Why responsible tourism is so important

As the world increases the frequency with which it travels it also spends more money. Much of this money goes to tour companies who use the services of people who live in developing countries. We all want a good deal and often see paying a little extra as a 'rip off' where everything else is dirt cheap.

But in trying to find a good price, unfortunately, many do not consider the welfare of the employees or environment in their decisions. Our hope for this article is that it will raise awareness of these practices and hopefully influence a change for the better. Below I discuss ways you can engage in responsible tourism, learn more, and help to make this change possible.

This article came about because of a comment my mother made to me. We had released a video on our experience trekking through Sapa (click here). She said 'I like that you're travelling responsibly in relation to people'. It made me wonder - we had always booked with companies like that.

Trekking the hills of Sapa, Vietnam with the assistance of a H'mong woman and Sapa Sisters, Life Itinerant

What is responsible tourism?

Responsible tourism (also known as sustainable tourism) is a practice that both reduces harm caused to the environment and people, and also promotes economic, environmental and sociological beneficial practices.

For example it may be a tour company that provides the same or similar services to it's competitors but provides support and benefits to it's employees that are representative of the money their consumers pay to them. This may be in the form of paid maternity leave, a wage that is not dependent on tips, or a lending scheme which facilitates the purchase of property which may otherwise have been out of reach. Or it could be a company that provides a service which is different from the industry standard because the standard causes some type of harm. Such as an elephant sanctuary, rather than allowing people to ride them, people come to wash, feed, or just observe them in a protected area - causing the animal no harm.

How does it work?

Put simply, money talks. The money you pay for a tour or experience influences behavior. If tourists continue to frequent the shows or experiences the operators continue to provide the show or experience because the demand is still there. By rejecting those activities that cause harm to employees, animals, or the environment you send a clear message ; 'This is something I am not interested in'. It takes time, and it takes other people to realise the same thing to really drive it in. But once the operators realise there is another way, they will start offering it and move away from previous practice.

A Karen girl studying in Northwest Thailand near the border with Myanmar- Life Itinerant

Why should you care?

It's your money, and after all you decide where it goes. I would like to think that most people would want to ensure that the person actually servicing your trip was reaping the benefit of your dollar, instead of some conglomerate.

Higher welfare for ground staff means higher retention rates equaling staff that stay around for longer because they are happy. This results in more knowledgeable staff who feel safe and supported in their work. It also allows people to invest in their future. Commonly I have heard from guides working for responsible companies how different things are for them now that they have secure employment with health benefits. I have heard many times that families can now afford to send their children to school, which will provide future generations with more opportunity. Many of the children chose to stay within the community but with their higher education provide new knowledge on marketing and financial independence.

In our experience tour guides who work for responsible tour companies are legitimately interested in educating people about their culture. On the occasions we went for the cheap option and did not consider the ramifications our tour guide seemed disinterested and it felt all about how quickly they could get us through the tour.

Diving with Mike Ball at Cod Hole, on the Great Barrier Reef - Life Itinerant

How you can do it too

Our first step when researching a tour run by local agencies is to find the company that has the higher welfare for it's workers, high retention rates, and, of course, good reviews from people's observation.

This may seem like a whole lot of hard work, that could not be further from the truth. In reality it is as simple as going to government websites to find recommendations, or finding out who has won awards for sustainable/responsible tourism. From there, send them an email, or call, ask them about their philosophy, what they offer their staff and where the money goes - you may be surprised how open people can be. In asking these questions tour companies will become aware of the importance of these practices and even if you do not end up booking with them they will will understand what consumers want, and this may influence their practice at some point down the line.

How you can encourage others to do the same

This one is really easy- share your experience. It may be through your circle of friends, review sites, or on social media. There a plenty of great websites out there to give and get advice like; Thorntree and Travel Wish - which are two of our favourite.

Even easier - share this article, to spread the message.

Rafting Dalat with Phat Tyre adventures, Vietnam - Life Itinerant