Responsible travel doesn't necessarily have to mean volunteering abroad or giving donations -- although they are all good things. Sometimes traveling responsibly can be much more subtle. Simple, everyday decisions made consciously continue to have an impact long after you return home.
Despite its beauty, much of Asia is inherently mired in poverty. A dense population often means doing whatever it takes to feed your family while worrying about the environment, human rights, and long-term impact second.
Fortunately, as travelers, we can still help the local people while not contributing to damaging practices. Use these simple tips for making the right choices on your trip to Asia.
Think About Where Your Food Comes From
An estimated 11,000 sharks die every hour due to finning practices to make shark's fin soup -- a Chinese delicacy purported to have health benefits. Sharks are harvested only for their fins, then tossed overboard to die slowly; the rest of the meat goes to waste.
Bird's nest products -- another Chinese delicacy -- such as soup and drinks are made from swiftlet nests harvested from caves. Although the practice is regulated in places such as East Sabah, demand and price often mean that nests are taken -- and eggs are thrown out -- illegally.
Think about the source of the food before you order that strange, local delicacy.
Responsible Travel and Beggars
Travelers to places such as Siem Reap in Cambodia and Mumbai know quite well the droves of beggar children who approach tourists on the street. The children are persistent and usually sell souvenirs or jewelry.
Although the dirty faces can break your heart, the money they make is often turned over to a boss or family member who keeps them out of school. If the children continue to be profitable, they will never be given a chance at a normal life.
If you do wish to help local children, do so by contributing to a local organization or NGO.
Souvenirs found in markets throughout Asia may be cheap and interesting. However, the means of making them is sometimes environmentally damaging. Villagers are sent to the fields to find materials while a middleman gets rich.
Practice responsible travel by avoiding preserved insects, ivory, crocodile skin, snakeheads, animal products, and trinkets made from marine life such as turtle shells. Seashells are dredged with nets, and even coral-destroying dynamite is used underwater to harvest materials and creatures in bulk.
Child labor is often behind cheap handicrafts and textiles. A good rule of thumb is to know the source of what you purchase: Try to buy directly from the artisan or from fair-trade shops.
Responsible Travel and Plastic
China, Southeast Asia, and places where the tap water is unsafe to drink are plagued with literal mountains of plastic water bottles. Governments are slowly seeing the light, and are installing water refill machines in big cities. Instead of purchasing a new bottle each time, consider refilling your old bottle -- the cost is usually under five cents!
Plastic bags are made with petroleum, take a millennium to decompose, and are responsible for the deaths of 100,000 marine mammals annually. Mini-marts and 7-Eleven shops in Asia tend to give a plastic bag no matter the size of your purchase; even a single pack of gum goes into a bag!
Decline plastic bags whenever you can, or carry your own bag when you go shopping.
Other Ideas for More Responsible Travel
Rapid deforestation is a serious problem in Asia. All those colorful maps, pamphlets, and free booklets pushed on tourists often end up in the trash. Unless you intend to use a brochure advertising some activity, politely decline.
China breaks through an estimated 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks each year. Over 25 million mature trees are logged to meet the demand of one country! Some travelers opt to carry plastic chopsticks as an alternative.
Stick to the Local Agencies
Many Western entrepreneurs set up tour agencies as well as trekking and adventure-activity companies in Asia, then reap the profits as they pay the porters and local guides very little. When booking tours or activities, do a small amount of research beforehand; always go with a local business whenever possible.