Responsible Tourism Ideas that Support Sustainable Development

Woman making travel plans by aligning her compass with her map.
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70+ Tangible Ways to Make Your Trips More Responsible

As intentional travelers, we face a complex of challenging decisions when planning our trips. Supply chains aren’t always visible, which makes the ripple-effect of our booking and purchasing choices hard to see. We want to make our tourism responsible, but it can be so challenging to know where to start.

So where do we start?

With something concrete, of course.

A framework is always a great starting point. When it comes to making purchasing and travel decisions that affect the greater good of the world, a comprehensive framework is the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN put together this gameplan in 2015, which calls for global citizens, businesses, and governments to work together to reach these goals by 2030.

One of the super cool things about the travel industry is that it is uniquely placed to be able to affect every single one of these sustainable development goals. Connecting populations and resources both locally and abroad, responsible tourism can seriously smash some sustainability goals.

I’ve put together the following list of ways that you can use your purchasing decisions, influence, and perspectives when traveling to support each of the UN’s 17 goals.

Don’t let the size of the list overwhelm you: it’s a collection of ideas, not a to-do list. 17 goals is WAY TOO MANY for one person to nail. These are the goals for the whole world! You do not need to wear the weight of the whole world on your shoulders, or you’d never pack your bags for a trip. 

Remember, intentional travelers don’t travel to achieve travel perfection, they don’t travel to blindly consume and extract, they don’t travel solely based on convenience, low prices, or popular trends. Intentional travelers get really clear on what their values are, and then they align their actions with their values.

So as you plan your next trip, reconnect to your values and then make responsible tourism decisions that align with them. Skip right to the goals that resonate most with you as you plan your values-aligned vacation! You can always add more to your plate once you’ve nailed your first steps.

Want to take notes as you go? Grab your free download!

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Actions Travelers Can Take to Support Each of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals

1. No Poverty

  • Book directly with a hotel rather than with an online booking website. Keeping your tourism money in the host community allows local hotels to set fair prices, offer better service, and keep their businesses alive.
  • Book tours with local guides. Be sure to ask them questions about their community to learn more about how you can support responsible tourism in the area.
  • Buy locally-made souvenirs from locally-owned shops.
  • Do not give money to children who are begging.
  • Pay a fair price for goods and services. When it is customary to haggle, do so respectfully and with an awareness of the strength of your home currency in comparison to the host community’s. A fair price for a local may not be the same as a fair price for a tourist, and that’s okay.
  • Share with your personal network ways you have learned to help reduce poverty.
  • Shop at social enterprises that provide resources to address the needs of local communities.

2. Zero Hunger

  • Don’t waste food when traveling!
  • Eat at restaurants that avoid food waste and support local farmers.
  • Donate money or food items to local community-based organizations that support the food-insecure.
  • Shop at social enterprises that support communities with insecure food sources.
Fresh vegetables
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3. Good Health and Well-being

  • See your doctor before you travel and carefully consider the medical advice you receive regarding vaccinations and travel recommendations. This protects you, as well as the communities you visit and return home to.
  • Keep an eye on the World Health Organization’s website, as well as the local tourism website for your country and the countries you are visiting. It’s important to know if any health concerns are present when you are traveling.
  • Don’t travel if you have been sick. If you have to, consider wearing a mask to avoid spreading any germs and wash your hands.
  • Donate to local charities who support health and wellbeing in the country you are visiting.
  • Shop at social enterprises that support local health initiatives.

4. Quality Education

  • Avoid volunteering at schools unless you are properly qualified and can dedicate real time to the job. Often times under-qualified, short term teachers cause more harm than good.
  • Donate school supplies and money to local initiatives that support access to quality education.
  • Learn some words in the local language before you arrive to help you connect with the community and learn from each other.
  • Share what you learn about the communities you visit with your friends and family. Spreading knowledge to our inner and outer circles can expand the positive impact of responsible tourism.
  • Shop at social enterprises that support local education.

5. Gender Equality

  • Support female-owned businesses as you travel. It helps to research them ahead of time or ask local guides when you arrive, because you are less likely to stumble upon them if you don’t make a concentrated effort.
  • Support businesses that pay men and women equally for the same work.
  • Know which industries are hot spots for trafficking victims in the countries you visit (ie nail salons, massage parlors, prostitution). If you suspect illegal activity, report it rather than interfering yourself. Oftentimes, a trafficking hotline is a better approach than calling the police, especially when sex workers are involved. If sex work is illegal, sometimes trafficking victims will be arrested for doing illegal work rather than being liberated from captivity.
  • Respect and acknowledge all gender expressions as you travel. Do not make anyone feel unsafe based on their gender.
  • Shop at social enterprises that support gender equality and trafficking victims.
A woman holding a handwritten sign that says we are equal!
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6. Clean Water and Sanitation

  • Travel with reusable water bottles, and bring your own filtration device if you are traveling somewhere without drinkable tap water.
  • Educate yourself on local water initiatives, and adjust your consumption accordingly. You don’t want to be that person indulging in a long shower during a drought!
  • Do not litter in local water sources.
  • Support social enterprises that support clean water and reduced waste.

7. Affordable and Clean Energy

  • Do research before you travel and try to select hotels, tours, and restaurants that use responsible energy sources.
  • Don’t waste energy as you travel – especially in the hotels you stay at.
  • Donate to a local charity that invests in renewable energy sources. This is a great idea if you are looking for a way to offset the carbon from your trip!
  • Shop at social enterprises that support affordable and clean energy.
Download your free sustainable development travel planner
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8. Decent Work and Economic Growth

  • Choose a local guide or tour operator.
  • Do not support businesses that pay workers unfairly or use slave or child labor. Report these businesses in a responsible way if you see anything that looks illegal.
  • Do not purchase illegal goods ie: drugs, counterfeit items, or anything that is controlled in the country you are visiting or returning to.
  • Travel in shoulder seasons and off-seasons to keep responsible tourism dollars flowing year-round.
  • Buy local.
  • Shop at social enterprises that invest in training and upskilling for youth and locals.
A compass next to a sign that says support local business
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9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure

  • Use your voice to promote ideas that disrupt the mainstream tourism sector and call for more innovation in sustainable industry and infrastructure.
  • Donate to organizations that work to improve road access and sustainable infrastructure in countries that require these resources to eradicate poverty.
  • Research before you book your accommodation. Learn about if hotels or vacation rentals are a better option for your specific trip. Keep in mind that in some cities, Airbnb’s are controversial and sometimes even illegal. However, in some places, Airbnb and guest houses provide locals with unprecedented job opportunities. The answer is community-specific, and so responsible tourism will look different depending on where you are traveling.
  • Pay attention to how your travel bookings affect the community’s efforts to encourage or discourage tourism in any given area. Do your part by not contributing to overtourism and spreading the tourism wealth.
  • Shop at social enterprises that support and innovate local infrastructure.

10. Reducing Inequality

  • Keep an eye out for human trafficking – the grossest offense of inequality. Learn more about how to spot trafficking at each touchpoint of your travels, as well as who to report tips to and how to keep yourself safe from traffickers.
  • Support the businesses of local indigenous populations and people of color. Do not let discrimination play a role in how you select guides or local businesses to support.
  • Protect children. Research ways that children are vulnerable in the communities you visit so that you don’t accidentally contribute to their harm as you travel. Please carefully vet any volunteer role that works with children, especially orphanages, before getting involved. More often than not, volunteering with children and visiting orphanages causes more harm than good. Never give money to children who are begging.
  • Shop at social enterprises that educate and support youth, minorities, indigenous people, or recovering trafficking victims in finding or creating meaningful work.

11. Sustainable Cities and Communities

  • As you explore a new city, journey on foot, by bike, or by public transport as often as possible.
  • Responsible tourism is much easier in cities that already have strong sustainable policies in place: travel to and support these cities in their efforts.
  • Travel with your own reusable shopping bag, silverware, straw, water bottle, and coffee cup. Say no to single-use plastics and disposable goods.
A collection of eco-friendly items, including a canvas bag and reusable cups, straws, and cutlery
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  • Be thoughtful about your use of geo-tags on social media and how they may affect overtourism in a destination.
  • Book hotels that are implementing sustainable practices. Keep an eye out for greenwashing.
  • Educate yourself on local sustainability initiatives, and adjust your plans to accommodate these measures. As a visitor, it is important to respect the sustainability goals that the host community is working toward.
  • Shop at social enterprises that provide sustainable commerce solutions and support safe and accessible transport and housing for the local population.

12. Responsible Consumption and Production

  • Support restaurants that feature healthy and responsibly sourced food.
  • Reduce your water, food, and energy waste as you travel.
  • Buy locally made and sold goods.
  • Buy products with minimal packaging.
  • Shop at social enterprises that support responsible consumption and production.

13. Climate Action

  • Consider offsetting the carbon emissions for your trip.
  • Stick with electronic boarding passes and booking confirmations whenever possible.
  • Continue to educate yourself about the effects your purchasing and travel decisions have on the world.
  • Shop at social enterprises that offer alternatives to businesses that cause pollution and waste resources.

14. Life Below Water

  • Use reef-friendly sunscreen or, even better, sun-protective clothing.
  • Don’t litter near water sources.
  • Reduce the use of single-use plastics abroad.
  • Clean litter off of the beaches and out of creek beds as you travel.
  • Order sustainable seafood at local restaurants and markets.
  • Take a locally operated eco-tour to learn about marine life. Be sure to look into the responsible tourism practices of any water-based activity you book.
  • Shop at social enterprises that help keep plastic waste out of the ocean.
A colorful picture under the sea of coral and marine life
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15. Life On Land

  • Pay attention to local fire bans.
  • Don’t litter.
  • Discourage over-tourism by using general geo-tags on social media rather than location-specific ones when exploring nature.
  • Avoid booking any tours that include interaction with wild animals. Research the ethics of any wildlife experiences carefully before booking.
  • Pay attention to signs with directions about animals, food waste, and sticking to the trails when hiking in nature.
  • Do not buy any products that are made from poached animals.
  • Consider using your carbon offsets to plant trees.
  • Shop at social enterprises that support wildlife and their natural habitats.
Download your free sustainable development travel planner
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16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions

  • Learn about the local cultures and customs of a population before visiting, and respect them as you explore.
  • Heavily research the ethics of traveling to countries that participate in human rights violations. If you decide to travel to such a country, do the work to ensure your tourism dollars end up in the community rather than with the government.
  • Report any violence, cyberbullying, or verbal abuse that you witness in person or on travel-related websites and blogs.
  • Take any action you can to understand the supply chain of your purchases, and avoid booking anything that could contribute to human trafficking.
  • Elevate the voices of local community members that speak out against corruption and abuse.
  • Donate to local charities and organizations that support victims of violence. Reach out to these organizations before you travel to see if there are any resources you can bring to donate that would meet local needs.
  • Shop at social enterprises that support victims of violence and offer alternatives to goods produced with endangered plants and animals.

17. Partnerships for the Goals

  • Share this blog post! You can use the buttons right below to share with your networks.
  • Promote any information you find helpful for people who are interested in traveling more sustainably.
  • Get really clear on your values and travel in alignment with them.
  • Talk to your friends and family about the positive – and negative – effects their purchasing decisions can have on a community when traveling.
  • Obey local laws, regulations, and customs while you travel. In order to be worldwide allies in promoting responsible tourism, we all need to respect each other.
  • If you see room for improvement in policy or tourism experiences as you travel, reach out to the local tourism boards with feedback.
  • Book with tour companies that offer responsible tourism options.
  • Support social enterprise. Support social enterprise. Support social enterprise.
Five hands putting puzzle pieces together, a representation of partnership in sustainable goals
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My Top Responsible Tourism Recommendation

This list is by no means exhaustive. In fact, the possibilities are limitless!

Still overwhelmed by all the options?

Well, one of the things you might notice is that I listed social enterprise under every single goal. Here’s the deal: oftentimes, our money is the most effective resource we have. 

Sure, you may have unique qualifications that you can use to support local communities as you travel and volunteer. Are you an educator? Lawyer? Therapist? Social worker? Doctor? City planner? Engineer? Translator? Artist? You can definitely make it a goal to use your personal skillset to positively impact communities who are interested in collaboration.

That being said, we are often drawn to help resolve issues that we are not qualified to help resolve. But every charity, human rights issue, or vulnerable population can find a productive use for financial resources.

If changing the way we purchase can change the world, then supporting businesses that put purpose before profit will amplify that change.

Pairing social enterprise with travel may just be the most effective thing you can do to travel in alignment with your values and bring a sustainable 2030 into focus. If you only picked one high-impact thing to focus on as you explore the world, make it shopping with local social enterprises.

Since we’ve already established that this list hasn’t covered everything, let’s keep the conversation alive!

What are your powerful ideas for using responsible tourism to support a sustainable world by 2030?

Jump on in and let me know in the comments!

Quick note: This page may include affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking one of them, I get a commission at no extra cost to you. I only, ever, recommend products that I believe you will love. Thank you so much for your support.

Cheers! Emmeline's Signature

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1 year ago

I think its easy to forget or ignore some of the negative impacts tourism can have on a destination, this is such a helpful list to make sure that you have a positive impact – thanks for sharing!

1 year ago

Love these powerful tips to be a more responsible traveler! Will be definitely changing my habits

1 year ago

These are such great tips and so important. I recently switched to reef safe sunscreen and I try to encourage others to do the same! Travel is such a luxury, but we need to be less selfish and careless when we galavant the globe.

1 year ago

Thanks so much for putting this together–these are all so important to do! I try to do some of these already but definitely plan to be more mindful of all the others for when I travel in the future!

1 year ago

These are some great ideas. I LOVE booking tours directly with local guides. I feel I get a better sense of the area and love getting to support them. I also love the idea of promoting any information you find helpful!

Rhonda Albom
1 year ago

You have listed a lot of good ways to be responsible when travelling. I think the one that can be most effective is donating to charities and organisations in the community that would not otherwise see any of the money you use while travelling.

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