Responsible Travel in Southeast Asia
Easy Ways to Have a Positive Impact in the Countries You Visit
“Responsible Travel,” “Sustainable Travel,” and “Eco-Tourism” are becoming popular buzzwords in Southeast Asia’s travel industry. That’s definitely a trend we can get behind! However, it’s easy to get caught up in a wave of good intentions and not quite grasp the cause you’re supporting.
We all want to have a positive impact in the countries we visit and come to love, but it can be hard to know how to do so. Some activities that seem like responsible travel options actually hurt more than they help. So, we’ve pulled together this list of easy ways to travel responsibly in Southeast Asia to help you navigate the waters.
Responsible Travel: Awareness is Key
It’s tempting to give into cravings for Western comforts and food when you’ve been traveling a long time. These behaviours feel innocent enough, but in fact they can do real damage to the local economy in the long term. Although it may not seem obvious at first, responsible travel and sustainable tourism can be straightforward when you break them down – you just have to consider how your actions affect the big picture.
Small changes to your behaviour can support long term solutions to local problems.
That’s all any of us can hope to achieve, really. We may not be able to change the world, but we can certainly play our part. We can ensure that our Birkenstock-clad footprint has as little of a negative impact as possible on the beautiful, fascinating, and evolving places we choose to travel through… *gazes wistfully into the distance*…
“Sounds nice, but I’m still not sure what you’re on about exactly…”
“Responsible Travel,” “Sustainable Travel,” “Eco-Tourism,” and all the other similar terms all really describe variations of the same idea. The goal is to travel in a way that ensures a more mutually beneficial experience for travellers and locals alike.
Responsible Travel: A Two-Way Exchange
It’s only fair, right? The residents of the country you’re visiting are peacefully allowing you the opportunity to explore their country, culture, and traditions. It’s the least we can do to be respectful in return!
With this in mind, here are several very easy & straightforward things we can do in order to successfully engage with responsible travel in Southeast Asia:
Responsible Travel Tips – Shop Local
Consciously Choose to Buy Locally-Sourced or Locally-Made Products & Food
Think street stalls, local markets, homemade goods, and traditional, family-run businesses instead of K-mart, supermarkets, or any large, westernized brands and stores. Purchasing your goods in this way ensures that the maximum amount of your money possible (usually 100%) goes straight back into the local economy. When you spend your dollars with the big guys, at best only a cent or two will filter down through the air-conditioned vents of Starbucks or McDonald’s and into the pockets of local employees.
If you keep your eyes open for them, you’ll find tons of social enterprises and initiatives to sell locally-made goods throughout Southeast Asia. These wares often make for the best souvenirs of a trip! For example, at Mad Monkey Phnom Penh and Mad Monkey Siem Reap we sell beautiful handwoven bracelets sourced through Life Project Cambodia.
The profits of these bracelet sales go straight back to the craftsmen and women that made them in villages surrounding Siem Reap. This arrangement provides a sustainable source of income for the villagers, and a unique memento for you!
Responsible Travel Tips – Minimize Plastic Waste
Re-Use or Recycle Your Plastic Bottles
With tourism comes a high volume of plastic bottles, bags, and other litter that poses a serious threat to the natural environment. This problem is especially prevalent in Southeast Asia, where the tap water isn’t safe to drink and travelers rely on bottled water. In Thailand, reusing water bottles has become common practice. Many stores will also collect used bottles for recycling.
Wherever you go, it’s worth gathering your used plastic and scoping out a place that will recycle them. Supermarkets often do. It can seem like there’s no recycling program in place when you’re in a foreign country, but often it just operates differently to what you’re used to at home. When in doubt, just ask someone!
In Bali, Indonesia’s tourist hotspot, there have been several highly successful campaigns in recent years to reduce the use of plastic. Bye Bye Plastic Bags and BeOrganic Bali have had great successes in promoting the negative aspects of using plastic bags and other products which contribute to the pollution. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a store on the island that doesn’t stock Bottles For Earth. This fantastic initiative promotes the use of water flasks instead of plastic bottles.
The goal of these initiatives is to make responsible travel more accessible to visitors like you. This ensures that the beautiful environment we flock there to see and experience stays beautiful.
Responsible Travel Tips – Support Local Establishments
Choose Accommodations and Tours That Fairly Employ Local Staff
Tourism and backpackers are a major part of the local economy in Southeast Asia.
To promote and maintain this symbiotic relationship we must ensure any tours, groups, or guides whose help we enlist to navigate unfamiliar surroundings benefit just as much as we do from the interaction. Foreign operators have swooped into developing tourist hot spots to take advantage of the tourist dollars being spent, and the local community doesn’t see any of the benefits of the business they do.
Do a little extra research to be sure that the establishment you’re supporting supports the local community. In this Google age, it’s pretty easy to trace a business’s tracks.
Mad Monkey Hostels makes a point of paying our employees fair wages and the benefits they deserve. Luckily, we aren’t the only ones. Several tour operators are locally owned and operated, and these are the people that are best positioned to give you an insider’s view of their city anyways!
Responsible Travel Tips – Be Kind To Animals
Whatever You Do, Don’t. Ride. The. Elephants.
I could write an entire post on this (and probably will), but there are so many reasons not to ride elephants during your travels in Southeast Asia.
The best way I can explain it is that in order for elephants to become domesticated enough to allow a human (and not just one human, keep in mind they’ve been taught to let any number on board) to sit upon their back is through significant levels of mental and emotional manipulation. The businesses who do this label the process as ‘training,’ but it’s really abuse.
This ‘training’ begins when the elephants are very young. It involves being chained, whipped, and otherwise tortured until they ‘break’ and consent to whatever their trainers force them to do in order to avoid more punishment.
When you ride an elephant in Southeast Asia you’re essentially riding a broken, abused animal. Every tourist that does this feeds into an ongoing chain of animal abuse that is only made possibly by business from the hoards of travellers oblivious to the plight of these creatures.
There are ways to hang out with elephants without contributing to this abuse, though! Places such as Mondulkiri Elephant Valley Project in the east of Cambodia offer eco-friendly tours and treks with elephants who have been rescued from previous abusive situations. You can feed, walk and swim with the wild elephants. This allows you to experience them in their natural habitat instead of buying into a business which will continue to abuse them.
Like the previous examples, it’s just about staying aware of where your money is going!
Responsible Travel Tips – Don’t Support Child Exploitation
Avoiding Purchasing Anything From Children In The Street
As harsh as this one may seem, it is ultimately one of the biggest contributing factors to the slow progress of any organization working towards responsible tourism.
Seeing children begging tears at your heartstrings. However, when you purchase something from a child on the streets your money goes straight back into fueling the cycle of poverty. Rather than helping the children escape their situation, it encourages it. If they or their families feel that it’s more valuable for them to spend their time begging than in school, they will not receive the education that could truly help them to better their circumstances.
This is one of the most complex responsible travel issues to understand, and it can be very hard to convey to tourists just passing through Southeast Asia. ChildSafe is a movement that is doing just that, though.
Mad Monkey is an official ChildSafe Supporter, and we work closely with the organization to spread the word and keep children safe. Take some time to browse through their website and understand the ways you can promote children’s safety and prevent trafficking, abuse, and other issues that disproportionately affect children in Southeast Asia.
Responsible Travel: Long-Term Goals
Resonsible travel in Southeast Asia relies on travellers becoming aware of, and engaging with, the resources available to them. Respecting the places we visit isn’t a personal decision, it’s our duty. It’s going to take more than a one-day visit to an elephant sanctuary, or one purchase in the local market. It’s going to take all of us coming together to truly change the accepted way we travel. Every little bit does help, though. Each donation, product purchased, or service engaged from local vendors and businesses brings us a step closer to a responsible travel industry.
Wising up and on these issues and understanding your relation to them is key to becoming a responsible traveler. To get you started, here are some great resources on responsible travel in Southeast Asia. We only recommend blogs and writers that we read ourselves and trust:
- The Basic Tenets of Responsible Tourism by Just a Pack
- Green Travel Tips: The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Travel by Green Global Travel
- Eco Traveller Green Travel Guide
- How To Travel Sustainably by Mapping Megan
- Elephants and Eco-Tourism by Upward Facing Blog
- Think ChildSafe by ChildSafe Movement
- Mondulkiri Project Elephant Sanctuary
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