How to be a conscious traveller and plan ethical trips

With the means to travel, comes great opportunity and great responsibility. Karen Edwards explores ways we can make a minimal impact on the places we visit

Woman reading a map on the Faroe Islands

The ability to travel is a wonderful thing. It is a life experience that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy. Because to travel is to understand the sheer vastness of the world; it is to embrace other cultures and accept how people enjoy different ways of life, and to realise we share our natural home with extraordinary creatures.

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As we now live in a world where so many people are lucky enough to travel, it’s vital to take some time to consider the effect our presence has on the places and environments we visit. The time has come where we need to become conscious travellers.

Being a conscious, or responsible, traveller means asking important questions before booking a holiday – “Are tourists currently welcome?” “Will my presence leave an imprint on the environment?” “Would I be supporting humanitarian crimes by travelling to this place?” “Is my presence a benefit to the local community?”

Next comes the hard part, being willing to change your destination if, for some reason, your chosen holiday spot is not an ideal place to visit at that time.

It can be disappointing if you’ve set your heart on visiting an iconic place, but there are lots of incredible areas that will genuinely benefit from your visit, and when you do travel responsibly it’s sure to be the trip of a lifetime. Read on for conscious travel tips…

People at the beach in El Salvador
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How to be a responsible traveller

1

Avoid overtourism

In the last year, ‘overtourism’ has become a buzzword in the travel industry. Well-known destinations have admitted they simply cannot cope with the number of visitors coming in, while in some places there has even been a backlash from local residents.

Barcelona, home to approximately 1.6 million people, drew in 32 million tourists in 2016. As a result, demand for accommodation reached an all-time high and residents were pushed out by increased rental prices and lack of space.

Markets became too crowded, with farmers moving their local produce to the suburbs to make way for souvenir stalls more popular with tourists. Reports surfaced of unwelcome graffiti scrawled across city walls, most with the same message: ‘Tourist, go home’.

In Italy, the Mayor of Venice announced his plans to introduce a €10 admission levy for tourists staying overnight in the busy city, with the hope it would encourage people to stay away from the central area.

Elsewhere in the world, governments have adopted tough sanctions. Thailand’s famous, and massively overrun, Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi island closed indefinitely to tourists, so damage to its reef could be rectified and the island cleaned up.

In New South Wales, Australia, the small town of Hyams Beach was forced to close to drivers, because thousands of Instagram-loving tourists had turned the white sand destination into the most photographed beach Down Under. The result? Local businesses were swamped and unable to cope with the demand, while the beach car park – which could take a rather substantial 400 cars – was now trying to accommodate 5,000 per day.

Last summer, Visit Cornwall was forced to ask tourists not to go to Porthcurno and Kynance Cove due to overcrowding. While at one point these places may have craved the tourist income, today they want to be left to look after their own communities.

As tourists visiting others’ homes, we can respect this decision by checking our destinations early to ensure we are going to places not under pressure from swelling tourist numbers.

Sunset over Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland.
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2

Get behind the local economy

Many destinations have both government-run and local tourist services. Usually the government-run facilities, like hotels and restaurants, are easy to spot. They tend to be the more flashy options. Although it might be easier to book a well-known hotel, or find the better-advertised restaurants, it is worth asking where the locals like to go – because those establishments are likely to give an authentic experience.

Plus, the much-needed tourist currency will be going directly to the local economy and the people who truly need it.

Remember, while tipping might not be encouraged in one country, as in Australia where the basic wage is reasonably high, it could be a vital form of income in another, such as in America, where basic wages are low and great customer service is encouraged to bring in tips.

And, while it is lovely to indulge sometimes, we can really help the local economy by picking where to do it carefully. Look out for particularly flashy hotels in low-income countries, they are often internationally-owned and none of us want to be lounging by the pool in a place where locals struggle to find clean, drinkable water.

3

Support ethical tour operators

While some destinations get the seal of approval of the big name travel guides, it is still vital to do your own ‘on-the-ground’ research before visiting certain attractions or picking a tour company.

For example, while some safari guides throughout the African continent take great pride in imparting fascinating information about the wildlife you see (hint: these are the ones to choose) – others tend to aim for easy brownie points, and will get you close to the animals for those Instagram-worthy photos without thinking about their effect on the wildlife.

Unfortunately, it is common to see safari trucks racing around off-road in popular national parks and game reserves – such as Moremi in Botswana and the Masaai Mara in Kenya – to get their truck-load of visitors as close as possible to an animal sighting.

If you do book a safari, start by asking your guide about their approach and suggest you don’t condone chasing or crowding wildlife. This will hopefully make them think more deeply about their approach, too.

It’s great for guides to also realise that while getting close to wildlife is wonderful, it’s more important to experience animals in a responsible way. Across the world, wildlife parks still draw in tourists with promises of performing whales, dolphins and orangutans.

In countries such as Thailand, India and Cambodia, elephant rides also makes big money – while cub petting or lion walking is common in South Africa and Botswana.

Avoid anywhere that uses animals for petting, riding or entertainment – any animal that is trained to interact with humans will not only be heavily sedated beforehand, but often tortured into submission. Remember, while these attractions might give you amazing pictures, they are unbelievably cruel.

If you opt for a swim with dolphins or a seals tour, ensure it is out in the wild rather than in an enclosure and make sure operators don’t have a reputation for chasing or circling wildlife.

We can help by booking excursions with tour operators who pledge ethical and sustainable services – there are plenty of them around, and they deserve our business. Read reviews online for your chosen company and boycott the operators who don’t follow the guidelines.

4

Embrace local culture

While we often book trips to escape from our own ‘normal’, it’s really helpful to keep in mind that wherever we go is someone else’s home. Learning something of the history of a country beforehand – and noting whether they have been through any hardship such as a war, natural disaster or institutional prejudice – can avoid accidental offence or misunderstanding.

Being aware of any new policies or customs that have developed to rectify those events will help us to respect local culture. Taking photographs is, for many of us – me included – one of the pleasures of travel. Asking before taking a photograph of someone is another simple way we can show our respect. Of course they may decline, but we have to accept their answer.

Imagine how you might feel if a stranger came along as you were on your way to work and asked you for a photo… you might not be too keen.

Young women wearing traditional dress at Mount Yasur in Vanuatu
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5 tourist destinations that want you to visit

Vanuatu

In 2015, the remote Pacific islands of Vanuatu were hit by Cyclone Pam. While southern regions, such as Tanna Island, were near-destroyed, others didn’t feel any effect. Sadly, news coverage reported that the entire region was devastated, which inevitably put tourists off.

In reality, it didn’t take the hard-working local communities long to rebuild their guesthouses and tourism facilities – however, the lasting effects of cancelled bookings has taken its toll.

Today, Vanuatu – home to endless white-sand beaches, and the President Coolidge shipwreck (a scuba diver’s paradise) – is still in need of the tourist income.

El Salvador

For years, El Salvador has been tarnished with the ‘danger’ brush, thanks to its on-going reputation for violent crime. However, these incidents are not as common as they have been portrayed, and crimes tend to involve underground gangs rather than tourists or other locals.

Away from the hostile news stories, El Salvador is home to some of Central America’s top surf beaches and vast lakes, lush forests and is an ideal location for embarking on stunning crater hikes.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland, and capital Belfast, suffered during the civil unrest of the 1980s and 1990s but life is now very different. The rugged beauty of the Giant’s Causeway and its geologically- fascinating formations will draw in the more adventurous traveller, while the old Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge over a 22-metre gap to a rocky outcrop will leave even the bravest souls a little cautious.

Belfast’s restaurant and bar scene is starting to thrive too, with the old Victorian Crown Liquor Saloon leading the way.

Pakistan

Pakistan has hit the headlines with stories of militant and terrorist activity in the recent past – and inevitably, the country’s Himalayan foothills have remained quiet on the tourist front. Even the more central cities such as Islamabad see few visitors. In June, however, British Airways will start running direct flights from London to Islamabad, allowing travellers an easy and direct means to reach the country.

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The Faroe Islands

Located to the north of the United Kingdom, between Iceland and Norway, the Faroe Islands are rarely visited by tourists – not because they’ve suffered from a natural disaster, but because no one realises how easy it is to reach them. The 18 islands are a great outdoor destination for those who like to hike, spot wildlife and, well, escape the crowds.

This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine, issue 26. Discover our latest subscription offer, or buy back issues online.