The term “Responsible Travel” is a thing.
But can round-the-world travel ever be totally responsible and sustainable?
Is modern backpacking responsibility still about taking only photos and leaving only footprints? And how have things changed in recent times? Thinking back on a trip to Sri Lanka, I thought I'd share some tips about sustainable and ethical backpacking.
Having gained momentum in recent years, Responsible Travel takes lessons in ethics from the environmental and Fair Trade movements. When undertaking a responsible trip, travellers ask themselves how their behaviour affects the local people, their ecosystems and their livelihoods. A big emphasis is on the conservation of resources and the benefit of the community.
So it’s the same as sustainable travel, right?
The difference between sustainable travel and responsible travel is that while they have an identical goal (that of sustainable development), responsible tourism asks individuals to take responsibility for the impact of their own actions. This shift in emphasis from global goal to individual accountability is because sustainable tourism is difficult to achieve.
Since the Earth Summit in 1992 there’s been a global expectation for people to behave in a sustainable way. But where is the accountability in that? Whilst the fundamentals of responsible tourism are still anchored in environmental integrity, social justice and local economic benefit, everyone involved in the tourist trade now has an individual duty.
This means a very practical application of your principles and ideals. Put your money where your mouth is, basically. For travellers, this means a stop to viewing ‘sustainability’ as some abstract, ethereal idea floating along the backpacking Jetstream, and a start to ponder the way you can actually make a difference, individually.
So we’re talking about an end to thinking of sustainability being solely the domain of governments and NGOs. It’s your job, too, now.
But what does this mean in practice?
Well, for a start you need to make more responsible choices - starting before you even leave home. Who is your airline, tour operator or hostel chain? What are their commitments to ethical practice? Do they hire locally, save water, dispose of waste efficiently and save energy? Do you research and make sure your money is going to a responsible travel brand.
The carbon issue
One of the big issues people always talk about when it comes to travelling is the impact of flying - your carbon impression might be one footprint you’re not proud to leave behind. In truth, your round-the-world gap year carbon impact is going to be minimal compared to people who fly long distance once or twice every year on holidays. However, that doesn’t mean you should just put your feet up and forget about the environmental costs of your flight from London to Sydney. Look into carbon offsetting schemes and see if there’s any way to balance out those air miles.
You should always arrive at your destination primed with as much cultural knowledge as possible. You know the stuff: What ‘harmless’ hand gestures are actually offensive; what words can have an embarrassing alternative meaning depending on how you pronounce them. That kind of thing.
Well, you should basically take the same approach with being responsible as you do with being respectful. Learn about what animals are endangered, threatened or at least pretty vulnerable - don’t spend three weeks eating local ‘delicacies’ that are critically depleting a species.
Likewise, find out about local habitats, rainforests and other kinds of natural environments. Some areas of a country may well be suffering from over-touristing as much as over-farming or logging. So make sure you’re in a good position to decide where and how to visit these places.
Ask the right questions
On the subject of how to visit places - and we touched on this earlier - do some serious research when it comes to doing tours or any kind of excursions. Even if it’s just a day trip. This isn’t so much about where the tours go as how they work: do they support local craftspeople or bypass them and take you to a touristy gift shop? Do they employ locals with experience and knowledge or do they draft in professional city tour guides? Always try to go with the more ethical company.
Lastly, it’s important to mention resources. When you visit many countries you’ll probably have access to stuff like electricity and water far more than local people.
Even if you’re not paying directly for these resources and it feels like there’s plenty to go around, be respectful and consume it sparingly.
The choices you make won’t make a difference - on their own. But the incremental effect of all of us making the right choices and making sure we’re responsible when we’re backpacking will make a difference.
Travel tip shared by Andrew Tipp