When travel reporter Victoria Walker first embarked on international travels at age 22, she was of the “very American view,” she says, that the world was her oyster. She’d jump at cheap flight deals, often never giving a second thought about why she even wanted to visit certain destinations. She was guilty of visiting all the same Instagram-friendly destinations and posting the same photo as thousands of others before her. In her post-pandemic travels, Walker says she’s considerably more thoughtful with her planning: She researches hotels’ sustainability policies, asks other travelers about their experiences in destinations, finds hole-in-the-wall dining options.
“I want to go to a place and feel like I got something from being there,” Walker says, “and that they got something from me being there or I didn’t take anything away from that destination.”
You don’t need to cross international borders to be mindful of your impact on a community and the environment. For over two decades, the responsible travel movement has put forth the message that by prioritizing and protecting local people, culture, and natural ecosystems, tourists can have more authentic experiences, meaning a trip that immerses visitors in the local culture. As recently as 2017, American travelers were least interested in exploring a destination’s culture and history and were most likely to book a cruise for their next vacation, according to an Expedia survey. Another Expedia survey from 2017 found that US travelers across age demographics were more likely to look for the best deals when it came to travel and valued outdoor trips.
Over the last few years, traveler sentiments have more closely aligned with the tenets of responsible travel: Since pandemic travel restrictions were lifted in 2021, tourists have placed a greater emphasis on sustainability and respect for local communities in their adventures. These ideals apply whether you’re visiting the next town over or a foreign country, whether you’re traveling for leisure or for business.
“Being a responsible traveler,” says Wesley Espinosa, the interim executive director at the nonprofit Center For Responsible Travel, “is going to a place with the mindset that you are going to treat it as your home and leave it better than you found it.”
Travel isn’t an inherently good or bad experience, Espinosa stresses — “travel just is,” he says, “it exists.” That doesn’t mean remaining ignorant of your impact on a destination. After all, while this may be your vacation, the city, town, or village you’re visiting is someone’s home and you should treat it as such. From putting in the legwork before you depart to ensuring you’re choosing a hotel or travel guide that supports the local economy, here’s what to keep in mind if you want to travel responsibly.
Plan your trip in a way that supports local people, customs, and nature
Any trip, near or far, requires some level of preparation and research: Where will you go? How will you get there? What will you do once you’ve arrived? Where will you stay on overnight trips? While making these decisions, consider the nature of your trip. If you’re planning a bachelor or bachelorette party and expect many late nights, you’ll want to identify a locale — and a neighborhood within that city — that supports these activities. “Mostly, the centers of big cities are set up for tourists and tourism and it’s hard to go wrong there,” says Justin Francis, the co-founder and chief executive of the tour operator Responsible Travel. “But if you’re traveling to a neighborhood, which is where local life really happens, just be a bit more mindful that some bars are local bars and they’re not going to take kindly to you going crazy.”
Do some research to determine if your proposed vacation destination is amenable to tourists. For instance, the city of Amsterdam recently released public service announcements deterring young British men from visiting the city, due to complaints from locals about “nuisance tourists.” The US State Department also keeps a list of countries where tourists are not advised to travel, such as Russia and Afghanistan. Maintain a basic understanding of environmental, social, and political news in your planned destination to ensure not only that it’s safe for you, but also that you won’t exacerbate any ongoing problems. “Understand the religion, understand the politics a little bit,” Francis says. “The big political problems that are likely to come up in conversation, just be aware of them.”
When you’re booking lodging, if you can, choose locally owned hotels and Airbnbs — you’re putting your money back into the community. While Airbnb has been linked to rising rent and diminishing housing supply, without any systemic policy change targeting short-term rentals, individuals choosing to abstain from Airbnb bookings will have negligible impact. “Individuals choosing not to Airbnb because of a housing shortage is all great but the big decision that needs to be made is governments disincentivizing landlords from those practices,” Keith Jacobs, a sociologist at the University of Tasmania, told the Guardian in 2022. There are some alternatives based on your needs and budget, including traditional bed and breakfasts and house and pet sitting.
For an extra step, you can call a hotel and ask how much of their staff live within a few miles of the property and if they’re paying at least the minimum wage to all employees, Francis says. Other things to consider to minimize your carbon footprint while staying at a hotel: Do they have space devoted to nature on the property? Do they offer plant-based food options? Is the hotel powered by renewable energy? “It’s not always possible in every country in the world to switch from carbon and carbon-intensive fossil fuel energy to renewable energy,” Francis says, “but it is in many.” If you’re having trouble finding a hotel, try looking at sustainable tourism company Beyond Green, which partners with hotels, resorts, and lodges that promote sustainability, and hotel booking platform Kind Traveler, which allows travelers to donate to local charities when booking hotels.
Walker relies on information from other jetsetters in Facebook groups, such as NOMADNESS Travel Tribe, a community for Black and brown travelers. Walker will ask other members about their experiences in specific destinations, if they have connections to locals in the area, and hotel and restaurant recommendations.
If you’re considering a tour guide or excursion company, choose a locally run business, Francis says. Not only are you supporting the economy, but locals speak the language and know the most authentic restaurants, photo opportunities, and hideaways. Search your destination’s tourism office and find their list of suggested tour guide operators, Espinosa says.
As for how you’ll get there — and get around while you’re there — opt for transportation with the smallest carbon footprint. A flight might be necessary to get from point A to point B, but consider an extended stay in one location instead of hopping on multiple flights for a few days excursion, Francis suggests. For closer trips, try taking the bus or train. Public transit should be your preferred mode of transportation within your destination as well.
Spend your money in local restaurants and on artisan goods
Not only do you get a more authentic experience by shopping and dining locally, but you’re putting dollars in the pockets of the people whose home you’re visiting. For Espinosa, an “authentic” trip is not one that relies on hokey attractions, but the moment when you engage with local culture. These tourist hotspots aren’t inherently bad, but they don’t give you the full picture of a destination. “When I think of my favorite memories when I travel, it’s never the wild moment of peering over the Grand Canyon, although that’s cool,” he says. “What’s always memorable to me is on my way to the Grand Canyon, I stopped at a gas station and I met an old guy and sat down and had a cup of coffee with him and he told me about his life living in the area.”
Food is an excellent entry point into a community. In the car on her way from the airport to her hotel, Walker’s first order of business on every trip is asking rideshare and taxi drivers their favorite meals. “I phrase it as like, ‘If I only have X amount of days here, what should I eat?’ Or ‘If you are coming back home from a long trip, what’s the first thing you want to eat?’ Or ‘What’s the first thing you ask your mom or your grandma or somebody in your family to make you?’” Walker says. “Because everybody has a story.”
Whenever you can, avoid chain restaurants and eat your meals at local establishments, Francis says. Try to dine at restaurants that source at least some of their ingredients locally. Spread the love: Dine at different locations every day to support multiple businesses, Espinosa says.
When shopping, locally owned boutiques are preferable to malls — but craft or artisan markets is where you’ll make the most economic impact. “It’s a fantastic way to talk to local people about traditions and their ways of life,” Francis says, “and very often [you] end up buying something and supporting them.” Try Googling local markets, craft fairs, or artisan markets in the city you’re visiting or strike up a conversation with a local — a barista, someone sitting next to you on the bus, or a guide if you’re using one — to get their suggestions.
Be respectful when visiting sacred or natural sites
Among the top tourist destinations worldwide are historic ruins, national parks, and holy sites. If any of these locations has a museum or educational focus associated with it, there are likely posted instructions informing visitors about photo and waste policies, clearly marked paths (for natural sites), and preservation information. It should go without saying, but follow those rules. Espinosa recommends booking a tour if they’re offered to get an in-depth look at the site.
For locations without posted visitor guidelines, err on the side of caution and ask someone nearby if entering a space or taking a photo is permitted — especially if you are photographing another person. “That’s the first and foremost most respectful thing you can do,” Espinosa says. “And guess what? It’s an opportunity to learn. Somebody feels connected to their own place … and they get to transmit information to you.”
Operate with respect when visiting nature preserves: Stay on marked paths, take your trash with you and only dispose of it in clearly marked waste receptacles, don’t take plants, sand, shells, or other natural objects with you, and don’t disturb or touch animals.
Regardless of your itinerary, Espinosa suggests donating to area nonprofits to ensure future visitors can enjoy the location, too. For example, if you’re visiting a marsh or wetland, look for a nonprofit that supports conservation. “The people there who also enjoy doing what you enjoy doing, if that’s eating good food, if that’s music and arts, if that’s outdoor recreation,” Espinosa says, “find the people who care about that in that scene.”
Take your time and fully immerse yourself in the culture
The most memorable part of your vacation might not be angling for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, but rather the lively chat with the owner of a fromagerie. “If you went to a destination and you only spoke to other tourists, or people in a service role,” Walker says, “then you didn’t do well by that destination, you didn’t do well by that trip.”
Don’t take for granted the joy in the smaller moments that happen when you aren’t rushing from museum to museum, reservation to reservation. Allow yourself leisure time to discover the nooks and crannies of a destination and connect with the people there. It helps to learn a few phrases of the native language — something as simple as “hello,” “please,” and “thank you,” Francis says — which earns the respect of locals.
Remember, there are parts of the world where looser schedules prevail, so don’t stress if a train is delayed or people walk slower than they do at home. “You’re going to find you enjoy yourself more if you don’t get stressed by that and angered by that and just go with the flow,” Francis says.