Responsible travel is booming. You read about responsible travel (a.k.a. sustainable travel or ethical travel) in the newspaper or on blogs, and travel organizations increasingly use it as a selling point. Even the United Nations incorporated the tourism industry in their plans to fight poverty, inequality, injustice and climate change. With more people traveling abroad each year, we have a responsibility to the planet and should try to keep the footprints we leave behind to a minimum.

Responsible travel entails many different things, but generally focuses on minimizing negative environmental, social or cultural impact. This seems like a lot to address, but I realized by simply traveling ‘backpacker style’, you already cover some responsible travel basics.

So, here are three small ways by which backpacking makes you a more responsible traveler. Easy, huh?

“Backpacking is a form of low-cost, independent travel. It includes the use of public transport; inexpensive lodging such as youth hostels; often a longer duration of the trip when compared with conventional vacations; and typically an interest in meeting locals as well as seeing sights.” – Wikipedia

Responsible travel - Using public transportation.
Using local transportation in Uganda – Responsible Travel. Bunch of Backpackers. Please note I’m wearing shorts in this photo. Shorts are not worn by local women in Uganda, so my clothing was not completely appropriate. I only wore shorts once or twice.

Backpacking and responsible travel

1. Backpackers travel slow

Backpackers often travel for a longer period of time variating from about two weeks to more than a year. Generally, they visit multiple countries and prefer overlanding instead of flying. They use public transportation such as buses, trains and shared cars. By traveling slower (instead of many short trips) and overland, they can reduce their carbon emission. For example, during my 7-month trip to Southern Africa and Central Asia, I only took four flights. An even better way is ‘bikepacking’ (backpacking by bike), which is something I would still love to do someday.

2. Backpackers support the local economy

Generally, backpackers eat at street stalls or small family-run places offering the best curry or falafel sandwich, to sleep in locally-owned guesthouses or hostels and to buy tours directly from a local tour operator. By traveling this way, you ensure that your money goes directly to the local economy. In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, community-based tourism has become very popular, which makes it very easy to organise home stays, yurt stays and local guides through the community-based tourism offices. Of course, spending time with locals remains one of the best ways to fully immerse yourself in a country.

3. Backpackers travel off-the-beaten-path

Over-tourism has become a big problem in recent years. Even in our Dutch capital city Amsterdam, the city center is simply over-run by tourists and not much fun to live in anymore. Backpackers are often pioneers when it comes to exploring off-the-beaten-path destinations. They tend to visit places, where tour operators aren’t even active yet. By visiting off-the-beaten places, they help to spread out tourism.

Homestay in Kyrygstan - Responsible travel
Homestay in Kyrygstan – Responsible travel

The downsides of backpacking

Obviously, backpacking can also have it’s downsides like the party culture amongst younger backpackers and the Lonely Planet effect (everyone goes to the same places mentioned in the Lonely Planet).

Some other things you could do to become a more responsible traveler

Ten years ago, I knew very little about responsible travel, but fortunately, you learn and evolve as you go. In 2015, I already wrote this extensive article with eight ethical travel dilemmas, which I really recommend to read. Personally, I still have many things to improve. For example, I still buy quite a few plastic water bottles during my trips.

Here are some other simple things you could do to become a more responsible traveler:

  • inform yourself about history and culture before traveling to a destination
  • dress appropriately
  • be mindful with photography and filming
  • don’t leave garbage behind in nature
  • stay in eco-friendly places
  • limit plastic use (e.g. water bottles)
  • don’t haggle too much
  • be cautious with wildlife experiences
  • consider buying travel gear from eco-friendly and responsible brands
  • educate each other

Finally, I would like to emphasize you should not feel guilty for not doing any of the above-mentioned things. We all live and learn, and we all pick our own battles. Recently, ‘flying shame’ (if you are ashamed of flying because of your carbon emissions) made its entrance into the world. After all, the aviation sector is responsible for a carbon footprint of 17 million tonnes per year. However, by not flying you may deprive people of their income from tourism. It’s not all black and white.

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Responsible travelWhat do you think? Is backpacking one of the best ways to travel when it comes to responsible travel? What are the downsides? Any tips for my plastic water bottle problem? 

4 COMMENTS

  1. I love this. I hadn’t actually given any consideration to the fact that backpackers so often spend their money in small local business and travel overland more so than flying! This makes me feel a little less guilty about being an annoying backpacker, haha.

  2. This is such a great and important post! Though I would say that where you’ve said you shouldn’t feel guilty if you don’t do everything you’ve listed, there is NO excuse for leaving rubbish anywhere. To me, there’s also no excuse for mistreating wildlife either. I especially love the point about supporting local businesses, because that’s exactly what I try to do, and I’m so glad that backpacking creates so many opportunities for a positive contribution. I’d far rather stay in a family-run hostel than a chain hotel, and I’ll always choose an indie cafe or restaurant over a corporation.

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