The following article is from Erica, who has a blog focused on responsible and sustainable travel. I get asked about responsible travel in India often and how to support the locals while you travel here – hopefully, this post will give you some insight on what responsible travel means. Erica has traveled in India and many other destinations so this post will have general tips that you can use while in India or anywhere for that matter.
Tips for Responsible Travel in India and Elsewhere
Deciding to travel more consciously means resolving to support locals as much as possible, especially if you’re visiting a developing country. As much as positive actions will support the locals, you’ll also find yourself coming away benefiting from a more enriched cultural experience.
It’s easy for many of us who come from the Western world to take our ability to travel for granted. When all-inclusives and resort holidays are marketed to us through TV, radio, and billboards every day, it’s easy to accept this type of travel as the norm without thinking twice about it. After all, the idea of being waited on while spending our days relaxing on the beach is ridiculously enticing.
To me, infusing any type of travel with as much of the local culture as possible is exhilarating. Staying off the resorts, meeting locals, and having authentic experiences are not only great ways to get to know the country you’re in, but they also are great ways to support locals.
1. Let the locals be your guide
There seems to be this stereotype of “mom-and-pop” type accommodation that it is dirty and unsafe. While that may be true in some places, many travelers (myself included) know from their own experiences that most of the time, that’s not the case at all – Hostels, guesthouses, boutique hotels, and even Couchsurfing can be great (and safe!) ways to meet new people and experience new cultures, languages, and foods.
I’ve been to one all-inclusive resort in my life, in the Dominican Republic. As soon as it was booked, I excitedly started looking into what tours and excursions were available. But I began having second thoughts as soon as I started looking into pricing. I’d already paid well over a thousand dollars for everything I could eat and drink at the resort. Was it worth it for me to spend another couple hundred dollars for a tour, to spend a day off the resort?
I ended up deciding it was too expensive. I did not get to experience any Dominican culture that week, and many other resort goers make the same decision every week. Between price and convenience, really there’s no need to leave the resort at all.
There’s no guessing how many local tour operators are losing out because of this norm of all-inclusivity. Not only will a locally run tour give the traveler a richer takeaway, but often will actually work towards preserving the culture itself.
2. Respect local attractions
In the age of Instagram, finding an undiscovered place to visit in a foreign country is nearly impossible. Many will simply find this annoying and think nothing deeper of it. In some cases, though, like the Jaisalmer Fort in India, an overabundance of tourism causes important cultural attractions to face structural conservation problems.
None of this is to say that I think you should deny yourself a visit to a place just because it’s popular. Read up on your destination first, and take into consideration whether the activities you want to enjoy might be harming the spots you visit or exploiting the locals. Choose sustainable.
I had a fabulous time exploring cenotes and Maya ruins with AllTourNative in Mexico. They take steps to make sure their tours impact the environment as little as possible, as well as provide jobs for Maya communities and promote the Maya customs and culture.
3. Shop like a local
In North America especially, the local food trend is gaining traction. It’s not a bad motto, eat local wherever you go. Not only is it great for your health (benefits include less chance of contamination, higher nutrient levels, and more!), but also it really supports the local farming communities.
Supporting small, locally-owned restaurants is one way to support local businesses, at home or abroad. If you’re planning to spend an extended amount of time in one place and have access to a kitchen at your accommodation, visiting a local market to buy your own groceries is another great way to support local farmers.
Food isn’t the only way to make a difference, either. Purchasing gifts and souvenirs from local merchants rather than gift shops is a great way to support local artisans. But make sure to pay fairly for anything you buy. Often travelers will try to haggle prices down the equivalent of a few cents. The cost difference could really make the merchant’s day, while being insignificant to us.
4. Think twice about the volunteer program
I know, intuitively it seems like the best way to support locals in a less developed country is by working with them. Volunteering in an orphanage or building a school can only help, right?
Well as it turns out, your time spent volunteering is likely doing more harm than good.
Hear me out.
Volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism” is a lucrative industry that was, unfortunately, quickly corrupted. Families are being broken up so that the world’s orphanages are full enough to meet the tourist demands. Volunteer agencies are paying out much less than what they can afford to support the local organizations they work with.
Additionally, the training of volunteers is not always up to par. Are you a qualified healthcare professional? Are you confident in your ability to build walls safely and straight with limited tools available to you? You get where I’m going with this right – if you wouldn’t be qualified to do a job in your home country, you shouldn’t be trying to do it in another country, especially one more needy than your home.
Volunteering in India
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t volunteer abroad at all. Do your research to make sure that your volunteer agency of choice is ethical and truly supports local people and causes. Is their website full of flowery marketing copy promising you a fulfilling and cultural experience by working with them? They may be more business focused than cause focused. Do they have a clear and strict vetting process for volunteers? If their volunteer application process feels a bit reminiscent of applying for a paying job, chances are that they’re doing their due diligence to ensure their volunteers are capable of truly helping.
Responsible travel boils down to treating every aspect of your destination with respect. Challenge yourself to travel consciously, and your effort to make a positive impact will improve not only your own travels, but the world as well.
About Erica Cosentino: Erica’s wanderlust was first ignited in 2015, after taking her first solo trip to India. Since then, she has developed a passion for responsible and conscious travel and blogs at Treading Wander, where she encourages her readers to do the same. When she’s not blogging, Erica works in marketing and moonlights as an amateur aerial acrobat.