The first time I set foot on the African continent was for a gorilla trek with Canadian travel company G Adventures. The tour started in Uganda’s central city of Kampala, then we headed west to Fort Portal and then south, via a route flanked by Queen Elizabeth National Park’s stretch of savannah on one side and the Congolese border on the other, to the Rwandan capital of Kigali. En route we got to share a meal with a local family in their home, visit a chimpanzee reserve and—the highlight—make our way into the dense and mountainous Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to come face to face with gorillas, incredible animals with whom we share 98.4% of our DNA. This was the bucket-list, trip-of-a-lifetime kind of travel I’d always wanted to do. The experience lived up to all my expectations—and also brought with it some on-the-ground realizations about how to behave—and not behave—as a Western traveller venturing outside of the Western world.
Packed with suitcases, day bags, camera equipment and a cooler filled with water, our pristine yellow Toyota Land Cruiser didn’t go unnoticed by the local kids, who lined up along the roads to wave. In a country still shaking off the effects of British colonialism, it felt like we were riding through Uganda in the physical incarnation of privilege. It’s that very privilege—the privilege that allows us to hop on a plane in Canada, our Western accoutrements in tow, and get off basically anywhere else in the world—that demands an engagement in responsible travel. Environmental, animal-welfare and social responsibility should be top of mind always. It is literally the least we can do.
The topic of responsible travel is having a bit of a moment right now, shining a spotlight on misguided voluntourism, the ways certain kinds of charity work are entangled with colonial attitudes (see Instagram’s No White Saviors) and travel’s inescapable carbon footprint (check out the Washington Post’s offset explainer here). And while some of these issues are so big that a solution seems unimaginable, there are actually a lot of small ways that travellers can make sure their good time isn’t contributing to someone else’s bad one.
Even the most eco-conscious people can “forget” about making sustainable choices when they travel, but the environment would really appreciate it if we didn’t. By now, most Western travellers own a travel mug, a reusable water bottle and one (or 100) of those bags that fold up like origami and weigh next to nothing. Pack them—especially when you’re travelling outside the Western world to places where recycling and waste-disposal services may not be as easy to access as they are at home and where you’re likely to go through more single-use items than usual.
“Simply put, we must start bringing a travel mug, water bottle, reusable bag, reusable straw and silverware with us,” says Court Whelan, director of sustainability and an expedition leader for Natural Habitat Adventures, the world’s first company to create a zero-waste tour. “People catch on to new trends very easily. Fifteen to 20 years ago, very few people toted a cell phone around—now nearly everyone at every age has one. We’re wildly adaptable creatures, and if something is presented as normal, people will adapt their practices to fit it into their lifestyle.”
Refusing single-use items when you travel, says Whelan, is one of the most important ways to reduce your environmental impact abroad. “The next time you order a glass of water at a restaurant, say ‘No straw, please.’ There is just so much we’re presented with on a daily basis that we don’t need.”
“Ask your guide questions. Then ask them again,” says Mary Jean Tully, founder and CEO of Tully Luxury Travel and an avid conservationist. When it comes to animal sanctuaries and wildlife reserves, she says visitors should to their due dilligence to find out how the animals spend their days—are they penned in or chained up? Are visitors allowed to touch them? Does the company offer animal rides? The answer to all of the above should be a firm “No” if it’s a company you’re going to support.
“It’s crucial to remember that there are certain tasks animals are not built to do,” says Tully. “For example, one of the main reasons you shouldn’t ride elephants is because they have gaps along their spine that make carrying weight an extremely painful experience. Additionally, elephants need to be trained to perform for humans, and this means breaking the animal’s spirit through barbaric and brutal force. Every animal is different, and understanding that every experience is unique in itself is just as critical.”
When it comes to viewing animals in the wild, a quick Google search can verify your tour operator’s bona fides. Find out if it has an animal-welfare policy in place or support from animal-welfare organizations. (G Adventures, for example, partners with the Jane Goodall Institute on a number of its wildlife-focused trips.) Finally, ask if and how the local community is involved in the preservation process. In Uganda, the fees that tourists pay to visit Bwindi’s mountain gorillas fund local schools and hospitals, so the community is invested in the conservation effort, and as a result poaching has been all but eliminated in the park.
Supporting local projects and businesses is a must for any socially conscious traveller, but it’s crucial that Westerners drop the saviour mentality, especially in Africa. Consider the irony in the idea that former colonizers are “saving” people from a crisis that’s largely a result of colonialism. That would be like an arsonist saving a family from a fire said arsonist started.
“Creating a dependency on funding is the wrong way to support and empower communities,” says Rachel McCaffery, G Adventures’ senior adviser on responsible travel. “Local ownership and control of voluntourism projects are the crucial elements to look for. Travellers should also look into the policies of organizations offering voluntourism experiences—investigate what steps they take to ensure that volunteers have appropriate training to be able to deliver genuine benefits, [that they’re] not taking jobs that local people would otherwise have and how they ensure that children and other vulnerable groups are protected.”
On the list of things the world needs, another photo of a travel “influencer” standing in front of an “exotic” backdrop is near the very bottom. Other countries, cities and neighbourhoods do not exist merely for us to sightsee in and take selfies in front of. That goes double for people. And triple for children. Westerners have a long (and dark) history of fetishizing or seeing as “primitive” people whose looks and ways are unfamiliar to us and, while we’re far more mindful today, this inclination can still lead travellers to treat them as curiosities rather than individuals living their daily lives—and it happens right here in our own country.
“I know this may all be a novel experience, but please don’t treat us like a museum,” says Robert Comeau, one of Adventure Canada’s onboard culturalists working to educate travellers about Inuit culture and customs. “Be respectful. Don’t take pictures of kids or even adults without asking. Don’t peer into people’s homes. Respect personal property. Even though it probably feels extremely different than the environment or community that you are from, please treat it like your own neighborhood. Leave your preconceptions of what Inuit realities are at home. Do some reading about colonialism and imperialism. These are processes that have affected our communities in negative ways and have had consequences that are still visible today. Understanding these processes is an education, just as your visit should be.”
Travel can be tiring. Sometimes when you return from a long-awaited vacation, you’re more worn out than you were when you left. Travel is not, however, particularly hard work. There’s no comparison to be made between the heavy lifting done by the people who make our vacations possible—the guides, drivers and hotel staff who take care of us while we travel, usually with a welcoming smile fixed to their faces—and the effort travellers exert. So let’s check our privilege at the boarding gate and, along with passports, neck pillows and noise-cancelling headphones, make sure awareness and empathy travel with us.
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