Responsible Tourism: 8 Ways Travelers Can Support the Local Community

By Beth Greenfield · April 17, 2023 · 6 minute read

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Responsible Tourism: 8 Ways Travelers Can Support the Local Community

Travel, as you may have heard, is big business. The tourism sector accounted for 10.4% of the world’s GDP before the pandemic, and it’s on the rise again. But who really benefits from our vacation mindsets and liberal spending? Thinking about that, and making decisions based on the answers, is the first step toward becoming a responsible tourist.

The way you travel the world — from where you stay to where you shop — matters. Below we introduce the tenets of “responsible tourism.”

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What Is Responsible Tourism?

The responsible tourism movement aims to minimize and even reverse the negative effects of travel, from overcrowding and pollution to the erosion of cultural identity. A responsible tourist will make choices based on what’s best for the long-term success of the community they’re visiting.

Conscientious travelers will want to keep the following goals in mind:

•   Minimize negative economic, social, and environmental impacts

•   Generate economic benefit for local people while supporting improved working conditions

•   Honor natural and local heritage

•   Make connections with local people that foster a deeper understanding of the culture

•   Take into account people with disabilities

•   Be culturally sensitive overall

Responsible tourism was first defined by U.K. professor Harold Goodwin as part of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. It differs from sustainable tourism, which focuses more on conserving natural heritage and biodiversity. Both movements offer blueprints not only for tourists, but for business operators, governments, and local residents.

And remember: The negative effects of tourism, while more pronounced in poor countries, are also felt in many American communities.

Benefits of Supporting Local Economies

What travelers spend in local communities ideally benefits both locals and travelers. Most travelers are eager to help out the places they visit. And if tourists play their cards right, they’ll experience fewer crowds and a more authentic experience.

Before the pandemic, the travel sector employed 1 in 10 people around the globe. As the World Travel & Tourism Council reminds us, “[B]ehind every job in travel and tourism, there is a face, a story, a family and sometimes a whole community’s livelihood.”

Jobs in tourism offer chances at economic success to all sorts of people, including women and young people. In fact, women are employed in tourism at almost twice the rate of other sectors. And in some areas, wildlife tourism can help protect that wildlife through preservation programs and the creation of conservation jobs.

8 Ways to Support Local Economies

So how can you know if the money you spend is benefiting locals? You can start by avoiding chains of all sorts. Read on for more ideas.

1. Book Locally Owned Accommodations

Chain hotels and Airbnbs run by property managers mainly benefit their global headquarters. Plus they can damage the local culture by driving gentrification.

Instead, opt for a locally run or family-owned inn, B&B, or small hotel. You’ll be contributing directly to the local economy, as you learn more about the place and its idiosyncrasies.

2. Eat in Local Restaurants

After enduring a long flight and arriving in an unfamiliar place grumpy and hungry, you may be tempted to pop into a familiar coffee or food establishment that you know from home. But buying food from global chain restaurants doesn’t support the local economy — nor does it expand your palate, which is one of the great benefits of travel.

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3. Consider an Off-Season Visit

Travelers tend to overrun popular destinations during peak season. And in a tourism-dependent economy, their absence during low season can cause places to all but shut down. Instead of contributing to the tourist crush, try booking for a less coveted time.

Instead of summer travel to a northeastern U.S. beach town, try holding off till the fall, when it’s still balmy but emptying out.

4. Hire Local Cars and Drivers

Who knows the place you’re visiting better than a born-and-bred local? Rather than renting a car (likely from a global chain), hire a knowledgeable local driver to help you get around. You’ll learn the lay of the land and enjoy lots of insider tips and anecdotes for good measure. And you’ll put money directly into a local family’s pocket.

5. Take Trains Over Planes

Flying is one of the least sustainable parts of travel. In fact, it’s one of the least sustainable human activities, period, contributing to 2.5% of the world’s carbon emissions. Sure, when you globetrot, you need to fly to get somewhere. But why make it worse by then taking a bunch of small, enticingly cheap flights within your host country? Instead, set your sights on trains and buses, which have a much lower impact than even the shortest flights.

6. Buy Local Souvenirs

You want to go shopping, and locals have stuff to sell. What could be easier? The challenge comes in avoiding massive commercial shops and purchasing items from local artisans in craft markets and tiny, proprietor-run boutiques.

It’s also important to be aware of illegal souvenirs and avoid them at all costs. These include anything made of protected animals or trees, such as souvenirs made from poached ivory, animal skins and furs, rosewood, seashells, and hummingbirds, for just a few examples.

7. Volunteer With or Donate to Local Causes

Before heading to your destination, do a search for what donated materials might be needed by local charities. Then reserve some space in your luggage (which you can then refill with your locally purchased handicrafts). For some guidance on what to bring where, check out the destinations guide from the nonprofit Pack for a Purpose .

8. Share Your Experiences on Social Media

Once you’ve experienced responsible travel for yourself, spread the word! Using the popular #responsibletravel hashtag, share pics and details of the local establishments where you stay, eat, and shop — you may inspire others to do the same. This way, you can go on changing the world through others.

Tips for Being a Responsible Tourist

Read up on responsible tourism ahead of your trip. The fresh mindset you’ll be left with can help you get more out of your travels. Then make a few reservations in advance at local haunts.

Once you arrive, every time you open your wallet, think: Am I benefiting the local economy? Am I contributing in a positive or negative way? Keep it positive, and your destination will thank you.

The Takeaway

Enjoy your time away from home by keeping in mind the basic tenets of responsible travel: Respect local culture, minimize your waste, shop locally, and try to keep your footprint small. The whole world will benefit in the end.

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Photo credit: iStock/FilippoBacci

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