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The Ethics of Budget Travel: Is It Possible to Travel Responsibly on a Budget?

Traveling can be a huge boon to developing communities. Tourism brings jobs, knowledge, and new experiences, and it gives the communities a chance to strut their stuff before the rest of the world. As travelers, it is our responsibility to ensure our travels are truly beneficial to local communities, and that we leave a positive impact on the places we visit. In practical terms, this usually means we need to help out the local economy.

As budget traveler spending no more than $15-25 a day, it seems bold to say my kind of tourism yields any lasting economic benefits. Many people claim there’s no way such trivial amounts of money can make any impact. I disagree, and truly believe that budget travelers—and everyone else—can have a positive impact on the places they visit, if they stick to the following guidelines.

Spend locally

One of the main responsibilities travelers have is to benefit local communities they visit.  Unfortunately, many visitors fail to take the easiest step to accomplishing this: spending local.

A large chunk of the money spent by travelers leaves the local economy through “leakage”. Leakage is money spent non-locally to get goods locally. For instance, a restaurant catering to backpacker pancake cravings by importing Nutella pays a lot of money to do so. All the money spent outside the local environment (expensive foreign Nutella, shipping, import duties and taxes, etc.) is leakage.

Luckily, leakage can be avoided by spending more wisely, and by spreading your money around. Instead of haunting the international hangout, go to the local restaurant around the corner. Approach a guide on the street, rather than online. Get fruit from the local market, buy drinks from the local non-chain convenience store, buy a new t-shirt from that jolly old lady in the bazaar.

By spending your money locally, and by spreading it around, you are maximizing benefits to the local community. It might not be much, but every dollar spent in such a fashion is a dollar added to the local economy. Not only does this directly benefit the local businesses, it also creates a financial ripple effect.

Take local restaurants as an example, which usually source produce locally. The more money you spend at local restaurants, the more fruits and vegetables they buy at the local vegetable market, the more meat from the local butcher. The money you spend makes its way back into the local community, rather than going into a bank account across the country, or out of the country entirely.

This should be music to the budget traveler’s ears. Local hole-in-the-walls, as budget travelers know, are cheap and cheerful places to eat, and locally sourced goods are much cheaper than stuff coming from halfway across the world. In short, it’s more budget-friendly—and responsible—to buy local.

If you are used to a more lavish style of traveling, never fear, you can still make your money count. There are plenty of local restaurants catering to mid-range price levels, and instead of buying a new Prada or Gucci, try to find a local designer. Not only will you be spending your money more responsibly, you can also brag about that cool new bag from that designer your friends have never heard of. It’s a win-win all around.

Sleep wisely

Everybody needs to sleep, especially after a hearty local meal, and so arises another opportunity to leave a positive economic impact on the community.

Many hostels and guesthouses catering to the backpacking and budget traveler crowd play into the convenience-seeking attitudes of travelers by offering in-house restaurants and travel agencies. In places like Southeast Asia, it is not unlikely for travelers to spend most of their money through their guest house, depriving other local businesses of well-needed income.

Don’t forget the lesson on spending locally! If you choose to stay in a place like this, go to the family-run restaurant around the corner when you want to eat, or stock up from the convenience store down the street when you need some water. If you can’t resist the convenience of rolling into the common area for a pint and a plate of curry, try to find a place that doesn’t offer these amenities. The shop owner’s family around the corner—and his suppliers—will thank you.

But there is more to sleeping wisely than resisting the temptation of the common area. Backpacker and budget guesthouses are often locally run, and employ local workers. If you want to make sure your money doesn’t stay in the local community, skip the local guesthouse for a Marriott or Hilton.

International chain hotels are a scourge to ethical and responsible travel. They consume massive amounts of electricity and water. They might hire local staff, but most of the money you will spend there will leave the country through leakage, and end up in someone’s offshore account. International business units need to be paid, and shareholders need their share, too. If you want to benefit the local community while you sleep, please don’t stay at a chain hotel.

Move sustainably

Sleeping and spending aside, the way we travel from A to B also has a huge impact on the local community and the environment. Let’s face it: climate change is real, and travel can yield a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. On a grand scale, changing this requires a paradigm shift in consumer and cultural behavior. But on an individual scale, there are some things all travelers can do to minimize their personal carbon footprint, budget or not.

For all the negative impact tour group travel can have (huge amounts of leakage, staying in chain hotels, etc.), they usually travel around in full buses. This means the carbon footprint of each person is minimized. Travelers of all stripes and finances should aspire to the same.

Public transport is the best way to do so. It is the modus operandi of budget travelers, but many mid-range travelers avoid it. Understandably so; public transport is often uncomfortable. In many developing countries, buses and trains are packed to the brim, and it’s not uncommon to share your seat with livestock. Though sitting next to a squawking chicken isn’t ideal, it does mean the vehicle’s carbon emissions are spread over a great many people (and creatures), minimizing your personal carbon footprint. The same cannot be said for hiring a private car.

Walking is another option. It might take a bit longer, and you might be a bit sweatier depending on where you’re traveling, but walking is a great way to really get a feel for a place, and even big megacities allow plenty of exploring by foot.

Of course, there are instances where hiring a car is preferable… or necessary. If you can’t fill it up with your immediate party, don’t despair. Ask your new friends from the hotel if they need a ride. See if you can find a rideshare where possible. With so many people jostling to get from A to B, filling up your car shouldn’t be a problem. It might not be much, but it’s the least we can do to minimize our impact on the earth while maximizing our travel experience.

Travel ethically

Tourism can be a huge boon to local economies. Unfortunately, a lot of potential benefits are wasted because of travelers’ attitudes and habits, and the people who need tourist money the most often benefit the least from a surge in tourism.

Spending locally, sleeping responsibly, and moving wisely won’t change this overnight—there is much more that can be done. Hopefully, though, I’ve proven how people on the tiniest of budgets can still have a positive impact, and how other kinds of travelers can do the same.

Budget traveler or luxury vacationer, travel is a privilege. Travelers of all walks of life need to put in effort to make the most of what we have, both for ourselves and the places and people we visit.


Sebastiaan is a co-founder of Lost With Purpose, a travel blog about going off the beaten track to destinations you’d never dream of visiting, such as Afghanistan or Kazakhstan.

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