The year is 2013, and the (hypothetical) trip is a mix of virtue and fun: Fly to a Caribbean island, stay in an Airbnb, help build a classroom at a school, visit an orphanage and then finish off by flying to a second island and kicking back at an all-inclusive resort. Highlight: a 45-minute swim with dolphins.
See the world! Help locals make rent! Give back! Contribute to the economy! What a responsible traveler!
Today, that kind of getaway might elicit a horrified gasp, followed by questions and commentary: Was the Airbnb legal? Isn’t there an overtourism issue there? Please tell me you bought carbon offsets for those flights. Did the school even need a new classroom, and, by the way, since when can you swing a hammer? Don’t you know that orphanage tourism is problematic? Was the resort locally owned? How could you support animal captivity?!
“I think for the longest time, we had this notion that we could go anywhere, do anything and it wouldn’t make an impact,” says Jonathon Day, an associate professor of sustainable tourism at Purdue University and chair of the Travel Care Code initiative to promote responsible travel.
Traveling in an age of heightened concerns about climate change, income inequality, overtourism, animal welfare, corporate greed and exploitation can be fraught. Those who want to see the world while also being kind to the planet face pitfalls, especially as public consciousness shifts and awareness of the potential harms of global jet-setting evolves. And to make matters worse, there is no consensus on what makes a trip responsible, or conscious, or “green” — whatever ideal a well-intentioned vacationer aspires to.
“It’s not about making perfect choices, because as we’ve learned, what we know and understand as responsible tourism is always changing,” says Justin Francis, CEO and co-founder of Responsible Travel, which describes itself as an “activist” travel company. “It’s just about making better decisions than we made a couple years ago.”
Travel has long been considered inherently good: It broadens horizons, fosters understanding, promotes cultural exchange and changes the traveler for the better. It is also an important economic driver in destinations around the world that provides jobs and, often, encourages conservation. If experts agree on anything, it’s that these sentiments aren’t misguided.
“I don’t want to be a wet blanket on travel,” Day says. “People go on vacation and they’re renewed and they’re educated and all of those things. We just need a little bit more mindfulness and taking a little bit more responsibility.”
Industry players, keen to adapt to changing winds, are already making some adjustments on their own. Major hotel chains such as Marriott International and InterContinental Hotels Group are eliminating small plastic bottles for toiletries. Some airlines, including JetBlue and British Airways, are offsetting emissions for domestic flights. Dutch airline KLM made headlines last year for encouraging travelers to fly less.
But for travelers who want to be more proactive in their good-global-citizen efforts, experts who focus on responsible travel have some guiding principles. Francis says the right kind of tourism should create better places for residents to live, not just for tourists to visit.
The Travel Care Code asks three big questions, Day says: Are you respecting your hosts? Are you reducing waste, including energy consumption? And are you making sure the money you spend goes to the local community?
Beyond asking those general questions, there is some consensus about ways tourists can be more responsible.
Cut back on flying
This doesn’t necessarily mean travel less, though. Low-cost airlines make it cheap and easy to jet around for short jaunts, or to visit multiple destinations in one trip. That’s not ideal for the old carbon footprint.
Responsible travel advocates suggest people who take multiple vacations a year could consider combining a couple for one longer trip, and replacing others that would involve flights with train travel, close-to-home getaways or staycations. They also suggest avoiding trips where internal flights are necessary.
“If you’re taking eight short breaks but flying, cut back to one or two longer holidays where you stay a bit longer,” Francis says. As a bonus, he says, that allows travelers to get a better feel for a destination and experience it with less stress.
Gregory Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, says it’s more earth-friendly to take nonstop flights whenever possible and fly on newer planes, which are more energy-efficient.
When you do fly, offset emissions
Not everyone agrees on the benefit of buying carbon offsets — not even everyone interviewed for this story agrees.
“You can jump on a boat like Greta,” says Day, referring to Swedish teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg, who crossed the Atlantic in a carbon-neutral sailboat to get to the United Nations climate summit. “If you can’t do that, is there anything we can do in between? I think that carbon offsets … so long as they’re from reputable companies, are interim.”
The real solution, he says, is to have planes that don’t use jet fuel. But while planes are becoming more efficient, low-carbon alternatives for long-haul travel is still a long way off.
Miller says he recommends that travelers look for carbon-offset nonprofit organizations that maximize donations to make sure all the money goes to the project itself. Projects should also be transparent and have third-party verification, experts say.
Francis’s travel company started offering offsets in 2002 but stopped in 2009.
“The problem with the carbon offsets is that it’s seen as a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he says. “It’s essentially shifting the moral responsibility away from the tourist to the airplane to some other project somewhere else in the world. And I think we need to be more accountable than that.”
Be thoughtful about lodging
Stay in locally owned hotels if possible to keep more money in the community. Check to see whether the property uses renewable energy, participates in sustainable community projects and is sensitive to the environmental needs of the destination. It’s almost the default to no longer offer plastic straws or to encourage guests to reuse their towels; ask what other measures the hotel or lodge is taking.
Airbnb or other vacation rentals can be a tricky solution, depending on the city. Critics argue that in some cases, investors have bought up available inventory to rent to tourists, leaving residents with fewer affordable places to stay. It’s best to find out how short-term rentals are regulated in a particular area, and whether there is a shortage of housing for locals.
“I think it’s a question of going in with your eyes open in terms of what are the impacts of your participating in that level of tourism as opposed to more formal hotel accommodations,” Miller says. “If it’s destabilizing the local economy, but you’re saving a few dollars, you need to realize that.”
Mind what you eat
Travelers should try to dine at locally owned restaurants instead of giant chains, Francis says. And don’t be afraid to ask where the food comes from and order accordingly: Locally sourced items take less energy to get to the table. He says to also consider eating less meat and dairy, because they are more carbon-intensive to produce.
“What I’m really trying to do is … shorten the supply chain in every way,” Francis says.
Choose activities carefully
Miller says it’s responsible to avoid the “bucket-list mentality,” choosing the same site or activity that everyone else on Instagram is opting for.
“You end up getting wrapped into being a contributor to overtourism, and you’re not really looking for a deeper experience,” he says.
Hiring a local guide helps keep tourist money in the community and also lets the visitor see the destination in a more meaningful way, Francis says.
The Travel Care Code urges visitors to walk and bike as much as possible, and to be respectful of natural habitats by staying on designated trails, following fire restrictions and not feeding wildlife.
Francis says he likes to find out if there are existing local environmental, conservation or social projects he can visit or support with a donation when he’s traveling. But for those who do want to volunteer, it’s important to make sure that they are not taking a job that someone local might be paid to do; that the project is delivering some long-term good that the community actually wants; and that the visitor is qualified, if the activity requires skill.
“I never put a hammer to a nail at my own house,” Day says.