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

Responsible travel involves the collective efforts of the local community, government, tourism industry, and travellers to make places better for everyone to experience.

Key pillars of responsible travel 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 travel.

How can I travel responsibly?

Learning about your destination’s cultures, regional geography and resources, languages, and customs is key to being a responsible traveller. It also involves being informed about the potential health risks in the places you travel.

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the role travellers play in the international spread of disease. We have a responsibility to sustain the health of our communities at home and those we are privileged to visit. Many healthcare systems continue to be overstretched in their response to COVID-19 and it’s important for us, as visitors, to do our best to avoid taking up healthcare resources that are already in short supply.

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. Wherever we travel, we should strive to minimize our health footprint.

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. 

Take the time to learn about health risks at your destination (some helpful resources are available here). 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 immunizations

Getting immunized against vaccine-preventable diseases is not only for your benefit, but also for the benefit of those you encounter abroad. If you are unsure about your routine and travel immunization status, check with your health practitioner.

Diseases that are considered eradicated or rare in North America – such as polio, mumps, measles, and meningococcal meningitis – are a serious concern for communities at your destination where there are low vaccination rates and different immunity patterns. At home, you may not be exposed to these diseases because many 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 who is not immunized or under immunized. Travellers who are not immunized or under-immunized can also bring back infectious diseases to their home community, putting vulnerable people at risk (as seen with Measles outbreaks in the US in recent years).

Health risks abroad

To protect yourself and others, it’s also important to familiarize yourself with health risks 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. Due to the ease of international travel, infectious diseases can easily leap from continent to continent in a matter of hours, as seen by outbreaks of H1N1, SARS and COVID-19. Like many other infectious diseases, the COVID-19 pandemic also showed us how inequality plays a major role in health. Persons living in inadequate housing or homeless, without access to quality healthcare, working in front-line low-wage positions and those with pre-existing conditions are at increased risk of infection and serious illness.

Our responsibility to others

If you get sick before your trip, postpone travel to protect the health of your fellow travellers and people at your destination. Get trip cancellation insurance or check the fine print of your airline’s policy for reimbursements on flu and major illnesses, including COVID-19.

As travellers, we not only have the responsibility to prevent the spread of diseases, we should also be mindful of the health of the workers within the tourism industry. The travel industry employs 1 in 10 of the world’s working population and too often, individuals in this sector work in unsafe conditions, for long hours, and poor wages. Limited options for employment and poverty can keep many workers in unfair and exploitative positions, especially in emerging economy countries where workers’ rights are poorly protected. Increasing tourist arrivals and spending is often touted as a pathway for economic development but we have to do more to empower people through fair and decent work, social protections, and ensuring that marginalized voices are heard.The tourism industry, governments, and travellers all bear responsibility. 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 specialist 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.
  • Avoid travelling if you feel 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.

More information

Check out these organizations committed to responsible and sustainable tourism:

Last reviewed and updated: December 11, 2020.

Travel Health Journal