Responsible travel: an impossible task?


In almost every aspect of our lives we are increasingly being urged to think and act responsibly. We’re all familiar with the message that in using less electricity and water and by making fewer car journeys we’re doing our planet a favour. Most of us find the logic of this argument relatively easy to follow.

Is all travel bad?

Things get a bit murkier however when we turn our attention to travel. Surely if we are following the messages of conserving the earth’s resources to their logical conclusion, the whole concept of travel as a leisure activity should be considered irresponsible. Taking any form of transport leaves a carbon footprint. Planes, trains, automobiles and of course cruise ships each burn up a fair few kgs of CO2 on our behalf.

And for what? So that we can get our annual kicks while dancing and drinking the night away on some tropical beach? Is the extra stamp in our passport reason enough for us to knock another few seconds from our planet’s life expectancy?

Travelling responsibly

Stopping people from travelling is never going to happen. So rather than telling everyone to be responsible by sitting at home and taking walks by the river, the travel world has embraced the concepts of ethical and responsible tourism.  Keep travelling they say, but reduce your carbon footprint or better still, make a difference by engaging in activities at your destination that compensate for the damage done by the act of getting there.

Voluntourism (typically taking part in community or conservation projects while visiting a part of the world you’ve wanted to see) has seen a gradual rise in popularity; we all know people who have climbed Kilimanjaro or cycled across Cambodia to raise funds for a charity project; others meanwhile are encouraged to choose their holiday destinations to support regions that have suffered from disasters, natural or otherwise (New Zealand, Egypt and Japan are good examples from 2011).

Balancing the good and bad of travel

Is responsible travel a case of balancing a set of invisible scales? Do we have the inherent wrong of eating up the earth’s resources on one side of the scale, leaving it up to us to create enough goodness on the other side for us to have a balanced, guilt-free holiday? If we spend a week building a school or a well in a Kenyan village, is that worth an economy class flight to Mombasa and the guilty pleasure of time spent on the beach or on safari after the project? If we stay another week can we justify an upgrade on the way home?

Nothing is so simple and it appears impossible to measure these competing values in order to come up with some sort of ethical equation.

Doing good – but who for?

Why does someone choose to climb a mountain in Africa in order to raise £3,000 for their local hospital? Is it a far-fetched attempt to link charity fund-raising with a personal holiday? Couldn’t they just raise the money and stay at home? Or does that trip bring other benefits to that individual as well as helping to raise money among local friends by capturing their interest?

If you go to Angkor Wat and decide to spend a week working in an orphanage while you’re there, who is the project helping more: the children, who will welcome with broad smiles the attention of well-meaning visitors? Or the volunteer, who may come away with a sense of gratitude and willingness to do more, or may equally come away with little more than a few hundred photos of cute children to add to their Facebook wall?


I must admit to finding the whole world of responsible travel a fascinating if confusing one. On the one hand it could be argued that the most responsible approach is not to create new enterprises that assuage the guilt of those who insist on travelling. Instead as a society we should look at ways to curtail the massive demand for travel that has tens of thousands of aircraft constantly criss-crossing our skies. But something instinctively tells me that’s not the right approach; that we need to get out more and that global interaction is essential for all of us. Or perhaps I’m one of the ones who is beyond redemption…

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Freelance travel writer

10 Responses to “Responsible travel: an impossible task?”

  1. Dee #

    Good article, Andy.

    Re orphanages in Cambodia, some links

    February 16, 2012 at 2:36 pm
  2. Hugh Reid #

    We need a change in our economies which will allow people to take longer holidays. While travel by train doesn’t use anything like as much fuel per passenger per mile it takes much longer. But if you have three weeks instead of two you could absorb the few days required to get to the Med by train, taking in a couple of cities on the way, and the same on the way back.

    The only advantage of air travel is the speed at which it is accomplished. Remove that need and the need to fly is removed too.

    February 16, 2012 at 2:58 pm
  3. Great article. Too many people confuse holidays and the ability to pretend to do something good. I would have a lot more respect for someone who raises money at home for a charity than those trying to get holidays out of it. They could work longer hours and raise money that way too instead of going on holiday, and not tell anyone that they gave to charity, but that seems pretty unpopular.

    You made a good point about supporting regions that need it. Travel by itself does a huge amount of good. It is one of the best ways of transferring wealth from rich regions of the planet to poor. Nobody should feel guilty about engaging in it. Talking about the carbon footprint of flights is irrelevant when there is no context. People contribute to carbon emissions in many different ways. You have got to weigh them all up – there is no point in looking at a single factor.

    February 16, 2012 at 5:43 pm
  4. It’s a dilemma, isn’t it?

    Just the other day, when I was explaining the ethos of my site to someone, I talked myself into negating the whole thing! Ha ha!

    The way I look at it is that if no one mentioned responsible travel then people, being people, would probably go on as usual with very little thought about the impact of their travels.

    If highlighting responsible travel does nothing else but make people aware of various aspects of tourism and travel, then that’s cool. But I do think there are a load of travellers who do really care about where they go and what they do… for most of their trip.

    And I’m totally with you about people not stopping travelling – neither they should. It has far too many up-sides. Like anything, it’s about balance. You just need to find what suits you.

    February 20, 2012 at 11:06 am
  5. Thanks for sharing. This is the difficult side of travel – reconciling the effect that we each have on the planet through our travel actions. I think you offer some good advice on at least offsetting this.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:01 pm
  6. It isn’t an easy task to engage people in this subject – what is responsible travel and how can flying be responsible and sustainable for the planet? As a travel agent, I strive to make the message clearer to my clients by drip feeding responsible travel messages that inform them of their travel choices and how they can have a postive impact whilst on holiday in a certain destination. It is about good stewardship, I guess. As for the flying aspect, James makes a good point, there are countries economies who need tourism. A simple gesture Travel Matters does, is to encourage our clients to donate to planting a tree when they book a holiday. We match their donation too. This skirts around the complications of CO2 off setting.

    February 22, 2012 at 10:26 am
  7. Thanks to all for the fascinating comments (and to Dee for sharing the links). Thanks also to Karen for joining in – it was the session you organised last week on Responsible Tourism and voluntourism that got me thinking and writing about this. I suspect it is a slow process of getting the message across that it’s not about people having to make sacrifices on their holiday. Few people will buy that idea in any case. The focus should be on how making the right choices actually enhance a holiday experience for everyone, including the tourist.

    February 23, 2012 at 4:03 pm
  8. Forgive me for coming a little late (given the shelf life of a blog post!) into this debate and thanks Andy for provoking more thoughts on this difficult subject.

    Despite my very real concern regarding the future of tourism as currently practiced, I don’t advocate that we all stop flying. In my case that would be highly hypocritical! But I do think we each need to become more aware of the implications of our travel choices – hence my use of the term “conscious” which means to be awake, aware and alert, as opposed to acting in some kind of oblivious trance. Nor do I feel that guilt is a particularly useful motivator – it just makes some of us miserable, others smugly superior, and a few downright angry.

    While I recognize the power of consumers to affect change through their purchase decisions, I don’t think we should assume that they are the only party who should act responsibly. If tourism is paddling up a dead-end creek , it is because many providers have not been acting responsibly and because many agencies (Destination Marketing Organisations, sector associations and governments at all levels) have not been honest with themselves. Tourism can do as much harm as good – it all depends on how it is developed, at what pace, and to what extent.

    If all tourism providers had to pay the full and future cost of development and operations (i.e., if the externalities were included on their balance sheets), then prices wouldn’t have fallen so low and demand would not have risen so fast. The commoditization of places and people is the shame of tourism. Instead of positioning travel as a privilege and a respectful celebration of diversity, unique geographies and histories, we have created the belief that travel is a right and travelers’ demands for convenience, cheapness, choice, accessibility, and instant gratification should somehow take precedence over the rights of host communities for dignity, space, and a decent economic return.

    Based on UNWTO demand forecasts, by 2020 the volume of international tourism will be twice the size it was two years ago and domestic tourism in populous countries like India and China are growing at a greater pace on a larger base. No one has measured the human or environmental cost of that growth nor the impact of congestion on tourism demand or resident tolerance.

    My position is that we need to work now with tourism providers (the hosts) as they can be the change agents that create a better model. As the current operating model will drive many into bankruptcy, it is in their best interest to join hands and break ranks.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:02 am
  9. Thank you Anna for such a detailed and insightful addition to the debate. Is there a way to change that demand for cheap holidays, cheap hotels and low cost flights at the expense of any other consideration? Can we expect the new tourists of India and China to act in a more responsible way and pay the price when previously wealthy nations have clearly failed to do so? How do we put across a meaningful compelling argument that the race to the bottom is one that damages everyone in the end? It’s going to be interesting to see how tourism develops in the next 10-20 years.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:13 pm
  10. I’m even an even later arrival to this post. It is a confusing subject. I’m not going to suggest an answer as we should all follow our own paths. Posts like this illicit comments from people who are also concerned about the future of the human race “referred to as the ‘planet’ in shorthand”. I’ll spend my time reading their sites and learning more instead.

    Travel is important and existed long before the steam engine was invented never mind the gas turbine. It will always be a key part of the future of the human race. Talking about the issue, setting up Responsible Tourism companies and the example of people who have chosen a more sustainable travel path are an inspiration to us all.

    I do get upset when companies jump on a “green” or “eco” or “responsible” bandwagon and use it as an excuse to create more wasteful consumption. This is an area that I have an interest in researching.

    I wish offsetting were the answer, but my extensive research has lead me to believe that it is just a distraction to carry on with business as usual.

    I like Hugh’s suggestion and enjoy extended travel, albeit as a ski bum so I actually create more damage through increased heating and lighting as well as possible damage from water / pollution issues with manmade snow and damage to the flora and fauna. As a Libran I’d love to know how my passion balances out.

    Anna’s response is excellent. Bowled over by her site at first glance. I will be back.
    She does mention the doubling of travel between 2010 and 2020 though. Interesting to see if there will be enough resources to sustain that and of course that will have a direct link with the economy. If the resources aren’t cheap enough, the present economic model collapses into depression. A topic close to my heart and the reason my blog is called TravelCrunch.

    You even mention sponsored climbs and the like to raise money for charity, sounds like you have an opinion on that, or you wouldn’t have mentioned it. It is a massive debate. Why should someone’s friends and work colleagues be pestered for money when they are effectively doing something they would like to do.
    I was once hired out by my company to deliver training lectures at £400 per day, not at all my favourite work, but I am competent at it. My company also said they would match any money raised for their nominated charity, which just happened to be mine also. Now the company hiring the lecturers were also paying independent trainers. I had 5 days holiday…now how do I raise a load of money for my favourite charity without preying on my friends?

    Thank you for having the debate and for all of the commenters on here. I will relish looking up your site.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:51 pm