IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers| IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers|
Photo By: Thommen Jose

How to be a responsible traveller

When we think about responsible tourism, promoting respect for the cultures and the environment of our destination country comes to mind. Health, on the other hand, is the other component that is not often talked about.

Learning about the cultures, regional geography and resources, languages, and customs is key to being a responsible traveller, as is informing yourself about the potential health risks at your destination. While we have the means to protect our health, we also need to be mindful of how our health status affects the people we meet and the communities we visit.

Responsible travel and health

Responsible tourism is tourism that is practiced in a more responsible way by making places better for the people who live and visit there. It involves the collective efforts of the local community, government, tourism industry, and travellers to act responsibly.

Key pillars of responsible tourism include environmental preservation, improved working conditions, greater economic benefits for local people and their communities, culturally sensitive practices, and equitable decision-making involving local people. Maintaining and improving health are also central to responsible tourism.

Similar to our ecological footprint – the impact we have on natural resources – we also have a health footprint. Your health footprint is the amount of local health resources you use during your trip.

Travellers who arrive or become ill at their destination put other travellers and the local population at risk. They also use local health resources. When resources like hospital beds, clean medical equipment, and staff time are in short supply in many places, a hospitalized traveller can put additional stress on an already over-burdened local health system. There will always be instances where travellers fall ill abroad, but doing as much as possible to prevent illnesses helps us avoid using scarce medical resources unnecessarily.

How to minimize your health footprint

There are two ways to minimize your health footprint: Being informed about health risks and being proactive about preventing them.

To learn about the health risks at your destination, visit our country health advice for up-to-date information. It’s also important to speak to a healthcare practitioner, such as a travel medicine nurse or doctor, about your trip at least 6 weeks before you depart.

Routine and travel-related immunizations

Getting immunized against vaccine-preventable diseases is not only for your benefit, but also for the benefit of those you encounter abroad. Your doctor can help you determine if you are up-to-date with your routine immunizations and if you need to get any travel-related vaccines.

Diseases that are considered eradicated or rare in the west/North America – such as polio, mumps, measles, and meningococcal meningitis – are a serious concern for local populations where there are low vaccination rates and different immunity patterns. At home, you may not be exposed to these diseases because most people around you are vaccinated (this is known as herd immunity), but abroad – if you are not immunized – you risk catching an infection and subsequently passing it on to someone else.

Health risks abroad

To protect yourself and others, it’s also important to familiarize yourself with health risks that exist at your destination. There are many infectious diseases that regularly circulate in specific regions that cannot be prevented through vaccination. For example, malaria is endemic in areas of Africa, South America, and Asia. Travellers to malaria-risk areas may be prescribed an antimalarial medication and will need to meticulously prevent mosquito bites to reduce their risk of infection.

Travellers who arrive at their destination inadequately prepared can be responsible for the spread of infectious diseases, and can spread diseases to areas that previously had minimal or no risk. The H1N1 and SARS outbreaks clearly showed us how infectious diseases can leap from continent to continent in a matter of hours. Like other infectious diseases, the spread of H1N1 also showed us how poverty plays a major role in health. Persons living in crowded conditions are more susceptible to contracting infections and fighting diseases is harder if you have little or no access to quality healthcare.

Our responsibility to others

If you get sick before you trip, consider delaying or postponing travel to protect the health of your fellow travellers and people at your destination. Getting trip cancellation insurance or checking the fine print of your airline’s policy for reimbursements on flu and major illnesses may be part of the solution.

As travellers, we not only have the responsibility to prevent the spread of diseases, but we should also be aware of the health of tourism industry employees who take care of us. Too often tourism sector employees work in unsafe conditions, for long hours, and poor wages. For example, trail guides may face frost bite in cold environments, scuba diver instructors may get decompression sickness, and hotel room cleaners work long hours, often with no benefits. When planning your trip, take the time to choose consciously and support travel services that create safe working environments and protect the health of their employees and local community.

Tips for responsible travel

  • Familiarize yourself with the health risks at your destination.
  • Make an appointment with your general practitioner or a travel health doctor at least 4 to 6 weeks before you depart to ensure your routine immunizations are up-to-date and get any travel-related vaccines or medications.
  • Pack a Travel Medicine Kit that includes the supplies you need to deal with minor injuries and illnesses and manage a pre-existing condition if needed.
  • At your destination, use meticulous insect bite prevention measures.
  • Consider postponing your trip if you get sick. Make sure you have a travel health insurance policy that covers trip cancellation.
  • Choose consciously. Make sure your tourism company, accommodation, and other travel services can demonstrate their commitment to responsible and sustainable practices.
  • Make an effort to support the local economy during your stay.
  • Take the time to learn about the cultures at your destination to ensure you are being sensitive to their norms and practices.

Additional resources

Check out these organizations committed to responsible and sustainable tourism:

Information last updated: April 16, 2020

Travel Health Journal