I have travelled around the world as a solo traveller wandering through remote village streets in Nuwara Eliya Sri Lanka, climbed the tallest mountain peak in Africa, Kilimanjaro, witnessed monks lining up to gather their food, a ritual called Tak Bat in Laos, played cricket with Jamaican kids, measured the length and width of Madeira Island in Portugal as a family of three, to name a few.
What did all these years and 50+ countries that I have had to opportunity to set foot on teach me ? I found myself become a better person in one aspect or the other after every trip. Here are my take aways from 10+ years of travels and what I have come to define as my commitment and style for the choices I make in my travels.
Responsible Travelling Tips
1 – Offbeat Destinations
Have you been dreaming of that vacation to Costa Rica to spend your time at an eco-lodge or explore volcanoes ? Have you ever considered visiting its neighbour Guatemala ? Not to say Costa Rica is not beautiful. It is indeed a gorgeous country and there is still plenty of room for more visitors to help boost the economy there. But it’s neighbour Guatemala could use some love too.
Don’t get me wrong, Guatemala also gets travelers and expats to Lake Atitlan. But, it is still not a country someone with a bucket-list would go for.
Ever since my visit to Paris and some of the main stream attractions in the world, I started craving for some real connection with locals.
- A meaningful travel where you actually get to interact with the locals
- Where you are not treated as one among the millions of tourists
- A place where taking selfie for instagram is so remote in my mind
That’s when I started chasing off-beat locations around the world. Be it a backpacking trip in Ansel Adams Wilderness or a trip to a non mainstream monastery in Bhutan, these offbeat travels bring you one step closer to the nature and people.
2 – Off Season Travel
If getting through your bucket list is what drives you, and if I failed to convince you to consider offbeat destinations, how about visiting Swiss Alps, London, Paris during the off seasons ?
Trust me Swiss Alps is also on my list and one day I want to hike Mont Bloc too. But, I think of them as either optional or perhaps would consider going to those places during off season to avoid crowd. I spent a month in Paris in December and the weather wasn’t as gorgeous as one would want it to be.
The early Feb trip to Istanbul was welcomed with rain and snow after all.
But, to my advantage, I was one among a few tourists in lot of popular places if not the only one. I remember taking a boat to cross the river in Istanbul on a rainy afternoon with the company of the locals and no other tourists in the vicinity. And that was just the perfect setting for the fellow boat passengers to strike a conversation.
My recent to trip to Bhutan is another classic example of how off season travel turns out to be more meaningful than ever. December is cold with shorter days in the mountains. Bhutan is not really the sought after destination during winter months.
But, that was exactly what made our trip such a memorable experience.
We were the only guests at the hotel our guide owned. Our guide / hotel owner personally spent the whole 11-days with us taking us around the country. We met all his extended family as we travelled with him. Every other town we visited, he had a relative. That gave us the opportunity to interact, understand and connect with more locals in ways, I would have not imagined.
How often do you get invited into local’s house for tea on a cold evening when you are one among of thousands of tourists ?
And by going to a destination during off season you get to give the tourism industry the boost it needs to get through their slow times.
3 – Redefine Your Travel Philosophy
What is travel for you ? Here is my definition, a balanced mixture of
- Interacting and hanging out with locals
- Eating local and preferably home cooked meals
- Tuning with the nature
- Learning about the local way of living, culture, art, music, dance and what drives their economy
And it is less and less about
- Hitting highlights
- Instagramable locations / sites
What is your definition ? I urge you to think deeply about what motivates, moves and interests you in life at home. And perhaps seek to experience the same in your next destination.
As I think back and reflect on my trips, the one to Ecuador where I went with no plans and ended up hanging out with a family for a good chunk of the time and exploring places where locals actually go for vacationing as opposed to where the tourists congregate, brings smile to my heart as I browse through the memories.
Wouldn’t it be great if everyone who travels to Paris is not going to Eiffel Tower but have their own unique agenda ?
May be destination half-marathon or marathon is your think. Or it is taking art and cooking classes in all the destinations you visit. Craft your own unique experience.
Turns out this would spread out the crowd and avoid over-tourism. Also, help local entrepreneurs with an opportunity to serve you.
4 – Slow Travel
Let’s admit, it’s not always possible to take 6-months off to disconnect from work, responsibilities to the extend you forget which day it is and not even sure which country you are in.
I have been fortunate to pull that off several times in my life. And every time that happens, I live my life as if that would be the last time I would get that opportunity and live it to its full extent.
The 6-months I was wandering about in South East Asia not even realizing if I am in the Thailand or Myanmar as I hiked through some remote mountain villages with no borders…did I remember to check the phone, facebook or even realize what day it was, of course no.
Those kind of slow travel days leave marks in your life than hopping on a plane for a short trip to Europe for a 4-day vacation.
If it’s just 4-days is all I got, I generally choose either a local backpacking trip or a short flight to a near by destination. Have you considered a destination like San Miguel de Allande for a 4-5 days escape from California ? Sometimes, a destination itself will slow you down.
What I have found to be true in my experience is when I travel slow, I end up spending my money at more local places directly contributing to the local economy as opposed to paying a tour company. And take more public transportation, not adding to the carbon emi-xxx.
5 – Local Trips
It’s lockdown time as I pen this post. There are no flights to feed ones jet-setting needs. Perhaps, thats exactly what we all need now.
Last weekend, we drove to Santa Cruz, CA that is about 50 mins drive from home. And I had never been more excited about going to Santa Cruz before. Suddenly our own backyard is the right place to be.
Half Moon Bay hikes and trails is one such place for me. I can never get bored of Half moon bay ocean trails. Such a perfect place to do a day trip and contribute to the local economy. During normal times, a walk down Half moon bay downtown eating at local bakeries and ice-cream shops after a long day of hiking would make your day.
Wherever you are right now, I am sure you can find your satisfaction a local trip and support the local economy.
And this goes without saying when it comes to folks who are into hiking, backpacking and nature trails. Almost every place you visit in the world would give you access to nature in some way. Take those local trips, live like a local near home or in a remote country.
Another great way to slow travel is also to take local trips from your destination. When we travel we try to stay put in one place and do local / day trips to off-beat places in search of nature.
In this day and age, the local travel industry and local small businesses such as restaurants and hotels need your help as opposed to the big chains.
6 – Fly Responsibly
Is that even possible one might ask. Yes and you should definitely take all these measures too as much as possible to contribute to a more sustainable tourism in the coming days. It’s even more evident after the 2020 pandemic, eco travel, sustainable tourism and responsible travels are going to be the theme.
So, how do you fly responsibly after all ?
- Did you know a direct flight is more eco friendly than a stop over flight ? Apparently it is. It’s more fuel efficient. It might be cheaper to do a stop-over flight, but think about the time and the fuel you would save by flying a direct flight.
- Flying a newer aircraft like the A350 or Boeing 787-10 is more fuel efficient. So, book newer flights every-time possible.
- Do you know why the flight attendant ask you to lower your shades and open the vents when it’s warm outside? It helps keep the aircraft cool. When all passengers help out and do this, the aircraft can be 10 degrees cooler. Reducing the cooling load saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. So, lower the shades next time you fly.
- Pack lighter ! Lighter flights consume less fuel.
7 – Alternate Transportations
How about a trans-siberian train ride from Russia to China ?! Or a train across Canadian Rockies ? Most other alternate transportations definitely are lot more environment friendly than flying.
Six months in South East Asia brings a beautiful nostalgic memory as I pen this article. Crossing Thailand border on a boat to cross into a new country is not just a thrilling experience. It’s cheaper, connects you closer to the nature, barely any carbon emission, and you get to connect and interact with people, unlike a flight journey.
2011 might feel ages ago in this fast paced life. But, as I sit back, close my eyes, with gentle music in the background, as the cool breeze brushes through my hair, that long bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vientiane on one of the most scenic roads in the world comes alive.
No flight experience ever surfaces as a memory worth noting. Well, perhaps the ones with delays and dramas.
8 – Hike / Walk / Bike More Often
Beyond just carbon emission and fuel efficiency, exploring a place by foot or by bike has it’s own charm. I could never forget the bike ride I took in Bogota, Colombia. We rode through red light district, gem trading streets, restaurants, as we learned about the city’s dark pasts.
No tour bus can get you that close to reality and give the experience that you would take with you forever.
I am not that much into cities in general, but if I do end up in a city, then it is with a pair of comfortable shoes and backpack filled with reusable water bottles, snacks and straws.
Uber ride might be very tempting especially given that you are new to the city and it’s easier to get from one point to another without having to worry about getting lost. But, isn’t getting lost part of the fun of exploring a place ? It’s usually one of the best ways to discover new wall-in-the-hole restaurants, bakeries, and street scenes, you would otherwise not get a chance to experience.
At least for this generation, Google Map has made walking so much easier. Punch in the destination and you are guided step by step. With such guidance, I see no reason to not go on walking tours of the cities.
9 – Shop at Local Markets and Eat Local Food
Lake Atitlan in Guatemala is a destination that is known for expats and hippie culture. The towns surrounding this volcanic lake are known among the backpackers, expats for a stable internet, yoga, care-free lifestyle, boutiques and art. Every town has it’s own charm.
We chose to stay at San Pedro la Laguna, a more of a low-key town among the tourists. But, that’s what made it just the perfect home for the days we spent at the lake. Every early morning, we would wake up to go to the local market to buy farm fresh veggies and fruits, cook breakfast, cut fruits for snacks, and save some for dinner.
Fruits like Sapote, mangoes and guava gave us the comfort that we would have gotten back at home in India. Smoked corn, cut green mangoes with spices…slurp…I sure re-lived my childhood through travels.
It was such a pleasure to shop directly from farmers, where all the transactions happen through sign language and no-bargain.
10 – Stay at Eco-friendly Home Stays
Pick your own vegetables, herbs and fruits and have the owner / chef put together your meal with his personal touch at eco-friendly home stays in Costa Rica. Stay with the family in Bhutan where the meal served for you so special and customized to meet your vegetarian needs.
Even better when the relatives of the family also join for the dinner and kids all play together. That was our experience in Bhutan. Siddharth was barely two when we spent the most amazing time in Bhutan. He got so close to the family in 10-days that everyone in that house was uncle, aunt, brother and sister for him.
Even after months, when I show him the pictures from the trip, he still remembers the uncle. It melts my heart to realize that he still remembers the people.
Through my travels, I have come to realize such local home stays and sustainable eco-lodges are my style and choice for stay.
11 – Support Responsible Travel Companies
Research and travel with travel companies that support local businesses such as G-Adventures, that invest money in grass-root projects such as Intrepid. There are several of them out there.
Here is a great article on a round up of companies but the list is not limited to these few companies.
12 – Respect Local Culture
I was in shock when a women at a Hong Kong night market told me that she doesn’t want to do business with me and wanted me out of her shop just because I am Indian. I was in my early 20s and perhaps one of the first few places I visited after India and US. I loved that red t-shirt with dragon design. After all, I wanted to get a souvenir for myself.
It took me hours before I could get over that night. What did just happen ?! Why did she kept saying, “you are Indian”, “I don’t want to do business with you.” What did Indians do to them ? I was travelling alone and had nobody to share that shock with.
I eventually procured a red dragon t-shirt that I hold dearly to this day. But, it took me years before I could understand what happened that night. Let’s be honest, being an Indian traveller, we carry the heavy burden of demands our fellow countrymen exert to others just because they paid for it. Bargains, high demands for services, rudeness towards hotel staff, not-tipping right, and the list goes on.
Bhutan recently arrested an Indian biker for disrespecting the local culture by climbing on the religious stupas. Don’t get me wrong here, I am not blaming all Indians, but please don’t argue with me that it doesn’t happen. I have witnessed enough of such scenarios throughout the world.
It’s high time, we shed such “I paid and I demand” attitude and learn to respect local culture.
Visiting a local Island in Maldives is not all about wearing bikini, it’s profoundly rewarding to cover yourself as you sit among the local women to chit-chat at the beach, in front of a bonfire. Respect the local culture and people, see the magic happen.
13 – Ask Permission Before Taking Photos
It doesn’t take much to snap a picture of anything and anyone with everyone being a photographer these days. I am guilty of that too. I have taken pictures of people from all over the world without asking their permission. But, it hit me hard when a young mother once gave it right back to me when I took a picture of her baby without asking her. It was all the slap I needed to stop it.
I apologized, deleted the photos right in front of her and took the pledge to ask permission before taking pictures. And I stopping taking pictures of kids. How would I feel when others take picture of my little one and spread it around the internet.
And all the pictures I had taken of other people, I try not to post them online and save them just for my memory, unless I know them personally and it’s ok by them to post online.
14 – Take Reusable Products With You
It doesn’t take much to carry re-usable personal products with you in your trips. But, that can quickly add up to saving so many plastic bottles, bags, straws and reduce waste tremendously.
Here are my favorite reusable travel essentials.
Water Bottle: LifeStraw is a true life saver. You can drink tap water from pretty much anywhere in the world with a guarantee that your water is filtered.
Water Filter System for Backpacking: When we go for backpacking trips where we have to filter water from a lake or by a near by creek and need a light-weight bladder system, my go to is Katadyn.
Reusable Straw: Guilty as charged ! I have used 100s of one-time use plastic straws as I slurped the coconut water in India and several other tropical countries. Not anymore however.
Menstural Cup: Nope, it’s not a taboo topic to discuss. And I am one of the proud users of menstural cups and you have no idea how comfortable they are. No more messy pads that contribute to the landfill.
15 – Unethical Animal Rides – Say No !
If you are tempted to get on that elephant in Thailand or India to go on a tour, please remind yourself, that these animals are mis-treated and it is unethical to go on these rides.
In my early 20s I did go on an elephant ride in Thailand and witnessed how cruelly they get treated. The kind of physical abuse these animals go through when they should in reality be out and about in the wilderness, is beyond explanation.
Petting zoos are another level of disaster and threat to animals. Please don’t support them.
Instead, feel free to go on a safari in the true wilderness in Udawalawe National Park in Sri Lanka. Or bird watching in Amazon forest. Those are the real deal adventures.
16 – Social Media Responsibility
Your friend tagged herself from this really cool place in her instagram picture and next time you take that trip, you need to go there to make a point ! We all have been a victim of that. Isn’t that how the over-tourism even came to be a thing ?
It is truly inspiring and soul-soothing if you travel and explore the world with your own eyes and identify what is beauty to you. Share pictures and stories sensibly.
In the name of instagram adventure photos, we have lost enough lives already as people get into accidents. It’s not worth risking lives for pictures.
17 – Volunteer
Volunteering as a part of travel is another great way to give back to the community. I was sent to Indonesia by Gates Foundation for a project. The six months in Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Bali remains special to my heart, purely because I worked so closely with local small and micro businesses as a part of the Micro Finance project.
Snag such opportunities if you can and see how far you positively impact the lives of others in the process.
18 – Teach and Learn
Are you interested in teaching English or perhaps you have a special skill that you can teach to kids in schools. Conduct a free workshop at local schools and impart your wisdom. It’s amazing how lot of schools and communities welcome such learning opportunities.
A group of young monks, mostly under 13, in Sri Lanka, wanted to spend the evening learning how to make Indian food. It was such fun sharing recipes with them. We all cooked together and shared the dinner that evening. An evening I would never forget in my life.
19 – Plant a tree
If you are anything like me and into national parks, hikes and backpacking, I am sure you appreciate trees and the impact it has on our lives.
I have dedicated a post here on tree planting and ideas on how you can plant a tree.
Every country you visit would have a project to resurrect the lost forest and plant more trees. Do your deed and plant a tree in every country you visit.
20 – Reuse Maps
This is something close to my heart. I started collecting maps as a souvenir that turned into an obsession. But, soon I realized how it can be reused and help the world in your tiny way to protect the trees from being cut down.
As years went by, I have several shoe boxes full of maps from around the world. And anytime some of my friends want to visit a place that I have been to, I happily share those maps.
Several parks these days also have a map re-cyle system for those who are willing to give it back. And I highly urge you to do so moving forward.
I hope I convinced you at least on one or two of the above pointers on responsible travelling that you can take with you on your next travel.