What responsible travel means to me

Ellie Cleary - Soul Travel Blog

Unsustainable Beginnings

It wasn’t exactly a logical choice for my first trip outside of Europe. Stepping out of Phnom Penh airport, in Cambodia in 2006, my senses took a while to catch up with my feet. Sitting on the back of a tuk tuk and whizzing along the ring road of the city, I remember vaguely wondering why there were pigs in baskets strapped to the motorbikes in front of me.

For me, Sustainable Travel started by learning what it wasn’t.

That summer in Cambodia, I had a typical “Voluntourism” experience. I stayed for 3 months teaching English in a suburban shack to as many as 40 kids at a time.

I watched fellow volunteers go to orphanage placements. Orphanages that would 2 years later be exposed as shams and money making fronts, where the owners were profiting from the desires of well-meaning foreigners to help Cambodian children. Children who more often than not had living parents.

With the desire to do something good for my class, I went and bought some English language textbooks at the market to give to my students. One week later I found out that 70% of the books had been sold by the children – for sweets, for food, or even for sniffing glue.

what is responsible travel

Lessons Learned

I cannot recall a time feeling so useless and unable to actually help. Nothing seemed to really be how it seemed.

But the experience wielded a valuable lesson. That good intentions aren’t always enough, and that as travellers – particularly to developing countries – we always need to consider the impact of our actions.

Volunteering can be a valuable tool, but these days I know to ask myself “would I be able to do this in my own country” before assuming I can help somewhere else. I would also not volunteer through and agency / company that was profiting from my volunteering.

I learned that to understand how to help, we have to go deeper than the surface. For-warned is for-armed, and the greatest gift we can give ourselves is information. Researching, reading and more researching before going on a trip helps us to understand: to understand a culture, where to go, what to look out for. How to travel safely and respectfully.

what is responsible travel

Trying to Travel Sustainably

Some would argue that travel is simply not sustainable. Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Thai Islands: we don’t have to look far to see examples of mass tourism that crush destinations: having a negative effect on the environment, on society, on wildlife, and offering no economic benefit to the average inhabitant of the destination.

Some would argue that with the number of travellers set to reach 1.8 billion by the year 2030, and with 80% of carbon emissions from travel caused by flying, that we should all just stay home.

I couldn’t disagree more.

Travel is one of the most valuable tools we have to connect with one another. Across cultures, across religions, across languages and across thousands of miles.

Travel can be the bringer of peace and understanding we so desperately need.

If it’s done in the right way.

Trying to travel more consciously, ethically and sustainably has been a journey for me.

Each time I venture out, I learn more. Through my Cambodian “Voluntourism” experience I learned to be critical of volunteering opportunities. Through seeing elephants in chains I learned the pain that tourism can cause to animals. Through seeing countless tour companies selling carbon copies of exactly the same tour to the same places I learned how important it is to go off on our own, or seek out companies that get off the beaten track. Through being driven around in an air conditioned bus I learned how important it is to get off and take public transport instead.

Perhaps, above all, I learned that travel is a privilege. Despite what we might think, It’s not possible for everyone – due to economic inequality and poverty, racism, and “bad passport” countries.

what is responsible travel

My Biggest Learning of All

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

~ The 14th Dalai Lama.

Small steps, taken collectively, add up to a huge difference. My favourite example: can you imagine if every traveller (whether at home or abroad) travelled with a re-usable water bottle? Can you imagine how much plastic and water that would save? If you travel with Better Places, you can do just that!

There are other things we can do collectively to make travel more sustainable. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Avoid flying when we can. In some cases there’s no choice. But some of my greatest travel adventures have been travelling from Amsterdam to Lisbon by train, or taking a long bus trip.
  • Support local businesses. This way, our money goes directly to local people. Eat local food that is in season and hasn’t had to be flown in. Stay in locally owned homestays and guest houses. Use local tour companies.
  • On that note, I like to avoid chains: hotel chains, restaurant chains – where our money lines a chain head office’s pockets vs the locals.
  • Look for places to stay that have eco or environmentally measure. Ask your hotel: what are they doing to limit their environmental impact? “Eco” doesn’t necessarily mean “eco”… what are they actually doing?
  • Go to different places. Off the beaten path we find places where it is easier to escape mass tourism, we encounter more culture and often more beautiful places. Let’s make sure we keep it that way.
  • Connect with people. For tourism to build a bridge between cultures, nationalities and religions, it’s our job to try to connect with strangers and locals when we travel. Even when we share no common language. Isn’t that the fun part?

Did you know that 2017 is the International year of Sustainable Tourism Development?
Read tips from top bloggers on how we can make ourselves ready for that.

About Ellie Cleary – Soul Travel Blog

Creating positive impact through travel. 

Former hotelier turned travel blogger, Ellie is the founder of Soul Travel Blog, a blog that looks to turn travel in to a win-win equation: benefiting the destination as well as the traveller. Ellie is always on the lookout for the next sustainable or responsible hotel, tour company or destination to share with her readers.

After 5 years working in the hotel industry in her hometown of London, UK, Ellie moved to the Netherlands to work for Booking dot com from 2010-2016. There she headed up their Global Accounts team, managing relationships and contracting with major international hotel chains.

In 2016 the call to do something related to responsible travel became impossible to resist, and since July 2016 Ellie is location independent. Alongside running the award-winning Soul Travel Blog, Ellie works as a freelance writer and consultant for sustainable travel brands. When not travelling or writing about travel, Ellie enjoys yoga, a good book, and scenic train journeys.