Curious about sustainable tourism? Read on for my responsible travel tips after nearly a decade on the road.
Much has changed since I set out on my first solo trip and began my journey as a blogger in 2011. Travelling has become more accessible, flights are cheaper than ever before and Instagram has changed the way we view the world.
In the age of overtourism and in the midst of a climate crisis, responsible tourism is not just a pressing need to protect the incredible natural and cultural heritage of our world. It is also the only way we can still find authentic experiences, engage meaningfully with locals and savor the pristine beauty (or what remains of it) on our planet.
But what exactly is responsible tourism? Simply put, it is a commitment to travel choices (think getting there, where to stay, what to eat, what to do) that are mindful of the environment, inclusive of local communities and soothing for our restless soul. It’s often used interchangeably with “sustainable tourism”.
Based on the past eight years of travelling, here are some of my most essential responsible travel tips:
Expand your definition of travel
It’s hard to go back in time and trace how the popular conception of travel – in which we pick a destination, draw up an itinerary and spend our day (typically taking photos) at the must-do spots – came about. Perhaps it was propelled by a mix of travel agents, writers and the rise of guidebooks like Lonely Planet. Or perhaps it’s human nature to try to maximize the money spent on taking a trip away from home.
Whatever the reason, this narrative of travel needs to evolve. We need to expand it to encapsulate experiences that stimulate us – and move away from the peer pressure of seeing or doing something just because it’s marketed as THE thing to do. We need to think beyond sightseeing, and think in terms of art, music, food, history, dance, architecture, environment or whatever else truly holds meaning for us. That way, we can allow places to heal from the pressure of mass tourism while actually enjoying our own handcrafted journey – just the way travelling was meant to be (and sustainable tourism aims to be).
Pick countries under the radar or travel in off season
On my recent trip to Tajikistan, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that here was a country with some of the most dramatic landscapes on earth – turquoise glacial lakes, rugged peaks et al – yet visited by so few people. Many would even struggle to name its capital city. On the other side of the world lie the much-romanticised Swiss Alps – now suffering from the ecological damage of having too many visitors!
The most practical responsible travel tip to fix this imbalance is to prioritize countries or regions where locals are still genuinely curious to meet travellers, and can still reap the positive benefits of tourism. Beautiful though the Swiss Alps are, they don’t compare to my memories of the abundant warmth of people in Tajikistan. While Switzerland is reaching tourism saturation, half of Tajikistan’s population works in Russia and could use some tourism jobs and dollars to draw back its people.
If it’s still the conventional bucket list destinations you’re after though, travel in off-season instead. You can still beat the crowds and support local businesses at Europe’s many Christmas Markets and at snowed-in Indian hill stations that are overrun by tourists in the summer.
Do a land journey – and when you can’t, fly responsibly
I began 2019 with a pledge to cut down flying as much as possible – given that compared to trains and buses, the carbon footprint of flying is significantly higher. That led me to embark on some epic slow land journeys through the year: Thailand to India via Myanmar, the Persian Gulf to Armenia via the south of Iran, Uzbekistan to Tajikistan and I’ll hopefully end the year overlanding in Africa!
In the process, I’ve realised that a land journey is infinitely more adventurous than hopping on a plane – and can be a “destination” unto itself. The challenges of visas and land borders aside, it hearkens back to the days of famous travellers like Ibn Batutta and Hiuen Tsang.
When land transport isn’t a viable option, I’ve learnt that our flying choices can make a difference. Some responsible travel tips while choosing how to fly:
- Airlines like KLM and ANA currently rank the highest in terms of their sustainability initiatives.
- Flying a newer aircraft like the A350 or Boeing 787-10 is more efficient.
- Flying non-stop to a destination (as opposed to a layover) is more eco-friendly.
- Packing lighter can ensure less weight on board, and hence less emissions.
Stay in eco-friendly, local-run accommodations
My fondest travel memories are not from posh hotels but from small homestays, guesthouses and lodges that creatively try to reduce their environmental footprint. I’m thinking of Grand Oak Manor in Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, powered entirely by wind and solar energy. The Secret Garden in Goa, where vegan-friendly breakfasts are made largely with home-grown ingredients and all waste is composted / recycled. And the community-run sustainable tourism homestays that empower local women in the stunning village of Sarmoli in the Uttarakhand Himalayas.
Over the course of my travels, I’ve realised that staying at such accommodations has enabled me to experience the local culture beyond the tourist track, immerse myself in nature, interact with locals doing meaningful work in the area and gain an understanding of the unique circumstances of the people I’m visiting. And isn’t that what travel is all about?
Respect the local culture
To tell you the harsh truth, being an Indian traveller comes with a heavy burden. I’ve witnessed my fellow countrymen make aggressive demands at homestays, play loud music while hiking amid pristine landscapes, and show a lack of respect towards other cultures. A resort in Bali recently busted an Indian family trying to steal pretty much everything from a villa they stayed in, and Bhutan arrested an Indian biker for climbing atop a spiritually revered chortan. It’s high time we drop our “demanding” mentality. Just because we’ve paid for a holiday doesn’t mean we can make unfair demands, disrespect local traditions or behave obnoxiously.
To deal with this burden, we must try to go the extra mile to be more respectful travellers. Learn some words in the local language, respect the rules of another place, offer to help with chores while staying in a homestay, leave an Airbnb rental like we found it, follow responsible travel tips and approach people as friends, not as workers offering a service. If travelling is to open our minds, we need to leave our prejudices, mindblocks and entitlement at home.
Walk, cycle or take public transport
It’s tempting to hop into a taxi or Uber, but if time’s on your side, choose to use your feet to explore a place instead. Sustainable tourism aside, I’ve stumbled upon some real gems in cities like Tbilisi and Ljubljana while exploring local neighborhoods on foot, and there’s no joy like discovering Copenhagen on two wheels. And after all these years on the road, I think the quickest way to feel familiar with a new country is to figure out its public transport. In Tashkent (Uzbekistan), the underground metro is a work of art, an experience unto itself. In European cities, local trains and buses are the cheapest and most efficient way to get around.
Walking, cycling or getting around by public transport is not just a more immersive way of exploring a new place, but it is also far more eco-friendly than renting a car or using taxis.
Slow down and spend more time in one place
Back in the day, when flying was seriously expensive, people travelled to faraway destinations with large chunks of time, slowly making their way from one place to another. These days, flights are cheap and time is a rarity, so many of us end up criss-crossing huge countries or entire regions in just a few days. I cringe when people tell me they’ve “done” Latin America or Southeast Asia or India. Sorry to burst that bubble, but I don’t think anyone can “do” those places even in an entire lifetime.
Over time, I’ve learnt to fight my FOMO (fear of missing out) – and accept that there’s only so much I can experience in this life. I’d rather spend a chunk of time in one place (currently, South Africa), trying to really imbibe everything it has to offer. Rather than skimming the surface of a hundred places for some Instagram-worthy photos.
Going slow also means you have the chance to get off the tourist track, understand the local culture better, connect with inspiring local enterprises, put responsible travel tips into action, meaningfully volunteer along the way and pick up a skill or two if you’re so inclined.
Carry your own water bottle instead of buying / accepting plastic bottled water
I’ve gone nearly seven years now without buying plastic bottled water on my travels – and I can assure you that all it takes is some determination! I always carry my reusable steel bottle and refill it with filtered drinking water at homestays, Airbnbs, guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars. When I’m unable to access filtered water, I use my LifeStraw filter (and previously used a Steripen) to filter it myself. I also refuse complimentary plastic bottled water offered by hotels, trains, buses and flights – they’re not really free if you account for the environmental cost.
Upto 91% of plastic bottles around the world do not get recycled – and the ones that do are primarily downcycled. Which means that plastic is going to be on earth for a very long time, and ultimately enter our bodies through groundwater, soil or seafood. With the availability of safe alternatives in most places, there’s really no excuse to ignore sustainable tourism and continue consuming water from plastic bottles.
Say no to other single-use plastic
If you’ve been following my Instagram Stories, you know that I’m trying to go entirely zero-waste this November. I’ve already found a community garden in Cape Town to compost my wet waste and a neighborhood recycling unit for dry waste. But the most important thing is to refuse, reduce and reuse that waste in the first place.
Over the years, I’ve sworn by these easy sustainable tourism and responsible travel tips to cut down my plastic consumption:
- Replace plastic bags, straws, toothbrush and toiletries bottles with a cloth bag, bamboo straw, bamboo toothbrush, steel container and soap, shampoo, conditioner bars.
- Swap menstrual pads for a menstrual cup.
- Carry a steel container for leftovers and takeaways.
- Order homemade, packaging-free energy bars and snacks from homepreneurs or make your own.
- Collect and carry back any non-biodegradable waste from rural areas.
Why do we need to reduce our plastic footprint? Because it’s choking our oceans, killing marine animals, and contaminating our soil and groundwater. It’s literally the least we can do to protect the beauty of the places we travel to experience!
Look for zero-waste stores, local markets and small-scale entrepreneurs
My attempt to seek local encounters while also trying to be environmentally conscious has led me to some amazing connections. I’ve found some incredible local products, thanks to zero waste stores in Yerevan (Armenia), Cape Town (South Africa) and Goa. The local bazaars of Iran and Central Asia are a treasure trove of nuts, dates, saffron and eclectic conversations. Farmers markets in Mumbai, Bhutan and Thailand have led me to some of the world’s best mangoes, chillies and mushrooms!
Food aside, shopping for souvenirs, handicrafts and other local treasures directly from small-scale entrepreneurs is a great way to ensure that the money you spend helps support local artisans, instead of filling the coffers of exploitative middlemen who often don’t pay fair wages.
Say no to zoos and other unethical animal attractions
I remember being taken to zoos and a dolphin-petting attraction in Singapore as a kid – and I sorely wish I had known better. It breaks my heart that we’re in 2019 and smack in the middle of the sustainable tourism era, but attractions like zoos, aquariums, animal riding and animal selfies are still legal. And that people still visit them as a means of entertainment. The harsh truth is that zoos and aquariums imprison animals that belong in the wild, away from their natural habitat. It’s a well-known fact that these animals are severely depressed due to being confined in unnatural spaces, kept away from their community and stripped of their freedom. Animal riding is known to severely damage the spine and spirit of elephants, horses, ostriches, camels, donkeys and other creatures not meant to carry human loads. And animal selfie places (like Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai) drug animals like tigers so tourists can get upclose and take photos.
Some people argue that certain zoos keep animals in larger spaces and are involved in conservation, but who are we kidding? Manmade spaces are no replacement for their natural ecosystem, and the conservation of one species doesn’t justify the imprisonment of hundreds of others. Instead, you can choose to watch documentaries about animals in the wild, go on a safari in a wildlife reserve or spot birds (free like they are meant to be) on designated bird-watching trails. Remember to follow responsible travel tips recommended for the wildlife zones you visit.
Also read on Nat Geo: Suffering Unseen: The Dark Truth Behind Wildlife Tourism
Travel with a responsible travel company or social enterprise that supports the community
So much of how we experience a place depends on who we experience it with. While I prefer to travel independently and at my own pace, I often hike, take an experience, support a project or volunteer with a responsible travel company wherever I am. In Kerala for example, I met some rare artisans inspired by the River Nila while travelling with The Blue Yonder. In Uzbekistan, I ended up staying with an Uzbek family in a remote mountain village – organised by Responsible Travel Uzbekistan. And most recently in South Africa, I spent time at some uplifting community-based social enterprises in a township near Cape Town, on a trip organised by Uthando.
Exploring a place with someone who knows it inside out and cares enough to give back, can not only deepen our understanding of the world, but also help us make real human connections, irrespective of our differences. It’s the only way to ensure that the money we spend actually benefits the local community – and shouldn’t that be our prime responsibility as travellers?
Ask for permission when photographing people
I learnt early on in my travels that the kind of travel photography we often see on social media (and sometimes in magazines) is ethically debatable. Having travelled numerous times with photographers, I know that many don’t bother seeking permission from their subjects. Imagine if someone walked up to you, in your place of work or relaxation, clicked a bunch of close-up photos of your face without permission and walked away without saying a word. That happens all the time – and it is the most disrespectful, anti – sustainable tourism thing we can do as travellers.
On the other hand, photographers whose work I really admire are those who take the time to build a genuine connection with a community before using their camera. Their goal is not to score a bunch of “exotic” content for Instagram, but to bring out real, human stories from faraway places. Even if we don’t have the time or language to connect with the people we want to photograph, the least we can do is ask for permission (something sorely missing among responsible travel tips out there). I’m surprised by how many people say they don’t want to be photographed – and it’s only fair to respect their wishes!
Eat local and plant-based
I saw an interesting meme lately: “So you’ll refuse the plastic straw to save marine life, but you’ll kill a fish to eat it anyway?” That’s kind of the state of the world today. Yes, maybe it’s easier to refuse a plastic straw than to look long and hard at our dietary choices and the animal abuse involved in the simple piece of chicken or cheese on our plate. But it’s the difficult choices that make us human – and let us experience the world with our heart.
Since I turned vegan four years ago and embraced a plant-based lifestyle, I’ve not only been lucky enough to try incredible local food around the world but also built some beautiful friendships everywhere from Iran to Japan to Mumbai.
Animal abuse aside, a diet derived from animals (including meat, milk, eggs and seafood) has a higher carbon footprint, consumes far more water and severely damages the ecosystem, as compared to a plant-based diet. In the current climate crisis, one of the biggest things we can do as individuals to embrace sustainable tourism and living, is say no to animal products.
Be mindful of what you post on social media
The explosion of travel content on Instagram coincides with overtourism around the world – and perhaps that’s no surprise. It’s easy to scroll through dreamy pictures of Amsterdam, or Pulpit Rock in Norway, or the Maya Bay beach in Thailand, and decide to book your own trip there. But most of the time, these photos come with no context. They don’t talk about the crowds you must jostle in Central Amsterdam, the queue (and selfie deaths) on the iconic rock in Norway or the trash and negative impact on the ecology of ‘The Beach’ – so much that it had to be shut down!
All this puts more responsibility on us as travellers. We need to make better travel choices while we’re at the destination, but we also need to be aware of how we share our experiences on social media. Should we geotag a fragile natural spot that hasn’t been discovered by the crowds? Should we shy away from sharing the truth of overtourism in our photos? Should we skip focusing on sustainable tourism and responsible travel tips for more click-bait content? The answers need to be driven not by ‘likes’ but by how a place will benefit or suffer from being shared on social media.
We only have one world to explore and fuck up. If all this sounds like too much work, then perhaps it’s better to stay at home 😉
What responsible travel tips do you (aspire to) follow on your travels?
Order a copy of my bestselling book, The Shooting Star.
Uncornered Market: How Social Media Influencers Can Use Their Power to Combat Overtourism
Passion Passport: Why You Should Travel Less This Year
Soul Travel Blog: How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint While Travelling