What is Responsible Tourism and Why You Should Care

by Sojourner

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What is responsible tourism, you ask? Well, you may have heard of ethical tourism, ecotourism, and sustainable tourism. Or perhaps someone else mentioned why they are essential too. However, responsible tourism is not as widely discussed. As a result, it often falls under the radar, until now. 

Ethical tourism, responsible tourism, ecotourism, and sustainable tourism are similar yet different. Each type of tourism combines traveling and learning how to be more mindful travelers. But responsible tourism can be all-encompassing and does not have to stop when you return home. 

Engaging in responsible tourism is not new. And there are many responsible tourism examples and practices out there. So here’s a breakdown of responsible tourism and why you should care about being a responsible tourist.

What is responsible tourism?

Tourism itself is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to help stimulate economies worldwide. Whether it is a sustainable way to do so is still up for debate. But people have been trying to make it happen.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), responsible tourism is about respecting the world and its differences, no matter how we travel. Advancements pre the COVID-19 pandemic made travel more accessible. As a result, more people were traveling than ever before, from ridiculously cheap flights to the rise of the hotel-alternative Airbnb

But what is the impact of more accessible travel? What happens when overtourism occurs in tourist hotspots? How do we minimize people being displaced by tourism? These are the questions responsible tourism seeks to answer and provide new approaches. 

Responsible tourism is about minimizing the social, economic, and environmental effects of tourism on destinations worldwide. It is about making travel more sustainable for locals and tourists alike. Responsible travel is our duty, in any way that we can, as we explore.

Understanding the differences between responsible tourism, ethical tourism, sustainable tourism, and ecotourism

Responsible tourism, ethical tourism, sustainable tourism, and ecotourism are often lumped together. They are used interchangeably to describe the impact of tourism practices. And yes, they do sound the same. Yet, they are different.

Ethical tourism is meant to encourage tourists and tourism operators to evaluate our decisions and the ethical implications of our actions. Ethics of tourism often arise with animal tourism and the animal abuse that occurs. But ethical tourism also refers to thinking about the local people in tourist destinations and how tourism affects their lives. 

Sustainable tourism encompasses some principles of responsible tourism. However, the UNWTO divides sustainable tourism into three detailed parts. They are as follows:

– Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes, and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.

– Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.

– Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.

Shortened from ecological tourism to ecotourism, it is closest in definition and practice to sustainable tourism. However, each one is distinct. Ecotourism leans more into the environmental implications of tourism. It primarily refers to learning from and observing nature while traveling. 

Ecotourism focuses on local organizations leading tourism in their natural environments. Ecotourism also concentrates on conservation and understanding the cultural significance of natural habitats. In some cases where countries need the natural environment to survive, they require tourists to sign an ecotourism pledge.

Responsible tourism essentially encompasses practices from ethical tourism, sustainable tourism, and ecotourism.  However, responsible travel has a slightly broader focus. Similar to the Tourism 4 SDGs, responsible tourism touches on multiple lanes of other types of tourism. 

However, for more in-depth knowledge and context of the environment, one may use sustainable tourism or ecotourism. And for questions of conduct and ethics, while traveling, some would refer solely to ethical tourism. It truly depends on the audience and the discussion!

Why is responsible tourism important to travelers?

Responsible travel goes beyond our visit to a destination. Responsible tourism can transform how we view ourselves and others. When you travel with a responsible tourism mindset, your adventures stay with you long after your trip.

Intercultural understanding is also vital to responsible tourism and conscious traveling. Our adventures enhance this intercultural understanding by bringing people together. Often, we meet people who would not have the opportunity to get to know otherwise. These experiences can happen in a cooking class while you learn about local cuisine or during a conversation at a market. 

Responsible tourism encourages these encounters for us to have a more immersive experience. We are moved to engage with locals and other travelers. However, responsible tourism is also about reciprocity. As responsible travelers, we must not forget that either.

While intercultural understanding can be one benefit, there are others to consider that de-center tourists’ transformation. Luckily, the World Travel & Tourism Council has compiled why responsible tourism is vital to local communities. Their list includes:

  • A better community for residents that can be reinvested in local economics
  • Create lots of jobs (pre-COVID 1 in 10 people were employed in tourism)
  • Promotes more creativity and entrepreneurship for locally-owned small businesses
  • Access to opportunities for people of historically underinvested populations (women, Black and brown people, disabled people, etc.)
  • Preserves the cultural heritage of destinations as 40% of people identify as “cultural tourists”
  • Revitalize and preserve wildlife, restrict illegal poaching, and promote conservation
  • Encourage more sustainable technology and innovation

The list that the World Travel & Tourism Council compiled was a start. And there are still questions of the economic sustainability of tourism after the COVID-19 pandemic. However, responsible tourism is evolving just as often as we are in society. Moreover, each country has its own cultural and historical traditions. Therefore each destination’s concept of responsible tourism can vary.

Responsible tourism examples

Due to the cultural diversity of each destination, responsible tourism is not a one size fit all situation. However, for some examples of responsible tourism practices, check out how these destinations view the sector. They are fascinating, innovative, and promote the responsible tourism we want to see.


Though branded as a paradise for tourists, there is more than meets the eye with Hawai’i. Native Hawaiians will tell you this too. It is known as the endangered species capital of the world. They also are under illegal occupation by the United States, which you can learn about from this documentary called Act of War. Remember understanding a destination’s history is part of being a responsible traveler!

But Hawaiians are trying to reclaim the narrative of Hawai’i’s tourism. The book Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai’i outlines more of this history and is written by Native Hawaiians. More resources such as the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawai’i, the Pono Pledge for Big Island, and the Aloha Pledge for Kauai on sustainable and responsible travel. Even as you travel to Big Island, you will find responsible tourist tips such as honoring sacred places on the island by not climbing on them or leaving trash anywhere.

South Africa

In 1996, South Africa became the first country to include responsible tourism in its national tourism policy. This white paper outlined the guidelines for responsible tourism. These guidelines were declared the Cape Town Declaration and included:

  • minimizing negative economic, environmental, and social impacts;
  • generating greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of the host;
  • involving local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances;
  • making positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, to the maintenance of the world’s diversity;
  • providing more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social, and environmental issues;
  • providing universal access to tourists with disabilities, the elderly, and families with young children; and
  • maintaining cultural sensitivity, engendering respect between tourists and hosts, and building local pride and confidence.

It also outlines the role of each player involved in responsible tourism. South Africa says that responsible tourism entails:

  • tourism industry responsibility to the environment, through the promotion of balanced and sustainable tourism and a focus on environmentally-based tourism activities;
  • responsibility of government and business to involve the local communities that are in close proximity to tourism infrastructure and attractions, through the development of meaningful economic linkages;
  • responsibility of tourists, business and government to respect, invest and develop local cultures, and protect them from over-commercialization and over-exploitation;
  • the responsibility of local communities to become actively involved in the tourism industry, to practice sustainable development, and to ensure the safety and security of visitors;
  • the responsibility of both employers and employees in the tourism industry, both to each other and the customer (responsible trade union and employment practices); and
  • responsible government and the responsibility on the part of tourists to observe the norms and practices of South Africa.

They also have different aspects of responsible tourism, including community-based tourism. One example of this is the Kassiesbaai Cultural and Craft Centre in Arniston. Kassiesbaai is a fishing village near Cape Agulhas, the most southern tip of Africa. The local community created the center to encourage and develop home industries and assist in social upliftment. The craft center helps women to learn skills to earn an income to support their families and depend less on seasonal incomes from fishing. 


Like Hawai’i’s pledge in Kauai and Big Island, Palau was the first to have an eco-pledge. A small island, Palau has a deep history of environmental conservation. Due to its ecosystem and reliance on the land for survival, Palau has one of the most intense (and necessary) pledges. The children of Palau even drafted the Palau Pledge. You are required to get a stamp in your passport upon arrival with the Palau pledge and sign it.

Palau is vulnerable to climate change and other natural catastrophes. Therefore they take their sustainable tourism seriously. For example, tour operators are banned from using single-use plastic, and tourists are fined for violating the pledge. There are initiatives to focus on local food production instead of exportation too. 

These are just a few of the many responsible tourism measures Palau enforces to preserve itself for future generations. In addition, Palau is in the process of becoming the first carbon-neutral tourism destination! How amazing is that?

Why should you care about responsible tourism?

Tourism will not survive without responsible tourism. Point blank period. If you love visiting new places, meeting new people, and engaging with new cultures, you need to prioritize responsible tourism. Preserving history, culture, and the environment makes those experiences possible. 

Before COVID-19, tourism accounted for 10% of the global gross domestic product (GDP). This fact means that tourism and the economy go hand-in-hand. Even though we may be tourists, the locals are not. People around the world build their lives around tourism. They need it to survive and provide for their families. 

Tourism is more than money. It is about people. Our travels are nothing without the locals. We cannot have half of the experiences, such as cooking classes, nature excursions, etc., without locals. They take care of their countries year round. We owe it to them to treat their homes with dignity and respect. Responsible traveling does just that. 

How to be a responsible tourist 

Responsible tourism practices can be a slight learning curve. But now that we have broken down what responsible tourism is and why it is important let’s apply our knowledge. Here are some examples of responsible tourism to help you embody the practices of being a responsible tourist. 

Unpack your travel privileges

When we think about how to be a responsible tourist, we often forget the self-reflection process. However, there is some internal work we need to do to be responsible tourists externally. Understanding our travel privileges is one way we can do that.

Our social identities influence how we show up in the world. The barriers we do or do not face are correlated with our identities. We should process how race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, citizenship, etc., affect how and why you travel. Processing how they affect us at home can help us be more conscious travelers abroad. Write them down, reflect, and repeat. 

Learn about cultural appropriation vs. appreciation

Remember that intercultural understanding and open-mindedness? Well, with your newfound knowledge of responsible tourism comes tremendous responsibility (corny, I know). But this means assessing situations to know when it is or is not appropriate to participate in cultural activities while traveling.

Cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation is one of the most talked-about travel dilemmas. When is it appropriate to participate? What are power dynamics at play? Educating ourselves, especially if you are a tourist from the Global North (also known as a “developed” country) is essential. Read this post to get some insight. 

Be mindful of animal-centered activities

Animal-focused activities are when ethical tourism and responsible tourism converge the most—finding ethical wildlife practices while traveling can be difficult. Many tourist sites can be misleading. However, resources, such as distinguishing an authentic elephant sanctuary by PETA, are helpful tools to use. It takes some research, but it is worth every Google search.

These are not the only ways to be a responsible tourist. There are more responsible tourist tips to learn, always! We need to hold ourselves accountable. For more in-depth responsible tourism examples and how to be a responsible tourist, check out these 25 tips here

Responsible tourism is necessary for the future of travel

Responsible tourism impacts us all. I hope this article helped you understand what responsible tourism is, how to be a responsible tourist, and examples of responsible tourism! It is a necessary topic to discuss. Taking these steps and keeping all of this information in mind can transform the tourism industry. It helps all of us travel more intentionally and, of course, more responsibly.

Did you know overcoming culture shock helps you be a responsible tourist? Read more to find out.

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