How to be a responsible traveller

Transform yourself from jaded tourist to responsible traveller with this guide to travelling sustainably

8 mins

What does being a responsible traveller mean?

Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about being aware of cultural faux pas – forget getting starkers in Machu Picchu or baring your soles to a Buddhist for a moment. Whether you’re embarking on a luxury cruise or backpacking across Europe, this is about your responsibility to the planet: think CO2 emissions; reusing towels; conserving water and energy; supporting local communities; recycling your waste, to name a few.

Being responsible is about making a positive impact on a destination; bringing benefits to local people and not running down natural resources. “It’s essentially giving more than you take,” explains Ben Lynam of the Travel Foundation, a charitable organisation that works with the industry to encourage sustainable practises.

But where do you begin? Start by putting some thought into your trip – before you go, during, and even when you get back home.

Before you travel

Researching your travel company is imperative advises Simon Pickup, Sustainable Tourism Manager of ABTA: “Any business that’s serious about sustainability will be giving this agenda space on their website. Speak to them and ask about their approach and how they vet their products.” Greenwashing is rife in the travel industry, with many companies professing to be eco-friendly just because their hotels encourage the reusing of towels.

However, there are schemes, logos and initiatives you can look out for to help you make good choices. For example, the Rainforest Alliance runs TOPS (Tour Operators Promoting Sustainability), a global platform for tour operators who are committed to responsible practises. By joining TOPS, companies commit to improving their own standards and the standards of the people they work with. Other initiatives include the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, the international body for establishing and managing sustainable tourism standards.

If you’re booking independently, consider all aspects of your trip. Look for airlines that incorporate biofuels or offset your carbon emissions, such as Virgin Atlantic’s Change Is In The Air programme, which funds projects from biomass stove projects to large-scale wind farms.

Your accommodation choices also have a big impact on your environmental footprint. Staying in locally owned and run places ensures money goes directly into the community. That said, some chains have solid sustainable policies. Look for properties that are part of a scheme, such as the Hotel Energy Solutions toolkit, a UNWTO-led project to help hotels reduce their energy consumption.

Equally as important is finding out about where you’re going. Consult guidebooks, the web and travel magazines (like Wanderlust!) to understand what pressures your chosen destination is facing – such as water scarcity or child poverty. For more info, visit – a Travel Foundation-run website offering expert tips.

Photographing locals at a temple in Thailand (Shutterstock)
Photographing locals at a temple in Thailand (Shutterstock)

On your trip

“Think local,” says Ben. “Meet local people, eat local food, hire local guides and use local transport.” Look for opportunities to give back to the community, such as choosing a homestay over a hotel, joining a cookery class or volunteering at a village school. When you visit attractions, do so sensitively; favour icons where some (or all) of the entrance fee goes towards futureproofing the site.

Respect local cultures too, stresses Simon: “Dressing appropriately is the obvious one – but be mindful of other elements too, such as taking photographs.” You'll find some handy photography etiquette tips here...

Back home

Acting responsibly doesn’t end when you unpack your suitcase. If you promised gifts to people you met abroad, keep those promises. You could donate to a programme that supports the community you visited.

Most importantly, send feedback to your tour operator – if they are worth their salt, any tips on how they can improve their sustainability should be gratefully received; the next person to travel with them will hopefully have an even more eco-friendly experience. That's why we loved being involved in the Thailand Green Excellence Awards, and we host the annual Wanderlust World Guide Awards, which celebrates the best guides around the world. As Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organisation), says: “Sustainability is not a zero sum game; it is an ongoing challenge and an unconditional paradigm for all tourism development.”

But why bother changing my travel habits?

“Tourists have a shared responsibility to protect the planet and its people," explains Taleb. In a world of finite resources, using local transport, donating to local projects and buying local goods support other countries, preserving them for future generations. Without this, you may find one day that you can’t revisit some of your favourite destinations.

“Although we might wish for a holiday by the pool, this doesn’t share the benefits of tourism with the local community,” adds Ben. Travelling responsibly will mean a better deal for local people – and a better trip for you and your descendants.

I'm inspired – what else can I do?

Responsible travel is at the heart of everything we do at Wanderlust – so take a look at some of our guides and tips...

7 etiquette tips for travelling in Thailand | Essential advice to remember

Tips for responsible souvenir shopping | Make sure you know what you're buying

15 tips for responsible travel in Burma | Leave your preconceptions at home

Wanderlust writer wins responsible tourism award | For this piece of writing

Main image: Environmental conservation sign (Shutterstock)

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