As the word about Southeast Asia's beautiful destinations spreads, rapidly growing tourism leaves more and more of an impact. Often times the local people in these magical places are inherently poor; putting food on the table tonight may be more important to them than worrying about the environment tomorrow.
Responsible travel doesn't have to mean skipping showers to save water - other people will be glad that you didn't. Instead, think twice before you buy that next souvenir or order something for dinner. The simple, everyday decisions that we make add up; if every traveler does their part, future generations will be able to enjoy places as much as we did!
Here are some easy tips and facts to make you a more responsible traveler:
Plastic Bags in Southeast Asia
Anyone traveling in Southeast Asia can attest, plastic bags are literally everywhere. Divers in some places see more plastic bags underwater than life. The omnipresent minimarts such as 7-11 in Thailand, KK in Malaysia, and A-Mart in Vietnam tend to give a plastic bag for purchases as small as a pack of gum.
Plastic bags are made from petroleum and take an average of 1,000 years to break down. An estimated 100,000 marine mammals die each year from mistaking plastic bags as food. You can make a small difference - both at home and away - by declining a new plastic bag for each purchase.
Responsible Travel and Water Bottles
With the tap water being unsafe to drink in most Southeast Asian countries, literal mountains of water bottles end up in landfills. Governments have recently began to combat the problem by placing water refill machines in major cities. Water refill machines use ozone and ultraviolet lights to purify water. Responsible travelers in Thailand and Malaysia can take advantage by refilling their water bottles for a fraction of the cost of a new bottle. Not only do you keep a bottle out of the landfill, 1.5 liters of safe drinking water usually costs under 3 cents!
Believe it or not, but those wooden, throw-away chopsticks you used to eat your delicious street food actually come from trees. China alone uses 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year - the equivalent of 25 million mature trees. Korea and Japan are not far behind in their use, followed by Southeast Asia. Many responsible travelers actually opt to travel with their own pair of washable, plastic chopsticks.
Responsible Travel Views on Beggars and Children
Although the little children selling souvenirs in Siem Reap, Laos, and other parts of Southeast Asia are cute and persistent, buying from kids on the street may deprive them of a future. Beggar children are often forced by families or "bosses" to approach tourists for handouts, then turn the money over at the end of the day. If they continue to function as profitable endeavors, these children will never be given a chance to attend school or have a normal life. If you wish to support the local children, do so by contributing through UNICEF or a local NGO.
Siem Reap also has a busy “orphanage tourism” industry that profits from tourist dollars. Please do not patronage orphanage tourism. Outward appearances aside, many of these places are for-profit businesses that traffic in squalor to attract big tourist bucks. Read this for more information: Orphanages in Cambodia are Not Tourist Attractions.
Responsible Travel Shopping
Many common souvenirs found in markets around Southeast Asia come from nefarious origins. Responsible tourists should avoid buying anything produced from animals, insects, or sea life. Polished shells are taken in bulk by dredging or dragging nets, which destroys underwater habitats. Snakes in bottles, crocodile heads, preserved animals and insects - all these bizarre souvenirs come from encouraging villagers to take young animals out of their habitats. Child labor produces cheap bags, textiles, clothing, and small handicrafts found in markets around Southeast Asia.
While the cost is slightly more, you can support responsible travel by purchasing from fair trade organizations or directly from the artists themselves. Fair trade stores confirm the source of every item in the store, rather than just buying cheap inventory from catalogs. Those souvenirs in Southeast Asia may seem extremely cheap, but the cost comes to the exploited laborers who often make a middle-man rich.
Decline Tourist Brochures
Free maps, brochures advertising activities, and other handouts are available by the ton in tourist areas. These ad-laden pamphlets use paper - much of which comes from rainforest trees in Sarawak, Borneo - and drive printing costs. Unless you really intend to take advantage of the information on a brochure, politely decline when someone offers.
Sharks Fin Soup
Popular in Penang, Kuching, and other places with a large Chinese population, this controversial and expensive dish is reputed to carry health benefits. The reality is that shark's fin soup is mostly tasteless; there is no proof to support the medicinal claims. In fact, shark's fin soup can actually make men sterile because of high mercury levels!
An average of 100 million sharks - 11,400 each hour - die each year from finning practices to create shark's fin soup; the shark is thrown overboard once the fin is removed. Shark numbers are rapidly declining. Responsible travelers will choose something else to eat rather than supporting this foolish practice.
Doing Your Part for Responsible Travel
While the tips above are easy enough to observe, tourists can make a difference in many other ways; responsible travel is actually a mindset. The next time you are trekking in the Cameron Highlands, why not pick up that piece of trash left by someone else on the trail? Remember that while the environmental situation in developing countries may seem to be spiraling out of control, we travelers have the numbers to make a difference!