How to practice responsible tourism

June 6, 2019

Travel has completely opened my eyes to how much waste there is in the world and the effects that my contributions were having. Seeing real life mounds of discarded single use plastics, videos of animals’ tummies full of plastic and rubbish, animals being harassed for tourists’ amusement and beaches scattered with rubbish – it’s hard to ignore what irresponsible behaviour can lead to. It’s important that we all do our part to stop being so wasteful, to protect our planet from the damage we’ve caused so that future generations of animals and humans don’t suffer because of what we’ve done. 

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My experience of irresponsible tourism 

In February I returned to Hawaii and whilst in Oahu I decided to book an excursion to swim with turtles, something I had done a few years before in Maui and thoroughly enjoyed. I chose to book with a company called Holokai Catamarans based in Waikiki and was gravely disappointed by the behaviour of both the crew and the passengers on my tour.

We witnessed the crew throw chocolate chip cookies into the water, and last time I checked, wheat and chocolate don’t grow in the sea and are therefore not part of a natural diet for turtles or fish. There were only four turtles in the water, one was young too, and another three boats came to join us, including a boat loaded with scuba divers and even a glass bottom boat! At one point there were approximately 40 people both on and beneath the surface of the water surrounding these poor turtles. 

That situation had multiple things wrong with it:

  1. The turtles were heavily outnumbered and surrounded. If they feel threatened they will be reluctant to surface for air, which could lead to asphyxiation and therefore death.

  2. Glass bottom boats are extremely dangerous for sea turtles as they can get confused and try to surface beneath the boat. This can damage their head, fins or their shell and even lead to panic and suffocation.

  3. Sea turtles are an endangered species and it is very important that you respect them and their environment. For this reason you legally must stay 10ft back to prevent the turtle from being scared, harassed or harmed. Turtles are curious creatures so there is a good chance that whilst you are observing them that they will surface near you to do the same to you. In this situation, you must remain calm and very slowly give them space, then count your blessings for a beautiful moment you shared with such a magnificent animal.

Unfortunately the situation worsened and not only were the turtles encompassed by far too many tourists, some groups of people then did the worse thing imaginable, they started to grab at the turtles and chase them, whilst the crew did nothing. I personally had to stop at least five people from chasing the turtles when they surfaced and I even pulled a person away after they touched one of the turtles. It was incredibly distressing! So, for these reasons I cannot recommend taking this tour; their lack of responsibility for their passengers and respect for the turtles was heartbreaking. 

Once I returned to my hotel I wrote a letter of complaint to the company and I also reported them to Hawaii’s tourism board via their government’s website. Since then I have been far more vigilant over choosing tours, doing my best to make sure they are environmentally conscious and responsible.

Tips for finding responsible marine tours

With so many tours available over the internet it might seem like a daunting task to find operators that are responsible. Here are a few pointers for finding tour companies that you can trust to be environmentally conscious:

  1. Always take a peek at their own website, even if you’re using a comparison site. You’ll get a better idea of their priorities and what they pride themselves on. For example, if they mention that they are “the most eco friendly tour operating out of that harbour” you know they’ve got their priorities in order.

  2. If you’re booked to stay in a hotel, ask the concierge or front desk if they can recommend any responsible tours. Then research them before making a booking.

  3. Look for companies that provide or encourage the use of reef safe suncream only.

  4. Small tours are always the better choice. They have a smaller impact on the environment and it means you are going to have a much more personal experience with them. Larger tours are mostly operating to make money and don’t take care of individuals or the environment. Whilst on a whale watching tour in Hawaii, we chose to go on a very small dinghy and because of that it meant we could hear the whales singing through the hull of our boat. Moments later we were joined by a large boat with two decks which was blasting out its own music. Not only was that precious moment lost on those people on the larger tour, but they are discouraging people to truly experience their surroundings.

  5. Take note of companies that partner with nature conservationists, charities and organisations. You know they care for the environment and everyone’s personal experience over masses of paying passengers if they have a strong focus on marine biology and research.

  6. Reach out to travel and environmentally conscious bloggers. Ask them if they know of any trustworthy tours, or if they can recommend any companies. You can always contact me through my Instagram, @gabriellawisdom, or email, if you have any questions or want recommendations.

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If a turtle surfaces near you, remain calm so you don’t antagonise it, do not reach out to it, and when it is safe, put distance between yourself and the turtle.

Extra measures that you can take

Of course, responsible tourism doesn’t start and end with the tour operators. We all have a responsibly to protect and preserve our beautiful environment. Here are the ways you can help:

  1. Bring your own reusable water bottles to prevent the use of plastic ones.

  2. Wear and bring your own reef safe suncream. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are harmful chemicals to coral reefs and are often found in suncream and UV protection products. Many leading brands such as Hawaiian Tropic, Australian Gold and Banana Boat are now reef safe. Check the label before purchasing your next bottle.

  3. Be respectful of your environment. Don’t touch or harass any animals, don’t take anything with you except memories and photographs (if it’s appropriate) and don’t leave anything behind such as rubbish. If you see any rubbish, pick it up.

  4. If you do see something wrong, don’t be afraid to voice it and report it. I recommend you report what you witnessed to authorities and sending a private email over blasting them on the internet, the situation will be taken more seriously if you go about it sensibly.

You may also be interested in this eco-conscious suncream from plastic-free shop Coconut & Cotton.

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Responsible marine companies I have used around the world

Since my experience in Oahu, Hawaii, I am more determined than ever to make sure I book responsible and environmentally conscious tours. Here are some companies from around the world that I whole heartedly recommend because, each one of them have a passion for the world we live in and the animals we share it with:

  • Ultimate Whale Watch & Snorkel for whale watching in Maui, Hawaii. 

  • Pride of Maui for swimming with sea turtles in Maui, Hawaii.

  • Wild Whales Vancouver for whale watching in Vancouver, Canada.

  • Reef Day-tripper for swimming in the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Australia.

We are all accountable for making sure we protect and preserve our environment. Together we can make great strides towards responsible tourism by acting upon the tips I have highlighted above and booking tours based on their environmental impact and awareness over what costs less.


Aloha, Gabriella

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