Are you a responsible traveler? Sustainable tourism for a better world

by Travel Tips

Travel can be transformative, educational and addictive. As the travel industry continues on a growth trajectory – taking people into cultures far different than their own — the question becomes even more pressing: Are you a responsible traveler? Are you thinking about sustainable tourism when you travel?

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the travel and tourism industry has grown more strongly than the global GDP since 2001. It generated 10.4 percent of all global economic activity in 2018.

That’s a lot of hotel nights, dinners out, guide fees and tips in both developed countries that have a greased tourism machine to the tiniest of less developed ones where tourists are more of an entertaining sideshow for locals.

What is sustainable tourism?

Sustainable tourism can also be called responsible travel or ethical tourism. There are long codes and academic papers detailing what it is, but bottom line, it means being aware of and sensitive to the impact you have on a country, its culture and its people. It means understanding what affect you will have on a place, trying not to transfer your habits and mores onto the other culture, and attempting to keep your footprint positive.

Remember these four words for traveling responsibly: tolerance, respect, awareness and sensitivity.

In well-developed First World countries, travelers will likely not face increased personal danger (normal cautions apply, of course), other than the possibility of being a buffoon tourist and getting over-charged because you are naive. When it comes to travel to less developed, less tourist-savvy, Third World countries or those with a newer history of tourism, everything changes.

Morocco, for example, is one relative newcomer to tourism, particularly among travelers from North America, with tourism numbers rising and expected to increase by nearly 4 percent annually through 2028 according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. Nancy Lauer, owner of U.S./Morocco-based tour organizer Open Doors Morocco, says when she told people a few years ago what she did, the answer often was, “Where is Morocco?” Today, everybody seems to know and wants to go, she adds.

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Responsible travel in developing countries

In countries like Morocco with a less developed and growing travel industry, practicing responsible travel and choosing travel organizers who focus on traveling responsibly is especially important.

So how do you choose an ethical, responsible tour operator? For one, check the company website. Does it offer tours in a far-flung, oddball mix of countries where they can’t begin to have expertise? Does a company have an office or base and experience in the country you want to visit? Do they personally spend time there and know their guides? Do they handle logistics, or do they outsource to another group that does it all? Will clients have a direct phone number to the organizer in case of emergency? “In other words, if I need you, can I contact you personally while there?” Lauer says.

Labor laws may not protect tourism industry workers in developing countries either. For instance, in Morocco, with a less developed and less regulated travel industry, tourism workers such as guides often work 16-hour days without a day off and earn very little, says Lauer, whose company stresses sustainable tourism and ethical travel in Morocco. Many Western agencies that hire local guides for their Moroccan tour groups, rake in the profits, but may set up exaggerated suggestions for tipping so they pay the guide very little while instead forcing them to expect tips from clients to try to making a living wage. “This sets up a nasty cycle of workers being paid very little and getting their missing payment from the tourists by taking them to junky places and getting commissions,” says Lauer, who splits her time between Morocco and the United States and works with Moroccan business partners.

“In less developed countries, ethical travel is most important because there are fewer safeguards,” she adds. “While these countries, like Morocco, may have labor laws and other rules on the books for worker health and safety, they simply aren’t always enforced. Meaning businesses can take advantage of workers.”

What you can do to travel responsibly

For Lauer at Open Doors Morocco, the hallmarks of sustainable tourism include:

  • Paying fair wages to locals. Ask any potential tour operator how they pay their employees to ensure good working conditions and safety, and insist on an answer. Do they know their guides personally and pay them fair wages, or do they sub-contract to agencies who then also sub-contract, leaving little for guides’ wages? A red flag is their inability to answer or any hedging.
  • Providing immersive, local, cultural experiences for travelers that are safe for both the tourists and the locals.
  • Trying to balance the positive and negatives of tourism. Tourism raises the Gross National Product, brings in revenues to support businesses such as hotels and restaurants, and provides jobs for locals. At the same time, it can change cultures without travelers heeding responsible travel guidelines and being sensitive.
  • Working with the culture and its differences to yours, accepting and appreciating it rather than trying to make it like yours at home or behaving like you do at home.

According to UNESCO, being an “enlightened traveler” who travels responsibly includes:

  • Preparing for your trip, by learning something about the country.
  • Choosing the right tour operator, who for example employs local guides and works with local communities. Asking about the type of lodgings, for example, and if they are run by locals. Inquiring about the company’s environmental standards.
  • Respecting local customs, cultures and lifestyles.
  • Considering the impact of your presences by staying, eating and shopping locally so expenditures stay in the country. Also, thinking about the type of transit you choose and packaging or other waste to protect the country’s environment.
  • Presenting yourself and your country realistically and interacting with locals in honest discussions.
  • Continuing the experience upon returning home, for example by sharing more than tourist insights and images with family and friends.

“Sustainable tourism focusing on ethical travel is important to me so our guests see the real Morocco,” Lauer adds. “But, even more than that, it’s important to me that we are treating people the way we ourselves want to be treated.”

Bottom line, being an ethical traveler means developing an understanding of how people do things where you are and then following those principles. It all starts, however, by choosing the right tour operator. Ask any operator you are considering about their approach to ethics in travel and sustainable tourism. Lauer is one, for example, who won’t compromise her ethics as a part of the business. “I try to educate clients as best I can. But I also make sure that our behavior follows our reputation. I’m not willing to compromise on what we consider the hallmarks of ethical tourism,” she explains. “Sometimes that means losing business or losing a qualified guide, but it’s not worth it to me. It’s important to us that all of us in the business behave in honest, upfront ways.”

You don’t have to give up fun for sustainable tourism

You don’t have to give up anything to be a responsible traveler. You don’t have to or sleep in a tent (unless you want to) or eat food you don’t like (although trying some local cuisine is a plus). For traveling responsibly, you just have to be tolerant, be aware and be sensitive to differences. Slapping a 35% tip on a café table because the money to you seems so cheap doesn’t make you a better tourist; it shows little respect for another country’s customs, raises expectations among locals for tips from other travelers, and thus ruins the experience for other travelers.

Lauer suggests a few guidelines that are applicable in Morocco or other developing countries:

  • Avoid over-tipping
  • Skip extravagant gifts.
  • Forget handing out candy, pens or small change to kids or other beggars. “It turns into a massive swarm of kids following you with out-stretched palms and just builds dependency on tourists in the wrong way.”
  • Leave a country better than you found it.
  • Dress culturally respectfully. For example, in Morocco or other more conservative or Muslim countries, covering up a bit more is suggested, which means no bare shoulders or knees as a start. (Read our story on etiquette in Morocco for more tips and the section on how to dress in particular.)
  • Ask questions rather than making assumptions.
  • Try to avoid stereotyping.
  • Attempt to use the local language (even if you sound silly, you will be greeted by smiles).
  • Look to blend in wherever you are as much as possible.

In general, avoid simply pillaging a place or country by racing through it, snapping a few Instagrammable photos and selfies, then racing off. Spending time to enjoy the destination, experience local people and businesses, investing in the businesses, and respecting the environment are all part of sustainable tourism.

For Lauer, as a tour operator, ethics goes both ways. She has seen hotels treat guests well, but staff horribly. Or treat guests with a lack of honesty. “I don’t want the travelers to be taken advantage of, and I don’t want the Moroccans to be taken advantage of, so I hold the boundaries protecting both sides.”

HITT me with quick facts and travel tips

Quick links to additional resources on sustainable travel:

Related articles on responsible travel we have written:

Here are several books on sustainable travel we recommend: Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet; Eco Travel: How to be a sustainable traveler.

Travel a bit more responsibly with a Bamboo Travel Utensil Set with Carrying Case and a SteriPen Ultra Water Purifier with rechargable batteries or a Grayl Geopress 24 ounce Water Purifier so you don’t have to use bottled water or generate as much waste.

Be prepared for anything. Even when traveling responsibly anything can happen and you must be prepared. Don’t leave home without the right travel insurance. We recommend Global Rescue for evacution insurance and World Nomads for travel insurance. Get a travel insurance quote here.

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About Open Doors Morocco: Nancy Lauer, managing partner of tour operator Open Doors Morocco, splits her time between the United States and Morocco. With the company’s main office in Marrakech, she and her business partners there work closely with the communities where they operate and personally oversee every aspect of a tour. They know all of Open Doors’ suppliers (such as hotels and restaurants) personally, declining to work with those who aren’t honest or don’t treat their workers well. Her passion for the country of Morocco and ethics in tourism overall is contagious, which is why we not only chose to speak to her for this story but have also traveled to Morocco with Open Doors Morocco and highly recommend the company.

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Therese Iknoian

Co-Conspirator at HI Travel Tales
Little did her parents know that a short trip to Europe in high school would launch a lifetime love of travel, languages and cultures. Trained as a news journalist, Therese Iknoian now focuses her writing and photography talents on travel. Fluent in German, Therese also runs a translation business (ThereseTranslates.com) working primarily with companies in the outdoor/sports/retail industry. She's a French speaker, and loves to learn a bit of the language wherever she goes -- gdje je kupaonica? Мне нужна помощь! -- often embarrassing herself in the quest for cross-cultural communication. Therese is an award-winning member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.
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