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What is Responsible Travel?

responsible travel
Image: PIXistenz

Unlike many types of travel that fall under the eco travel heading, responsible travel is not always related to the environment. In fact, what is “responsible” in one destination may even be completely inappropriate in another.

At its core, responsible travel relates to travel that respects the destination and its inhabitants. According to Lonely Planet, responsible travel “means assessing our impact on the environment and local cultures and economies – and acting to make that impact as positive as possible.”

The hallmark of responsible travel is improving destinations, instead of leaving them in some way poorer due to tourist practices.

Three Key Facets of Responsible Travel

Every list of ways to be a responsible traveller boils down to three main topics: stewardship, involvement, and respect.

Responsible travellers steward, or care for, the resources that make responsible travel possible, while making sure that local stakeholders are involved in tourism decisions and respecting all of the factors of their destination that make their visit possible and enrich it.

Responsible travellers steward:

  • local resources
  • global resources
  • local culture
  • the local economy

Responsible travellers involve:

  • their hosts
  • the community
  • local businesses
  • local heritage

Responsible travellers respect:

  • the environment
  • local traditions
  • local needs
  • local working conditions
  • the local language
  • local pride

Who is Responsible?

Most types of travel involve many stakeholders – locals, tourism companies, and travellers – but responsible travel is one category that focuses almost exclusively on the intent and behaviour of visitors toward their destinations.

This is not to say that tour companies and lodging operators cannot practice responsible travel – many of these businesses are still “visiting” destinations, as the owners and operators are not necessarily from the local community. But the focus of responsible travel is on actions of outsiders as they affect what and who permanently occupies the destination.

With responsible travel, the burden is primarily on the traveller – the level of respect and responsibility in their choices, behaviour, and attitudes. You can travel responsibly by:

    • reading up on local culture and history
    • choosing tour and lodging companies with responsible tourism policies
    • supporting conservation or social projects in your destination
    • buying local foodstuffs and locally-made souvenirs
    • using a local guide
    • respecting local resource shortages (typically water)

Both travellers and the people they visit should receive more benefits under responsible travel, because the traveller gains more from the destination when they give to it.

What does responsible travel mean to you? Is there anything you’d add to this definition?

*Read more in our “What is _____ Travel?” series”*

What is Eco Travel?
What is Green Travel?
What is Sustainable Travel?
What is an Ecolodge?
What is Responsible Volunteering?

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14 Comments

    • Gabi Logan says

      Thank you, David, for sharing! I think that the most important aspect of responsible travel – as opposed to sustainable or eco travel – is that so many of us agree on what it means. It is hard for companies to greenwash responsible travel, because “responsible” has an intrinsic significance that is hard to gloss over.

    • Thanks for commenting, Jessie. We started doing the series as a result of a spate of emails from students wondering what the difference is in the various types of travel, so it was originally devised for that readership. But it’s still a good resource for all, I think.

    • Gabi Logan says

      Jessie – thank you so much for making that point! Even those of us that seek to travel responsible and sustainable can use a reminder every now and then of what we should be going so we can do a little self-check on what we’ve been up to lately :)

      I just read a very amusing quip in this New York Times piece about carbon emissions from air travel jabbing those like Al Gore and Richard Branson who speak all over the world about putting an end to global warming and curbing global emissions . . . while travelling from point A to point B in their private jets.

    • Gabi Logan says

      Micki, I’m glad we were able to explain things a bit! Make sure to look through the rest of the “What is ____ Travel” series outlining the variations in what people mean when they use the different terms. Here, we think that everything comes under the umbrella of ecotourism and green travel, but some terms like sustainable travel or responsible travel have narrower definitions.

  1. Responsible tourists should also look in detail at the tourism policy and practice of tour operators, and ask questions when something is not clear (employment conditions, transparency issues, waste management, etc). Many tour operators brand themselves as responsible because they donate to charities or “help poor children” in destinations, but their business practices are actually those of mass tourism and therefore the net impact is still negative!

    • Gabi Logan says

      Thank you so much for pointing this out, Felipe.

      I think it’s important to add that if you ask your tour operator or hotel these questions and they evade answering, that is definitely a red flag about their practices. What do you think?

    • Gabi Logan says

      All we can do is try! What a great way to put it LeX. It’s really a never-ending quest.

      I find even the most responsible people forgetting themselves when traveling. Sometimes, especially when you’re on vacation, it’s easy to forget, overlook, or just be blissfully ignorant :)

  2. I love that this type of travel is becoming more mainstream. I hope that I respect these guidelines when I travel–I do know that when I am more in tune with my role as a responsible visitor I have a more enriching experience.
    Larissa recently posted..Jerusalem, it’s complicatedMy Profile

    • Gabi Logan says

      I know! The fact that people, at least some, are beginning to consider their actions and choices while traveling as the norm instead of the exception is so heartening. And at the world’s biggest travel show this year, there were some great talks about exactly this fact.

      In my own travels, I’ve found that travel responsibly not only opens up new or more enriching experiences, as you say, but it has also drawn my attention to the fact that when we travel, we often forget simply responsible habits that we keep at home. That has been the most eye-opening thing for me!

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