Are You a Responsible Tourist?

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

Are you a responsible tourist? If you’re like me, you’d probably say yes.  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 travelling 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 helping to draw attention to their worthy cause. And in the process 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 Are You Accidentally Inflicting Animal Cruelty on Your Vacation?

…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. That way the owners 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.

Then, 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.

There was a vet, biologist and psychologist, plus the vet and biologist both had Masters degrees in Primatology.  Chimps are very expensive to care for and MONA does an exceptional job of very limited resources.

…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. But the reality is that 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.

  You may or may not currently be a responsible tourist, but you can be! 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.

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?

Enjoyed this content? Please share:

About Author

Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains Adventure Travel. She's passionate about getting outdoors as often as possible and helping travellers do the same on their vacation in a sustainable way. She's Canadian and grew up in the Canadian Rockies but now lives in Munich, Germany. You can find her skiing or hiking in the mountains most weekends, hanging out with her cat or with her nose in a good book.


Alex @ ifs ands & Butts
December 12, 2012
Wow, shocking about the volunteering programs!
December 12, 2012
@Alex - I was very surprised to and it turns out that volunteering at many orphanages are also scams.
December 12, 2012
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
December 13, 2012
@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.
December 12, 2012
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!
December 13, 2012
@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.
December 12, 2012
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!
December 13, 2012
@Debbie - I didn't either until I started doing some research. Agreed about doing your research.
December 12, 2012
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.
December 13, 2012
@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.
Sonja @ The {Happy} Travel Bug
December 12, 2012
Very much of this I didn't realize. Next time I come across one of these things I will be more knowledgeable. Thanks!
December 13, 2012
@Sonja - Glad to be of help :)
Roberta Loufek
December 12, 2012
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.
December 13, 2012
@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.
December 13, 2012
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!
December 13, 2012
@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.
December 13, 2012
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.
December 13, 2012
@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.
December 13, 2012
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.
December 13, 2012
@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.
December 13, 2012
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.
December 13, 2012
@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.
December 14, 2012
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.
December 28, 2012
@Christy - I was surprised too, it will make be rethink the way I travel.
John Williams
December 14, 2012
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.
December 28, 2012
@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.
December 15, 2012
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!
December 28, 2012
@Phillip - Always happy to help someone get a free lunch :)
December 17, 2012
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!
December 28, 2012
@Scott - I was surprised as well and agree that awareness is key, especially when people are trying to do something good.
December 24, 2012
These are some really useful information. Thanks for sharing.
December 28, 2012
@Akum - Glad it was helpful.
December 26, 2012
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.
December 28, 2012
@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.
January 4, 2013
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.
January 6, 2013
@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.
January 4, 2013
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.
January 9, 2013
@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.
January 4, 2013
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.
January 6, 2013
@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.
January 21, 2013
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. :(
January 21, 2013
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.
January 21, 2013
@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.
January 21, 2013
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 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.
January 25, 2013
@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.
June 18, 2013
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.
June 21, 2013
@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.
Gabriela Diaz
February 21, 2013
Great post!
February 21, 2013
@Gabriela - Thank you!
March 6, 2013
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)
June 18, 2013
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.
June 21, 2013
@Global Nomads - Wish everyone lived similarly to how you live. The world would be a much better place.
November 21, 2013
[…] 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 […]
December 19, 2013
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.
December 21, 2013
@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.
December 29, 2015
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...
January 1, 2016
@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.
March 31, 2017
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!
April 3, 2017
@Brent - While I agree that supporting local businesses is a great way to support local communities there are many organizations that do good work.

Leave a Reply