More and more people have access to travel and more and more people want to rediscover nature and culture from all over the world. Social media have also contributed to make some places very popular and millions of people visit them each year to admire them and take the perfect picture.
In this scenario, travelling responsibly and sustainably has never been more important.
While I don’t think that travelling can ever be 100% sustainable, a lot can be done to travel more responsibly. Deciding to go plastic free, choosing eco-friendly accommodation and transport, volunteering while travelling, getting involved in projects that support local communities and economies are all great ways to be a responsible traveller.
Even if, like me, you are more of an independent traveller, and prefer visiting places on your own rather than with an organised tour, there are always times when you can’t avoid it and you have to pick a tour agency. And how do I pick a responsible travel agency?
A responsible travel operator is one committed to support local community and minimise the impact they have on the planet.
As a lot of awareness has been raised about this issue, and increasing number of country have initiated certifications to award to sustainable travel companies, alongside the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, which has established some international criteria for sustainability in travel and tourism.
What should I look for then in a tour agency to make sure they are a responsible one? Here are some things to research:
Make sure they avoid the use and exploitation of wild animals
Sure animals are cute and the idea of playing with them may sound very appealing, but is that good for the animals? Try to avoid agencies that offer things such as riding elephants, swimming with captive fish, safaris where they let you get too close to wildlife disrupting their natural environment, etc….
Here you can find an example of a bad experience I had in Peru. We also heard that some agencies that organise tours in the Amazon forest keep monkeys captive so that tourists can hold them. The company we used instead for our trip to the Amazon forest, was very clear on the fact that it wasn’t going to be a trip to the zoo and animals could only be seen from a distance.
They support community or environmental conservation projects
Make sure the company you use gives back to the place you are visiting. More and more agencies now devolve part of your fee to local projects, aimed at supporting the communities in the area (such as supporting local school and businesses) or financing environmental projects (like animal conservation or environmental awareness projects).
Another way companies can support the community is by creating education and employment opportunities for local people: employing local guides and staff, giving them appropriate training and wages.
These were very important factors, for example, when we chose a tour agency for our safari in Tanzania: all guides, chefs and other staffs were locals and part of the money from our fare went to the national parks for conservation projects, like helping endangered species such as rhinos.
They arrange sustainable accommodation & food options
The accommodation options that tour agencies give you is something very important to look at.
There are two main aspects to consider here. The first thing to look at is if the hotel/hostel/shelters, etc… is a local business or is an international chain. As I said above, supporting local businesses is always a more sustainable choice.
The second question is: are the accommodation and food options eco-friendly? Some accommodation could be more sustainable by having soap bars, remove unnecessary plastic wrappings, providing a station to refill your water bottle, etc..
Finally, usually included in the accommodation, there is food. Another way of being sustainable is choosing local and traditional food based on local produce.
Again, the experiences we had during both our safari in Tanzania and our trip into the Amazon forest are an excellent example of this.
The agency takes some steps in minimising their environmental footprint
On top of all of the above things, some companies might also take some steps to minimise their environmental footprint, by for example using alternatives to plastic, choosing more eco-friendly transport, making sure people keep to hiking trails, etc…
Your trip does not damages the community, but brings some benefits to it
Visit to local communities should always benefits the community itself more than the tourists. We need to make sure that by visiting certain communities or deciding to take part in cultural tours, won’t cause damages to the environment, resources, values, etc…
Companies that make you interact with begging children or use child labour should be avoided. For example, in one of my trips in the North of Colombia, crossing La Guajira Desert, one of the reasons why we decided to take a tour through this place was because we were told we would get to go through local villages and meet indigenous communities. While this sounded great at the time, we soon realised that more than meeting and interacting with local people, on the first day we were simply driving through groups of children begging at the corner of the roads and our guides kind of forcing us to give them money or food.
One thing to keep in mind is that it takes time and money for companies to comply with all of these practices, alongside the legal requirement and there are some smaller companies that might be doing their best even when they are not perfect yet.
This is why personal responsibility plays a great role when travelling: being green and sustainable and doing our best to protect the planet is something we should always do, not only when travelling, hut also when we are at home.
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