Much like “eco-friendly” and “sustainable,” responsible travel has become a major buzzword in the tourism industry in recent years.

Hotels, tour operators, tourism attractions, and other associated organizations are increasingly climbing over themselves in order to use the trendy phrase in their marketing materials.

Some companies earnestly use it as a badge of honor to signify their genuine commitment to ecotourism, conservation, and sustainability.

Unfortunately, others use it in an attempt to greenwash their image while cashing in on the movement’s rapid rise in popularity.

Responsible travel (a.k.a. responsible tourism, sustainable travel, or green travel) is basically an umbrella term. It’s frequently used as a catch-all phrase, lumping in dozens of “green” buzzwords and ethical issues such as wildlife tourism, volunteer travel, conservation issues, and more.

But what is responsible travel exactly? Does responsible travel matter and, if so, why? Here we’ll take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly elements of the rapidly growing industry.


Responsible travel is essentially a set of paradigms and practices that attempt to minimize the detrimental effects– whether economic, social, or environmental– that poorly managed travel can have on a given destination.

The central idea behind the concept is to promote travel that ultimately makes a positive impact on local communities, wildlife, and the environment.

This seems like a good thing, right? Well, it is, when it’s done properly. But when we look at the evolution of the travel industry over the last 50+ years, tourism has sadly done quite a lot of harm to a lot of destinations (not to mention the people who inhabit them).

The problems that developed over the course of the 20th century were many. On the ecological side,  these harmful impacts included natural habitats disturbed or destroyed by over-development, the exploitation of wildlife, and in some cases even the extinction of endemic species.

In terms of human impact, there has been widespread displacement of local populations, gentrification, overcrowding, cultural dilution, the pricing out of locals in favor of the almighty tourist dollar (we’re looking at you, AirBnB), and much more.


Responsible travel is designed to be a marked improvement on that 20th century tourism model. It’s intended to provide a particularly mindful paradigm for traveling that doesn’t result in the same negative, harmful impact that the travel industry has caused so often in the past.

There has been a huge paradigm shift in recent years, with responsible travel organizations, conservation NGOs, and responsible travel blogs making major strides in raising awareness of many of these issues.

According to an annual study by the Center for Responsible Travel, there’s an increasing number of  tour operators who practice what they preach and conscious consumers who travel with them.

Collectively, this growing sector of the $9 trillion travel industry is making great strides to minimize those negative effects and turn travel into a positive force in the world.

More and more travelers are boycotting exploitative wildlife attractions such as elephant trekking outfits or swimming with dolphins. People are starting to question why a continuous string of volunteers pay a small fortune to repaint the same school building for the 200th time.

More and more responsible travelers are starting to seek out knowledgable local guides. They want to support local businesses, buy directly from local artisans and co-ops, and travel in ways that benefit the local populations of the places they’re visiting.

This sort of community-based tourism is what truly responsible travel is all about. And this is why the movement is important.

Because of this increased demand from consumers (who are often willing to pay more for unique, transformative experiences), many tour operators and attractions are now falling over themselves in attempts to appear as responsible, sustainable, and ethical as possible.

The big problem here is that appearances can often be deceiving…


There has been such a sea change in attitudes toward responsible travel over the past decade that much of the travel industry has struggled to keep up.

It’s tough these days to find a tour operator, tourist attraction, or resort that isn’t trying to lure potential customers in with claims of responsible, sustainable, eco-friendly practices.

In a shady process known as greenwashing, many companies are willing to make misleading claims in order to make them appear more ethical or responsible than they really are in practice.

Companies like TripAdvisor, which claim to be responsible, still offer elephant-riding tours. Destinations widely regarded for their ecotourism offerings, such as South Africa, still allow walking with lions tours. “Eco-friendly” hotels still hire cheap labor from foreign countries rather than employing locals.

In an attempt to maximize profit, they spend more time and money on marketing themselves as “green” than they do on actually implementing business practices that truly minimize their negative environmental impact.

As responsible travel becomes more popular (and profitable), greenwashing has become such a huge problem that it threatens to weaken the entire movement.


• Responsible travel businesses will put the needs of the tourist a distant second to the needs of the environment, wildlife, or local population. This means not offering any attractions or activities that are widely regarded as irresponsible by international organizations.

• Responsible travel businesses will severely limit their negative impact on the local environment and population. In general, they should strive to have a positive impact.

• Responsible travel businesses should serve and benefit the economic and social needs of local populations, not detract from them.

• When voluntourism is involved, responsible travel businesses should work with locals to provide much-needed assistance in a specific and evolving area. They should not profit from “assembly line” tasks that make no positive impact on the local environment or population.

• Responsible travel businesses may be affiliated with genuine international charities or organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, Rainforest Alliance, or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, to name just a few. These genuine connections are easy to verify.

• Responsible travel businesses will practice what they preach, abiding by the international best practices set down by their partner charities and organizations.

• Transparency and openness are vital for any responsible travel business. They should be ready, willing, and able to answer any questions about their “green” claims.


The key for us as travelers is to do as much research as we can before we travel. The more informed you are about the various issues associated with responsible travel, the more informed your choices will be.

It becomes easier with time and experience to look past the greenwashing and choose a responsible travel business over an irresponsible one. Despite the proliferation of greenwashing in the travel industry, there are many genuine responsible travel organizations out there.

But we can’t focus all the responsibility for traveling responsibly on businesses and organizations. Many tourists cause more harm than good on their adventures by putting their own wants and desires above ethical concerns. Whether it’s behaving irresponsibly in national parks or taking unneccesary risks to get animal selfies, we as travelers have to shoulder some of the blame.

And there are far too many irresponsible travel businesses that are more than willing to put profit above protecting the resources they’re exploiting.

It isn’t all bad, though. A growing number of people genuinely want to be responsible travelers now. They (and you, since you’re reading this story!) are making concerted efforts to learn how to travel more ethically and sustainably.

They want their travels to be meaningful on a personal level, but not at the expense of the environment or the local populations. And more and more people are starting to demand that approach from the hotels and tour operators they use.

This paradigm shift is inspiring, and consumer demand is forcing the travel industry on the whole to change if businesses want to remain profitable.

Sure, there’s been a sharp rise in greenwashing as a result. But this growing demand has also forced companies to see that their customers are becoming intelligent enough to recognize truly responsible travel. These companies realize that there’s considerable profit in catering to these customers by providing genuinely sustainable travel experiences.


Whether this change is truly altruistic or merely profit-driven is a question for another time. It doesn’t really matter why major companies are beginning to offer more sustainable and transformative alternatives, as long as they do it. No matter how you slice it, that’s a good thing.

But we here at Green Global Travel have always believed that responsible travel should not just be a niche thing. It should not be merely an alternative way to travel, or a simple marketing gimmick for the travel industry to use in order to sell more tour packages or activities.

In our eyes, “responsible travel” should be much more than merely a buzzword. Responsible, ethical, sustainable, eco-friendly travel should be something that all travelers do as standard practice, not just best-case-scenario practice.

Responsible travel should not be something that travelers have to think about consciously. It should not be a special category held separate from the industry travel as a whole, like some idealistic, utopian form of adventure that everyone should aspire to.

Responsible travel should just be the way that EVERYONE travels, because it’s the right thing to do for local ecosystems, the people and animals that inhabit it, and the planet as a whole. Responsible travel should simply be the norm.

We hope that the focus on responsible travel as a buzzword moves on to become something much larger. We hope that, in the future, it grows from best practice to become the ONLY practice.

We hope that, with the right knowledge, the right information, and the right paradigms, each and every individual traveler learns to make ethical and responsible choices in every aspect of their adventures.

We hope that, as awareness of responsible travel issues grows, both individual travelers and the travel industry as a whole continue to make more informed, responsible choices.

We hope that, in the future, responsible travel will become just plain old travel.

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