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?

Travels of Adam - It's a blogLooking for a place to stay? I use HotelsCombined.com where you can easily compare hotel room rates and prices. 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.