Responsible tourism: what do you need to know?

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 09.12.2018

Tourism is on the increase the world over, with rising visitor numbers having a significant impact on resources, pollution and local communities.

It’s never been more important to think about the way in which we travel. Here, Helen Abramson looks at the principles of sustainable and responsible tourism, and how we can minimise the negative effects on places we visit.

Why should I think about responsible tourism?

In recent years over 1 billion tourists travelled to foreign destinations – a figure that is growing all the time. On top of that, somewhere in the region of 4 billion domestic tourists pack their bags each year.

The planet is straining under the weight of these figures. We need to think about how to ensure the mark we leave is a positive one.


Responsible tourism and sustainable tourism – what’s the difference?

The UN declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, marking a collective commitment to changing policies, business practices and consumer behaviour.

This landmark achievement celebrated the principles of sustainable tourism: causing as little impact as possible on a destination’s social and natural environment, and fulfilling local economic needs while maintaining cultural integrity.

“Economic prosperity, social inclusion, peace and understanding, cultural and environmental preservation” should shape the future of the industry, according to UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai.

The term responsible tourism, by contrast, is generally used on an individual level. This means making choices that support the longevity of tourism in a particular location, respecting the environment and trying to improve the quality of life for the local population.

This could translate as making an effort to understand local culture, helping to preserve natural surroundings or travelling with organisations that allow communities to have a say in, and benefit from, your visit.


What are the problems?

Most environmental damage caused by tourism is produced by air travel. Vast amounts of greenhouse gasses are pumped into the atmosphere by more than 100,000 flights a day all around the globe. The UNEP estimate that aviation is responsible for 2 to 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, and expect that to grow by up to 15% by 2050.

On a more local level, other environmental factors kick in. As tourism increases, roads, airports and facilities are constructed to accommodate visitors. Often this development happens quickly, and without consideration of the drain on resources, threats to natural habitats, and pollution of both water and land.

Further to this, communities often see visitor spending funnelled into the hands of big business, which can threaten local economies.

We need to identify ways of channelling tourist income towards locals, including through the informal economy, in which people can earn a living through services such as guiding or homestays. Tourist enterprises also need to be planned conscientiously, so as not to upset the local infrastructure.


Cultural and historical sites are a major draw for tourists. However, without careful management – especially in developing countries – local cultural heritage is sometimes sidelined in the face of financial gains.

This can lead to the eradication of traditional practices and ethnic legacies. Indigenous communities may lack the political influence and legal rights to protect themselves from such damaging external forces.

How can I be a more responsible traveller?

Starting to reduce the detrimental impact of tourism takes a little sensitivity, planning and forethought. Here are our tips on making a positive difference:

1. Do your research

Research the companies you choose to give your money to. Pick tour agencies that work with local communities, employ local staff, pay decent wages, have a “leave no trace” policy and are sensitive to cultural heritage and social diversity.

2. Seek out green options

Find hotels that recycle or compost waste, and use renewable energy. Stay in ecolodges, which are designed to have the minimal possible impact on the surrounding environment.

Eco lodge in the Amazon


3. Try a homestay over a hotel

Get to know your hosts and experience their way of life.

4. Minimise bottled water

Imagine the size of the mound of plastic you’d create from drinking mineral water every day for a week, then multiple that by more than a billion to get some sense of the annual scale. A far greener option is to purify your own – there’s an increasingly effective range of travel-optimised purifying filtration systems which destroy even the tiniest bacteria and viruses.

5. Conserve water

The average hotel guest uses more than 200 litres of water every day. Conserve water where you can, and avoid those luxuriously long showers.

6. Support the local economy

Buy souvenirs direct from local craftspeople and eat at local restaurants rather than international chains.

Indian woman selling jewellery

Dirk Ott/Shutterstock

7. Be respectful

Respect regional cultures and religions, adhere to local dress codes and always ask before taking someone's photograph.

8. Be mindful

Don’t eat endangered species or buy illegal-trade animal souvenirs, such as items made from elephant ivory or coral.

9. Travel overland

You can make a big difference to your carbon footprint by taking overland transport instead of flying and public transport rather than hiring a car or taking taxis.

10. Offset your impact

If you do fly, to help counterbalance the carbon footprint, you can first check that you’re flying with one of the more fuel-efficient airlines, only fly economy and offset your air travel. Offsetting works by paying a company to invest in an ecologically beneficial project, such as planting forests or developing renewable energy, which in time will compensate for the carbon added to the atmosphere.

Work out your carbon emissions using an online carbon calculator first; a return-trip flight from London to New York, for example, uses around 1.5 tonnes of CO2, and costs around £11 ($14) to offset.

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 09.12.2018

Planning your own trip? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Ready to discover
tailor-made travel?

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍