It’s Time To Start A Better Conversation About Responsible Tourism

Freelance writer with a passion for responsible tourism, fair trade and community development

Approx 6 minute reading time

I was recently in Cambodia visiting the legendary city of Siem Reap, famous for the ancient Angkor Wat temples that encompass these once barren lands. Eager to see some more of the beautiful Cambodian countryside aside from the famous, pioneering landmark, I ventured to the outskirts of Siem Reap to visit the fascinating floating villages. It’s a sight that transports you back in time and gives you a real insight into the lives of Cambodia’s lake dwellers. Arriving to the villages, while amazed, I instantly detected the poverty in the region. Homes were ragged and rusted and pollution was seeping into grimy waters where children played, washed and gathered their drinking water. I proceeded to ask our boat driver how much of my $15 boat ticket was going to the local people. “None,” he replied. “The tours are owned by a Korean company.”

You may not have realised the impact we have on the places we travel to but this story is not uncommon. Which is precisely why we need to start talking about responsible tourism. For those who have never heard of it before, responsible tourism basically means travel that maximises the social and economic benefits of the local people and the environment. It’s the kind of travel where you alter your perspectives to include the acknowledgment of the kind of impact you are making when you visit a destination.

While travel used to be about vacationing to a resort for some R & R, now, as travellers begin to look for more audacious experiences, the idea of travelling to a developing country has become a more favourable one. Places like Cambodia and their Southeast Asian counterparts have recorded a huge increase in tourism over the past decade, which has also resulted in rapid economic growth. While this is positive news for their economy, in many circumstances the economic benefits are going directly to the country’s most affluent rather than supporting low income earners. If tourism isn’t done right in many of these developing countries it can contribute to an increase in wealth disparity rather than helping to lessen it.

What is being done to fix the problem?

Community Based Tourism (CBT) is an initiative started in developing countries to maximise the benefits for the local people and avoid the middleman impending and taking advantage of citizens. Visitors are invited to spend their money in local communities which are often rural, poor and economically marginalised. They can participate in a tour of a village, join a cooking class or even spend the night in a homestay, experiencing what life is like for the people of that culture while contributing directly to their development. Successful projects have been carried out in hundreds of cities and villages throughout Asia, undermining the need for profitable tourist companies that avoid paying fair prices to the local people.

The best bit is that it’s not only people that benefit from responsible tourism, it also protects animals as well. Recently in the media, animal exploitation in the tourism industry has been high on the agenda. After the death of a Scottish tourist on an elephant ride and the closure of Thailand’s dubious Tiger Temple, activist groups have been making much needed noise about the plight of animal rights when it comes to tourism. Responsible tourism asks tourists to avoid attractions that question the rights of the animal, for example elephant riding, chained monkeys and animal performances. Instead it encourages tourists to visit sanctuaries or conservation centres where they know that their money is contributing to conservation work, rather than exploiting animals for profit.

What you can do

You may have heard of another term that sees to the positive impact of people, animals and the environment: eco-tourism. Eco-tourism is tourism that promotes greater understanding and appreciation for nature, local society, and culture. This can be anything from visiting a conservation area to a protected wildlife reserve, and participating in activities like high ropes courses, flying foxes, rock climbing, hiking or any other outdoors activity that provides an income for the local population while preserving the natural environment. A great example of that is in Northern Sumatra where ex-poachers and loggers have found opportunity in increased tourist traffic and now act as trekking guides in the region. Once having no option but to make a living through deforestation and the production of palm oil, these workers now make their living by guiding tourists on treks through the forest, preventing logging and educating visitors about the importance of conservation. Another organisation in the Philippines is combining tourism and sustainable innovation. Bambike offers visitors the chance to ride around the streets of Manila on bamboo bikes that have been handmade by local villagers. Not only are the bikes combatting Manila’s environmental issues by using carbon negative building material, they are also contributing to the economic development of poorer, remote communities.

Choosing where to stay when you travel is another way that you can reduce your environmental impact. With a worldwide shift towards more green practices, eco friendly accommodation is popping up everywhere. These places are often labelled as eco lodges or eco hotels. The Frangipani Resort in Langkawi Malaysia is taking eco hotel to a new level with their zero waste and no plastic policy.  Food scraps are used for compost, glass bottles are used for decorations in the buildings and for accessories in the resort, such as light shades. The chairs in the restaurant are all made from old tree trunks, the furniture is upcycled and even the water leaking from air conditioners is gathered and reused in the gardens.

This type of accommodation adheres to sustainable values including reduced electricity usage, using solar power, monitored water usage, recycling practises and an all round sustainable action plan for their business. The reason this is needed is that the hotel industry is said to have one of the highest environmental impact rates, so choosing your accommodation wisely, or even speaking up and providing feedback about a hotel’s practices, can significantly change the kind of impact you make while travelling.

You should be on the lookout though for any tourism organisations that have been known to practice ‘greenwashing’, which means an organisation claims to be “eco” through advertising and marketing but doesn’t actually implement business practices that minimise environmental impact. For example an ‘Eco Tour’ that offers elephant rides to tourists, or an ‘Eco Hotel’ that hands out plastic water bottles every day has clearly missed the mark. Being aware of some of these signs is an example of being a responsible tourist. Asking yourself questions like ‘Does the organisation have sustainable business goals?’ or ‘Are those sustainable goals being implemented?’ or ‘Is the organisation exploiting people or animals for profitable benefit?’ – these are the questions that will change the face of tourism for the better and equip you with the necessary tools to get out there and become the eco-warrior you’ve always envisaged yourself to be, deep down.

What responsible tourism really comes down to, is the kind of impact you want to make on this world and making a clear choice about that early on in your travels. It is about increasing your awareness to outside, previously unknown issues and helping to raise that awareness in your own communities. As tourism increases so does our impact to both people and the environment, so it’s about time we start talking about the ways that our impact can positively affect the lives of others.

It’s well past the time we start talking about responsible tourism.