Kuna Indian, San Blas Archipelago, Panama

How to be a Responsible Traveler

Guest Contributor|April 20, 2018|Blog Post

Simple Tips for More Sustainable Adventures


Ecotourism may seem like a complex approach to being a responsible traveler, but its ethos is remarkably simple. As defined by The International Ecotourism Society in 1990, ecotourism is “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” In short, it means that your travel is truly eco-friendly only when it benefits both the ECOlogy and the ECOnomy of the destination.

The Center for Responsible Travel’s annual study, The Case for Responsible Travel, examines the trends and statistics surrounding this movement towards more sustainable and ethical adventures. It found that nearly two-thirds of travelers surveyed by TripAdvisor often consider the environment in their travel choices. Another survey found that 21% of travelers are willing to pay more for a vacation experience with companies that have better environmental and social records.

When you consider the fact that the growth of the ecotourism industry is increasingly outpacing that of the mass tourism industry, it suggests that there will be more and more responsible travelers in the years to come. But what does it mean to be a responsible traveler? In general, it means to be conscious of our choices, and taking time to consider their social and environmental impact.

Here’s a look at some simple tips—we call them “baby steps to going green”—that ANY traveler can implement to make their adventures more sustainable:

 responsible travel tips

Pack Light 

As with many of these tips, packing light offers double benefits. It’s eco-friendly, helping to increase the airplane’s fuel efficiency; but it also helps you save money by cutting down on checked baggage fees. We never check our bags, even when we’re spending three weeks exploring East Africa or Patagonia and Antarctica. Instead, we roll all our clothes to maximize our carry-on space, and we pack clothes that can be washed in the sink (or shower) and air-dried overnight.

 responsible travel tips

Conserve Water 

The world’s water is in increasingly short supply, so we practice the same water-saving tips when we travel that we use at home. We take short showers, turning off the water while we shave or brush our teeth. We re-use our towels for several days, just as we would at home. And we NEVER use the hotel laundry: They always wash each guest’s clothes separately, even if there are only a few items. This is a huge waste of water!


Conserve Energy 

It’s common sense that you should turn off the lights, AC/heat, and TV in your hotel whenever you don’t need them (just as you hopefully do at home). But our favorite energy-saving tip when we travel is to hang the “Do Not Disturb” sign on our door every time we leave the room. This prevents the housekeeping staff from coming in and cleaning every day, which saves on the electricity of vacuuming floors and washing sheets, not to mention the harsh chemicals they use to clean the bathrooms.


Reduce / Reuse / Recycle 

One of the simplest tips for being a responsible traveler is to ALWAYS carry a water bottle you can refill, eliminating the need for buying plastic bottles. But in places where tap water isn’t potable, make sure to recycle your bottles and anything else you can find appropriate bins for. We also use just one bar of soap for sink and shower, take home unused soap, and return all our maps and brochures once we’re finished using them.


Buy Local 

Another tip we should all practice both at home and abroad: buying locally made products is better for the environment and the economy. For one thing, you avoid the wasted fuel and energy of long-distance shipping. In terms of souvenirs, it’s a lot cooler to get a hand-crafted item directly from the artist than some assembly line knickknack made in China. Best of all, when you buy foods and products directly from the people who made them, you have a chance to have a conversation and learn more about the local culture!

 responsible travel tips

"Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints"

The “Leave No Trace” ecological ethos is more important today than ever before. When you’re hiking, always stick to marked trails. Never pick plants or flowers, and leave a respectful distance between you and any wildlife you may see. In the interest of leaving every place we visit a little better than we found it, we’ll often take a bag along and pick up some trash along the way. Not only does this make the scenery more beautiful, but it also protects wildlife that might eat or get tangled up in the garbage.

 responsible travel tips

Immerse Yourself in Local Culture 

The art, music, dance, and cuisine preferred by local cultures are quite often a major part of what makes a destination unique. Embracing these cultural differences by stepping outside your comfort zone is an excellent opportunity for adventure. Learning a new dance or sampling a new cuisine can be a great way to get to know the local people. And it’s amazing to learn new things simply by opening up your mind to things you’ve never experienced before.


Honor Local Customs 

We’ve seen far too many travelerswho go to exotic destinations around the world completely oblivious to the local traditions. For instance, it’s considered insulting (if not dangerous) for women to explore a Muslim country wearing midriff-baring tops and shorts. Most countries consider it disrespectful to take a photo of someone without asking permission first. It’s important to understand and respect these traditions, just as you would want visitors to respect your rules if they came to your house.

 responsible travel tips

Give Back 

Anyone who has traveled the world extensively knows there’s an incredible disparity in wealth between the US and most developing nations. As a responsible traveler, I think it’s important to give something back to the people in the places we love to visit. Non-profit NGO Pack For A Purpose makes it easy to make a difference by packing supplies in your luggage that are sorely needed in the local communities you travel to. Their site makes it easy to search over 60 countries by destination or initiative.


Shop Ethically 

As mentioned above, shopping locally is great for the local economy. But shopping ethically is essential for the environment. People in developing nations sometimes sell ancient artifacts, endangered species (both alive and in parts), or items made from non-sustainable hardwoods. When in doubt, always read labels and ask questions about what items are made from. It may be legal for people to sell such items, but responsible travelers can vote with their wallets by refusing to buy them. 


Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.