What is Ethical Travel & 8 Tips To Be More Sustainable On the Road

It is so easy to overlook the ethical implications of travel.  Whether the excitement of immersing yourself in a strange and exciting culture or the panic as you realise you don’t know where the closest emergency exit it is, it’s easy to forget your responsibilities as a traveler.

In this post I want to share with you some ethical travel tips and show that with a little bit of pre-thought, you can really achieve one of my favorite travel quotes.

“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”

Aliyyah Eniath

So exactly what is ethical travel?

Put simply, it is a style of tourism that advantages the communities and environment of the destination you are visiting while minimising any impact on their environment.

Many activities you undertake end up offering some type of income to local communities and have a positive effect in the region. 

This positive effect can be economic, social, environmental, and cultural. 

While what it means to travel ethically changes from destination to destination, there are many important points you can follow to travel the globe responsibly and mindfully. 

Aeroplane flying in the sky

How travel is damaging the planet

The last 10 years or so have seen an incredible rise in the number of people traveling around the globe.

To handle the swell in numbers, aviation has expanded dramatically and the effect of carbon emissions from flying is higher than ever. 

But it’s not just flying, there are other effects on the environment to consider as well.

Tourism threatens a few of the most remote as well as attractive locations on the planet. Too many leave behind more than their footprints. As it has become easier than ever to reach previously isolated nature, rubbish is getting everywhere, much of which ends up in the oceans.

Aside from rubbish, activities like diving as well as other water sports can seriously harm marine life, and the boom in ski-ing holidays is at the price of big expanses of forest. Swimming pools and water parks, even golf courses can deplete and contaminate water sources for local communities. The average golf course, for instance, and being treated by noxious pesticides, guzzles an everyday tally of more than half a million gallons of water.

So I can guess what you’re thinking, why even travel if it’s just going to mess up the planet?

Well, with a little bit of forethought and common sense, it’s really easy to lessen the impact you make on the world while traveling.

Ethical travel tips

So, these are the tips you should follow to make you’re staying ethical or sustainable:

1. Find Ethical Tourism Anywhere

Try to find a hostel or places that have a written policy regarding the conservation of the environment as well as local communities, emphasizing the fact of protecting the environment by not wasting water, energy, and offering workers a fair and safe work situation.

There is a great 10 point checklist of things to consider before booking your stay thanks to World Nomads:

  1. Sustainably built: small footprint, passive-solar design to reduce energy use, locally sourced eco-friendly materials
  2. Carbon-neutral: offsets guests’ stays by, say, planting trees
  3. Car-free: bikes to use, free shuttles to town, public transport options
  4. Close to nature: low-impact, nature-based activities on offer (no jet skis!)
  5. Plastic-free: toiletries in bulk dispensers and no single-use plastic
  6. Wildlife friendly: funds conservation or habitat restoration
  7. Zero-waste: committed to reducing all waste, including food waste
  8. Energy-wise: powered by renewable energy and reduces energy use
  9. Plant-based: vegetarian or vegan options to reduce meat consumption
  10. Zero-miles: seasonal, local, organic and/or sustainably sourced food.

List source: World Nomads How to find truly eco-friendly accommodation.

Another option could be using specialist eco booking sites such as Ecobnb. While it would be extreme to consider something like this every time you travel away from home, even if you just choose the eco-option a few times, every little bit helps and adds up.

You can also look to rely on local guides for authentic experiences, they will know not just the well-hidden spots, but the most sustainable ways to have fun while getting to know your area. Plus, they’re used to working with foreigners so will be more than happy to teach you the good ways to behave and even how to talk so as not to offend any locals due to your lack of knowledge.

2. Plan a specific route that will pollute as little as possible

While flying is almost always the quickest and most convenient option, if possible, try to avoid planes for shorter journeys and look for ways to use trains and public transport. Especially if you are doing a lot of long term travel. In my experience, I found the best travel stories came from the long train journeys. Just try to slow it down and enjoy the ride.

If you do have to fly, many airlines offer a carbon neutral optional fees that you can consider to help offset the impact flying is having on the environment.

A train in Africa
The train is always my number 1 choice when I have the chance to travel slow

3. Seek mutually beneficial cultural immersion

We as travelers have become increasingly worldly and self-aware, more and more we hope to find something beyond ourselves and our traditions when we travel. Experiencing a different culture ranks higher on people’s list of reasons to travel internationally and cultural immersion tours are becoming very popular.

However, cultural travel should be more than a tourism-based spectacle. A Disney-style performance of traditional cultural practices just cheapens the experience for both sides. Instead, try to find authentic representations of culture, even if they’re not as bedazzling with lights and electronic music. 

Responsible tourism celebrates the past, present, and future of a place and its people, in addition to being responsible travelers, recognize that the world continues to evolve. By sharing ideas instead of projecting them, we set the path for best understanding of one another.

As we are proud of the things that make us who we are, so are the people in other countries. We should honor that, which means giving them a chance to share meaningful versions of themselves or their history. Plus, we emerge knowing more about local culture.

4. Try to support local projects

If you are travelling long-term in poorer countries there is always a great opportunity to get involved in community projects. 

The experiences of immersing yourself in everyday life and supporting what they do is a win-win. It is something that will live with you forever and hopefully you can help their initiatives. 

However, it is important to be sure of what you are undertaking before you do. Enroll yourself in projects that advantage locals as well as their everyday life, the one that’ll have a lasting impact after you leave. Don’t commit yourself to help local people in a project if you can’t commit to what they require. And be aware of your skills: do not participate in building a library, for example, if you do not have building knowledge.

There is a booming market in “voluntourism” these days. Where people travel and volunteer in poor communities, however, this can often do more harm than good once the traveller leaves. If you are thinking about undertaking one of these trips please do thorough research. This article, from the Guardian, is 6 years old now but many of the points are still very valid and are a great starting point.

In the meantime, if you want to read about my first-hand experience, you can buy a copy of my travel diary on Amazon or get a free downloadable copy by signing up for updates on my travel blog.

What is ethical travel? It can be found everywhere including this school project in Cambodia
I found Jimmy’s School while in Cambodia, a wonderful project that I try to support still.

5. Bring all the eco-friendly belongings you can

Try to avoid plastic packaging, utilize a refillable water bottle, think about all these small details that’ll prevent you from leaving trash as well as make your trip as eco-friendly as you can. 

We have a great post from my sis on how to reduce plastic wastage, just check out the bathroom section for lots of actionable ideas to help lessen your plastic usage.

6. Pick a tourism operator that cares

Tour operators are a huge part of the travel industry, so developing responsible actions that have a positive effect is essential.

As much as we like to visit ancient archaeological sites as well as historic cities, exploring the wilds of a new country is exciting. The tourism industry has a habit of running roughshod over the ecological jewels that they celebrate. 

Coral reefs are diminishing due to human traffic, pollution and coastal development. 

Mount Everest is littered with waste and congested with foot traffic as we destroy one of the world’s most epic natural wonders for the thrill of summiting it at as lower cost as possible.

Our tourism money should be going to the conservation of these places, not their destruction. This is why it is imperative to select responsible companies when visiting them. Try to look for tour operators who actively work to conserve and protect the spaces they promote.

Buying from local markets is a sustainable choice when travelling
Shopping in markets can be a good choice

7. Buy direct from markets and support local business

When on a long-term trip, it is nice finding brands from home in a supermarket. Some of our treats will be things like Cadbury’s or Baked Beans that we recognize and which you can pick up anywhere in the globe. However, wherever possible try to shop at local markets. 

Spending extra time and money in these places – where most of the produce is locally sourced – isn’t more valuable for your travel experience in terms of living like a local, but it is hugely important in terms of putting your money straight in the hands of the locals where it may have the most effect.

Also, remember while a lot of markets you can barter in and get a better deal, try to also be fair. I’ll never forget how bad I felt after negotiating an extra dollar off a t-shirt I bought in a Myanmar market. 

I was trying to tell the vendor that I didn’t have any money, which was kind of true as I was on a backpack budget and had spent a little too much.  But when you have flown thousands of miles, have clean clothes and are trying to tell a market trader who is struggling to make ends meet and feed his family in a poor country that you have no money, it’s time to take a long hard look in the mirror.

Yes you can find lots of tips on haggling, and in many markets aimed at tourism, go for it, but always ask yourself who needs that dollar more before pushing too hard to feel great about snagging a bargain.

8. Never exploit wildlife

OK – this is another huge subject that needs it’s own post, but let’s include a quick overview.

Riding an elephant means a fun afternoon as well as the coolest pictures for you, but probably a lifetime of misery for the elephant. So ask yourself, is it worth it?

Similar to swimming with captive dolphins.

I like to think we live in a society now where people are a bit more conscious about the way animals are held in captivity. What seemed OK just 10 or 15 years ago, is finally being exposed for the truth behind it and people are slowly realising.

That does not mean you cannot have a good time interacting with local animals.

Many organizations and sanctuaries are offering up-close experiences without torturing the creatures you are so excited to see.

Just do a bit of research first. Usually if the interactions are a bit too good to be true, they often are not the right ones to be having.

Elephants putting on a show for tourists
Anytime you see animals behaving in an unnatural way it is likely that the training ethics can be questioned

Final thoughts on ethical travel

Ethical travel means thinking about the consequences or results of your actions as a traveler on the environment, wildlife,  local people, and local economy. 

Most places in the world advantage from tourism and for some communities the tourist trade is the main source of income or jobs. 

Ethical tourism is becoming more essential in the tourist industry, with campaigns to increase awareness of the advantages of responsible holiday making and treating your place of visit with respect.

There’s no hiding it, being the perfect, ethical traveller is incredibly difficult when faced with real life, bills and a lack of time. However, as with many of our posts, we’re not here to preach to you or make you feel guilty about decisions you have made in the past, we’re here just to give you a few ideas.

If everyone who traveled just did it 10% more ethically, that would make a massive difference, if you can do more, even better.

We live in a world where information is everywhere. Before you book that tour or stay in that hotel, just take a quick look at what they are doing behind the scenes.

What about you? Do you have any further thoughts on ethical travel or tips that our readers could use? Please feel free to drop them in the comments, my sis and I would love to hear from you.

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