Written by Shannon O’Donnell who has been traveling around the world since 2008; she travels slowly and volunteers in small communities along the way. Shannon recently published The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, and her travel stories and photography are recorded on her travel blog, A Little Adrift.
Travelling with the mind set of doing a bit of good in the places we visit is something I think a lot of us travellers would love to integrate more into our lives, but at times it seems daunting to look at the loudest touted options and think that is all that’s out there.
If volunteering or traditional ways of giving back on the road are not appropriate for you or your trip, consider instead simply engaging in a more responsible and socially conscious trip—one that considers your potential impact on the places, people, and communities you are visiting.
There are several easy things you can do as a traveller to make that tiny bit of difference on the road, and you can pick and choose the tips that resonate with you and your values.
1. Support social enterprises
Social enterprises are businesses with underlying social missions, and they are located all over the world and in every city you are likely to visit (more on what and how to find here). When you’re picking a massage parlour of coffee shop to visit, go that extra step to ask if any of the businesses in the area give back and support the community in some way, and then simply give them your business.
2. Shop locally
Along the same lines as the social enterprises, consider spending your money at the local level. Buy your souvenirs from the market, eat at the mom and pop restaurants—keep your money within the community as opposed to major international corporations or chains.
3. Sleep locally
Consider locally run hostels and guesthouses, or even homestays. Many great trekking and tour companies will incorporate sustainable travel and homestays into their trips, which allows more rural areas to benefit from tourism dollars as well.
4. Limit your trash
Trash is a major problem in developing nations, and plastics are the root cause of many environmental issues—dispose of your trash as responsibly as you can on the road, even if those around you are not doing the same.
5. Understand the history
Take the time before your trip to read books, memoirs, and local authors who can give you a slice of the culture and history before you even leave home. The beginning section of most guidebooks often contain a country’s abbreviated history, or check this list of recommended travel books for a range of fiction and non-fiction books sorted by country.
6. Respect the local culture
One of the ways to create a more positive experience for all involved is to respect cultural norms, this includes: conservative clothing in many places, public displays of affection, and even communication styles.
7. Choose your experiences with care
It’s difficult to make blanket statements about all the tourist activities all over the world, but in general, spend time before you leave researching the experiences that may border on (or be blatantly) unethical. It can be hard to suss out the facts on the road, so be wary of tours that allow you to: hug wild animals, ride wild animals, photograph indigenous people for the sake of an interesting photo, or exploit natural resources for the sake of tourism dollars.
8. Remember: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should
This applies to everything, it’s easy to slip into “vacation mode” and do things outside of home that you wouldn’t usually—if this means you’re keen to try new foods, great!, but ensure you are assessing your actions and interactions to always show respect for the local culture and country.
Our simplest actions define who we are, and as travellers our actions have the ability to create a loud echo throughout the places we visit. With just a few simple tweaks to our behaviours on the road we can each take small steps to travel responsibly and create a more positive impact on the places we visit.