One of my best friends likes to describe communities as ecosystems—a delicate balance between locals and their land, economy, government, each other… Introducing new elements (i.e. tourists) into the ecosystem, much like in nature, can upset this balance. For a community in a developing nation these new elements or people can create a booming economy but can also create a new underclass, cause displacement while simultaneously improving the quality of life for some, and strain weak infrastructure or build it up.
Imagine a small fishing village that suddenly becomes an international tourist destination—perhaps now fish go to serving visitors, the cost of life goes up and wages stagnate, locals begin overfishing and overtaxing their natural resources to meet growing demand. These resources that once existed in that delicate balance to sustain this community can become inaccessible to the locals who once lived off them and a once independent community becomes dependent.
This can be a lot to consider for the average tourist. The answer is not for everyone to retire their backpacks and passports and stop traveling, but to become more conscious about the choices we make and the way that they effect these existing ecosystems. That is what socially responsible tourism (or sustainable tourism) is all about. And the best part is that it’s not too difficult to start practicing now.
Socially responsible tourism is tourism that aims to limit or mitigate the potential negative impacts that it may have on visited communities
The following are five easy things you can start doing immediately to be a socially responsible tourist!
1. Buy and Consume Local
Tourism can often shift an economy from being self-sustaining to service-based—meaning the people depend on outsiders to come visit in order to survive. But just because a community’s economy is based on tourism doesn’t mean that the money trickles down to locals automatically. Just showing up isn’t enough! Buy and consume local whenever you can; this means patronizing local businesses so that you know your money is going to directly support the local community.
2. If You’re Going to Donate, Donate Using Locally Purchased Materials
Donating materials can be one way to make a positive impact while traveling, but before you go to your neighborhood Walmart and load up on supplies consider this. By purchasing donations from a locally owned business you support the community with your dollars and your donations. It’s also helpful to land first, buy later so you can scope out the community and talk to locals and be sure that what you’re purchasing is actually necessary! With some planning you can avoid overweight luggage fees and support communities two-fold.
3. Be Respectful of Local Spaces
Some local spaces are open to visitors. Others, while open to visitors, should be visited by invitation only as a matter of respect. These spaces, like La Bomba in Sabaneta or el Colmadón of La Ciénaga, exist purely for local enjoyment. The prices are accesible, the music is always exactly what locals want to listen to, and more importantly everyone can cut loose and just be themselves. Authenticity is the drug of all adventurous travelers but it should never be a spectacle for anyone’s consumption—it is after all, someone’s real life! And no one likes being treated like an animal in a zoo, especially not in their own homes. When local venues become tourist attractions, unfortunately, prices go up, they get overcrowded, and often local people can no longer access (even aren’t allowed to access) these spaces. In the end, they cease to be authentic and everyone loses out!
4. Learn the Language
English may be an international language, but learning something in a local language puts natives at ease. It shows that you’re interested and respect the culture and people enough to try to meet them where they’re at. Think of all the friends you’re missing out meeting and communicating with if you can’t speak the same language!
5. Respect Local Traditions and Customs
I had the immense privilege of traveling in college. One of the places I visited was Nepal. I remember distinctly traveling with some American girls to a sacred Hindu temple where people were expected to take off their shoes. One of the girls didn’t receive the memo and was quickly and brusquely escorted out of the temple by some very angry locals. In response, she got angry. She screamed that she had paid the entrance fee and that her money entitled her to…well I can’t exactly remember what. But that’s the thing. She hadn’t done the research, and what she had done was considered a grave offense. Her money didn’t entitle her to be above that custom. And it doesn’t for any of us. “Travel is a privilege, not a right” and with that privilege comes great responsibility to do our due diligence, educate ourselves, and to understand that our money may buy us entrance into local spaces, but it doesn’t give us the right to try and override local traditions or customs because of it. Humility is a must, and acknowledging our errors with grace can go a long way to making us more socially responsible travelers!
So these are my tips for practicing socially responsible tourism, from a traveler and a member of a tourist community. Do you have any tips? Let me know in the comment section!