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Picture this:

A 10 month old tiger cub is lying in front of you and in just a few seconds you are going to get to pet him, which is a dream come true for you.  As you are led over to the cub, you keep thinking how beautiful he is and how amazing this picture is going to be- definitely going to get a lot of likes and awws! In this setting, he looks like a (very) oversized kitten who would be so much fun to cuddle with. As you approach he keeps looking back to see what you are doing, but one of his handlers keeps him distracted and facing forward with a big red ball. You are told to crouch down near his lower back and as you get into position they show you exactly where you can pet him. You extend your hand out…3…2…1…smile! The nonstop click of the camera goes on for the next minute as your friend captures the moment from every possible angle.  After the shot has been secured, you are led out of the enclosure and handed a printed out photo in a paper frame that reads “my wild experience” and the next patron in line is led in for their photo- op.

I personally experienced this moment when I studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa my junior year of college. Looking back on this experience I am embarrassed to say that I was naively unaware that this was blatantly irresponsible tourism. In the moment I was so caught up in the idea of getting to be so close to one of my favorite animals, but in reality I wasn’t just paying to take a photo. I was supporting the unjust life in captivity this poor tiger was about to face. Looking back on this moment has taught me a lot about what it means to be a responsible traveller and has affected how I choose to engage with the city I am visiting while I’m abroad.

Travelling is exciting and a responsible holiday or volunteer experience abroad is no exception! It is an opportunity to take a break from your regular 9 to 5 routine and explore new places and new cultures. Being a responsible tourist does not limit the way you travel; it opens up your experience to being a more meaningful one.

There are many misconceptions around the phrase “responsible tourism” and what it really means to be a responsible tourist. This is largely due to the fact that by acknowledging that there is a responsible way to do something, we are also recognizing that there is an irresponsible way of doing the same thing. Nobody likes a guilt trip or feeling like during previous travels they engaged in activities that would not be defined as unthoughtful to local surroundings. However, if we do not call ourselves out, how are will we ever create a positive change?

We travel for the opportunity to see the world’s diversity, but this doesn’t need to come at the expense of the conservation of natural and cultural heritage. When broken down, responsible tourism is simply about minimizing the negative economic, environmental and social impacts that unfortunately are normally associated with travel. So what is the solution, you ask? The main answer is pretty straightforward – ensure that the money that the traveller is spending stays local instead of going to a big name company. If you’re thinking that sounds like a lot of extra work, I can assure you it is not. All it takes is a little research! Becoming a responsible tourist is easy and starts long before you board your plane.

Step 1: Educate Yourself
Educate yourself on where you are going (this is as simple as a quick google search) and don’t get stressed, you do not need to know everything. A basic understanding of the local culture, religion, and values is a great foundation. If you’re feeling ambitious, even try learning a few phrases in the local language and don’t be afraid to use them – natives will see and appreciate your efforts. By having this knowledge in our back pocket, it allows us to be more respectful when engaging with and in the local community. This relates to how we act, speak, and dress. By being respectful of a places customs you are being a more responsible tourist and we guarantee that it will make your experience a more authentic one.

Step 2: Go For Local Businesses Over Global
The next step comes when looking for activities/accommodations for your trip and where you choose to spend your money upon arrival. Support local businesses! Family owned lodges, restaurants, tour guides, and other services are the business that truly benefit from your tourist dollars. By staying at an all-inclusive resort or eating at a big-name chain restaurant you’re money only supports commercial enterprises, which often limits the growth of residential business. It also seriously takes away from your chance to experience and connect to the city you’re visiting on a deeper level.

Step 3: Be Conscious of Wildlife and Nature
Another major component of responsible tourism deals with nature and wildlife. Keep in mind that wildlife is wild. Feeding and touching or watching animals perform a trained routine are all unnatural for the animal and is harmful to their mental, physical, and emotional health. If you want to visit an animal sanctuary, be sure to do some research beforehand to find one that does not partake in these practices. Equally as important is how we interact with the environment. Going on a hike or a trek into nature is an amazing and active way to experience your destination. And even if your adventure only takes you as far as the beach be respectful of the world around you and be sure to throw away your trash.

Whether you are on holiday to recharge your batteries or involved with a volunteer program travelling responsibly is easy – and if you need some more help there are number of different websites and travel companies that are available to point you in the right direction. When you finally start planning all you have to do is remember that for every irresponsible way to do something, there is always an responsible alternative that is just as fun and exciting. Happy travels everyone!

Do you suffer from a travel bug? Volunteering abroad is a wonderful way to experience new places while also making positive impact. Read our blog for ideas of where to go and find travel tips for the road!

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