Travel Responsibly

Travel and responsible action are two sides of the same coin.

Travel is popular. Visiting other locations around the World has become one of the most sought after activities by many people, at least, those who can afford it.

As Mark Twain had so eloquently stated:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
Mark Twain: The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It1

But travel is destructive too, so taking action to mitigate impacts as well as to contribute to communities is essential to maintaining tourism as a viable industry.

With the right mindset, each of us can make an important contribution to reducing impact and helping local people. This is 'Responsible Travel' and can be undertaken by every single traveller in every single trip.

Connecting to like-minded people who live and eke out a living in a beautiful, albeit economically harsh, place will go some distance to righting some serious economic and social imbalances. And its not just about money: awareness, showing care and making a contribution are important too. Take the next step, responsibly.

Buying local foods including fair trade, local products and services, donating to local charities and supporting local community initiatives are all ways to step up. Limiting energy and water use are also 'top of mind' importance. Using environmentally safe products is also helpful in mitigating damages. For the most part, in fact, this is not charity. It is taking personal action to act in a responsible way.

Will it make a difference? You bet it will. In fact, not acting responsibly may ultimately put many destinations at serious risk of severe damage, or worse, no longer being able to be a destination - why? —because the assets that attract may become tainted over time and lose their appeal. So, the trash that has shown up on popular beaches, for example, degrades the overall touristic experience for everyone. There is no recovery from this kind of damage.

The fact is that on the ground in most tourist destinations, the people who are delivering products and services are the lowest rung in the employment ladder. Tourism suppliers optimize profit for themselves, and their shareholders, by holding down wages, benefits, working conditions and employment standards for their frontline workers. Probably very few of these workers will ever be able to take a 'leisure' vacation for themselves. Especially notable is that less than 30 cents (probably closer to 20 cents) of a tourist dollar stays in the host country.

Unless visitors make some sort of contribution to improving these aspects for these workers, tourism benefits from travel to poorer countries by wealthy Westerners are unlikely ever to be distributed fairly. Both fairness and awareness are key. The unfair split of incomes and resources between wealthy Western countries and the rest of the World is fundamental to many of the World's problems.

Probably most visitors might look at this and ask why they should be responsible for taking action when the companies don't. But when one travels to these places and ventures away from the 'all-inclusives', one sees it firsthand. Then it becomes very personal. It is hard to look away, knowing what you know.

There are two sides to this conundrum. First, travellers need to question why companies don't act more responsibly and second, visitors are the ones who are on-site and therefore have the best opportunities for seeing the problems and acting to fix them.

On the first point, customers need to actively question travel suppliers about what actions they can take. On the second point, visitors can take action directly. Everyone is responsible, every business leader, every politician, every individual —and will be held accountable at some point. Global citizenship includes social responsibility. In the case of trash on the beach, acting responsibly means taking personal action to pick it up and dispose of it in the proper trash bin. This has three important aspects: individual travellers are taking ownership of the touristic experience, the beach looks better and it helps local people.

In the Caribbean, there are very nearly 50 million annual visitors, both land and cruise, from wealthy Western countries. If every one of these visitors voluntarily donated $10 to any local cause would put $500MM annually into local communities. That's real money and doesn't even equal the cost of a couple of bevvies for any one of them.

But it will be more than this. Residents, in seeing that visitors are willing to act in more responsible ways —and are doing so, will be encouraged to act themselves and the net effect will be a positive feedback loop wherein everyone benefits, visitors and residents alike.


What is 'responsible' tourism?

'Responsible Tourism' is not the same as 'Sustainable Tourism'. Responsible Tourism was defined in Cape Town in 2002 alongside the World Summit on Sustainable Development. This definition, the Cape Town Declaration is now widely accepted and has been adopted by the World Travel Market in 2007 for World Responsible Tourism Day.
Responsible Tourism is firstly about "making better places for people to live in" and only then about "better places for people to visit". Everyone has a way to contribute.

Responsible Tourism requires that operators, hoteliers, governments, local people and tourists take responsibility, take action to make tourism more sustainable. (Responsible Tourism Partnership)

"Responsible tourism is like sustainable tourism, however as often the word sustainability is often overused and not understood, responsible tourism has been adopted as a term used by industry:

Responsible tourism is any form of tourism that can be consumed in a more responsible way.

"Responsible tourism is tourism which:
Cape Town Declaration, 2002 (
As Professor Harold Goodwin explains: "Responsible Tourism is about responding to the issues, it is about what we do to address the economic, social and environmental issues raised or caused by tourism around the world. Any kind of tourism can be more responsible, it can be more or less irresponsible. It is about using tourism to make better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit. It is not about developing long lists of issues, it is about identifying the issues which matter locally and tackling them. It is about not being irresponsible and about taking responsibility for doing what you can to address the issues. The aspiration of Responsible Tourism is to use tourism rather than to be used by it, all forms of tourism can be more responsible." (source: Harold Goodwin Blog)

The major difference between the two is that, in responsible tourism, individuals, organisations and businesses are asked to take responsibility for their actions and the impacts of their actions. This shift in emphasis has taken place because not much progress has been made on realising sustainable tourism in the 15 years since the "Earth Summit" in Rio. This is partly because everyone has been expecting others to be sustainable. (City of Cape Town)

The responsible traveller can contribute by recognising the merits of the responsible travel provider, by buying the product and rewarding the people supplying these products and services. At the same time, "we need travellers and holidaymakers to hold the operators and accommodation providers to account."

Responsible tourism, similar to sustainable tourism, can also take other forms, including (but not limited to):

Community Involvement & Community Tourism
Now, more than ever, local communities are challenged to better their own economic standing. At the same time, these communities have unprecedented opportunities to make this happen. Research reveals that local people want to be more involved in planning tourism that involves their community but may not possess the proper tools to make this possible. A further problem will be engaging regular people to become involved in creating their future.

"Ecotourism is a form of sustainable tourism - all forms of tourism can become more sustainable but not all forms of tourism can be ecotourism "Ecotourism is environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy, study and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features - both past and present), that promotes conservation, has low visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations" (Ceballos-Lascurain, 1993). (The official definition adopted by the IUCN in 1996)

Geotourism is very similar to sustainable tourism and is a definition brought about by National Geographic Traveller... the concept is the same but they focus on the 'sense of place' in an area rather than the industry's efforts.

Voluntourism is a form of travel where one volunteers on projects which give back to the community". (

The key difference is that responsible tourism is actionable. Primarily, individuals take responsibility for their own actions and take ownership of the need to act responsibly and to make a personal contribution, and clearly, are not shifting the onus to others.

By taking ownership, these tourists may also gain a better appreciation of the overall travel experience and the importance of their role in it.

Harold Goodwin has emphasized that the approach that should be taken is to practice "responsible" tourism. The assertion is that those companies, and travellers, who accept responsibility for their actions and make an effort to contribute towards solutions are actually going to progress more deliberately towards real solutions, rather than just talking about these things.

For example: "All forms of tourism can be more responsible. Progress relies on "all stakeholders taking responsibility for creating better forms of tourism and realising these aspirations." Responsible Tourism relishes "the diversity of our world's cultures, habitats and species and the wealth of our cultural and natural heritage" and therefore accepts "that responsible and sustainable tourism will be achieved in different ways in different places." One policy or set of criteria will not apply everywhere - nor should they. The Declaration emphasises that it is only at the local level, where tourists and locals interact, that tourism can be sustainably managed". (Taking Responsibility for Tourism, pg 13)

But the importance of taking action cannot be over-stated. As Goodwin goes on to say, in his address: "This second strand is active. It is about responding to a perceived need. The work of the ICRT is predicated on respons-ability, focussed on enabling individuals to respond and to make a difference". (Taking Responsibility for Tourism, pg 15)

It has also been shown that travellers respond better when the message appeals directly, in an emotional sense, rather than a technical sense. "This means people prefer texts like "we serve you only the highest quality regional products" to "regional products are served". (How to Communicate Sustainable Tourism Products Effectively to Customers, pg7)

So, the message from tourism practitioners is more effective when the emphasis is placed on actions, rather than less well understood concepts.

Consumers also have shown a moderate willingness to pay a small premium for services that are perceived to adhere to sustainable standards. In a market where margins are very tight, this could contribute substantially to profitability but it will never be a runaway opportunity to increase prices. Ultimately, competition between suppliers, as well as destinations, will always make sure the traveller is getting the best price. The opportunity is more in positioning as a "value" product or service.

See also:

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