Are You a Responsible Tourist?

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.
2017-10-14T15:24:23+00:00

59 Comments

  1. Alex @ ifs ands & Butts December 12, 2012 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    Wow, shocking about the volunteering programs!

  2. Laurel December 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    @Alex – I was very surprised to and it turns out that volunteering at many orphanages are also scams.

  3. sallie - people and places December 12, 2012 at 5:32 pm - Reply

    what a wonderfully honest piece Laurel thanks this will really help travellers realise that despite thier best intentions without real knowledge they can still be doing harm – we will still make mistakes – lets not beat ourselves for this BUT if we take responsibility that is the most important step. Thanks to you and all the team for your wonderful support

    • Laurel December 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm - Reply

      @Sallie – Thank you for your kind words and agree that being informed and taking responsibility are definitely a step in the right direction. We’re glad to help and be drawing our attention to this important cause.

  4. Emma December 12, 2012 at 7:05 pm - Reply

    A friend of mine actually wrote their undergraduate senior thesis about voluntourism in Ghana and how many programs that claim to create positive change are really just taking money from tourists and selling them a story about how they’re “helping Africa.” You’re absolutely right about researching who you volunteer with, and I’m going to keep the rest of your advice in mind too. This is a really helpful article, and I wish more people were blogging about these issues!

    • Laurel December 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm - Reply

      @Emma – Oh wow, your friend must have learned a ton. It’s a shame that these organizations are out there, since the resources could be put elsewhere where they would make a positive difference. Glad you found it helpful.

  5. Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista December 12, 2012 at 7:14 pm - Reply

    Interesting! I would have never thought about many of the items on your list. I think it would be very important to really check out an organization that you are planning on volunteering with. I did pretty good but I really don’t think its because I’m a more “responsible tourist”. Great things to think about though!

    • Laurel December 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm - Reply

      @Debbie – I didn’t either until I started doing some research. Agreed about doing your research.

  6. Andrea December 12, 2012 at 9:15 pm - Reply

    These are really important points to note! I’ve got a post coming up about the orphanage issue tomorrow, actually – I learned a LOT researching it, things I never would have imagined. A good reminder to always be mindful wherever you are in the world.

    • Laurel December 13, 2012 at 9:37 pm - Reply

      @Andrea – Looking forward to reading it. I didn’t know much about the orphanage issue until I started doing a bit of research but would like to learn more.

  7. Sonja @ The {Happy} Travel Bug December 12, 2012 at 10:28 pm - Reply

    Very interesting…so much of this I didn’t realize. Next time I come across one of these things I will be more knowledgeable. Thanks!

    • Laurel December 13, 2012 at 9:36 pm - Reply

      @Sonja – Glad to be of help 🙂

  8. Roberta Loufek December 12, 2012 at 10:43 pm - Reply

    What a well-written, thought-provoking post. Some of these I knew right away were wrong to do, but others took me by surprise. But your logic is sound, and I appreciate you spelling out so clearly how we can be more responsible on our travels. While at home I make a point of researching charities to make sure they are worthy of support – now I will be sure to think about this for travel-related businesses as well.

    • Laurel December 13, 2012 at 9:35 pm - Reply

      @Roberta – Thank you for your kind words. Kudos to you for doing your research on charities. There are some great ones out there, so good to support them.

  9. Vera December 13, 2012 at 1:29 am - Reply

    Great post! I myself have not travelled yet that much in countries where most of your questions would be relevant, but just informing myself a little bit about responsible or ethical consumerism at home already gobsmacked me, and has influenced many of my decisions, as it has certainly raised my awareness and a distrust which makes me ask “Qui bonem?” (who *really* benefits from it?). I am very impressed that you did try to make a difference for the monkeys in Palau. I must say I find it very hard to estimate how far I can go taking immediate action in a country/culture that is different from mine (there’s no shortage of causes back home, anyway), but it is a very good start to learn about the Do’s and Dont’s of Responsible Tourism, and the tools available for you as a tourist to contribute to a change of an unjust situation!

    • Laurel December 13, 2012 at 9:34 pm - Reply

      @Vera – Thanks and great to hear that you’re informing yourself. My heart still goes out to those monkeys in Palau, I still feel terrible for them. Agreed, that cultural and language differences make it more challenging and that becoming more aware is half the battle. I think most people mean well, but may inadvertently take actions that lead to less than positive results.

  10. Cheryl December 13, 2012 at 3:03 am - Reply

    Glad to see bloggers working together towards a common good and that you were so honest n your writing.

    I’m against “volunteerism” in general because of many reasons you highlight here and working again for a NGO has reminded me again of why it’s so important to choose a good organization for volunteer purposes.

    • Laurel December 13, 2012 at 9:32 pm - Reply

      @Cheryl – I feel that if we’re going to change anything, we need to be honest and responsible for our actions. Agreed that it can be challenging to find a good place to volunteer, but I know there are lot of organizations doing great work.

  11. Italian Notes December 13, 2012 at 8:29 am - Reply

    Phew – I guess I’m by and large a responsible tourist (But it isn’t that hard when most of your travelling is done in Italy) Thanks for calling attention to these problems.

    • Laurel December 13, 2012 at 9:31 pm - Reply

      @Italian Notes – Great to hear! I was amazed at how many ways tourists can impact locals when I started doing research both positively or negatively.

  12. Ad-lib Traveller December 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm - Reply

    Interesting post, it really highlights that sometimes, even with the best intentions we can get it wrong. I like to consider myself to be a responsible traveller but this certainly gives food for thought. Thanks for sharing.

    • Laurel December 13, 2012 at 9:30 pm - Reply

      @Ad-lib Thank you. I like to think of myself as a responsible tourist as well, but I realize now that I have some room for improvement.

  13. Christy December 14, 2012 at 9:44 pm - Reply

    Wow. A couple of these really surprised me! I never would have thought donating to an orphanage may not be the best way to help. Thanks for bringing it to everyone’s attention.

    • Laurel December 28, 2012 at 12:37 am - Reply

      @Christy – I was surprised too, it will make be rethink the way I travel.

  14. John Williams December 14, 2012 at 11:16 pm - Reply

    Laurel, asking questions to the reader, then going on to explain the consequences is a powerful tool to influence. It works well in this post.
    I learnt from my partner who has over 20 years experience working with NGO’s such as MSF, OXFAM, Handicap International and the like that volunteering overseas is not always the answer. It is always better to empower the locals to solve the problems they have on the ground, than to send an outsider to fix them.
    We all have a long way to go to address the misconceptions we have about our travel. Thank you for another short lesson on Responsible Tourism.

    • Laurel December 28, 2012 at 12:37 am - Reply

      @John – Thanks so much for your kind words and for sharing your partners experience. Agree that it’s better to empower locals, I guess the challenge is how tourists wanting to make positive change can do that.

  15. Phillip December 15, 2012 at 11:29 am - Reply

    Nice read, I just passed this onto a colleague
    who was doing a little research on that. And he

    just bought me lunch since I found it for him smile Thus let
    me rephrase that:

    Thanks for lunch!

    • Laurel December 28, 2012 at 12:35 am - Reply

      @Phillip – Always happy to help someone get a free lunch 🙂

  16. Scott - Quirky Travel Guy December 17, 2012 at 5:07 pm - Reply

    I’m glad to see more bloggers writing about this issue. I remember being surprised when I saw my first “volunteering abroad does more harm than good” post, but after reading it, I wanted to send it to every traveler out there, because I don’t think everyone is aware of these issues. Wanting to give back is such a natural urge but we need to do it in a way that is truly beneficial for the communities!

    • Laurel December 28, 2012 at 12:32 am - Reply

      @Scott – I was surprised as well and agree that awareness is key, especially when people are trying to do something good.

  17. Akum December 24, 2012 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    These are some really useful information. Thanks for sharing.

    • Laurel December 28, 2012 at 12:21 am - Reply

      @Akum – Glad it was helpful.

  18. Ali December 26, 2012 at 2:34 pm - Reply

    I knew about a lot of these issues, but the volunteering ones are tricky. How would you have known that your lion cub volunteering was such a horrible thing? As for the children who beg or sell things, I’ve seen that often and it’s so hard to resist because they look so sad and so in need, but I do my best to resist. I bought a soda or 2 from those kids at Angkor Wat because I was thirsty at the time, but I felt weird about that too. Hopefully more and more people will learn about these issues and change their actions.

    • Laurel December 28, 2012 at 12:20 am - Reply

      @Ali – Great that you were aware of so many of these issues. Agreed that it’s tough to educate yourself sometimes, without my S. African friend, I never would have known about the lions. Also agreed that it’s hard to resist, especially if they’re selling something you need. I think awareness if the first step.

  19. cosmoHallitan January 4, 2013 at 4:44 am - Reply

    This was eye-opening! What are your thoughts on volunteering your time at an orphanage? There are several here in Shanghai that are always looking for people to come in and spend time with the children.

    • Laurel January 6, 2013 at 6:08 pm - Reply

      @cosmoHallitan – Thank you. I think volunteers need to be very careful when choosing to volunteer at an orphanage and ensure they’ve done their research since not all orphanages are created equal.

  20. Jeff January 4, 2013 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    I notice you didn’t mention animal tourism (separate from your volunteering examples). I haven’t done it myself, but apparently there are many places to ride elephants, take pictures with tigers, etc. As I understand it, many of these mistreat the animals and are just profit-making ventures. But, I imagine some are actually good organizations trying to raise money for protection or preservation.

    As for the slum tours, I don’t know. I wondered about taking a favela tour in Rio but had the same concerns you raised. Interestingly, I met a Dutch guy when I stayed in a different city and he was living in one of the slums. It turns out he took one of the tours and, when he mentioned he was looking to rent a room somewhere, the guide offered to rent a room in his house. I asked this Dutch guy about my concerns and he told me that the tours were actually popular in the favela because: 1) the guide was a local who had lived his whole life there, 2) clients are encouraged to spend money in the favela, thus bringing it tourism dollars, and 3) the tours help dispel the negative myths about favelas. How much of that is true and whether that is the whole story is anybody’s guess, but at least in that instance it sounds reasonable to me.

    As for your point about donating to orphanages. Again, it isn’t something I have done or even thought about. But, I find the argument you make dubious. I definitely see the logic, but just because orphanages may not be the ideal long-term solution doesn’t mean that short-term solutions are unnecessary. Ideally, we would be supporting both short and long-term solutions to societal problems.

    I guess my point is that to be responsible is not always black and white and generally requires doing your homework.

    • Laurel January 9, 2013 at 9:29 pm - Reply

      @Jeff – Excellent point and animal tourism is very dear to my heart being an animal lover. I used to live in Bangkok and hated seeing elephants being dragged through the streets where their owners sold bananas so that tourists could feed the elephants.

      Re: the slum tours that’s a very interesting perspective. If people aren’t being exploited, I don’t see it as a problem, but often I think they are being exploited.

      The argument about donating orphanages came from responsible tourist experts who believe the money is better spent supporting long term solutions.

      Agree that responsible tourism is not black and white and it’s often difficult for tourists to know what kinds of impact their actions will have.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  21. Bobbi Lee Hitchon January 4, 2013 at 8:20 pm - Reply

    This is a really important article. I know I didn’t really consider any of this when I started traveling. I answered yes to a few of these. Visitors really do have a responsibility to the places they visit. A lot of times guide books will point certain things out, but I think you gave the best advice in researching when you can and being sensible.

    • Laurel January 6, 2013 at 6:21 pm - Reply

      @Bobbi Lee – Agreed and I think it’s easy for tourists to inadvertently take actions that have a negative impact on locals/animals. I was surprised at what I found after doing a bit of research.

  22. Raymond @ Man On The Lam January 21, 2013 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    I remember in Siem Reap a little girl asking me “Mister, you buy postcards from me so I can go to school?” I told her “Here’s the thing, if I buy postcards from you you are never gonna go to school because your parents won’t want to lose that income stream.” She was confused as f**k. I ended up buying the postcards. 🙁

  23. Janice MacLeod January 21, 2013 at 12:24 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this article. I live in Paris and am met with many of these situations each day. I felt guilty about not giving money to people on the street. Now I feel like what I was doing was responsible. I still feel like taking the young girls away and whispering RUN AWAY, JUST GO.

    • Laurel January 21, 2013 at 2:38 pm - Reply

      @Janice – I understand your guilt, I used to feel it when I lived in Thailand as well, even though it is better not to give them money. Seeing young girls in a difficult situation is especially hard. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  24. Melanie January 21, 2013 at 4:15 pm - Reply

    DItto on animal tourism. Two incidents to report:
    1. At Puerto Vallarta our tour guide from Vallarta Adventures suggested we not pay to have our photos taken while petting baby lions and tigers. In his opinion the babies should be with their mothers, not out earning money. We listened.
    2. In Sri Lanka at Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage (see http://neverlost-everlost.blogspot.fr/2011/10/pinnawela-elephant-orphanage-very-sad.html) we discovered not an orphanage at all but a breeding ground for elephants who are shoved around all day with bull hooks for the pleasure of the tourists taking photos. I left in tears and have written about it on every occasion presented to me, to discourage people from supporting it.

    • Laurel January 25, 2013 at 5:19 pm - Reply

      @Melanie – Responsible animal tourism is very close to my heart. Thank you for sharing your experiences. It breaks my heart to see what people will do to animals, just to make a quick buck.

      • Global Nomads June 18, 2013 at 5:10 am - Reply

        Every single zoo, aquarium, and safari organiser is equally guilty for making money by exploiting and disturbing animals. The only way to stop that is to stop using any services that involve animals. We love to see animals spontaneously in their own natural habitat.

        • Laurel June 21, 2013 at 3:40 pm - Reply

          @Global Nomads – Having used to work in the education department of a zoo I have very mixed feelings about zoos. The animal’s health and wellbeing should obviously be priority #1 and unfortunately it isn’t in many zoos. Agreed that seeing animals in their natural habitat is the best and most exciting way to see them.

  25. Gabriela Diaz February 21, 2013 at 4:51 am - Reply

    Great post!

    • Laurel February 21, 2013 at 11:03 am - Reply

      @Gabriela – Thank you!

  26. Madhavan namboodiri March 6, 2013 at 1:32 am - Reply

    Hi Laurel, It is nice to listen to honest, and caring young persons like you. you are doing a great service. My daughter Nibha had been pursuing the cause of captive elphants in Kerala, India but gave up the same because she was emotionally upset because of the indifference and cruality of people at large and the politicians particular. She is into spirituality and nature care. I have told her about you and she fully shares your views. I am going to share your article through facebook and other social networks. Hats off to you again (you can call me namboo)

  27. Global Nomads June 18, 2013 at 5:05 am - Reply

    We live like locals with locals and consume as little as possible. For us leaving a small footprint, be it carbon, ecological, or economical footprint, is responsible tourism and responsible living.

    • Laurel June 21, 2013 at 3:42 pm - Reply

      @Global Nomads – Wish everyone lived similarly to how you live. The world would be a much better place.

  28. This is Spiderville - Hecktic Travels November 21, 2013 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    […] am ashamed to say that I bought a bag of mangoes, knowing that this is not the practice of a responsible tourist. What can I say? Sometimes I am […]

  29. Kathryn Burrington December 19, 2013 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    Really wonderful to see that you are promoting this campaign. People and Places are a superb, award winning organisation who I have met through my work with The Gambia Experience. I was really impressed with their volunteering processes which are second to non.

    • Laurel December 21, 2013 at 12:09 pm - Reply

      @Kathryn – Thanks for the recommendation. There are so many places doing wonderful work that it’s a shame that a few shady ones put a dark cloud over everyone else.

  30. Brianna December 29, 2015 at 3:30 pm - Reply

    Thanks for mentioning about volunteer programs! I volunteered at an orphanage in Nepal a few years ago, and I felt good about it until they asked me to help them install their brand new flat screen TV, because the directions were all in English…

    • Laurel January 1, 2016 at 8:14 pm - Reply

      @Brianna – Yeah, it’s almost impossible to know which are the “good” places to volunteer. Sorry to hear about your experience. A few years ago I almost volunteered with lions in South Africa. Fortunately, when I mentioned it to a S. African friend it raised a reg flag for him. He did some investigating and found out that the lions were later used for trophy hunting. It made me so sad as I would never want to contribute to trophy hunting – the complete opposite, but the website looked like they were doing fantastic things for lion conservation.

  31. Brent March 31, 2017 at 6:37 am - Reply

    Donating money to ANY organization is a waste of money. Spending your money in local ran restaurants and businesses is the ONLY way to help the impoverished. Handouts don’t encourage job opportunities or promote the economy rather it shows people how to exploit your conscience.
    Donating to disaster relief funds such as the Nepal Earthquake go straight to the corrupt government. Go and visit the country a spend your money there!

    • Laurel April 3, 2017 at 9:34 am - Reply

      @Brent – While I agree that supporting local businesses is a great way to support local communities there are many organizations that do good work.

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