Being a responsible traveller
What is a responsible traveller?
Whether your travels are on a luxury cruise ship or backpacking around the world, everyone has a responsibility to the planet. Considering carbon emissions, reusing towels, conservation of water and energy, supporting local communities, and recycling of waste are just some of those responsibilities that will make a difference.
A responsible traveller is aware of the choices made whilst travelling. Whilst travelling to different countries, a traveller can expect to be exposed to many different cultures.
Choosing accommodation to stay at, a bar to drink in and a restaurant to eat at, give opportunities to ensure the money spent is going to have a positive, not negative impact. Supporting the local environment and the lives of those who live there, not damaging them.
Before we left on our travels when we were back at home in the United Kingdom. We thought that we did our bit, reducing our carbon footprint and fastidiously recycling. Having been travelling for a while now, we’ve grown even more conscious about the footprint we leave whilst travelling.
We’ve seen beaches in Cambodia filled with plastic. Rubbish was strewn across the entire country of India. We’ve been to cities where we choked on the smog. Seen once beautiful places now ruined by tourism and animals exploited for our amusement. Worst of all, realisation of the fact that our travelling is compounding the problem.
Don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying nobody should ever travel. What we are saying is that every little helps. We aren’t perfect, having got it wrong on more than a few occasions. But just being considerate about the choices we make while travelling does make a difference.
Many travellers visit a particular area for a relatively short period of time, usually a few days. Here are a few tips and suggestions on how to make the most of a stay, and how to engage with the local communities should you wish to help them.
Meeting the locals
Experience local life by using the local transport systems, eating where the locals eat, shopping at the local markets. Spending money at small local businesses can have a major impact. Using smaller local businesses not only supports the local economy but also the locals themselves.
This will create a more authentic travel experience and also help someone else create a better life for themselves. Learning a few words of the local language goes a long way and will get you a lot of smiles.
Many poorer cultures don’t see the realities of our home countries, point out the negatives as well as the positives, that way travellers won’t just be viewed as “cash cows”. Not all locals have that view.
We once heard a story about a traveller who was passing through a poor country. He got into a conversation with a local who he took pity on. Telling him that he felt really sorry for him, as he had nothing. The local replied that he actually felt sorry for the traveller. Saying that he would much rather live his simple life than the stressful, pressured life that he had.
Culture and Customs
Pay careful attention to social cultures and customs and respect them. Many cultures are very traditional and conservative in their behaviour. Just think how upset you would be if a guest in your house just did exactly what they wanted, with no regard for your way of living. Remember we are the guests in other people’s countries.
Do your homework prior to travelling to a destination. A little reading before leaving can prevent embarrassing social misunderstandings. Haggling over the price of goods can be fun, make sure that once a price is agreed upon, it can be extremely insulting to walk away. So only start haggling if you are serious about purchasing the item. It’s not standard in all countries, so check-up before you start offending traders.
Remember that temples are active religious sites and world heritage treasures. Dress appropriately when visiting them (covering your shoulders and knees for both males and females). Don’t support the trade in ancient relics by buying historic artifacts.
Don’t give money directly to beggars, whether they be children or adults. Please take a moment to consider this cycle. Giving to street beggars only encourages locals to continue begging from tourists. Children who ask for money, have often been removed from school by their parents who tell them to beg for money.
This brings in instant cash but doesn’t help the family in the long run. In some cases, the children are part of large, corrupt networks that keep all the money for themselves. If you wish to help, find out which projects are working to improve the lives of those on the streets and give them your money.
Try to reduce the amount of single-use plastic items such as plastic bags, cups, straws, styrofoam trays, water bottles, etc. This is a major problem in South East Asia.
Plastic bags, plastic cups, plastic straws, and plastic water bottles are used as if they are going out of fashion. Once used they are just generally discarded, by throwing to the roadside.
Help to clean up by disposing of your rubbish carefully. Help to educate those who find it acceptable to discard their rubbish in that way. Especially when it would take less effort to use the bin provided than throw it out of the window. We aren’t saying go around preaching to all who drop their litter. We found that a disappointed look from a foreigner pointing at a bin usually worked wonders.
Plastic straws can be easily replaced these days. We carry bamboo straws with us now and just ask for no straw when having drinks out. We did have to learn not to leave them at the venue when we left. Which we did on a couple of occasions. Luckily they kept them for us and we collected them the next day.
When we were in Cambodia, we used to enjoy a daily sugarcane juice drink. After visiting the vendor the first time, much to his amusement, we would return every day with the same plastic cups for reuse.
Some travellers travel with an intention to try and make a difference by doing some volunteer work. Most choose to volunteer by working with children, usually by teaching English in an orphanage. As a result, volunteering has become a full-fledged industry in some countries.
Some volunteering centres exist only to cater to foreign tourists. For example. The vast majority of children who are placed in orphanages in Cambodia are not orphans. Demand from foreign tourists to work with Cambodian children is so high. Parents are offered large financial incentives to place their children in these centres.
Volunteer placements can certainly cause problems. A constant stream of poorly supervised, unqualified volunteers, changing every week or two, will not help these children. Equally, a poorly supervised, unqualified volunteer on a long term placement can be just as bad.
Let’s put this into some form of perspective. Would you think it acceptable that your children or grandchildren attended a school with unqualified, unvetted staff, who were replaced every other week?
Having said all of that, volunteering can be a good thing when it is done correctly. It’s possible to have a very successful volunteer placement with children for an afternoon, doing magic shows, origami, reading poetry, doing arts and crafts, or playing the guitar.
Volunteers can be particularly beneficial in helping to develop local staff. A professional teacher volunteering to work with the local teaching staff in a school or centre, is better than teaching the pupils directly. In this way, the volunteer is less disruptive to the pupils and can pass on skills and experience to local teachers.
It’s not just working with children that is the problem. When volunteers offer to do construction work, local labour is put out of work. Local masons, painters, and carpenters lose jobs because an inexperienced foreign worker has replaced them.
When volunteering in a foreign country, the guidance and support of those in charge are paramount. Be sure that these basic requirements are in place.
- Does the centre truly understand the problems it is trying to improve?
- Does it have effective programmes to deal with the problems?
- Why does it use volunteers?
- What do volunteers do?
- How are volunteers screened?
- How are they supervised and supported?
- What impact do the volunteers have on local people’s jobs?
- What impact are the volunteers having on the local staff/children/community?
- After the volunteer has left, are local people more empowered and stronger or more dependent on the next volunteer?