Buffalo Tours has spent the past 20 years creating journeys in Asia that aren’t just transformative and experiential – but responsible, too. We spend lots of time researching our partners, choosing routes that respect local communities and finding activities that work harmoniously with the environment. But even with all of that effort, we rely on you to do your part in being a more responsible traveller. We asked our Responsible Travel Coordinator David Pham his thoughts on how we’re working to make travel more responsible in Asia – and how you can, too!
Q: What’s the most rewarding part of working to make travel more responsible? What’s the most challenging?
David: Tourism is a huge industry, and there are so many interwoven factors in being a responsible traveller. With such an established travel company like Buffalo Tours, the key to success is making small changes in business operations, policies and procedures – and doing our best to change our working habits, raising awareness and getting our customers and partners on board with our goals.
Those little changes are what come together to have enormous and long-term impacts on the environment, society and the future generations of Asia’s local communities. Seeing all of those factors come together and feeling as if I have the power to make a real difference is what is most rewarding.
The rewards don’t come without a challenge, though. I have to work hard to stay up-to-date on responsible travel initiatives and changes, and recognise how that should change our policies. It’s an ever-changing, dynamic job that takes a lot of patience, attention to detail and passion. Even when working with a business, it’s not just about making money – it’s about making the right money.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for visitors to learn about how to make responsible travel decisions before coming to Southeast Asia?
David: Over the last 15 years or so, Southeast Asia has transformed from what many believed to be an alternative destination for backpackers and budget travellers to a hub for discerning international travel.
Consequently, tourism now brings in an incredible amount of income to these developing countries – but that rapid influx of tourism has begun to highlight some of the issues in sustainable tourism development. Companies like ours work very hard to make sure our touring options take those issues into account, but we can’t control every aspect of our tour options. It’s important for our travellers to also understand the impacts that tourism has had on the environment and society in Asia – and really get on board with our mission to make each and every tour we run responsible and sustainable. They need to know what they can do, what they shouldn’t do – but most importantly, why and how they can help.
That kind of knowledge doesn’t come from a quick Google search. Knowing how you can be a responsible traveller means taking the time before you depart to learn about the do’s and don’ts.
Q: What do you think are the best ways a traveller can educate themselves on how to be responsible on the road?
David: There are plenty of ways to educate yourself! We make sure to provide our travellers with detailed information about their destinations before they land – and it’s important that you take the time to research it thoroughly. We put a lot of hard work into making sure that information is up to date and accurate – so we can make it easier for you!
Plus, our team gets lots of training about changes in responsible travel. So, if you’ve got questions about how you can support sustainable tourism on your journey, asking our team before your trip is a great way to get the tips and tricks you’ll need along the way.
Last but not least, we have new information every month about responsible travel on our travel blog – so following along with new posts means you’ll be the first to hear about changes in the responsible travel industry, changes we’re making in our operations and how you can help.
Q: What do you think are the most common mistakes travellers make in Asia that can (inadvertently) harm the environment or local culture – and how can they avoid them?
David: There are lots of little things that visitors will be unaware have negative impacts, but there are three that stand out in Southeast Asia.
Giving gifts or money to children or beggars
Giving money and goods away to random locals accentuates an unequal relationship between locals and visitors, with tourists being seen as purely ‘money givers’. It also strips self esteem away from people when they get money for simply being poor, rather than being empowered to improve their own outcomes through community action. Though most tourists will do this from a place of true kindness, its important for visitors to understand that these simple things encourage the development of a society that equates every human action as a potential money making scheme, and it may even encourage child abuse and exploitation.
Instead, visitors can help empower and build local communities by choosing the right tour options. We have lots of tours to villages and homestays in communities that work to support (not exploit) these individuals. The money that you spend to visit these communities goes directly back into local economy, and helps kids go to school and parents support their families. To learn a little more about what we do in our destinations, check out our blog post on sustainable travel activities in Cambodia.
Buying unsustainable souvenirs and dining
Shopping for souvenirs and eating local cuisine are two of the most enjoyable parts of travel, but doing so responsibly can be tough. Refuse to buy any souvenirs, food or products made from local wildlife – this includes snake wine and products make with bear, bat, frog, turtle, coral and sea horse ingredients. Even though some food items are famous as local delicacies – both bears and frogs, for example – they are highly endangered and we should not encourage their demise. Avoid restaurants that make a feature of wild endangered animal species on their menus.
When searching for souvenirs, make sure you’re aware of what kinds of souvenirs are responsible, and where to find them. We have guides for Cambodia souvenirs, Laos souvenirs, Vietnam souvenirs and Thailand souvenirs to help you.
Taking photos and video without consent
You of course want to capture your favourite parts of your journey through Asia, but it’s important to always ask permission before taking photographs of people and respect their wishes if they refuse. Minority groups in particular are often unhappy to have their photo taken. They may think they do not look attractive (wearing their work clothes rather than festival clothes), while other groups believe that part of their spirit is taken away if they are photographed.
When visiting local communities, tour guides are an invaluable resource for this. Ask them to help you request permission to take photos and trust their judgment when it comes to local interactions (they’re locals, after all!). Our guides are well-versed in what is okay and what is not when travelling, so if ever you’re in doubt – just ask!
Q: Last but not least, what would your top tips for travellers before they come to Southeast Asia?
David: The first and most obvious tip is to follow travel company guidelines and tips when on the road (check out that pre-departure guide!). Use social media, look through TripAdvisor and search for publications to get new information on your destinations – and don’t forget to ask your tour guide and salesperson for their help, too!
The second is to be mindful about your surroundings on the road. Make sure to pay attention to local customs and traditions. Your guide isn’t just there to show you the sights, they’re responsible for helping you make your way through the country and connecting with the locals.
Lastly, don’t travel with too many high-tech pieces of equipment. Not only it will take you out of your travel experience, but it may also damage the culture in sensitive destinations that are particularly impovershed – and might attract the attention of scam artists.
But at the end of the day, Southeast Asia is a fantastic region that is well worth exploring. We are dedicated to helping our travellers make connections with locals in a way that is authentic, transformative and responsible. With a little bit of prior research, you’ll come out of your trip in Southeast Asia with a new-found knowledge and dedication about this beautiful corner of the world. So pack your bags, do your research and discover it!
Want to see what Buffalo Tours is doing to help you travel more responsibly? See our responsible travel policy here. Find out more about Buffalo Tours’ multi-country journeys in Asia, or learn about Educational Travel Asia – a partner of Buffalo Tours dedicated to providing volunteering options and educational excursions for visitors to Asia.