Simple Ways to Be a Respectful and Ethical Traveler

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More and more people are taking time to travel every year, which is AWESOME. But unfortunately, travel has negative environmental and social effects on the world. As travelers, we want to responsibly preserve the beauties and cultures of the world for future generations to enjoy. But how do we do this? In this post, we want to guide you on how to make responsible and ethical travel decisions. We aren’t trying to tell you “what’s right and what’s wrong” in terms of responsible travel. We want to educate others on the potential effects travel has on society and the environment. By the end of this post, we hope you can formulate your own opinions and thoughts on ethical travel decisions.

Making Ethical Travel Decisions

Environmental Effects of Tourism

Animal Tourism, Zoos, and Aquariums

Animals encounters, riding elephants, zoos, visiting animal “sanctuaries.” What’s good and what’s bad? Of all of the ethical tourism topics, this topic is a touchy one. Some people firmly believe animals should never be kept in cages or used for tourism, no if and or buts about it! (and there’s nothing wrong with this!) While other people will visit anywhere as long as they see the animals they hope to see.

For anything involving animals (or any environmental/ecological tour), it’s VERY important that you do your research on the organization. Blindly visiting animal related tourist destinations can be dangerous because sometimes the ugly and sad things are what goes on behind the scenes. Think about these questions as you’re doing your research. Are the organization/tour accredited? Where does the funding come from? Who is running the organization? How are the animals treated? Is the tour or encounter disrupting the natural habitat? Read into why the animals at the zoo or animal sanctuary are there.

Some of red flags of poor animal tourism include:

  • Allow inappropriate contact between wildlife and people 
  • Interferes with animal habitats 
  • Restrains wild animals
  • Deprives an animal of basic needs (space, food, shelter, companionship)
  • Removes healthy animals from the wild, or makes profits from breeding or trading 
  • Uses and trains wild animals for entertainment purposes 

 If you want to visit somewhere with animals, it’s important to consider whether or not they are accredited and have a mission for conservation. Organizations with reputable conservation efforts are incredibly valuable to animal species that are threatened and endangered. Thanks to many zoo and animal sanctuaries, animals that were on the verge of extinction have been returned to the wild.

If you’re looking for reputable and ethical organizations, here are some qualities to look for:

  • Has a mission of conservation and public education
  • Is not for profit
  • Strives for rehabilitation and release
  • Conducts ethical conservation and ecology research
  • Is accredited or recommended by organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, Sustainable Travel International, or Association of Zoos and Aquariums 

Not only are organizations like this saving species, but they also have a mission regarding public education. It’s important for tourists and society to understand and learn about local wildlife.

Eco-Friendly Decision Making

Like in our everyday lives, it’s important to reduce our waste and be mindful of our consumption. While traveling, it’s easy to use things that are disposable for convenience sake; however, it can create a lot of waste. Additionally, there is much debate about the effects of flying and driving because of carbon emissions. In many cases, flying is unavoidable. However, one way to reduce the effects of transportation is to use public transit instead of renting vehicles.

Social Effects of Tourism

“Voluntourism” vs. Sustainable Service Trips

Sometimes the animal tourism debates tend to overshadow some the human to human effects of travel. Voluntourism has become a popular means of travel over the years. This type of tourism involves traveling to other countries, typically underprivileged countries, doing community service, while “double-dipping” per se and spending time traveling and exploring the location. Unfortunately, many times, these types of trips are a vacation blanketed under the name “volunteer trip.” Other times they are not, some organizations sponsoring voluntourism do excellent service work. But ultimately, if you’re going on a service trip, the purpose is service. It’s not about being a “savior” or making yourself feel good. Those living in poverty are not your charity case for you to get pat on the back when you return home. This brings us to our next point. There is a distinction between sustainable and “completing a task service” service. Sometimes, the “completing a task service” that people give on such trips does more harm than good for the local communities. We dive more into this topic in our experience volunteering in Haiti post.

Ethically Supporting Locals

When traveling, it’s good to support the local economy. One of the ways to do so is to purchase local crafts and avoid souvenirs mass produced overseas. When shopping, try to get as close to buying from the craftsman as possible. This way, you know that your product its legit, and you’re supporting the right person! 

The Airbnb debate. Some argue that Airbnb can hurt local economies because of the lack of regulations, taxes, and rates that can skyrocket above the average monthly rent or mortgage. There are also questions about whether the increase in Airbnb properties is displacing locals. 

Revitalized vs. Gentrified Neighborhoods 

In many cities, there are beautiful and exciting neighborhoods to visit that have a dark past, or even a dark present. Throughout society, there are communities that struggle economically and socially because of poverty, racism, crime, and business loss. Community organizations and funds can work to alleviate these problems through sustainable practices that strive to provide long-term solutions for the people in the community. This is a process called revitalization. In this case, the locals benefit in the long term. However, there is another case, where the locals are displaced and pushed out in order to bring in businesses that satisfy another group of people, such as the middle class. This case, called gentrification, is the result of businesses and housing (that are priced and aimed towards the middle class), moving into these struggling neighborhoods. When this occurs, typically the locals already living there cannot afford to enjoy the new business and homes.

Some people question if is it possible to have revitalization without gentrification. The reason we are bringing this up is that many touristic, hip, and trendy areas of cities can either be a product of gentrification or revitalization. Visiting gentrified areas has a doubled edged sword. In one breath you’re supporting a local business. But in another breath, you might be indirectly contributing to a systemic cycle of inequality. Or like we said, maybe this is all unavoidable? What do you think? 

Respecting Other Cultures

When you visit another country, especially one very different from yours, it’s important to be respectful. There are many cases where your own cultural values can make you feel and think that another culture’s value or traditional is invalid or wrong. From a cultural anthropology perspective, this practice is not good because you’re putting your own culture at the center and judging another because it doesn’t meet the standard of what you know to be true. Read more about ethnocentrism and cultural relativism here. 

With this in mind, be open minded! Do your research, strive to learn more. That’s what travel is all about, right? Learn and experience what is different. 

What Should and Shouldn’t I Photograph?

Photos of travel experiences is probably one of the most valued souvenir for travelers. However, there is a time and place for photographs. When sites ask for no photos, don’t take the photos. Like seriously, don’t try to sneak a picture of the Sistine Chapel. There’s a reason for no photographs. In sites like the Sistine Chapel, there’s not photography because it’s a holy space and snapping pictures takes away from it’s purpose. This goes for another “no photos allowed” destinations.

There is also the topic of photographing people….

Selfies. Everyone has to get them. If you’re trying to get the perfect shot, remember there are other people around you. Even as photographers, we keep in mind there are other people around who are trying to enjoy their day and likely don’t want a photoshoot in their way.

Effects of Tourism on Historic and Natural Sites 


Overtourism has become a travel community buzzword with more and more people traveling to popular, “bucket list” destinations. We want to preface this, that traveling to these places isn’t bad. The arguments from locals and sustainable tourism groups is that too many tourists are:

  • Disrupting the local way of life
  • Hurting the sites itself by excessive wear and tear
  • Driving up local costs of living
  • Taking away from the beauty of the destination

There are some ways you can help combat overtourism, not only to help the locals but to give yourself a better travel experience. Try traveling in the offseason and experience destinations like a local, not a tourist trying to get the perfect IG shot.

Respecting Historic and Natural Sites

Unfortunately, there are a high number of cases where people take things as souvenirs from historic and natural sites. This is problematic because taking things causes physical damage to the site. If people keep taking something for themselves, one day there might be nothing left!

When visiting historic and natural sites, it’s important to follow the posted signage about touching things, where you can and can’t walk, and photography. These signs are there for a reason. This is incredibly important for people traveling with children. Children can not only get hurt themselves, but the site can as well.

In addition to respecting the site itself, be mindful of your crazy or quirky selfies. In Rome, we witnessed a girl get fined and ticketed for standing on the walls of the Spanish steps to get a selfie. Not only does “doing it for the gram” put the site in danger of damage, but it puts you at risk of physical (or financial) injury.

Do MY Actions Really Matter?

Sometimes when we travel, we feel so small in the world. So it’s easy to wonder, do my small actions matter? Think about this, if enough people, like hundreds or thousands of people, have this mindset, does it matter then? To us, yes. 

What do you think?