Traveling ethically is something we are passionate about. We aspire to travel in a way that makes us proud in every single place we visit.
That said, we are far from perfect. We've revealed travel's dirty secret before, and have acknowledged that it can do more harm than good. We have found that ecotourism is not always easy. It can be confusing. There are fuzzy lines, and we have screwed up. A lot. But it's a learning process, and little by little we're getting better.
We are more conscious about the decisions we make on the road (as well as at home), and want to share what traveling responsibly looks like to us. We truly think that most people have good intentions when they travel, but often don't know where to start. These tips will help you make a positive impact wherever your #wanderingsoles take you.
Support the Local Community
1. It's fun to try the famous restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet or ranked highly on TripAdvisor, but try some small, Mom-and-Pop shops too. This way, you're contributing to small businesses where your money is needed more than the eateries that are always bustling with visitors. Bonus: Often times this is where you'll find the tastiest and most authentic local fare!
2. Shop at local food markets whenever possible. Buy souvenirs from artisan as opposed to big shops. Spread your money around, and support the "little guy."
3. Research non-profits in the area you are visiting and support in any way you're able. For example, along our travels we've found many places there are restaurants that hire staff of all abilities, serve only locally-produced food or give a portion of proceeds to charity. Support this type of place.
4. Share your experience. Pay it forward and shout out great companies. When a restaurant, hotel or tour organization is doing good things (paying staff fairly, protecting the environment, giving back to their community), tell the world! Write them a glowing review on TripAdvisor, and if you're active on social media share your experience there too. If something just doesn't feel right about a company, share that as well. The only way we as travelers can make informed decisions is by hearing from others' experience. Help others choose good companies. With our support, those companies doing the right thing will grow while those following unsavory practices will realize they need to change.
Think About Wildlife
5. Do thorough research on any attraction that involves animals. More often than not, they are destructive to the creatures involved. When you partake in these activities your money supports the harm of animals, and this tells the people running these attractions that it's okay. Do your own research about animal attractions that interest you and make a well-informed decision. A few of the popular animal tourism attractions that we have chosen NOT to support are:
- Swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines
- Riding on the back of elephants anywhere in the world
- Visiting Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai
6. Don’t feed wild animals. No explanation needed.
7. If you see animals being treated poorly, say something (respectfully, of course). And tell others so they are informed before supporting it as well. Everybody makes mistakes. But speaking up can prevent others from supporting animal mistreatment too. For example, while we were in Bali, we tried the famous "cat poo coffee", but felt uneasy seeing the luwaks (weasel-like creatures) kept in cages and fed a diet consisting exclusively of coffee beans. We shared our experience so others can decide if they want to support this type of business or not.
Be Kind to the Environment
8. Bring reusable bags (or an old plastic bag) to convenience stores or markets to prevent waste.
9. Don’t litter. Ever. Even if the locals do. For every local who litters, there are many who don’t. Seeing a foreigner throw trash on the ground in their home can be seen as very disrespectful.
11. Recycle when possible. For some reason, it's easy to forget about recycling when you're not at home.
12. Save electricity by turning off the lights and air-conditioning when you leave your room.
13. Say no to straws & other plastics when possible. Did you know that straws are in the top 10 items collected in beach cleanups. In fact, plastic products make up 90 percent of trash floating in the world's oceans. We aren't perfect, but we're trying our best to say no to straws and limiting the other plastic products we use.
14. Only order as much food as you can eat and try not to waste.
15. After using a map or brochure of a city, leave it at your hotel desk for future guests to use instead of throwing it in the trash. Better yet, if you're tech-savvy, download your location in Google Maps on your phone when you're in wi-fi, turn on your GPS tracking abilities, and you'll be able to get your location even when you're out of cell service! Yeah, it's pretty much the best thing ever. And there's no paper wasted!
16. Try to conserve water by taking short showers. In many parts of the world, clean water is scarce. This is a luxury many of us take for granted. Limit your usage accordingly.
17. Use public transportation or bicycles when possible to minimize your impact on the environment.
Bonus: Read up on Leave No Trace principles and try your best to follow them at home or abroad.
Respect the Culture
18. Respect the dress code of the country you’re visiting, especially at holy sites. Pay attention to how locals are dressed, or ask someone at your hotel what's typical if you're unsure. Tip: When entering many temples, mosques or churches around the world, it's recommended that you cover your shoulders and knees, and sometimes your head as well.
19. Pay attention to and respect signs at tourist attractions. When it says, “Don’t climb” – DON’T CLIMB. When it says, “Don’t take photos” – DON’T TAKE PHOTOS. It’s simple, but many people overlook this.
20. Remember that you are a visitor in someone else’s home. Act as such.
21. Seek out cultural experiences. While lying on the beach with a cocktail in hand is why many people vacation (and that's totally fine!), but it will not help you understand the place you're visiting. Try to have at least one meaningful encounter like taking a cooking class, visiting an important museum or participating in a homestay. It could even be as simple as starting up a conversation with a local. While this may not be possible on every single trip you take, these experiences are what you'll remember. Plus, this is the best way for us to learn about and understand people who may be from different backgrounds than ourselves. In our world today, we can use all the understanding and compassion we can get.
22. Research the local customs and manners of the country you are visiting. In certain areas of the world, gestures that you may frequently use at home are considered extremely rude. For example, giving someone the thumbs up sign in Turkey is the equivalent of giving them the finger! Oops! You wouldn't want to make that mistake, now would you? Speaking critically about politics or religion in some countries may not be as freely accepted in your home country. And table manners vary greatly around the world. Tip: We have found these "Travel Cheat Sheets" to be pretty helpful!
23. Be sure to find out if tips are expected in the place you are visiting. And if so, what percentage is typical to tip? 5 percent? 10 percent? 20 percent? No tip at all? Brush up on your knowledge so you're not caught in an awkward situation.
24. Consider the impact of your pictures. Each image snapped has consequences – be it good or bad, and it's easy to get so caught up in the click of a shutter that we forget who or what it will affect. Tourists lining up in the hundreds to snap a picture in the water with a whale shark is what has kept them in relative captivity, unable to feed themselves. It has also polluted the surrounding ocean in the Philippines. Taking a nude picture on a sacred mountaintop may seem like an act of spontaneity, but is deemed as blatant disrespect of local culture. Let's all try to think before we snap.
25. Think about how you are representing the culture you see. Your pictures may be the only exposure some people have to what you are experiencing, and including demeaning descriptions or hashtags can spread negativity and misunderstanding. We appreciate sarcasm just as much as the next person, but be careful how you use it.
Interact with Locals
26. If you want to take a photograph of someone, ask first. If they don’t speak the same language as you, make eye contact, show them your camera, and wait for their response. If they nod their head, “yes” take a photo or two. If you think it’s appropriate, you can show them the picture too. Many people, especially in impoverished parts of the world, don’t have many pictures of themselves, so it's a cool experience for them to see it. If someone shakes their head “no,” respect their privacy and move on. There are plenty of people who wouldn't mind being photographed.
27. Try to learn a few phrases in the language of your host country. Some words we always try to learn are “hello” and “thank you”. You’d be surprised just how far those words will get you. Go an extra step and learn at least one other fun phrase like, “How are you?” "Beautiful," "Delicious," or “See you later” to show the locals you’re trying. You’ll get some pretty great reactions!
28. Smile and treat everyone you meet with respect. If you are frustrated, take a deep breath and think before speaking. Kindness can go a long way.
Don't Contribute to the Cycle of Poverty
29. Bargain respectfully. Remember that the person who you are buying from needs to make a living. In many countries it's okay to barter – and is even expected. But don’t take advantage of this. Be prepared to pay fairly.
30. Research the tour companies you choose. Try to support local companies as opposed to global ones, and be sure they pay their employees fair wages. You'd be surprised how much information is out there on company websites and review sites like TripAdvisor. Bonus points if you find a company that gives back to the local community, supports education or is benefitting the environment.
31. Refrain from giving money or candy to children on the street. Doing so often encourages them to skip school in order to beg. If you would like to help financially, research organizations in the area that support those in need with food, shelter and education.
32. If you want to volunteer while abroad, research organizations thoroughly. Many programs are unsustainable and cycle through volunteers quickly, while these jobs could be given to locals. Many times these programs are created with the foreigners' experience in mind rather than considering what is best for the community involved. And positive change can be slow because some organizations capitalize on showing volunteers "poverty." Advancing a village wouldn't provide new volunteers with the photo opportunities they seek, so communities stay in a state of perpetuated poverty for longer than necessary. Corruption in the "Voluntourism" industry is not uncommon. Yes, there are some great organizations around the world, but they require a bit of digging to find. Do some research on "Voluntourism" to understand this complex issue better.
33. Research what's going on in the country you're visiting. What are the current issues? Slave labor? Human trafficking? Pay attention to where your money is going so you aren't unknowingly supporting these practices. For example, while in Thailand we learned that eating seafood from this country is contributing to modern day slavery and trafficking. We ate a few too many green curries with shrimp before figuring this out. Looking into current issues ahead of your visit will help you from making mistakes like we did.
Want to know more?
Learn more about ethical & responsible travel, and how you can make a positive impact even when you're far from home.