Notes On Traveling Responsibly (And Looking Toward The Industry’s Future)

loreto islands

Islands of Loreto in Baja California

The week had been magical, kayaking among wild dolphins, pelicans and hermit crabs. The islands of Loreto had filled everyone with such joy, we could hardly express our gratitude. Each day had been full of adventure, hard work, fresh authentic food and good company. We had sipped Champagne on an island all to ourselves during the turn of the New Year and were awoken by the songs of the blue whales in the nearby lagoon. Our goal was to leave as few footprints in the sand as possible, to admire the natural world around us and to leave it as pristine as we found it.

On the last day, we kayaked back to the mainland and were immediately bombarded with the smell of cigarette smoke, spilled beer, bug spray and tanning lotion. Tourists were frustrated that restaurants didn’t sell hamburgers and that it took three hours for food to arrive. Locals avoided visitors as much as possible. Trash clung to the sides of the sandy streets and dogs chewed through plastic bags to get at styrofoam food containers. The town was a mess and it was all we could do to not run back to our kayaks and paddle back out to the islands.

For the two of us who started Immersion Travel Magazine, experiencing new places and meeting new people has shaped our lives and has made us the insatiable travelers we are today. From rehabilitating gibbons in the rain forests of Thailand to celebrating soccer matches in tapas bars in Spain to covering the funeral of the president of Ghana, our travel experiences have shown us how much we don’t know and want to learn about the world as well as the impact we have on others.

costa rican hummingbirds

The cloud forests in Monte Verde, Costa Rica, are home to dozens of species of hummingbirds.

Hopeful Travel Trends

We have marveled at humanity’s beauty only to become hopelessly frustrated by it moments later. We have seen the positive influence that the travel industry has had on the world and we have seen its devastation. Travel isn’t unchangeable. It can be shaped into an industry that benefits the cultures, economies and environments of communities across the continents. That is what sustainable tourism is all about, encouraging travelers and travel destinations to take responsibility for their actions concerning environmental conservation, culture and micro economies. The trick is traveling responsibly.

The travel industry is a powerful economic force around the globe. Even during times of economic hardship, tourism has continued to increase and support villages, towns, cities and nations. According to the U.N. World Tourism Organization, 1.087 billion people traveled in 2013, 52 million more than the year before. With more and more families, elders and millennials focusing their attention on world travel, that number will continue to increase and new trends in travel will begin to develop.

A few hopeful trends that have been seen recently involve creativity in travel, staying in small bed and breakfasts or hostels, engaging in physical activities, trying local cultural experiences featuring food and music, and focusing on sustainability. In other words, people are growing tired of bus tours and big resort holidays. They are craving authentic experiences with communities that won’t exploit culture or damage the environment. With more people making sustainable and responsible travel decisions, the travel industry just may become a positive force in everyone’s life.

chiang mai

This shaman woman welcomes a small group of American students into her home for a cup of tea. She was excited to educate the group about her practices and how her small community depended on her to keep them healthy.

Important Questions

Traveling responsibly starts by asking questions:

  • How much water does it take to keep the golf course green?
  • How many indigenous plants grow on the premises?
  • Where does the food come from? How is waste managed?
  • Are the tours run and organized by individuals in the community?
  • How is the lodge giving back to the neighborhood?

When we are doing research for our trips, we constantly ask these kinds of questions. We want to make sure that our
presence isn’t going to negatively affect the people, plants or animals around us. We want a destination to be happy to see us, not just for financial gain, but to share knowledge and create wholesome memories. The more questions, the better. Don’t be intimidated to ask a company how it was founded, who it benefits and how it plans to conserve resources and promote community development.

Many organizations have started asking the important questions for travelers. TripAdvisor’s Green Leaders program asks rigorous questions of travel venues and inspects companies that act suspiciously. The International Ecotourism Society has been consulting and certifying travel destinations since before anyone knew what ecotourism was. Hundreds of smaller consulting firms led by professionals like Megan Epler Wood and Hitesh Mehta have changed the way people around the world think about travel. Over the past year, these organizations have seen an increase in interest from travelers who want to make responsible decisions on the places they visit.

According to a recent poll, 16% of travelers in the U.S. rate ecotravel as an important factor in their vacation. In 2011, 93% of Conde Nast Traveler readers said that “travel companies should be responsible for protecting the environment.” Fifty-eight percent of those readers also said their hotel choices were influenced by “the support the hotel gives to the local community.” TripAdvisor has seen over 200,000 searches  for green tourism on its site over the past year.

ghana

A young Ghanian boy teaches a foreign visitor the local handshake.

Changing Your Mindset

This increase in responsible thinking is hopeful; however, traveling responsibly doesn’t end at asking questions and choosing sustainable destinations. It takes a change in mindset to make a lasting positive impression. Pack biodegradable soaps and shampoos. Choose to ride a bike across town instead of driving. Pack a few extra things that the community has asked for such as soccer balls, books and pencils. Learn how to say “hello” in the local language. Remember to listen with open ears and an open mind.

Know that your presence makes a difference one way or another. There are many ways to show respect toward a community and its environment. Small gestures like refraining from buying bottled water, following local customs and asking permission to take someone’s photograph go a long way in making a trip unforgettable as well as inspiring others to follow suite. The entire travel industry can be a force for good. All it takes is a little responsibility.

*All photos courtesy of Immersion Travel Magazine

Clare Hancock

About The Author

Clare Hancock Bio: Editor in Chief of Immersion Travel Magazine, a digital, tablet-based publication that showcases culturally sensitive and environmentally conscious travel destinations across the globe, as well as genuine and reliable content for travelers, who are curious about their world; aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty; enjoy putting their feet up once in a while; and are craving a new and honest look at travel. Raised among cacti and cowboys in Arizona, Clare has always had an appetite for adventure. After traveling to various parts of the world, she set her sights on becoming a travel writer but quickly learned that the lifestyle wasn’t enough. She decided to start her own travel magazine that only featured sustainable destinations and prioritized honesty and integrity above making a profit. Out of that dream grew Immersion Travel Magazine.

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Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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