnocentrism, and we do not want to perpetuate that mindset as we travel.
Get out of that comfort zone and take part in new activities! You did not travel to another country to do what you could do at home. Put yourself out there and be open to being wrong. Be open to learning. We do not know everything about another culture or tradition. Embrace it.
Culturally curious yet respectful
On the flip side, we need to be respectful. It is easy to blur the line between cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation. As much as it is great to have an open mind, we should also be conscious of what practices are for tourists and those that are not. We do not want our curiosity to lead to unintended harm.
Intertwined with understanding your travel privileges, being self-aware is a must. Responsible tourists understand they are visitors to someone’s home. Responsible tourists also understand the power and privilege they hold when they are going to another country.
Self-awareness is a life skill whether or not you are traveling. Being a responsible tourist is no different. Reflecting on your experiences, how they affect you, and how they affect others around you is critical. Adaptability and flexibility are also vital parts of being self-aware and conscious of what is happening around you. Journal and observe as you see fit.
Things to do as a responsible tourist before your trip
These are the tips that embody the responsible tourist traits. You may think that tourism starts once you hop on a plane, bus, or train to your destination. However, it begins before your trip home. There are steps you can take to be a responsible tourist before you even board! As you are prepping, packing, and planning your vacation, do these tips as well to get started.
Unpack your travel privileges
While leisure traveling is a privilege, there is more to travel privilege beyond having a passport. Social identities, biases, and practices we have at home affect how we move abroad. They are intertwined, and we need to understand them.
Accessibility privilege is one of many to understand about ourselves. Race, religion, ethnicity, the languages we speak, and more shape our worldview. Reading travel perspectives different than ours and relinquishing any entitlement we feel are a few places to start.
Research the history and culture of the destination
The world is full of knowledge we do not know. Thus, there is so much information to learn about a new destination! But you have to be willing to find it. Most guidebooks focus their perspective on the commercial aspects of traveling. Sometimes they do not get to the depth of a country.
Researching the history and culture of your vacation destination can be a great way to educate yourself. In addition to general Google searches, social media is an underrated tool. Whether you are on Instagram, Tik Tok, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc., you can find people in those destinations talking about their homeland.
Blogs and travel publications are other opportunities to learn more as well. However, be sure to read about who is writing what you are reading. Many travel publications and blogs write from the perspective of tourists, generally from a Western country. Try to find travel bloggers from the country you are going to visit. For example, if you are going to Kenya, you may search “Kenyan travel blogger” and find the fantastic Winnie of Just Rioba.
As you research, be open-minded
When you begin researching a destination, you may not always like what you find. You may learn about some uncomfortable history about a country. Or you may realize some harsh truths about your own country too. Do not fall into the trap of excessively comparing your country to another.
It is normal to have general thoughts and feelings as you observe. But remember that ethnocentrism is not what we want to embody. While cultures and traditions can be both similar and different, we want to avoid a superiority complex. Keep an open mind and settle into the unknown of traveling in a new country.
Learn a few phrases of the local language
Speaking of language, we should make a little effort! Becoming fluent in a language for a weeklong vacation will not happen for most of us. Honestly, that is impossible for many of us. However, that does mean we should not make an effort.
There are many apps and programs out there for you to try. These resources include Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise, and Lingoda. If you want to go in-depth, go for it. But learning some greetings, general direction questions, and essential words like “bathroom” or “eat” are a place to start.
Space out your trip to avoid overtourism
Overtourism occurs when tourism has more negative consequences than positive effects. Thus, there are places in the world that get more tourism than others. Machu Picchu in Peru, Venice in Italy, and Dubrovnik in Croatia are experiencing overtourism.
While tourism may be suitable for their economy, it can have dire effects on their environment and people. One way to avoid overtourism in a destination is to space out your trip. Stay in one place instead of hopping from place to place in a short time. You can also go to a destination in the offseason, which will also be cheaper.
Take any health concerns into consideration
When we travel, we interact with people at the airport, in hotels, on tours, etc. Taking your health into consideration is about accessibility. It is crucial to make sure that we are as healthy as possible.
Before you go on a trip or a vacation, go to your doctor. Get a checkup, or just make sure that you are in good health to travel. We should also get any required vaccines or other shots to enter destinations as well. Countries have to protect their people before they cater to tourists. We do not want to spread any disease unintentionally.
Responsible tourism examples to do while you are traveling
We have outlined the responsible tourism meaning, the traits of a responsible tourist and the pre-travel actions we should do too. It is time to unpack the actions. What are the things we can do as we are traveling to be responsible tourists? What should we think twice about doing on our adventures. Don’t worry, I have those examples and tips to help.
Research local tours and activities
Local-led activities are the way to go! Unbeknownst to tourists, a lot of tourism dollars end up leaving the destination. You may think you are staying in a locally-owned hotel because you see locals serving you. But in reality, that is not the case.
Researching and then patronizing local tours and activities is the way to go. It may take more research on Yelp or even joining Facebook groups, but it is possible. Not only will you be supporting local communities, but you will also get a non-guidebook perspective. No one knows a destination better than locals.
Travel and tourism happen to us, but it should not be all about us. Take photos of yourself, travel buddies, etc. But also take pictures of the things around you. Take in the food you eat, the art you see, the attractions you visit, and more.
In a social media world, we love showing ourselves in destinations. But we have to remember that these destinations are more than Instagram locations. Sit and observe, then snap photos. It helps us pause and take in what is going on around us in the scenery.
Understand cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation
Traveling is about embracing new cultures and people. However, we do not want to perpetuate stereotypes through our actions. Therefore breaking down the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is crucial to understand. It will allow us to focus on We cannot prevent everything, and mistakes are human, but we can try.
Do not demand the comfort of home
Traveling is an experience where you engage with something new and unfamiliar. Sometimes this makes people uncomfortable or fearful. Some travelers may think they can embrace a new culture. But then they get to a destination, and you want that comfort of home.
However, when we are traveling, we should not be demanding the same comfort of home. It is not a country’s responsibility to accommodate foreigners. These changes can be costly and disrupt the local culture and resources.
Abide by all national laws
Entitlement will get you nowhere. You cannot assume that any country owes you anything if you break the tourist destination’s laws. We have to abide by the national and international rules to be safe. Stay out of trouble. Enjoy your trip, and do not cause any international headline news.
Engage with locals respectfully (with their consent)
Most of us have heard the phrase “treat others the way you want to be treated.” And yes, this is true. However, we should take it further. We should not have to center ourselves and our interests to treat people better. Basic human decency, dignity, and respect should be given to locals, or anyone, regardless.
With that in mind, remember that locals are not required to engage with us. If they do, we should not forget locals are not purely for our entertainment or cultural immersion. Hospitality and tourism workers are not solely here to serve us. They are people with real lives and feelings who often have to navigate their job to accommodate cultural differences and language barriers.
We should keep all of this in mind as we travel. To be responsible tourists means to ask for permission to take photos of people and things. Then taking that consent further and letting the person know you will be posting it on social media. It also means not criticizing locals for not learning your language or treating people as servants.
Ethically engage with wildlife
Animal adventures are always at the top of travelers’ bucket list. I have always wanted to go on a safari or a Giraffe Manor-type of experience in Kenya. Yet, it is tough to know if these animal activities abide by responsible tourism guidelines. How do we truly know a visit with elephants or monkeys is an animal sanctuary? Research is our best friend.
For safari activities, choose ones to observe them in their natural habitat, which are best. Read reviews. Search through Instagram and Facebook posts by looking at photos from geo-tagging to try to learn more. Even do a few YouTube searches to find what pops up. There is so much information out there, and it requires time, but we can find what we need.
Stay on trails, leave no trace
I am an avid adventurer myself who loves the outdoors. Over time, I have learned there are certain practices to abide by outside. Staying on the trails, not leaving trash on hikes, and even picking up trash are a few ways to be responsible tourists. Leave no trace as much as possible. In the age of social media, one crucial extra tip is to not do stuff “for the ‘gram.”
Though I am referring to Instagram, this photo tip can apply to any app. Tourism operators guard some outdoor spaces for our protection and safety. Or they are blocked for religious and environmental purposes. No matter the reason, we need to respect the wishes of our host country.
Bring a reusable water bottle and bags
It is not surprising that tourism has an enormous environmental impact. While this falls under sustainable travel, it is also our responsibility as a responsible tourist. And, of course, sustainable travel and responsible travel are connected. Two simple things we can do is bring a reusable bag and water bottle during our stay.
Plastic is destroying communities worldwide. A reusable bag is small and lightweight, which means it can fit easily in a carry-on or checked bag. Reusable water bottles save not only the environment but your wallet. If you bring a reusable water bottle, you do not have to buy it. And if you are worried about water quality, check out your Life Straw options.
Be mindful of how you take photos
Social media can shape our views and perspectives. Photography is no different. Taking photos of street art, your food, or inanimate objects can cause little to no harm. At least in most cases. However, when we discuss people, that is a different story.
There is a power dynamic between tourists and locals. Though most people have no problem saying “no” to tourists, they humor us and our excitement of being in their country. For photos, we mustn’t misrepresent a country. Or perpetuate stereotypes about the destination.
For example, visitors in various countries in Africa tend to take photos of people in poverty. Then they post them on social media with a caption about the poor people they met and “impacted.” Whether unintentionally or not, this act perpetuates the narrative of white saviors. It is also a general lack of dignity and respect.
Do you genuinely have consent to post these photos? How do you know we impacted them? And even so, why do you feel the need to post it? Those are photos you can keep to yourself or do not take and post at all. Question your motives when taking pictures of people who do not know.
Support local businesses as much as you can
Money does tourism (and the world) work. As tourists, where we put our money has so much weight. From the tours we do to the hotels where we choose to stay, supporting locals as much as we can is pivotal. There is a lot of foreign money in tourism.
This tip is significant for those of us with currency privilege. Our money can stretch more. In some cases, our currency is accepted instead of the country’s currency. Use this privilege wisely. Invest in locally-owned businesses as much as possible.
How to travel responsibly when you return home
Our responsible tourism journey is not over when we go home. It starts internally at home before we go when analyzing the traits of a responsible tourist. But also, being a responsible tourist begins when we return home too. This section outlines a few ways on how it works.
Refrain from publicly posting selfies with minors
In addition to the earlier point about taking photos with minors, this is another step. If you have ever been on Instagram or any social media platform, you have seen these photos. Sometimes if you stick out as a foreigner, locals want to take pictures with us. Other times, you may take pictures of other people. There are a lot of ethical considerations to consider when this happens.
A good rule of thumb is to not post minors on social media, especially if they are not favorable. While they may have been eager to take the photo, you genuinely do not have their consent if they are underage. And even so, posting people. You never know who can see those photos and what they can do with them.
Pass on what you learned to someone else
Share knowledge! If you learn about a destination’s history or culture, share that with someone. Being a responsible tourist does not end when your trip concludes. Passing on that knowledge is a great way to raise awareness of someone else.
Talking and sharing with others is also a great way to dispel stereotypes. The media often shows us one version of a destination, and depending on the country, it’s usually negative. Some positives may never get filmed or broadcasted. I know many people warned me about going to Mexico solo. I had an incredible experience.
Often what we see or hear is not the entire picture. When you return home from your trip, sit people down. Talk to them about your travel experiences. You never know what biases they hold and what stereotypes you are dismantling for them.
Leave honest reviews about a destination
Honesty is the best policy, right? That rule applies to reviews as well. Help others by leaving reviews of your hotels, Airbnbs, tours, etc. Some people intentionally leave bad reviews at their destination. That review could harm a local community if your experience were great.
There is an excellent way to share not-so-positive experiences too. Instead of saying “this trip was horrible” and leaving it at that, expand. Share details for a future tourist to get the whole picture, not just a soundbite. Explain why it was not the best and a bit more about what you expected. This feedback can also help the tourism operator too.
Even though every trip may not be perfect if you had an experience you want to share, do it honestly. Your tips can help other travelers decide if that experience is right for them. You never know who could be reading!
Have people learn from your mistakes
We are not perfect all the time. Responsible tourism also means owning up to when we did not make the best decision, even if we thought it was. It happens. As responsible tourists, we should let others know about our mistakes so they can avoid them.
Anyone can have an influence. But if you are a travel blogger or influencer, this applies to us the most. Many people look to us to be role models when it comes to traveling. We may not have asked for that title, but it is our duty by the nature of what we do. Our actions have power in the travel blogging and writing community. We should not take that lightly.
Avoid broad generalizations of communities
A language is a powerful tool. Generalizations, assumptions, and oversimplifications can cause harm. Saying that a community or country welcomed you is ok. But saying, “They were so poor but so nice,” is not. That statement glamorizes people’s struggles and diminishes their realities through a tourist’s gaze.
Instead, you can say, “yes, the country and people have their challenges, and they were also hospitable to tourists.” It is not a perfect statement, but using a “yes and” approach is key. Yes, their reality is their reality, and you honor that notion. But we should acknowledge that we do not face the same in their country due to our tourist power and privilege.
So, do you consider yourself a responsible tourist?
Now that you know, what do you think? Becoming a responsible tourist takes a bit more than just booking a flight deal. We have to think deeper, reflect more often, and ultimately do better. Responsible tourism is about understanding the impact you leave on the destinations you visit. Hopefully, this post will encourage you to become the responsible tourist I know you can be on your travels! It’s about progress, not perfection. Good luck.