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12 ways to travel responsibly that you need to know about

You may have heard about responsible travel, but do you know what it’s all about, or what to consider before getting involved in a responsible travel experience? Let’s find out.

This type of travel experience forms the foundation of the programs of many volunteer abroad organisations.

In fact, the staff involved in these types of overseas experiences are often experts in responsible travel, because they’ve done so much of it themselves!



Keen to become a responsible traveller? Well, let’s take a closer look at what responsible travel means and how you can make a start. 

Further reading: Practise mindfulness by volunteering abroad

So what is responsible travel?

Responsible travel means travelling in a sustainable way that benefits the country you are visiting. 

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) defines sustainable tourism as:

“tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”. 

With sustainable tourism being one of the key elements of the UN Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, it’s more important than ever before to opt for sustainable tourism solutions.



GVI participants visit Cape Town as part of a responsible travel program


Because opportunities for sustainable tourism aren’t just a great way for tourists to travel. 

They also offer local people the chance to get involved in the tourism sector in a way that will benefit them, now and in the future. 

Let’s look at the different ways you can get involved in sustainable tourism, and make a contribution to global goals. 

Further reading: How to be a responsible traveller with GVI


How to make an impact as a responsible traveller

1) Start at home

Preparing for your responsible-travel experience at home is a good idea. 

This is because it allows you to pick up on what responsible-travel activities are and practise fitting them into your day-to-day life before you leave. 

So, once you get to your destination abroad, you’ll slip into being a responsible tourist much more easily.

Here are some “responsible living” practices that can assist you in lowering your environmental impact while you’re still at home:

  • Switch off and unplug appliances when you aren’t using them.
  • Only turn on your geyser an hour or so before you need to use hot water.
  • Suspend your newspaper delivery and opt for reading online instead. 
  • Start composting your organic waste, and recycling your glass, paper and plastic.
  • Switch to online billing.

2) Choose a homestay or eco-friendly accommodation

GVI participants prepare a meal from their eco-friendly accomodation in Thailand


The ideal way to travel responsibly is to live in the local community. This way you can contribute to the development of the community on a daily basis, and gain an appreciation for the culture of the country by becoming immersed in it.

Further reading: How is cultural immersion different from cultural appropriation? 

If no homestays are available, you can opt to stay in eco-friendly accommodation. This is one of the first steps in translating your responsible-travel know-how into action on the ground. 

So, can staying in a hotel offer an eco-friendly experience? Yes, it can, but you should confirm this before putting down your deposit. 

You can research the hotel to make sure that they offer energy- and water-efficient amenities and activities. 

Further reading: Why volunteer in Africa? You’ll learn a lot about water conservation 

You should also be able to find out whether the culture of the country you’re visiting is incorporated into the hotel in a way that is accurate and ethical. One factor in favour of this is when local people form part of or partner with the establishment.

And hotels that offer an ethical and environmentally friendly stay can add to your responsible travel experience. 

Reading online reviews is a good way to get a feel for how eco-friendly and culturally tuned-in an establishment actually is. 

Find out more about why eco-travel is so important in this article: On your marks, get set, eco-travel!


A GVI participant waters a vegetable garden in Fiji

3) Reduce your in-flight carbon emissions

In 2014, aeroplanes produced 705 million tons of carbon dioxide. 

This greenhouse gas is contributing to rising global temperatures, but there’s a lot you can do to reduce your carbon dioxide contribution while you travel. 

One way is to book direct flights and avoid transfers. But, adding to global carbon emissions while you travel is sometimes unavoidable. 

To counter this, you can donate to carbon-mitigation projects that focus on reducing the impact of climate change and supporting the communities it affects the most.

4) Buy local

Supporting local food sellers like this one is one of the ways you can be a responsible traveller


When travelling, it can be tempting to seek out shops or restaurants that remind you of home. 

While there’s nothing wrong with this, remind yourself that you didn’t decide to travel so that you could feel like you were right back at home. Where’s the adventure in that?

Travel is about new places and experiences. So get out there and do just that! 

Support local souvenir shops, eat where local people go and consider trying a new local dish every day. 

This isn’t only a great way to add to the economy of the area you’re in, it’s also one of the best ways to learn about the culture, traditions and even the language of the country you’re visiting. 

Further reading: Three of the best ways to experience total language immersion

5) Think before you bargain

It can be tempting to negotiate for a lower price at local markets. Although bargaining is part of the culture in some regions, it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind and ask yourself if saving that extra bit of cash is worth it?

That $1 you got off of the original price might not be a lot to you, but it could mean less food on the table for the vendor’s family the next day. 

So, for those of us who are able to travel abroad, paying full price is one way of building on global-development efforts wherever you are. 

Further reading: Why pay to volunteer abroad?

6) Read up on the local laws and culture


Before you get on that plane, browse Google and learn as much as you can about local customs, traditions and health and safety considerations. 

Get to know the cultures and traditions that are specific to the area you’ll be visiting, as well as the national norms. For instance, find out which hand gestures are complimentary and which ones are considered rude. 

Also check up on laws relating to where tourists are allowed to travel to, and even how you should dress. 

By keeping these in mind while you travel, you’ll be able to interact with the local community in the best ways possible. 

This is also a great way to ensure a pleasant experience for the duration of your stay.

7) Minimise your everyday environmental footprint


Think twice about accepting that plastic bag or styrofoam cup while overseas. Opt for reusable items – like metal straws and cloth bags – instead. Why? 

Well, in some countries, waste management is a challenge, and visitors can add to the problem in a significant way by making use of single-use items. 

You’ll also need to consider your environmental impact while travelling from place to place. 

Can you get there on a mechanical bike and avoid the carbon emissions that come from taking a train, bus or taxi? 

Here are some of the things you can do to take control of your environmental impact while travelling abroad: 

  • Carry a shopping bag with you wherever you go so that you don’t have to make use of plastic bags. 
  • Opt for sit-down meals instead of takeaways to avoid accumulating single-use containers.
  • Choose walking or biking tours – instead of bus or motorcycle tours – to explore the local attractions.
  • Reuse your plastic water bottle.

8) Volunteer abroad


Looking to make an impact through your travels?

Volunteering is a great option to experience a country in a responsible and ethical way while adding to global goals. 

Whether you have two weeks, months or years of time, you’ll benefit from the cultural experience, and contribute towards socio-economic initiatives while volunteering. 

Your travel experiences will be moulded by opportunities you may never have had if you were just a tourist – like volunteering with children in a mountain community!

And, by the end of your travels, you’ll leave with an even deeper understanding of the country you visited.

Find out how else you can add meaning to your trip abroad by reading this article: Six ways to deepen your travel experiences

9) Research any animal activities


Is riding an elephant still on your bucket list for Thailand? Well, it’s time to take it off.

Part of travelling responsibly is being aware of how ethical the leisure activities you take part in actually are. And this is especially important when it comes to animals. 

Because animals can’t tell us exactly how they feel in a particular situation, we need to take extra steps to ensure their well-being, especially if we choose to interact with them. 

It’s important to: respect the environments animals live in, work with them in ways that are appropriate and beneficial, and prevent situations where the animals themselves become attractions – like elephant rides.

Further reading: Questions to ask when volunteering abroad with animals 

If you plan to take part in any programs focused on animal care, marine or wildlife conservation, finding out more about how these activities are run is essential.



Many organisations are upfront and clear about their procedures when it comes to animal interactions. But others aren’t. 

So what should you look out for to ensure that you get involved with an organisation that has the animals’ best interests at heart? 

Here are some things to look out for in an operator:

  • They offer animal interactions that are necessary and not just done for fun. 
  • They have a clear stance on what ethical animal interaction means to them and how they implement this in all their activities.
  • They are a registered organisation.
  • They are transparent about their activities on the project.

Take a look at our ethical stance on animal volunteering to find out more. 

10) Contribute in ways that build on community development


Adding to sustainable efforts may not be as easy as it seems once you’ve arrived at your destination abroad. Why? Because seeing a child or adult asking for donations on the side of the road can make anyone want to offer them whatever they can spare. 

But, part of travelling responsibly is keeping in mind that sustainable efforts are best when it comes to community development. 

So, while giving money to someone may make you feel better, adding to sustainable efforts is more likely to assist the whole community in the long term. 

Wondering what types of activities count as sustainable community development efforts? Well, they include:

  • assisting local women in achieving better access to social, and economic equality
  • participating in efforts that add to children’s education
  • getting involved in recycling projects, and water and environmental conservation activities.

By being part of these types of efforts abroad, you’ll make sure that you’re adding to community development in a meaningful way. 

Further reading: Voluntourism and sustainable development. An experience from Laos

11) Use public transport

Making use of public transport is another way you can reduce your carbon footprint. 

Instead of taking a taxi for a solo ride, grab a bus ticket and travel with local people. 

It’s a great way to see the place you are staying in, and to stick to your travel budget!

Want to see the country at your own pace? Why not rent a bicycle and start exploring?

12) Talk about responsible travel with your friends and family


Travelling responsibly adds awareness to any experience abroad. 

After experiencing responsible travel for yourself, you’ll have a wealth of knowledge and advice that you can share that can help someone else in getting started.

Discussing your trip with friends and family is one way to fill them in on the importance of responsible travel, and make them more aware of how responsible travel adds to your time abroad. 

So what’s one of the best ways to take that first step in becoming a more responsible traveller? That’s easy. 

Take a look at GVI’s international, award-winning volunteering programs and internships abroad and make a start in your responsible travel journey today!