With Christmas come and gone and the new year under way, now is the time that many people start thinking about their holidays and travel plans for the coming year, even writing a wish list of things they’d like to do and places they’d love to visit. Perhaps you have written one yourself. But even if the list is in your head rather than actually written down, have you asked yourself how eco-friendly and responsible the things on your list are?

With the help of ResponsibleTravel.com, a pioneer of responsible tourism, combined with my own experiences,  I’ve drawn up a list of a few must-do favourites that you might want to rethink.

Rethink your bucket list and travel more responsibly

1. Don’t volunteer or even visit an orphanage

I’ve written about orphanage tourism before and thankfully awareness on this issue is rising but there is still a long way to go. Orphanage businesses are particularly notorious in Cambodia and Nepal where many of the children aren’t even orphans. In fact their families may well have handed over their children having heard false promises that they will be given a better life and an education. Meanwhile well-meaning tourists pay large sums to volunteer in these so-called orphanages. These vulnerable children are encouraged to form bounds with their volunteer carers, who time and time again up and leave after just a few short weeks.

Child with TeddyWhen I first started visiting West Africa some ten years ago, I visited an orphanage without considering how all these foreigners traipsing through their home might affect the children there. SOS Children’s Villages is an international charity committed to providing a loving home for every child working in numerous countries around the world. They no longer allow people to visit in this way. What’s more they do not accept volunteers from abroad to work there, preferring to use local staff, who can offer a long-term commitment which volunteers rarely can. This ensures stability in the lives of the children who are surrounded by people who speak their own language and are familiar with their culture. Plus by employing local people they are also contributing to the local economy. Visit their website to find out how you can get involved and support SOS Children’s Villages.

There are still plenty of ways you can volunteer overseas responsibly. One of the best volunteer organisations, in my opinion is the award-winning people and places. They work hard to match the right volunteer to the right project making sure that the volunteer has every opportunity to make a lasting positive impact, benefiting both the volunteer and, most importantly, the local community. The application process to get this right takes considerable time but it is time well spent.

If you are, however, still keen to work with orphans, why not look into helping out at an orangutan orphanage?

2. Don’t visit captive dolphins or orcas

I am ashamed to say that I once (and not that long ago) swam with captive dolphins. You can read more about my experience in my post Why I regret swimming with dolphins. I’ve been an active campaigner against keeping dolphins and orcas in captivity ever since. More recently I watched the documentary Blackfish* which gives an extremely intersting behind the scenes look at events leading up to the tragic death of a keeper working with orcas.

From how these wild animals are captured, to how they are trained and looked after in captivity is an outrage to me and to many others. Slowly people are turning away from this form of entertainment, however, this doesn’t mean you have to cross seeing these beautiful creatures from your bucket list entirely.

As ResponsibleTravel.com suggest “Say NO to the circus and go and see these incredible creatures in the wild – watch them from a boat, learn from local experts and maybe even join them for a swim. Some tours even get you monitoring behaviour as you go – meaning you are contributing directly to research and conservation.”

For more information visit their dolphin watching and swimming guide

There is, however, some debate about whether people should try to swim with wild dolphins or even to simply observe them from a boat and you can read some of the arguments against this here Blue-World.org. Thanks to John Williams for this link.

Landbased dolphin watching is possible with the Scottish Dolphin Centre and Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre. I’ll be looking into further options over the coming months.

Boys swimming with the dolphins near the shore in Pico island, Azores, Portugal

above image of snorkelling with dolphins in the Azores, courtesy of ResponaibleTravel.com


3. Don’t ride an elephant

When I visited India, many years ago now, twice I had the opportunity to ride an elephant and I leapt at the chance without giving it a second thought. One ride was on the way up to a palace in Jaipur and the other was in an animal sanctuary. Yet I now realise that many animal sanctuaries aren’t always what they seem. The animals in their care may not have been rescued at all, instead they may well have been taken from the wild so that the ‘sanctuary’ has a ready supply of animals to attract the tourists. Asian elephants are an endangered species and as ResponsibleTravel.com point out “The more elephants that are taken from their natural habitat to supply temples, sanctuaries and camps, the smaller their chances of survival. These days, no animal lover would dream of purchasing ivory – yet riding an elephant while on holiday could ultimately have the same impact on elephant populations.”

Of course many sanctuaries are truly there for the benefit of the animals and not the tourist but going to see elephants in the wild can also have many benefits, including contributing to the conservation of their habitat. For more information about how to have an eco-friendly elephant encounter check out ResponsibleTravel.com’s guide to elephant holidays

South African elelphant

above image courtesy of ResponsibleTravel.com

4. Don’t visit the Tiger Temple

When my fellow bloggers, Agness and Cez from eTramping, visited the Tiger Temple at Kanchanaburi I was amazed by the photograph of Agness with a tiger’s head on her lap and Cez crouching behind the tiger stroking it.

However, many years ago, before I went to university to study Zoology, I volunteered in a zoo that had a tiger. The conditions weren’t good but the keepers did the best they could to look after all the animals and tried to raise funds to improve things in whatever small way they could. While I was allowed to go in with the smaller Lynx cats, I certainly wasn’t allowed in with the tiger, which I’m sorry to say was kept in a pen far to small for it and with little stimulation.

Agness and Cez’s photographs of the cats in the Tiger Temple reminded me of the poor tiger in the zoo I had once worked in. Alarm bells rang, so I wasn’t surprised when Agness and Cez posted a second article about their tiger experience. They explained how they had since learnt that, among other things, the tigers were kept in poor conditions and drugged before they were brought out for the tourists to pet them. I admired the way Agness and Cez dealt with the situation they had unwittingly stumbled into and I am sure their posts about it have helped raise awareness. Read about their experience at Tiger Temple and what they later discovered, Tiger Temple, The Truth Behind the Mask.

If you are thinking of visiting the Tiger Temple, please think again. 

ResponsibleTravel.com have a great tiger safari guide with some bucket-list worthy tiger experiences which promote the protection of wild tigers and their habitats. 

5. Don’t walk with lions

Now this is one that featured high on my bucket list for a long time but was scrubbed off as I became more aware of how many animal-encounter, tourist attractions operate and came to a conclusion that I should have come to long ago, that wild animals should remain just that, wild.

Firstly, and there’s a recurring theme here, in some sanctuaries the animals were not brought there for their own benefit. Rather they are there solely to attract tourists, whether they were bred in captivity or captured from the wild. Secondly, any such animals are unlikely to be safely returned to the wild after being habituated to humans.

However, in the case of lions, there is another twist to the tale that up until recently I was still unaware of.

ResponsibleTravel.com say that once such cubs have grown teeth and claws and are too large to walk with the tourists “one option is to sell them on to ‘canned hunting’ reserves – where hunters pay big bucks to shoot adult lions in enclosures. It’s a dirty secret that the industry is keen to keep from tourists…”

If you want to walk with animals in the wild and contribute to their conservation, a walking safari is the way to go – the thrill of encountering wild rhinos, elephants and lions on foot more than makes up for not being able to hug or ride them. 

And for more ideas about responsible wildlife encounters read Swimming with Dolphins, Tracking Gorillas: How to have the world’s best wildlife encounters.*

6. Think long and hard before hiking to Everest Base Camp

I first read about the congestion on Everest and the damage being caused by so many people both climbing the mountain or simply visiting the base camp on the blog of Harold Godwin, a leading expert in Responsible Tourism. Some of the things I have read over the last couple of years on the subject are truly shocking, however, the locals in Nepal rely on the income tourism brings so simply staying away isn’t the answer. Responsible tourism in the region does seem the best bet for helping locals help themselves out of poverty.

Trek to Everest Base Camp

above image of the trek to Everest Base Camp courtesy of Laurel Robbins

ResponsibleTravel.com have a great guide to trekking in Nepal.

Travel blogger, Laurel Robbins’ has written some fascinating posts about her experience of trekking to Everest Base Camp last year, which she undertook just days after the Everest tragedy, in which 16 Sherpa guides were killed. Tragically disaster struck again just a few months ago when many tourists as well as Sherpas lost their lives or were injured in the Nepal snow storms.

If trekking in Nepal is something you are considering, please research it thoroughly and think long and hard about whether this is the right choice for you.

7. Visit but don’t climb Ayers Rock

Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it is commonly known, is a deeply sacred place to the indigenous people, the Anangu. By climbing the rock you are crossing spiritual “dreamlines” and trampling over a holy shrine. The Anangu watch on powerless to stop this as a condition of them being given the title to their ancestral land was that they would still allow tourists to climb the rock.

However, visitors have a choice; instead of climbing the rock, walk around it and talk to the Anangu who are happy to tell visitors about their culture and the significance of Uluru. Zoë Dawes, The Quirky Traveller, has written a lovely post about her experience.

Ayers Rock, Uluru

above image courtesy of Zoë Dawes

“The sky morphed through a pastel palette of colour.  All thoughts seemed to disappear as I sat and watched it become more clearly defined and – simply breathtaking.  It’s really impossible to put into words what I felt during the time it took for the sun to rise fully and the Rock to be clearly visible in its reddish glory … but whatever it was, I suspect many others felt the same as hardly anyone said a word for a very long while.” Zoë Dawes

Read more about Zoë’s experience in her post, Sunrise at Uluru leaves me speechless.


Make a New Year’s resolution to travel more responsibly

January is now well underway but it’s not too late to make a New Year’s Resolution. Sustainable Tourism, Carbon Footprint, Responsible Travel were phrases I had never heard of when I started travelling some thirty years ago.

It is sad that we have to question people’s motives behind running an animal sanctuary or an orphanage or question whether tourism workers are paid a fair wage or are even putting their lives at risk but these are the facts of tourism today. Tourists, travellers, the tourism industry and governments – we can all do better, much, much better.

My New Year’s Resolution is not only to travel more responsibly but to learn more about sustainable / responsible tourism. Follow my blog and learn along with me or leave a comment and join the debate.

Pin it!

Time to rethink your bucket list and travel more responsibly

ResponsibleTravel.com are the world’s leading online travel agent for responsible holidays and a pioneer of responsible tourism. 

* This post contains two affiliate links, so if you buy a book or DVD through one of these links, I will make a few pennies to go towards another book or DVD to review.


Join my 'Behind the Scenes' newsletter

Delivered monthly to your inbox with all my behind the scenes news, latest posts and giveaways exclusive to my subscribers.