How to travel more responsibly

tourists being poled down the Vietnam Mekong delta through mangroves

Danny Baggs

Posted July 27, 2022

Making a conscious decision to travel responsibly is good for the planet, good for local communities, and a feel-good experience for you.

Responsible travel – also called ethical travel or sustainable travel – asks tourists to be mindful of the consequences of their choices and behaviour when they travel.

“It’s about choosing to both respect and benefit the local people, their cultures, economies and environment,” explained Yvette Thompson, Intrepid Travel’s General Manager – Sales & Partnerships.

As borders begin to open across the globe, travellers are more mindful of how they can holiday more responsibly and sustainably.  Considering that 1.5 billion people travelled abroad for leisure in 2019 according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, making the effort to advantage the destinations and communities you encounter can have a massive cumulative impact. Here are some of the best tips and tricks to help you use travel as a force for good, so our world’s incredible destinations can be better preserved for future generations.

How to travel responsibly

Explore Australia first

“Remember to look in your own backyard for a treasure trove of unique travel experiences,” said Yvette. By travelling within Australia, you can support Australia’s regional and rural communities and keep your carbon footprint lower than you would with an overseas flight.

From tropical rainforests to pristine beaches to scorching deserts, Australia is truly a diverse country to travel through. “Cycling South Australia’s wine regions, trekking the iconic Larapinta trail, learning about the food, art, medicine and languages of the Luritja peoples in the Northern Territory and exploring the world’s oldest rainforest in tropical North Queensland are just some of the amazing experiences Australia has to offer,” said Yvette.

If you’re an avid hiker, load up your backpack and tackle one of Australia’s gorgeous multi-day hikes. The alpine Overland Track, the outback Larapinta Trail and the coastal Great Ocean Road are some of the most popular ‘great walks’ in the world. Booking with a licensed tour operator like Intrepid Travel is ideal, because they do all the planning and prepping for you and can help keep you safe and happy during the walk.

a sailing boat in Queensland

Try exploring Australia before heading overseas. Credit: Tourism & Events Queensland

Choose an ethical tour operator

When selecting your next tour, pick an operator that focuses taking small groups to destinations off the beaten track rather than over-touristed hotspots. This benefits smaller communities who wouldn’t otherwise profit from their country’s tourism industry. Operators like Intrepid Travel who hire local guides, make use of local suppliers, and make a genuine difference to local communities are known for their ‘community-based tourism’.

Your tour operator should also offset their carbon footprint to help preserve the planet for future generations to enjoy. Intrepid, for example, has been carbon-neutral since 2010 and became in the world’s largest B Corporation in 2018. Yvette explained Intrepid’s B Corp status as “a third-party certification that ensures we meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”

an Intrepid Travel group in Morocco's Chefchaouen

Small group tours often visit destinations off the beaten path. Credit: Intrepid Travel

Avoid attractions that exploit animals

Spotting native wildlife is a special experience for travellers. Unfortunately, some animal attractions available to tourists exist to exploit rather than conserve animals. While some historic animal attractions are now widely denounced – like cockfights or ‘dancing bears’ – other animal welfare issues aren’t as well-known.

The famous Five Freedoms of animal welfare includes “freedom to express normal behaviours”. You should aim to avoid any animal experience that allows tourists to interact with animals in ways that would never naturally occur. Elephant rides, for example, are unnatural because elephants are wild animals – that's why Intrepid Travel hasn’t offered elephant rides on any of their trips since early 2014. Other attractions to be wary of include animal encounters with predators (who are usually drugged or separated from their mothers), animal circuses, and marine parks that require their animals to perform in shows.

Instead, visit ethical wildlife conservation parks or safari expeditions on your travels. You could also join an animal-spotting walking tour or hire a ‘hide’ (disguised shelter that allows you to watch wildlife unobserved) for an evening. These experiences allow you to safely and respectfully observe animals from a distance – just like in nature.

woman leaning out of safari jeep watching elephants in Africa

Aim to observe rather than interact with non-domesticated animals. Credit: Shutterstock

Listen to indigenous communities

When exploring new lands, whether domestic or international, make sure you pay attention to the indigenous communities. Do your research and be respectful of the local culture, traditions and customs. Most importantly, make sure not to trespass on important cultural sites that aren’t meant for tourists – for example climbing Uluru, which is not permitted under Tjukurpa (Anangu law and culture).

“At Intrepid, we think globally, act locally, and engage personally, with community-based tourism and experiences that support First Nations and Indigenous communities around the world,” Yvette said. If you’re not travelling on a tour, hire an indigenous guide when visiting cultural sites open to tourists to learn about the land from its traditional custodians and ensure your money goes back to the local community.

woman learning from an Indigenous guide at the Mossman Gorge Centre

You'll learn much more from local guides and communities. Credit: Tourism & Events Queensland

Offset your flights

Australians generally have to catch a plane to travel overseas due to our country’s location, which isn’t great for the environment: flying produces the most amount of carbon per passenger compared to any other mode of transport. But did you know that most airline companies and flight comparison sites give you the option to purchase carbon offsets for your flights? You can drastically reduce your footprint by selecting direct flights (more fuel-efficient), ticking the ‘buy carbon offset’ box on your ticket purchase, and researching which airlines use renewable biofuels rather than fossil fuels.

Make sustainable transportation choices

Your choice of transportation could have the biggest impact on your carbon footprint when traveling. “Use public transport, hire a bike or walk where convenient – you'll meet local people and get to know the place a lot better,” Yvette suggested. Walking tours, cycling tours or sailing tours where possible all enable better immersion and have minimal environmental impact.

Need to travel overland? Traveling by train rather than by airplane reduces carbon emissions by up to ten times, according to the International Transport Forum. They also allow for ‘slow travel’: you can watch the landscape slide past, read a book, catch a nap, and arrive at your destination ready to explore.

Driving a car should be your last resort, but if you must drive then hop on a rideshare site to book a car full of passengers, or even purchase a bus ticket. The greater the number of passengers, the lower your carbon footprint.

woman leaning out of blue train through the countryside

Train travel is much more eco-friendly than a plane flight. Credit: Shutterstock

Leave No Trace on nature

Environmental sustainability is an important part of ethical travel. Pack eco-friendly items like a reusable water bottle, reef-friendly sunscreen, reusable straws and cutlery, tote bag, and all-purpose biodegradable soap. If you’re heading to destinations where water may contain impurities, consider buying a purification water bottle from the likes of Lifestraw or GRAYL.

When outdoors, stay on marked trails and paths to avoid damaging delicate ecosystems. Take any rubbish you create back with you, and don’t remove anything from nature like pebbles, sand or flowers. Photos are the only things you should take.

If in doubt, it can help to keep the Leave No Trace Seven Principles in mind:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare 

  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces 

  3. Dispose of waste properly 

  4. Leave what you find 

  5. Minimise campfire impacts 

  6. Respect wildlife 

  7. Be considerate of your hosts and other visitors

man and woman at Elliott River in the Otways National Park along the Great Ocean Road

Take only photos; leave only footsteps. Credit: Supplied

Do your research on volunteer tourism projects

‘Voluntourism’ – tourism that centres around volunteering opportunities, often in third-world countries – is a tricky experience to navigate. Many volunteer opportunities, especially ones involving children, may exploit those they claim to help. Other volunteer projects take jobs away from locals, increase dependency on volunteers rather than the instigating cause, or simply don’t do much good – for example, how effective is your stint as an English teacher when you have no teaching qualifications and only stay for two weeks? Wanting to volunteer your time and resources is a noble goal, but do your research on any organisation you plan to work with. At a pinch, clean-up projects in areas struck by natural disaster directly and effectively help those in need.

woman browsing a market stall in Vietnam Hoi An

Sample food and wares from authentic local markets rather than tourist shops. Credit: Intrepid Travel

Support local businesses

“Support locally owned businesses, hotels, restaurants and other services when you travel,” Yvette encouraged. What better way to travel ethically and enjoy a culturally authentic holiday than by buying from local businesses? While ducking into McDonalds or checking into the Marriott might be easy and familiar, your purchases from these franchises sends your money back to overseas headquarters.

Locally owned cafes, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, shops and market stalls will provide more interesting and authentic cuisine, clothes, souvenirs and services. Buy directly from producers and artisans where possible to best support the local community. “Buying locally also reduces the impact you have on the environment as the products you’re buying haven’t travelled far from their place of origin,” Yvette said. “By genuinely connecting to and investing in the places you travel to and through, all of us can become conscientious travellers.”

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