It’s December—the end of the year. That usually means one thing; it’s time to reflect on the past 12 months. But rather than doing some navel-gazing, I wanted to shine the spotlight on an important part of travel—how to travel responsibly. The impact we have on cultures and civilizations because of our travels.

From the overwhelming response to my post asking why we travel, I gathered that many of us travel to learn—to satisfy curiosities and see what other places are like. I truly believe that understanding local communities & cultures is an incredibly important part of a trip. Knowing where your footsteps land is as important as the experiences that you come away with. Without a doubt, tourism affects local communities—sometimes positively, sometimes not. It’s important to know about this effect while you travel.

Tourism can be a powerful tool for social change, but it can also harm the very societies being promoted. This week I’ve partnered with a few other bloggers to showcase an organization promoting responsible tourism in the voluntourism industry. People and Places (@pandpvolunteer) is an organization established for the purpose of recruiting and placing volunteers in local projects by local people. Their goal is to benefit local communities, with all profits being put back into non-religious, non-political charitable organizations. Responsible tourism.

What makes a responsible tourist?

Do research and try to understand

To be a responsible tourist, I think one of the most important aspects is simply to be aware of your surroundings. Any and every type of travel/tourism requires at least a little bit of research. You’re already looking up flights and ferries, itinerary suggestions and things to do. But it’s also important to know what kind of impact your travels can have on a specific destination, culture or group of people. This is especially important if you plan to volunteer with local groups or organizations. People and Places has put together a list of important questions to ask if you’re planning to volunteer abroad.

You might not realize it, but there are a surprising amount of ways that voluntourism can harm a local community. Sometimes children’s homes and orphanages are set up almost entirely to fuel a false economy. While “doing good things” may be a fleeting trend, plenty of organizations have found a way to capitalize on the experience. This is why research is so important for any potential volunteer.

After posting a few questions to Twitter this week, I’ve learned quite a bit about the affects of volunteers on children’s organizations. If you didn’t know, sometimes just by visiting an orphanage or children’s home, the visit can be detrimental to a child. If you’re interested in learning more about how voluntourism can affect children, be sure to follow @pandpvolunteer on both Facebook and Twitter.

Get involved

Besides researching about local customs and traditions, you can actively find ways to contribute to the development and improvement of a destination or organization. There are hundreds of reputable volunteer trips actively seeking ways to improve the lives of others. It’s important to know which ones are doing what, and how you can help as an outsider, but one of the best ways to learn is, quite simply, to do. Just make sure you know what you’re doing.

While I was backpacking around the world, I stopped for several months in the middle east to volunteer with a political non-profit. The experience of getting involved with an organization I believed in was both humbling and a huge learning experience. Not only was I able to contribute to a cause I believed in, but I had the chance to make a difference—however small. I wrote this several months after my volunteer experience:

I want to be more involved, not just as a spectator but as…an activist. Activist isn’t the right word–too many negative connotations unfortunately. But I want to be involved with the world around me. With the big things. With the little things. Because it all adds up. Travels of Adam, March 2011

Support the local economy, don’t replace it

If you’re planning to volunteer while traveling, you should try to support the local industry and economy. Buy local products, support local industry when it’s appropriate. As a responsible traveler, contribute to the society you’re a guest of, don’t take advantage of the opportunity.

Responsible tourism: Better child protection

All of these above suggestions are things I strive to do when traveling. I may not succeed all the time, but being aware of my actions and the related consequences is an excellent first step.

I spent much of this week learning more about better child protection (follow #betterchildprotection on Twitter) when it comes to voluntourism, the potential impact volunteers can have on a child and other news regarding responsible tourism. I never fully understood the affects tourism can have on children until I started reading about it. When traveling in southeast Asia a few years ago, I purposely avoided visiting orphanages or other children’s homes for fears of doing more harm than good. I didn’t fully understand the situation, and didn’t really know where to look. That’s why I’m happy to share the People and Places organization and their blog, their Facebook and their Twitter accounts. They’re actively sharing news and information regarding better child protection in Tourism, something the United Nations is also working hard to promote.

People and Places have set up a Facebook page curating some of the most interesting (and relevant) links regarding better child protection in the tourism industry. Follow their feed on Facebook to stay connected and in tune with responsible tourism. It’s an easy way to learn more, to remind yourself of the impact of tourism, and to know what’s happening around the world.

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Suggested reading

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Travelers who frequently write about responsible travel

  • @pandpvolunteer
  • @nananapark
  • @umarket
  • @backpackerbecki
  • @InspirngTrvlrs
  • @passportpurpose
  • @apassionblog

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What’s your opinion on responsible travel? Do you pay attention to local customs in new cultures? Are you aware of the potential problems associated with your actions in foreign countries?

Please note some posts do make me some money but I never sacrifice my integrity in exchange for a favorable review. Read the full disclosure policy.

11 comments

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  1. A tourist must be responsible enough whenever he/she goes. This is to prevent any accidents or property damage the tourist may sustain during the whole trip.

  2. Great post! It gives food for thought. Lots of problems in life could be solved if we had to use empathy, asking ourselves How is the other person perceiving me and my actions?, How would I react if I had to be in the same situation?

    • Empathy is so important! Thanks for sharing your comment Izy.

  3. Hi Adam,
    I always make it a point to read books on history and culture of a place before visiting it… helps me put things in perspective and appreciate it more. I’ve seen the harmful effects of tourism, especially on the younger generation who tend to see it as easy money and a reason to not go to school. There’s a lot we can do, thanks for spreading the awareness!
    Priyank

  4. Thanks for this adam – and all your support for our awareness campaign – I just want to underline that we certainly are not saying volunteering is a bad thing – we believe done well it can be a hugely beneficial exeperience for volunteers and local communities – and there are good organisations out there – not just us! but potential volunteers and travellers need to do their research and look beyond the marketing that pulls at all our heartstrings – if anyone would like anymore information please do contact me either @pandpvolunteer or on any of the following facebook pages https://www.facebook.com/pages/Responsible-volunteering-people-and-places/109179132471692 or https://www.facebook.com/pages/Better-Child-Protection/109301995889469
    or
    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Better-Volunteering/426800777357861

  5. Great post, Adam!
    I was chatting to friends recently who had been to an orphanage in Romania as volunteers about 15 years ago. (Don’t know if you remember, but it was *the* thing to do then). They said the hardest part was leaving because they knew there was going to be no follow up, no change after their group left. The work the volunteers were doing to care for the children and teach the carers what was required to keep them healthy – especially the disabled children – stopped short as soon as the program was over. Talking about volunteering and highlighting how it can be done badly and how it can be done well can only be a good thing. Then those wanting to volunteer know what to look for to ensure the program they choose will actually make a difference, as well as be responsible.

  6. When my partner and I travel we refuse to eat at a chain or if traveling internationally, we stay away from American fast food. We always eat at local restaurants and food carts. When we shop, it’s always a local vendor and not the large tourist shops. We always support the local economy. Recently we have discussed being a volunteer while we travel but never know what would benefit more to the locals. Your article brought to light issues that never crossed our mind (children and tourism impact). Now I have to start my research! Thank you for the insights. Happy travels to you!

  7. Responsible tourism has been on my mind and in my Twitter stream this week too, especially after the 1 billionth tourist news. I think you highlight some important issues here about the challenges of ‘doing good’, how hard it can be to know what “the right thing” to do is and how the impacts of our actions and travel can be unpredictable and unintended. Some great food for thought about what responsible tourism is and how being well informed and mindful of impacts beyond the obvious are important. And some great contacts too for further reference.

  8. Great points, Adam – and thanks for linking to our story. I am just now learning so much about these issues. Can’t say I’m surprised at the fact that there are negative forces in the world taking advantage of vulnerable people, but I had no idea how careful you have to be when you’re out there not to help those forces along. I hope governments can catch up soon to closing down “orphanages” and regulating voluntourism.

    ps. we’re @InspirngTrvlrs on Twitter =)

  9. “Support the local economy, don’t replace it”

    This is actually one of the best things that must be considered while starting to explore the wonders of traveling. Traveling from different places within your country is a cool way to give back something for your country. Before planing a trip somewhere else, try traveling to a local tourist spot first.

  10. This is a really important issue. I always used to get excited by stories about travelers going to volunteer with third-world children, only to discover that many of those trips are actually harmful to the locals. Thanks for the links and resources. I definitely want to do some volunteering when I go abroad but it has to be responsible.

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