Responsible Travel – 15 Small Ways to Make a Big Difference

Tourists on Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand.

If you’re new to the world of responsible travel and worried that you may have already made a few ethical errors. Don’t panic. None of us are perfect! Read on for my confessions…

Collecting litter in Koh Lanta, Thailand
Me trying to be a responsible traveller picking up litter in Koh Lanta, Thailand!

We’ve all got a past

I’m going to come right out and say it. Over 10 years ago, as a 23-year old backpacker on my first solo trip to Asia, I did things that I now regret.

I rode an elephant in Koh Chang, Thailand. I tried snake wine in Vietnam and I bought roses from a child beggar thinking that I was helping them to save money so that they could go to school. (In giving the child money, I was actually making it less likely that they would ever go to school, even though I didn’t realise that at the time.)

These memories make my 35-year old self cringe. However, back then, I was not aware of the implications of my actions. Should I have done more research? Yes, of course I should have! (As you’re reading this article now, it looks like you won’t be making the same mistake!)

What I am trying to say is that none of us are perfect and sometimes we don’t fully understand what is ethical or unethical until after we have already committed the ‘irresponsible travel crime’ in question. For example, some backpackers we spoke to went snorkelling with whale sharks in the Philippines and said they would never do it again.

Note – It is worth mentioning that ethical opinion in the media and the travel industry are constantly changing and, for a newbie traveller to Asia, it can be difficult to know whose guidelines to follow. As late as 2009, the Lonely Planet was promoting elephant riding as the “best and most environmentally friendly way to visit the country’s national parks.” Today, elephant riding is widely regarded as unethical by most of the travel industry.

My advice? Do your research and do your best, that’s all anyone can ask. This way, you can look back and feel proud that you did what you could with the information that you had at the time. If, by accident, you end up taking part in an activity whilst travelling that you realise, with hindsight, may not have been the most ethical thing to do, learn from it, and share your experience with others.

So, after that lengthy introduction, my first point when it comes to talking about responsible travel is…

1. Don’t judge (yourself or others)

A few months ago a newbie traveller posted in our Facebook Community: “Hi everyone, just wondering if anyone has bought cobra/scorpion wine back to the USA?”

Spoiler Alert! Snake and scorpion wine is often made by drowning the animal in rice wine and is one of the cruelest souvenirs that you can buy, with your money going towards supporting the wild animal trade in Southeast Asia. Just to put you off even more – there’s also the chance that the snake may not actually be dead, but just in a drunken slumber, and come awake when stirred to bite the drinker!

Snake wine in Cambodia
Snake wine is one unethical souvenir which can be found all over Southeast Asia.

The person who posted the question was hit with a barrage of unhelpful and insulting comments that did not explain, in any way, the ethical mistake that they may have made! Such responses included:

  • “Oh dear. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
  • “Is this a backpacker community or a club for the most idiotic of travellers.”
  • “I hope this post is a joke.”

As I said in my school mistress voice at the time. As backpackers from all walks of society and from all corners of the globe, I hope that we can share our experiences and educate other travellers about the implications of buying snake wine and other moral travel questions, such as riding elephants, in a kind and compassionate way.

None of us knew everything when we started out travelling. We have all done things that we look back on and realise weren’t the best ethical decisions. The most important thing is that we learn from each other and all become more responsible travellers by being kind, respectful and pointing out when there is a moral issue to be considered. Responses like “what a joke” won’t encourage anyone to change their actions.

2. Travel clothes – Buy second hand or ethical brands

There’s no point researching how to travel responsibly in Asia whilst at the same time buying all your holiday clothes from a high street stores like H&M and GAP, where many of the garments are made in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia.

Responsible travel starts before you leave home.

Buying clothes in shops
It matters where you buy your travel clothes.

Many high-street brands use factories based in Asia where workers are paid pennies for each item of clothing that they make. For proof of this, check out the amazing documentary (that had me in tears), True Cost (trailer below), or the John Pilger* documentary, The New Rulers of the World. I guarantee you won’t want to go on a shopping spree after watching these! 

(*Extra tip – while you’re on John Pilger’s website, just watch all his documentaries!)

YouTube video

Instead of indulging the fast fashion industry, head down to your local second-hand store and pick up some lightweight, cotton clothing to shove in your backpack. (While your mates back home may care about keeping up with fashion trends, we promise you – in Southeast Asia no-one cares what you look like!)

If you do want to invest in some brand new travel clothes, then do your research on ethical clothing brands for travellers. They may be a little more expensive than the fast-fashion alternatives, but it’s pretty much guaranteed that the items will last longer and you will feel better wearing them.

3. Travel slowly overland – Take fewer flights

If there is anything us backpackers know about, it is how to save a buck or two. Somewhat surprisingly, this may actually mean that our style of travel (buy local and save money on extended trips) is actually one of the most responsible ways to move around the planet. 

By using local transport over flights, you quickly decrease your carbon footprint. Whilst you’re probably looking at the buses in Luang Prabang and wondering how on earth that smoky, beat-up bus is more eco-friendly than a plane, it’s true. Just check out this article by the BBC, which compares the major forms of transport. 

Blue and white mini van in bad condition functioning as a bus in Sumatra, Indonesia - Cheapest Place in Southeast Asia
Reduce your carbon footprint. Take chicken buses instead of flights!

Slow travel goes further than just your mode of transport too. It is a way of thinking. By choosing to stay in an area for longer periods, you can really get to know a place and the people who live there. Explore the backstreets on foot or rent a motorcycle and visit some small villages off the beaten track. 

These are all experiences you won’t find in any gap year package deal but they are arguably some of the most rewarding you can have on the road. Without the need to rush, you’ll cut most of the stress out of your trip, giving you the ability to really appreciate where you are. 

4. Go plastic freeInvest in reusable items

Southeast Asia is drowning in plastic that’s littering the coastline, clogging up the oceans and killing marine life. While the glossy tourist images would have you believe differently, it’s not uncommon to see beaches across the continent full of plastic bottles, bags, straws and other debris.

Plastic on Beach Phu Quoc
Plastic scattered across the beach in Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam.

It’s up to us, as travellers, not to add to the burden on the environment when we visit new places. Whatever you do – avoid those mini ‘travel sets’ of shampoos and shower gels like your life depended on it! Instead, opt for reusable alternatives, like packaging-free shampoo and soap, bamboo toothbrushes, reusable cotton swabs and metal straws.

Discover our 9 must-have plastic-free travel items here.

Lush Shampoo
Lush have a great range of plastic-free shampoos and shower gels. (They smell good too!)

5. Water bottles – Get a reusable bottle

In order to stay healthy while you travel, it’s super important that you keep hydrated. Imagine how much environmental waste you would create if every time you felt thirsty you had to buy a plastic bottle! Therefore, one of the most important items you can buy for travelling is a reusable water bottle. Many businesses across Southeast Asia are now providing free water refills and it’s our duty, as responsible travellers to support them and encourage more businesses to follow suit.

Whether you get yourself a decent quality, long-lasting metal bottle or you invest in a proper water purifier that gets rid of bacteria and viruses in the water, the environment will thank you! Check out our list of the best filtered water bottles here.

Filling Grayl Geopress from a river
With a water purifier, you can drink water from the river!

6. Travel gear – Buy quality that lasts a lifetime

Fast fashion is one industry that is literally destroying the world, and when it comes to fast travel gear – you’ll want to avoid it entirely! While saving money in the short-term on a poor quality backpack and shoes for travel might seem like a good idea, in the long-term, it isn’t beneficial for your wallet, or the planet.

If you buy something that’s cheap and nasty, it will probably break and become unusable, leaving you having to shell out more money! Not to mention, the resources used to manufacture that item in the first place, have completely gone to waste!

As responsible travellers we should be supporting brands that care about making excellent quality items that will last a lifetime, therefore minimising the burden on the planet’s resources.

Lengthy warranties are a good indication of a top-quality brand. Popular backpack brand, Osprey, offer a lifetime guarantee with their packs. While their backpacks are sometimes more expensive than other brands, you can rest assured you are investing in a product that won’t let you down.

Osprey Farpoint vs Farpoint Trek
Osprey offer a lifetime guarantee with their backpacks!

7. Be VERY wary of animal tourism

Whether it’s swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines or visiting an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, when it comes to animal tourism, it is essential that you do your research! (Clicking those links and reading those articles will help you to be informed!)

Girl swims with whale sharks
Thumbs up or thumbs down? Is swimming with whale sharks an ethical activity?

The main thing you have to figure out is whether the activity or company that you are looking into is putting tourists or the animals first. Do they care about the animals or are they just trying to make a fast buck? Every animal experience will be different, but some key things to avoid are:

  • Companies which allow you to touch/hug/bathe or feed the animals.
  • Places where the animals are ‘entertaining’ tourists in any way.
  • Places where the animals are confined in small spaces.

Avoid snake shows, monkey shows and any places which allow you to get up close and personal to wild animals! If you don’t know the story about the controversial Tiger Temple in Thailand then you should educate yourself about it and be on the alert for similar scam set ups posing as ‘sanctuaries’.

Tiger taking a bath
Tigers are wild animals who should not pose next to you on your Facebook profile picture!

8. Support ethical elephant tourismAvoid riding or bathing!

Visiting an elephant sanctuary is one of the most popular activities to do in Southeast Asia, which is why I’ve made this a separate point to animal tourism in general. While you’ll find many places calling themselves ‘sanctuaries for elephants’ across Asia, it’s important to be on the look out for those that are more concerned about making money than the welfare of these amazing creatures.

Visitors watch elephant
Watching an elephant from a distance at a sanctuary in Thailand.

In short, avoid places which allow you to ride or bathe the elephants, and support places which adopt a ‘hands off’ approach. We’d encourage you to read our article about the ethics of elephant tourism here as it isn’t always black and white. We put together the article with the help of elephant experts across Asia and recommend several places where you can have an ethical experience that is beneficial to the elephants.

9. Do NOT visit orphanages

Orphanage tourism is, thankfully, not as popular as it once was, having finally been condemned by governments and NGOs as being harmful for the children. (At the end of 2018, in Australia it was made illegal for tourists to visit orphanages in a foreign country deeming the activity to be akin to a modern form of slavery.)

Two Children in a Laos Village
Orphanage tourism is damaging to children on so many levels.

You can find many stories of children being taken from their parents by traffickers and sent to live at an orphanage in order to make ‘pity money’ for some evil businessperson posing as their saviour. There are even tales of kids being kept underfed or maimed in order to encourage larger donations from visitors.

This one is simple, do not visit nor donate to orphanages whilst travelling in Southeast Asia.

10. Volunteer responsiblyDo your research!

Fraudulent volunteer organisations have been around for decades, set up to benefit from the good intentions of naive backpackers and tourists. As with every type of travel experience, if you are interested in volunteering abroad, you have to do your research.

Playing in the Mud! On a Natural Building Course in Northeastern Thailand
Building or conservation projects are a great way to get your hands (or feet!) dirty!

As tempting as it might be to want to fill your Insta with pictures of you posing as Mother Teresa surrounded by cute Asian kids – don’t do it. Avoid volunteering with children unless you can commit to a long time-period. Research has shown that the transient nature of Western volunteers in the lives of underprivileged children can be damaging for them. Foreigners come and go and the kids are left with attachment issues.

Instead, help out with conservation, farm work and building projects or look at WWOOFING or Workaway for more unique opportunities. See our article here on volunteering responsibly.

11. Do NOT give money to child beggars

It can be difficult to know what to do when approached by a beggar in Asia, or in any third world country. While you may want to help by giving them some money, acting on your instinct may not be ultimately beneficial for the beggar, especially if the beggar is a child.

Child beggars at Chong Kneas Floating Village, Cambodia.
Child beggars at Chong Kneas Floating Village, Cambodia.

Giving money to child beggars is believed to exacerbate child poverty, exploitation and homelessness in the long-run. The more money a child makes from tourists by begging on the streets, the more likely they are to be sent back out to beg by their parents (or some kind of mafia) day after day.

If you want to alleviate child poverty in the places where you travel, look into respectable ground-roots organisations who are working to address the root causes of begging and homelessness. For more advice, see Friends International.

12. Be wary of exploiting ethnic communities 

It’s a popular thing to do in mountainous places like Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand to visit a hill tribe village during a guided trek. Such villages have been criticised for being ‘human zoos’ as tourists traipse through gawping at ethnic minority people who are usually made to wear traditional dress, perform traditional dances and teach tourists how to weave, cook, sew etc.

Due to their unusual appearance, the Kayan ‘Long Neck’ people, originally from Myanmar, have been particularly vulnerable to such exploitation. As they fled their home country due to conflict, they became trapped on the borders of Thailand and Myanmar, unable to claim citizenship in Thailand and unable to return safely to their homes. They were used by the travel industry as a money-making tourist attraction.

Karen tribal girls dressed in traditional costumes performing national dance near Mae Hong Son, Thailand, Chiang Rai.
Kayan long-neck people performing a traditional ceremony.

Nowadays, however, there are certain places where the villagers have taken control and are now benefitting from a sustainable form of tourism.

See our travel guide to Mae Hong Son for more information about the Kayan people and this guide to trekking in Chiang Mai for advice on how to visit ethnic minority villages in a sustainable way.

13. Trashpack! – Get involved in local clean ups

Trashpacking, as it is known, is a great way to meet new people whilst helping to clean up the environment! The more that local people recognise the desire for this new kind of tourism, the better! Volunteer-led organisations such as Trash Hero are doing a great job to raise awareness of the waste problems in communities across Asia and getting both locals and travellers involved.

Trashpacking in Indonesia! Photo by Tijmen Sissing who coined the phrase ‘trashpacking’,

Wherever you plan to travel, check to see if there are any city or beach clean ups that you can get involved with or any other way that you can help out!

14. Avoid destinations plighted by over-tourism 

I think it is important to say here, that super popular destinations have become popular for a reason. However, there is also no doubt that the sustained and relentless over tourism that many of these destinations have endured for years has ultimately led to their downfall.

Just look at the famous Maya Bay in Thailand and Boracay in the Philippines. Both places used to be stunning, but hoards of tourists have left them shadows of their former selves. And although Maya Bay is set to reopen in 2022, visitor numbers will be restricted to try and protect the area!

White Beach, Boracay, Philippines
Long gone are the days of no tourists at Boracay!

Whilst I can understand the desire of visiting these Instagram famous destinations, you need to ask yourself what you can actually expect to see when you arrive. I guarantee it is unlikely to be that untouched paradise island you’ve seen on social media! As a result of over tourism, many of these places have been left crowded, expensive and dirty and a constant stream of tourists puts a huge pressure on the local environment and resources.

Maya Bay Koh Phi Phi set to close April 2018
Maya Bay, Koh Phi Phi, Thailand – beautiful but crowded.

If you’re not interested in box-checking destinations or experiences, why not skip out on the most over-visited places in exchange for arguably a more authentic look at the country you are in? Rent a place for a week and explore the local community – you are guaranteed to have a far more interesting experience than your fellow travellers who all headed out to the same resort in Bali

If you do have your heart set on visiting somewhere plighted by over tourism, see if there is anything you can personally do to improve the place when you visit. Can you pick up litter when you see it or book a tour with a company who are investing money into the conservation of the area? Whilst all of these things are not a definitive answer to the problem of over tourism, they definitely go some way to offsetting the damage that large numbers of visitors cause. 

15. Buy ethical souvenirs

Buying souvenirs that are made from recycled goods is the best way to ensure your shopping is doing more good than harm to the environment, local communities and the world as a whole!

Buy bags made from old plastic rice bags, jewellery made from sea glass (broken glass that has been softened by the ocean) or ornaments made from old tin cans or beer bottles. Buying from recycled sources will encourage more recycling, more beach clean ups and less pointless manufacturing of new goods. (Avoid animal products too.)

Sea glass.
Sea glass makes beautiful jewellery.

In some cases, it can be really difficult to decide if your souvenir-buying is actually doing good or harm to the local community and environment. Once such case is the buying of jewellery and cutlery that has been made from reused bombs dropped on Laos during the American-Vietnam War.

I recently read an online guide about ‘ethical souvenirs’ which encouraged the purchasing of spoons made out of recycled bombs. In Luang Prabang and other touristy places in Laos you will see such goods for sale in the markets. At first it may sees like a great idea, reusing the awful weapons of war as a means for local people to make money! However, a little more investigation into where the actual material for the souvenirs comes from and you’ll see that this is not an activity that you will want to support.

A villager near Phonsavan in Laos makes spoons from UXO war scrap.
A villager near Phonsavan in Laos makes spoons from UXO war scrap.

Every year, adults and children are maimed or killed after searching for the scrap metal found in undetonated bombs scattered across the Laotian countryside. COPE Laos in Vientiane (a charity providing disabled people with prosthetic limbs) asks people not to buy these souvenirs as it encourages the hunt for unmonitored UXOs (unexploded ordnance) amongst poorer families who risk their lives for souvenirs to sell to tourists.

One last tip – spread the love! If you’re buying family and friends presents to take home, consider buying your souvenirs from a few different local places so that several families may benefit from your purchases.

Is backpacking the most ethical way to travel?

Backpackers often get a bad rap. Images of young travellers covered in neon glow body paint groping each other at a Full Moon Party in Thailand may spring to mind at the point.

However, there is an argument to say that backpacking, when done properly, can actually be one of the most ethical forms of travel. Unlike luxury travellers who stay in the same all-inclusive resort for two weeks, a backpackers’ money is much more spread around the local community.

A backpacker will stay at a cheap hostel or guesthouse, eat lunch at small family-run restaurants, support local tour operators, use local transport and buy their snacks in the ‘mom and pop’ shop around the corner. Over a period of months, a backpackers’ savings are spread around the poorer parts of society rather than being focused on huge chain hotels like the Hilton or Mandarin Oriental.

So what’s your opinion?

What do you think it means to be a responsible traveller today? Tell us your thoughts by emailing us or getting in touch with us via our Facebook Community!

Nikki Scott - Founder South East Asia Backpacker
Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor

Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.

Find me: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

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