What Is Responsible Travel?

There’s a growing movement of people who are concerned with the impact of their choices when they travel. Just as we try to recycle, minimize waste, shop at farmers markets, or make other conscious decisions to minimize our negative impact when we’re at home, we’ve started to think about how our choices could be more responsible and sustainable when we travel.

As with any growing movement, people are still figuring out how to talk about it well. We’re figuring out how to clarify the terms and build momentum at the same time, all while trying to avoid the shallowness of becoming trendy.

So I thought a lot about which term I wanted to use as I started to write about the travel philosophy behind Roaming the Americas. (Feel free to add “obsessed with language” to my list of quirks. Though I prefer to think of myself as a wannabe linguist.) Hopefully this post will help clarify what I mean when I talk about responsible travel here.

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Terms and Definitions

In addition to responsible travel, you might have heard some other terms being tossed around, like sustainable tourism, community-based tourism, ethical travel, or ecotourism

One of the challenges of this movement is that there isn’t a lot of clarity around all these terms, so a lot of people use them interchangeably. There’s a lot of overlap, but there are also differences and nuances in what they each mean.

Based on what I’ve read, here are some basic definitions:

  • Sustainable Tourism: tourism that minimizes the negative impacts on the environment, economy, and culture. All forms of tourism can become more sustainable, and I see this as a sort of umbrella term for everything we’re talking about here. Making tourism and travel more sustainable is the overall goal, and the effort must come from tourism providers and individual travelers alike.
  • Ecotourism: this is just one aspect of sustainable tourism that focuses on minimizing environmental harm that tourism can have on a destination. Since this has grown in popularity, many hotels, destinations, and tours have tried to capitalize on it in their marketing. It’s challenging to decipher between genuine efforts to protect the environment and marketing gimmicks, especially since there is no globally recognized certification (and even certification programs have their challenges).
  • Community-Based Tourism: this generally includes lodging and tours provided by locals, often in rural areas. Essentially, it is a grassroots effort from a local community. They invite tourists into their way of life, as opposed to mass tourism (such as large resorts) that are operated by outside companies. Fundación En Via (Mexico) and De La Gente Coffee (Guatemala) are two examples of organizations using community-based tourism in unique ways to generate income, while Costa Rica has developed an association (ACTUAR) that gives rural residents access to tourists who want to experience community-based tourism.
  • Ethical Tourism: tourism that minimizes the negative impacts of travel with a strong emphasis on human rights and the environment.
  • Responsible Tourism: tourism that minimizes the negative impacts on the environment, economy, and culture.

So–even more confused now? All these terms with all this overlap and connotations and nuances.

Since sustainable travel and responsible travel have similar meanings, I debated forever about which to use on Roaming the Americas. I want to help create a positive, upbeat environment that doesn’t feel like an admonition or yet another thing on the list of All the Things I Should Be Doing. I also want people to see that it’s holistic. “Does responsible sound like too much of an admonition or a chore?” “Does sustainable sound like it’s only about ecotourism?”

The truth is–there is no perfect phrase, and there are various connotations–good and bad–associated with all these terms.


While sustainable tourism encompasses the following things as well, responsible travel gives the sense that the traveler is taking the initiative to not harm the communities they’re traveling to. The traveler herself is taking ownership of the impact her presence has on the local culture, economy, and environment. 


What is responsible travel? Differences between sustainable tourism, responsible tourism, ecotourism, voluntourism, ethical travel, and more from @roamtheamericas

What’s This All About?

So as I start this journey here on Roaming the Americas, these are the categories I’ll cover. I want to provide you with resources, ideas, and tips that help you travel in the following responsible ways.

Engage With Culture

Engaging with culture is all about experiencing a place as a local knows it, learning, and respecting the culture and community you’re visiting.

Where the Locals Go

I grew up romping around the back woods of Maine. Our DeLorme atlas, always tucked away somewhere in our truck, was exhausted from frequent use. My family explored nooks and crannies–hiking and camping in western Maine, driving through the potato fields of northern Maine, visiting lighthouses on the coast, enjoying summers on remote lakes, and otherwise living life in our rural town. 

When I tell people that I grew up in Maine, I usually get one of two responses: “We went there on vacation once!” Or, “Oh, I’d LOVE to visit Maine!” There’s a reason Maine’s nickname is Vacationland–it’s an awesome place to visitAnd I’m not going to lie, I love talking about my home state. (I have a feeling that Mainers are a less rowdy version of Texans in terms of state pride.) I may have moved away, but I’ll always be a Mainer at heart. 

So when someone tells me they’ve traveled to Maine, I love talking to them about it. But in the back of my mind, I know they’ve likely experienced just one small slice of Maine life–the coastal towns that Maine is well-known for.

Don’t get me wrong–Maine’s coast is stunning and quaint and well worth the visit. But if someone asks me for advice about where to go in Maine, I’d offer a long list of places far inland. They’re the places that feel like “home” to me, and I love sharing them because I want people to know more about the diversity of Maine’s landscape and its small-town culture found throughout the state.

So this is my mindset when I think about traveling to other places: I want to go beyond the well-worn path and get to know a place as a local knows it. What are the hidden gems? How do locals experience the place they call home? Where do they go on vacation? Where would they take friends and family who come to visit? Not only does this give you a more authentic experience, you’ll often have the opportunity to support more locally-owned businesses when you get off the beaten tourist track.

To Travel Is to Learn

As a responsible traveler, it’s important to always be open to learning and dissecting our cultural biases. Travel can be so much richer through learning about the issues and history that have affected people and contributed to shaping their culture.

I really don’t want you to feel like you’re on a school field trip here. This is all about understanding a place and people more fully so you can connect and build better relationships. It all comes down to relationship building, and learning is an important part of that journey.

Check out all the posts in the Engage with Culture category here.


Support Local Communities

Supporting the community is all about supporting the local economy and community development. 

Buy Local

Supporting local businesses and artisans is a big part of responsible travel. Tourism is the largest industry in the world, yet the majority of tourist dollars don’t stay in the community that tourists travel to. It’s a complex issue, but a good start is to seek ways to support small, local businesses so that the money you spend will stay in the community and help build the local economy. I’ll be offering lots of suggestions for doing this in my travel guides and other posts!

Volunteer Responsibly

Voluntourism is yet another term that you’ve probably seen thrown around, and people have all sorts of arguments to make about it. I’m not going to issue a blanket statement one way or another. Unfortunately, we’ve seen that good intentions aren’t enough, and volunteering can be done in really damaging ways. I approach this topic with a bit of wariness toward feel-good marketing tactics that I often see. At the same time, I’ve volunteered overseas numerous times, and I don’t assume that all volunteer trips are having a negative impact.

We have to seek to be responsible when volunteering, and I plan to dig into this topic more in future posts about ways that can be done. If volunteering can be done in a way that truly supports local efforts and does not undermine them, it can be beneficial to all involved. 

Check out all the posts in the Support the Community category here.


Protect the Environment

Protecting the environment is all about minimizing our negative impact on the environment of the places we’re visiting.


Ecotourism is the first thing that many people think of when they hear the term sustainable tourism. It has gained a lot of momentum in the last decade or two–to the point of being a bit “trendy”–but it still has a long way to go.

One of the challenges, like sustainable tourism in general, is that there is no broadly recognized definition or certification. A company can easily claim it is “green” because it encourages you to reuse your bathroom towels…meanwhile, its presence on a Caribbean beach is harming coral reef or disturbing jungle habitats. 

So I’ll be exploring ways to be more eco-friendly when traveling, and I’ll include eco-friendly lodging, restaurants, and tours in various locations through my travel guides.

Leave No Trace in Outdoor Adventure

While Roaming the Americas isn’t explicitly about outdoor adventure, connecting with nature has long been part of my life and the way I love to experience a place. Enjoying nature in responsible ways is an important aspect of responsible travel.

The Leave No Trace movement that has taken shape in the U.S. and around the world gives some guiding principles for interacting with nature in a sustainable way, and its goals focus on encouraging individuals to adopt the principles on a personal basis.

So as I write about nature and outdoor adventure here, the Leave No Trace principles will be guiding those experiences. While we can enjoy nature and outdoor adventure, we also have a responsibility to protect it and make sure our presence doesn’t have a negative impact. It’s up to us to protect what we love.

Check out all the posts in the Protect the Environment category here.


The Journey for Good Manifesto

So what all this boils down to is this little manifesto, and I created a free printable for all of you who are in this awesome community! Get your free Journey for Good Manifesto here, and let us see where you take it with the hashtag #journeyforgoodmanifesto on Instagram!

In the Roaming the Americas community, we will seek to journey for good when we travel in the following ways:

  1. Take ownership of the impact that our presence has on the local culture, economy, and environment.
  2. Respect the places we travel to, knowing that we’re entering someone else’s home.
  3. Tell stories and take photographs with respect, dignity, and honesty.
  4. Never stop learning.


What is responsible travel? Differences between sustainable tourism, responsible tourism, ecotourism, voluntourism, ethical travel, and more from @roamtheamericas


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Roaming the Americas - Naomi Liz


Dreaming about your next travel adventure and want to be socially-conscious on the road—just like you try to be at home?  Roaming the Americas is all about sustainable travel for everyday adventurers. If you're driven by curiosity and crave immersive travel experiences, this is your home!

I'm Naomi, the coffee-loving, crazy-about-Latin-America girl behind everything here. I love connecting with like-minded people who are passionate about travel and care about their impact, and I'm so glad you're here.

Hang around to find resources to help you plan travel in the United States, Canada, and Latin America—along with stories that inspire you to get out and explore.

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