Responsible travel has become a major buzzword in recent years, with gap year and travel industry companies climbing over themselves to use the moniker in their marketing materials. Some use it as a badge of honor, while others use it in an attempt to greenwash their image.
Responsible travel (which is also known as responsible tourism, sustainable travel or ecotourism) is basically an umbrella term. It’s frequently used as a catch-all phrase, lumping in dozens of “green” buzzwords and ethical issues such as wildlife tourism, volunteer travel, conservation issues, and more.
But what is responsible travel exactly? Does responsible travel matter and, if so, why? Here we’ll take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly elements of the rapidly growing responsible travel industry.
What Is Responsible Travel?
Responsible travel is essentially a set of paradigms and practices that attempt to minimize any detrimental effects– whether economic, social or environmental– of the travel industry.
The central idea is to promote travel that makes a positive impact on local communities, wildlife, and the environment.
This seems like a good thing, right? Well, it is when it’s done properly. Historically, tourism has done a lot of harm to a lot of destinations.
The problems that developed over the course of the 20th century were many, including disturbed or destroyed natural habitats, wildlife exploitation, displacement of local populations, gentrification, overcrowding, cultural dilution, the pricing out of locals in favor of the almighty tourist dollar, and much more.
Responsible travel is designed to be a marked improvement on that paradigm. It’s intended to be a specific way of traveling without creating the negative, harmful impact that the travel industry has caused so often in the past.
There are also an increasing number of travelers and tour operators practicing what they preach, making great efforts to minimize those negative effects and turn travel into a positive force in the world.
More and more travelers are boycotting exploitative wildlife attractions such as elephant trekking outfits or swimming with dolphins. People are starting to question why a continuous string of volunteers pay a small fortune to repaint the same school building for the 200th time.
READ MORE: The Problem with Animal Selfies
More and more responsible travelers are starting to look for and use local guides. They want to support local businesses, buy directly from local artisans and co-ops, and travel in ways that benefit the local populations of the places they’re visiting.
This is what truly responsible travel is. And this is why it is important.
Because of this increased demand, many hotels and tour operators are now falling over themselves in attempts to appear as responsible, sustainable, and ethical as possible. The big problem here is that appearances can often be deceiving.
The Scourge of Greenwashing
There has been such a sea change in attitudes toward responsible travel in recent years that much of the travel industry has struggled to keep up. It’s tough to find a tour guide, tour operator or resort that isn’t trying to lure potential customers with claims of responsible, sustainable, eco-friendly practices.
In a process known as greenwashing, many companies make misleading claims to make them appear more ethical or responsible. In an attempt to maximize profit, they spend more time and money on marketing themselves as “green” than they do on implementing business practices that actually minimize their environmental impact.
As responsible travel becomes more popular (and profitable), greenwashing has become such a huge problem that it threatens to weaken the entire movement.
Responsible Travel Businesses vs. Greenwashing Travel Businesses
• Responsible travel businesses will put the needs of the tourist a distant second to the needs of the environment, wildlife, or local population. This means not offering any attractions or activities that are widely regarded as irresponsible by international organizations.
• Responsible travel businesses will severely limit their negative impact on the local environment and population. In general, they should strive to have a positive impact.
• Responsible travel businesses should serve and benefit the economic and social needs of local populations, not detract from them.
• When voluntourism is involved, responsible travel businesses should work with locals to provide much-needed assistance in a specific and evolving area. They should not profit from “assembly line” tasks that make no positive impact on the local environment or population.
• Responsible travel businesses may be affiliated with genuine international charities or organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, Rainforest Alliance, or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, to name just a few. These genuine connections are easy to verify.
• Responsible travel businesses will practice what they preach, abiding by the international best practices set down by their partner charities and organizations.
• Transparency and openness are vital for any responsible travel business, and they should be willing and able to answer any questions about their “green” claims.
How to Be a Responsible Traveler
The key for us as travelers is to do as much research as we can before we travel. The more informed you are about the various issues associated with responsible travel, the more informed your choices will be.
It becomes easier with time and experience to look past the greenwashing and choose a responsible travel business over an irresponsible one. Despite the proliferation of greenwashing in the travel industry, there are many genuine responsible travel organizations out there.
But we can’t focus all the responsibility for traveling responsibly on businesses and organizations. Many tourists unknowingly cause more harm than good on their adventures by putting their own wants and desires above ethical concerns.
And there are far too many irresponsible travel businesses that are more than willing to put profit above protecting the resources they’re exploiting.
It isn’t all bad, though. A growing number of people want to be responsible travelers now. They want to travel ethically and sustainably. They want their travels to be meaningful on a personal level, but not at the expense of the environment or the local populations.
And more and more people are starting to demand that approach from the hotels and tour operators they use. This is awesome!
This paradigm shift continues to force the travel industry to change if businesses want to remain profitable. Sure, there’s been a sharp rise in greenwashing as a result.
But this growing demand has also forced large companies to sit up, take notice, and recognize that their customers are becoming intelligent enough to recognize truly responsible travel. These companies realize that there’s considerable profit in catering to these customers by providing genuinely responsible travel experiences.
The Future of Responsible Travel
Whether this change is truly altruistic or merely profit-driven is a question for another time. It doesn’t really matter why major companies are beginning to offer responsible travel alternatives, as long as they do.
Responsible travel is increasingly considered “best practice” within the industry– something that many travellers and tour operators are starting to try to aspire to. No matter how you slice it, that’s a good thing.
But we here at Green Global Travel have always believed that responsible travel should not be a niche thing. It should not be merely an alternative way to travel, or a simple marketing gimmick for the travel industry to use in order to sell more tour packages or activities.
In our eyes, “responsible travel” should be much more than merely a buzzword. Responsible, ethical, sustainable, eco-friendly travel should be something that all travelers do as standard practice.
Responsible travel should not be something that travellers have to think about consciously. It should not be a special category held separate from travel as a whole, like some idealistic, utopian form of travel that everyone should aspire to.
Responsible travel should just be the way that EVERYONE travels, because it’s the right thing to do for local ecosystems, the people and animals that inhabit it, and the planet as a whole. Responsible travel should simply be the norm.
We hope that the focus on responsible travel as a buzzword moves on to become something far bigger. We hope that, in the future, it grows from best practice to become the ONLY practice.
We hope that, with the right knowledge, the right information, and the right paradigms, each and every individual traveler learns to make ethical and responsible choices in every aspect of their adventures.
We hope that, as awareness of responsible travel issues grows, both individual travelers and the travel industry as a whole continue to make more informed, responsible choices.
We hope that, in the future, responsible travel will become just plain old travel. –Michael Huxley
Michael Huxley is a published author from Liverpool, England, and is the founder of Bemused Backpacker, a travel blog devoted to independent, safe and responsible travel. He has degrees from Edge Hill University and Liverpool John Moores University, and is a qualified charge nurse by vocation with a specific interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine. After 15 years of backpacking around the world, Michael is passionate about responsible travel and is a strong advocate for ethical wildlife tourism, and has been featured in the BBC, the Guardian, and other major media. When not travelling, writing, or working, Michael enjoys training in various martial arts and finding new ways to stay fit and healthy. Follow Michael on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
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