responsible tourism-sculpture made by teens in Costa Brava, Spain

I am fairly well-traveled.  I’ve visited over 30 countries and have lived in five different countries.  But, despite my best intentions, I have recently learned that I am not always a responsible tourist.

I was quite shocked to learn this.  After all, I am a responsible  intelligent adult.  Yes, I may imbibe in the occasional too many glasses of wine while traveling but that doesn’t make me irresponsible in my books.

I have recently teamed up with People and Places  a responsible tourism partnership that works in conjunction with other organisations to improve destinations for local people and their visitors.  They also run the Better Child Protection program. I’m one of several bloggers participating in a campaign to help draw attention to their worthy cause…and am learning something about myself in the process, which begs the question:

Are You a Responsible Tourist?

Have you ever:

….given money to beggars?

…taken a tour of an orphanage or a slum tour?

…signed up for a volunteer holiday?

….turned a blind eye to something that you knew was not right?

…bought something from a child?

…supported a business that tolerates prostitution?

…donated to an orphanage?

Astonishingly, I answered “yes” to 6 out of the 7 questions.

I am certainly no expert on the topic, but will try to share on a high level to the best of my understanding why each of these could potentially be a problem.  I also highly recommend reading How to Be a Responsible Traveller in which I curated the best answers from 768 participants in a Twitter chat about Responsible Travel on #AdvTravelChat.

…given money to beggars?

– YES.  Although I don’t do this anymore.  It supports the exploitation of these people and in some cases the money collected by the beggars may be given to the mob.  You are much better off donating your money to an organization that helps worthy causes.

…taken a tour of an orphanage or a slum tour:

NO.  I’ve never done this and the problem with this is that children may be kept in dilapidated conditions so that the owners can profit from the visitor’s donations.  Regarding slum tours, it’s usually the tour operators that profit from exploiting the people living in the slums, not the actual people themselves.

…signed up for a volunteer holiday:

me being a responsible tourist by volunteering at a chimp sanctuary in Spain

Happily cleaning up chimp poop at MONA, a chimp sanctuary near Girona, Spain.

YES.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but you need to do your research to ensure that you are working alongside community members and not taking jobs away from them.  You also need to check that your money is going towards your expenses and the cause, not into the organizer’s pockets.
The bad news: Several years ago I was going to volunteer with lion cubs in South Africa.  I mentioned this to a friend that I had living in South Africa.  It sounded very suspicious to him as he was South African and had never heard of the cause.  He did some research and came back with the terrible news.  The organization that I had planned on volunteering with took money from the volunteers, and then sold the lions when they were no longer cute and cuddly to a game farm where they were then hunted by other tourists.  I was horrified!  Needless to say I didn’t volunteer there.  I wish I could remember the name of the organization as I would happily share it as a Where NOT to Volunteer story.

The Good News:  I volunteered with rescued chimps at MONA, a chimp sanctuary near Girona, Spain.  I saw how dedicated, educated and passionate the team was which consisted of a vet, biologist and psychologist, plus the vet and biologist had Master degrees in Primatology.  Chimps are very expensive to care for and MONA does an exceptional job of very limited resources.  It’s also where my love affair with Charlie the Chimp began, but that’s a whole other story.

…turned a blind eye to something that you knew was not right?

YES.  This one is self-explanatory, but I have done it on multiple occasions when living in Thailand.  I saw many young girls working as prostitutes who were probably not 18 years old.  I’m embarrassed to say that I did absolutely nothing  to help them, other than felt sorry for them.  That was over 10 years ago, but knowing what I know now, I’m ashamed that I at least didn’t try to help.

A few years ago I saw two very young caged monkeys in unsuitable conditions in Palau.  My heart went out to them and I spent the afternoon on the phone reporting it to various agencies who were rather confused.  I asked to be contacted with the result but never heard back.  I suspect that both probably died very shortly after given the dilapidated conditions.  I still think back on them often in horror…but at least I tried.

…bought something from a child?

YES. Why? I felt sorry for them, even though in reality I was just encouraging their parents to keep them selling things and stopping them from getting an education.

…supported a business that tolerates prostitution?

YES.  I spent one night in Pattaya, Thailand (the world’s prostitution capital at the time) because my bus broke down.  The hotel I stayed at and restaurant I ate at both had very young prostitutes.  There were not a lot of other choices at the time as I arrived late, but I am still guilty of this.

…donated to an orphanage?

YES.  I was puzzled at why this wasn’t responsible tourism, until I learned from ChildSafe that orphanages do not offer a long-term sustainable response to the situation of vulnerable children. By investing in families and communities we are laying the foundation for better conditions for children.  After reading this, I understand now why it’s better to donate to community and family initiatives instead of to an orphanage.

Whew!  I feel like I’m in a confession booth after sharing how I have not always been a responsible tourist, despite my best intentions.  How did you do?  Are you a responsible tourist?

The point isn’t to beat yourself up, it’s to educate yourself to ensure that we are each living up to the definition of responsible tourism, defined by Wikipedia as …creates better places for people to live in, and better places to visit.
You can also keep yourself informed by liking Better Child Protection on Facebook and following People and Places on Twitter.  You may or may not currently be a responsible tourist, but you can be!

Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains, an adventure travel blog and company that helps people plan their active holidays in a sustainable way. Although Canadian, she lives in Germany. You can find her in the mountains on most weekends.