Travel has been a big part of my life. I have seen, over the years, how tourism can develop a country, yet not always responsibly and sustainably. I became more aware of the negative effects of tourism when I travelled solo across Asia in 2013. Later, as I settled in Nepal the desire for a more responsible tourism was growing. I met up with responsible traveller Erin Courtney Green to give us some tips on how we, as travellers, can have a positive impact – making our trip more enriching for us and the people and country we visit. Erin, the author of this post, gives us insight into how to travel more responsibly with tips and background on situations you may face.
I’ve worked in the travel and tourism business for nearly 20 years in and around Asia, and I’ve picked up a few tips along the way on Responsible Travel that I’d like to share with you.
Interview your Operators.
If you’re using a travel agent or local operator to plan your travels, research the company and find out their stance on responsible travel. Do they patronize locally run hotels and guesthouses, or big chains like the Marriot? Do they offer unique experiences, different from the most popular mainstream offers? Do they help diversify the product, bringing visitors and wealth to other areas of the country and encourage growth?
Piece apart the Price.
If a trip package costs very little in comparison to other companies’ similar products, find out why. Do they pay their local staff well? Are the guides and porters looked after and provided insurance? Do they have reliable and trained support staff on the ground? All of that team needs to be paid, too, and this is part of the package price. If you go with an operator, you want them to be able to have all hands-on-deck in case anything goes awry or if urgent changes need to be made. So, going with the cheapest option is not always the most responsible choice.
Look at your limitations.
Choose your destination wisely, and do your research! If you’re going on a 3-week hike in the Himalayas, make sure you train and are aware of how elevation can affect your trek. If you aren’t physically up to a challenge, make sure you have the resources in place to help you out if needed. Tell your guides and travel agents what they need to know to ensure that trip is right for you. I had a passenger once who had severe asthma, but still decided to do some camel riding and camping in the desert of Inner Mongolia. She didn’t tell anyone about her condition. The poor girl couldn’t breathe, turned blue, and we had to walk 6 hours- she strapped to the back of a camel- to the nearest health point. This caused a safety risk not just to her, but to the many people involved. Perhaps going to a windy desert wasn’t the right choice for her, and another kind of trip would be more appropriate.
Considerations on Giving.
Many people ask if they should give gifts and goodies to children (and adults) they meet along trekking routes and in cities. The answer is no. If tourists continually dole out sweets and treats to begging children, this encourages this behaviour. Often kids can earn quite a good amount by begging all day. They should, however, be in school. At one point these darling little children will grow up, and their begging tactics won’t work anymore. Then they will be left without an education because they spent their youth on the streets. Another common scenario is that these kids are pimped out by adults; and the money, toy, etc. don’t even stay with that child, but goes back to their boss.
If you’d like to give supplies, find a reputable school in the local area and ask what they need. Then you can leave some items for the school’s staff to distribute in a way they see fit, which will benefit the local children and adhere to their educational aims.
Notes on Donating.
Please do background checks when supporting any organization or charity. Make sure you know where your gifts or funds will go. Unfortunately, there is corruption amongst some of these organizations, so investigate thoroughly!
Think of how your visit will impact the community. Know that if you travel and spend money in a foreign country, that in itself is doing good! If you support local restaurants, guesthouses and business, you are following the proper channels to support hardworking people who have provided services to you. Think about supporting them directly, rather than giving to an NGO who promises to donate your funds, but to people, you don’t know.
The Volunteer Dilemma.
Please make sure that if you volunteer, you have the required skills to do so. There are people who volunteer as teachers at schools in Nepal for one week, even one day, but who have no training. What good is it for the children if their regular classes are disrupted by unknown tourists entering their classrooms and singing a few songs with them?
It is similar in orphanages. Why come and visit an orphanage, where the children should be studying or playing with their peers, instead of being constantly interrupted by tourists, inciting false hope and then feelings of residual disappointment.
If there is a particular establishment you’d like to visit, pre-arrange a time to meet with the teacher or principal to see if your presence will be welcome. Perhaps a structured, planned event, like a concentrated ‘open house’ for multiple visitors, would be more beneficial to everyone involved.
Make sure you find out what is customary to tip guides or porters. Ask a reputable tour company. Too little or too much will skew the market, so find out what is the norm and tip appropriately.
If you’re in a bartering society, you should barter. It may take a while, but that’s part of the shopping game. Don’t over-spend, don’t underbid. This takes a responsible effort on the buyer’s part. If you walk away feeling happy with how much you spent, and the product you purchased, then the exact amount doesn’t really matter. Gauge what is a fair price, and make a fair deal in the end.
A huge part of travel and learning about a people and way of life is through food. Eat what the local residents are having. No doubt it will be fresh and tasty, and they’ll know how to make it perfectly. Support neighbourhood restaurants instead of the KFCs and McDonald’s, who have plenty of money already. Instead, sit on a small stool and point to the deliciousness at the next table being savoured by someone in the know.
Where are you travelling to next?
Keep these very useful tips in mind when planning your next trip abroad, especially relevant for visiting developing countries.
Are you looking for volunteer opportunities in Nepal? Hannah recommends Maya Universe Academy, a free private school operating in rural communities, offering a variety of volunteering options. Discuss with them options on how your skills can be beneficial in their schools, social enterprises and agriculture activity – according to their priorities at the planned time of visit. If you cannot spend time, you can also consider sponsoring a child to continue their education.