A few words about responsible tourism

Travel is a lot of fun. Relaxing at some pristine beach at the end of the world, sightseeing places rich with history and heritage or trying local specialties you have never heard of… You book, you pay, you go. Then you come back. The tan is still fresh on your skin and, as you are recapping the holidays of a lifetime to your friends, you sort through a gazillion of photos in search of that perfect one that encapsulates the beautiful weather, the spirit of freedom or your fat wallet (or all of the above) to put on Instagram. I heard many people say that a trip they took once changed their life. They learnt something new, became wiser or experienced a different culture. These are all great things, but they are very one-sided. I dare to say that literally every trip has a potential to change a life. It is not necessarily our life and the change is not necessarily for better. Responsible tourism can be an answer to that.

As most of you know, I come from Poland – a society that has only recently transitioned towards becoming a member of the so-called ‘developed world’. When I look back ten or fifteen years ago, I can’t name many people that I personally knew, who had the money and means to travel for exotic holidays somewhere far away. With the rise of technology and the sharing economy boom (partly thanks to the global crisis), distant travels and backpacking became much cheaper and easier to organize. However, I feel that the positive changes in material aspects didn’t induce as many positive changes in the tourist mentality.

Have you ever heard a term ‘responsible tourism’? For me, it basically means that everywhere you go, you should try and consider the impact you have on the society and the environment. Therefore, I created my personal responsible tourist roadmap and would like to share it with you. I think that we, as tourists, frequently get lost in the excitement over a new place and become oblivious of the way that our behavior or routines negatively affect locals and their surrounding.

  1. Don’t litter

I was actually never guilty of this one myself. Whenever I see someone littering, I turn from the calm and composed person that I usually am – to a mess of a ballistic rage. There is one personal experience that made me particularly upset. I visited a beautiful Cambodian island in the spring of 2015 and I had a really unpleasant encounter with a group of French girls who a) were not only smokers (this is a crime in my book anyway) b) actually left their cigarette butts at the beach. When I approached one of them and demanded she picks it up, she looked at me like I am crazy and asked ‘where will I put them if there is no trash can around here?’ (an obvious answer was ‘in your fat ***’ and it worked miracles). The part that is worth noting here is that the girl wasn’t angry with me or insulted in any way. She was genuinely intrigued why I cared about her not leaving any trash behind at that beautiful beach. Regardless, it blows my mind that people can just not care about the surrounding, especially when they are guests somewhere! This pertains to tourists from affluent countries, who are rich and privileged enough to be able to travel. Yes, we are rich, privileged and better off than 90% of the world in this aspect. More should be expected of us precisely because of our level of education, awareness and financial resources.

Can you imagine leaving your trash on a beach like this? Me neither. That's responsible tourism!
Can you imagine leaving your trash on a beach like this? Sadly enough, some folks do…
  1. Care about the wildlife you see

Another prime example of this tourist oblivion is the current state of the coral reefs worldwide. I have seen myself people snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef, who, for instance, were careless enough to kick the corals with their fins. They don’t mean to be destructive, but their clumsiness won’t excuse the end damage done.

See that patch of white behind me? That's dead coral. One of the reasons to promote responsible tourism in this area.
See that patch of white behind me? That’s dead coral.

This one is also important for parents and their children. Please, don’t let your kid walk around the national park on their own and pick up random flowers or feed the animals when it says you shouldn’t. And for all of you, upcoming fashionistas – don’t buy those snake skin sandals or ivory jewelry if you suspect that it comes from illegal trade.

  1. Don’t create demand for things that are wrong

I am not going to mention the obvious points here (e.g. sex tourism and drugs) because I don’t think this small post will deter anyone committed to those… But I would like to contribute by focusing on small things that we sometimes ignore or are not aware of.

The example here is the elephant-riding trend among tourists in Thailand. Few of them realize that the poor animals are exposed to years-long ‘breaking of the spirit’ rituals. Physical and mental ‘conditioning’ they undergo through brutal practices, such as physical harm and starvation, result in their ability to serve as a calm and manageable attraction for tourists. And, since tourists enjoy it, the elephants keep suffering.

But responsible tourism isn’t just about the natural environment. The same rule actually relates to interacting with local society. Let’s consider buying things from children. We all know the heartbreaking view of a child selling trinkets by the side of the road somewhere in Southeast Asia… It is important to realize that every time a kid you see is on a street – he or she is not at school. They are supporting their families, which is a very noble act, but it comes at a very high cost in the long term. By not pursuing formal education, they remain stuck in the circle of poverty. It feels really weird to be writing this (and I surely sound like a pretentious peace of ****), but this is the truth – especially for young girls, who are even less likely to be encouraged to learn. Buy keepsakes from adults, because this will make them more likely to send kids to school (once they see that most of the home income comes from their own work, not that of their children).

It is really hard to be assertive when you see little kids selling keepsakes. Keep in mind that every hour they spend away from school sets them behind in life, though. That's responsible tourism!
It is really hard to be assertive when you see little kids selling keepsakes. Keep in mind that every hour they spend away from school sets them behind in life, though.
  1. Be respectful of the culture

Don’t climb the Buddha, don’t enter the mosque in shoes, take your hat off in a church. It is about basic manners and respect – don’t insult beliefs of others, even if you are a raging atheist and think religion is the opium for the masses 🙂

One of the aspects of responsible tourism is respect for the local culture.
Please, don’t climb the Buddha.
  1. Don’t be loud

How many times have I heard a group of British tourists kayaking somewhere in the Philippines and screaming their lungs out for no reason? Too many times… People really don’t care if you think the water is cold or the current is fast – shut your mouth and let others enjoy nature in peace.

The same applies during tours, at museums and galleries, where many tourists consider themselves educated enough to share an opinion about something out loud (‘Oh, yeah I know this and that about Picasso’… ugh).

Keep in mind that anytime you travel – you not only represent yourself, but also your own culture. This is an important point if you plan on visiting developing countries, where the way of life, history and heritage are just different. Think about it next time when a taxi driver in Vietnam rips you off… perhaps it is his way of getting back at the masses of foreigners visiting the country and disrespecting his culture at some point? Or maybe we are the victims of those visiting before us – who spoilt the market and paid huge amounts for a service that wasn’t worth it!

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