Responsible travel – community focused tourism

This is the last of my series on responsible tourism and this is one that I feel particularly passionate about. Travelling responsibly has as much to do with the communities we visit as it does with being considerate of the environment and the eco systems around us but how to do it is much more nuanced than other areas of responsible tourism including how the local community is exploited by us, the tourist and even by themselves. I asked some other bloggers to share their best tips for responsible tourism is it relates to people and communities. There are a few themes in here so I’ve split the post into tourist behaviour, tour guides and companies, shopping/consumers, and travel habits.

For more tips on responsible tourism, check our my other posts on this topic:

Tourist behaviour

Tourist behaviour goes so much deeper than not being loud, obnoxious or rude (although this is important too)! Researching your destination before you travel can do wonders for your understanding of the community you are about to visit and will help you be a more considerate traveller.

Respect the local culture and customs

Rebecca from Be Blissful Travel has some great ideas for how you can behave if you’ve done the appropriate research and avoid offending local people by inadvertently doing the wrong thing.

Traveling to new places is one of the best ways to learn about other cultures. However, it is important to remember that every culture is different, and what may be considered polite in one country may be offensive in another. The best way to avoid accidentally offending someone is to take the time to learn about the local culture before you travel.

Try to learn some key phrases in the local language, and familiarize yourself with its customs and etiquette. By doing so, you will show respect for the local culture and reduce the chances of offending anyone. It is also important to be aware of your own cultural biases. For example, in some cultures, it is customary to haggle over prices, while in others, this would be considered rude.

If you are not sure about something, it is always best to ask a local. They will be able to tell you what is and is not considered polite in their culture. When you show a genuine interest in their culture, you will find that most people are happy to help you learn more about it. By respecting the local culture, you can help create a lasting bond between people from different corners of the world.

Take photos with respect and intention

Erin from Pina Travels makes some great points about the complexities of taking photos. Personally, I try not to take photos of local people in case I upset anyone and because sometimes they don’t understand what we could use them for. I also try to get a balance between portraying a country in a positive light, and showing you lovely Wanderlusters the reality of a place so I’m not falsely advertising it either.

Sunset over the ocean with shallow waves on the left. On the bottom right is a sandy beach and behind it some low cliffs with some trees and a house on top

Snapping photos is part of the fun of a trip! While it can seem harmless to take photos of every part of your travels, including people, it’s important to be cognizant of boundaries, both cultural and personal. 

In some regions of the world, people can’t have their photo taken for religious and social reasons. Others may not want their photo taken simply because they don’t know where that image will end up. The reality today is that we love to share our adventures online, which means a photo can go out into the ether of the internet and take on a life of its own. 

An easy way to be a responsible tourist is to be respectful and intentional when taking photos. Avoid taking pictures of people, especially children. When you do take someone’s photo, ask for their consent to be photographed. 

If you plan to share a photo of someone on your social media, or any public platform, it’s important to have explicit consent to not just take the photo, but to share it. This is especially important if that person belongs to a minority group or different culture, or if the person is a child. 

Lastly, put intention into how your images, especially the ones you share online, portray a place. Rather than sharing photos of poverty, aim to highlight the beauty of a place. This way, you’re focusing on all the positives of a country, region, or culture.

Tour guides and companies

It’s so important to make sure that your tourist dollar is staying local and is really being reinvested into the community. That’s why using ethical, eco-conscious, and local people is so important. Make sure you do your research before you book!

Use eco-friendly tour companies

Roxanne from Wild About BC loves using eco-friendly tour operators particularly in her home country of Canada. I love that the companies she recommends really understand the value of being eco-responsible to the environment and to their businesses.

Big yellow tour boat called Miss Chief on the right of a wooden jetty. On the right of the jetty is a yellow and black rib boat and a sea plane. There is a forested area behind a stretch of water.

One of the amazing things about travelling to a new destination is taking tours to see the local scenery or wildlife. These are absolutely worth doing and one of the great trends that has recently emerged is tour operators that are much more eco-friendly. 

Eco-friendly tourism companies can operate in many different ways. Many companies that offer forms of wildlife tours have thankfully moved away from the practice of feeding the wildlife to attract animals, and instead bring you to their natural habitat so you can see them in their natural surroundings. This is becoming more common across the likes of southeast Asia and companies will often advertise this fact. 

Another way tour companies can be eco-friendly is by giving back to the community or ecosystem that they operate in. Many tour operators in the town of Tofino on the west coast of Canada operate in this manner. Ocean Outfitters who offer boat tours such as whale and bear watching pledge a huge amount of their revenue to conservation projects in the area. They understand that their business relies on sustaining the ecosystem they are a part of.  

Companies like this will often operate carbon neutral businesses by offsetting their carbon emissions. Again, this is a fantastic way to travel more responsibly.  

What is great about these tour operators is that they will usually charge the same sort of prices as all of the other tour operators in the area and you will find the tour is much more enjoyable as you can tell they really care about what they are doing. It doesn’t cost you anything extra and these companies are usually easy to find as they will advertise the fact that they are eco-friendly. This is one of the easiest things that you can do when you travel and it can make a big impact.” 

Use local guides

De Wet from Museum of Wander is a lady after my own heart. Making local connections is one of the highlights of any of our travels. I love using local guides who can show me a more personal side to the destination and it means alot to us to know we are supporting local people.  

Image is reflection of a dark haired man smiling into rearview tuk tuk mirror. Beyond the ,mirror is a crowded red bus and traffic coming the other way.

One of the great things about travelling is connecting with different cultures and having new, meaningful travel experiences. Sadly, many travellers miss out on making these meaningful connections by staying in their tour bus bubble.

So how can you give more purpose to travels while being a responsible traveller at the same time? The easiest (and best) way to travel responsibly is to support local. Dealing directly with locals to organise a driver or guide for the day mutually benefits both parties.

You, the traveller, will pay a lower price for these services when cutting out the middleman, who might be sitting in an office thousands of miles away. Without the middle man, the local driver or guide is empowered to share his expertise of his town. Not only are they likely to earn more, but it also gives them a sense of pride in what they do and an eagerness to share their city with visitors.

Between seeing the sights, your guide is sure to give you a local scoop on things – where to get the best food in town, what’s the newest tune everyone listens to or a take on local politics. You just don’t get this on an organised tour.

Travellers are sure to have a deeper connection with their destination when using local guides or drivers. They might start off as fixers, but before the day ends, you’ll think more of them as friends. 

Shopping and consumers

Who doesn’t love a good local restaurant or to pick up some souvenirs from a trip? Even this needs some thought though as not everything we buy and consume is done with intentional thought and purpose.

Shop local and eat local

I know from experience that Jenny from Explore Essaouira loves living like a local when she travels with her family. She’s a huge advocate for using your tourist dollars to support local businesses rather than large international chains. The bonus is that you are much more likely to make some connections with local people and to have a more individual experience.

Man in middle of image surrounded by boxes of fruit and vegetables selling items to two blond, curly headed boys

Wherever you travel in the world, shop local; eat in local restaurants rather than chain restaurants, shop at local stalls and markets rather than supermarket chains, use local tour companies instead of global organisations. 

This means that your tourist dollar goes directly to the local community, rather than lining the pockets of multinationals. Whilst the larger, international companies are great for providing jobs in local communities, by being careful about where you spend your money, you know exactly where your money is going and your choices will make a huge difference to the local communities you visit. 

Shopping local also provides you with a more authentic experience, a deeper connection, and a better understanding of a travel destination; you will meet local people, hear their personal stories, and taste food that may have been handed down through generations. You will be treated more as a friend than a tourist. And if that’s not enough to persuade you, more often than not, shopping locally will save the pennies. 

Admittedly, shopping locally sometimes requires more effort to find where the markets and good restaurants are. Indeed, the reliable golden arches of McDonalds may be the easier option. But ask your accommodation where the markets are, and allow a good hour before dinner to wander around to find a restaurant that suits you (often a good sign is to go where the locals are eating). Your efforts will be rewarded, and you will be supporting the local community. 

Eat local and in-season foods

Candice from Mom In Italy also makes the point that we should know and understand the carbon footprint of the food we eat. Eating local produce that has been grown in season means it won’t have been flown half way around the world to satisfy global food demands.

A simple way to travel responsibly and give back to the local community you’re visiting is to eat local and in-season foods. In other words, avoid buying bananas at a grocery store in Maine or choosing strawberries in France in November.

Why make the effort? It benefits both the people in the area you’re visiting, our planet, and yourself! 

You’re supporting local farmers and vendors by purchasing directly from them. They won’t lose profits to a middleman or mass-produced, imported food and they can also contribute to the local community’s food supply. You may also be helping some of the farmers and vendors survive the arrival of large grocery stores or superstores (often times, locals begin shopping at them because of the lower prices). 

When you purchase local food, you’re feeding your body fresh, delicious food that hasn’t had to travel half-way around the world to reach you. Would you rather have a just-picked juicy peach from the orchard down the road, or one that was picked early, wrapped in plastic, and has traveled from another continent? You’re also connecting with the local community in a meaningful way.

Purchasing local and in-season also benefits our planet. If you buy fresh produce from nearby, you eliminate the need for long-distance journeys, sprays, and excessive packaging. 

How can you buy local and in-season foods? Before your trip, do some research to find out which foods come from the area and when they’re in season? Have your kids each choose a food for the family to try on the trip. For example, look for kiwi fruit for sale on the side of the road in New Zealand, harvest olives or go truffle hunting in Italy, or order a fresh-squeezed sanguinello (blood orange) juice at a bar in Spain. You can also visit local markets and let your kids design a picnic lunch and make the purchases themselves (with help from mom and dad, if needed).

Choosing to eat fresh, local, in-season foods benefits us all and will create some of the best memories of your trip!

Donate your clothes in the destination

Melissa of Mexico Travel Secrets has a great idea about donating clothes – particularly in destinations that have different weather patterns than where you live. Those people are much more likely to benefit from any garments that you have bought specifically for the trip!

Cramming everything into your suitcase and making sure that you have everything that you need can be an ongoing battle every time you travel. If you travel frequently and long term, you may often find that there are things that you have forgotten and need to pick up locally. 

Often, you may travel to places where the climate and weather conditions are substantially different from those in your own country. So, the clothes that you purchase and wear for your trip are for that-trip only. 

After you return home, they go into the deep, dark depths of your wardrobe or dresser, never to see the light of day again. However, while you will shove these clothes aside every time you open the drawer or wardrobe, there is probably someone else that would appreciate them a lot. 

So, when you travel, ask yourself if you are likely to use the clothes from that trip again any time soon. Similarly, if there are things that dont fit in your case that you have to leave behind, don’t just abandon them in the hotel room. 

You will find a number of charities in virtually every global city that accepts in-kind donations. Many of them support extremely worthy causes such as providing clothing for refugees, women that are victims of abuse, etc. 

You can do a quick Google search or search in expat Facebook groups of that particular destination to find a worthy charity. Then, reach out to a representative to tell them what items you have. 

Used items are fine provided that things are still in a wearable condition. Do make sure that your donations are washed and clean before donating. 

Travel habits

How we travel has always been so important and the more we travel, the more important our habits become!

Travel slowly

Eloise from MyFavouriteEscapes.com advocates travelling slowly, Yes it has an environmental impact but there are also community related benefits too.

Silhouette of woman standing on fixed wooden pier/jetty (white fence around it) looking at orange and pastel sunset with darkening altocumulus clouds.

Slow travel is the opposite of trying to see as many places as possible in a very limited time. Instead, you pick a region and take your time to immerse yourself in the culture, sometimes living like a local rather than focusing only on the tourist attractions. As a result, you move around less and take different paths than other visitors. And it doesn’t cost more – you may even reduce your holiday budget!

Of course, it is easier to travel slowly when we have time. But slow travel isn’t only for backpackers, gap years or retirees. You can slow travel when you have a 9 to 5 job if you change your mindset and not try to see everything at once. 

This mindset change makes it easy to embrace many other responsible travel tips.

For example, slow travel benefits the local economy as slow travellers don’t only spend all their holiday money in touristy zones. A large variety of local businesses will benefit from your visit. You’ll have time to go to local markets (and not just to buy souvenirs), as well as shops and restaurants – but not those made for tourists. So you increase the chances that the money you spend will stay in the local economy rather than potentially leaving the country.

When you have more time in a destination, you can visit the must-sees outside peak hours, reducing the negative impacts of mass tourism on local sites. You also have a more flexible schedule to fit recommendations from locals or travellers you connect with. 

Slowing down has many benefits, even when travelling… You won’t see fewer things in the destination, you’ll just see it differently and have a more positive impact. 

Travel in the off- or shoulder-season 

Overtourism is one of my pet peeves. Claire from Why Visit Barcelona has a great way to visit those super popular places that you’ve always wanted to see… but without the crowds.

Empty street in Barcelona. Many shops boarded up and few tourists. Part of the street is cobbled. The apartments above have plants spilling off them

Some destinations will always be popular for visitors, and while that brings valuable revenue into the community, you can have too much of a good thing.  Overtourism is a big issue in cities such as Venice and Barcelona, and in remote places which simply don’t have the infrastructure in place to deal with large numbers of visitors.

It isn’t realistic to tell people not to go to these places, as they are popular for a reason, but if you choose to go to such destinations, try to avoid making the problem worse!  Visiting in the off-season or shoulder season not only benefits you as it will be quieter – and usually cheaper – than during the peak season, but it helps the destination and its residents too.

Instead of having all of the tourists descend over a short and intensely busy period (usually the summer holiday time in July and August), when businesses struggle to cope with demand, visiting in the shoulder or off-season means they can cope much better with an even spread of visitors.  There would be less stress during peak times, and more money coming in during the quieter months.

Any reduction in crowds of people blocking narrow streets in cities or clogging up usually pristine beaches will certainly be appreciated by residents too, so they get to enjoy their home as much as the tourists do!

What about you?

What about you Wanderlusters? Do you have any tips for travelling more responsibly within the communities you visit??

For more tips on responsible tourism, check our my other posts on this topic:

Emma Morrell
Emma Morrell

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