Responsible tourism in Asia

To consider responsible tourism in Asia is to consider a set of cultural, political, social and environmental circumstances entirely different to our own – granted, we cannot condone China’s inhumane approach to animals, but the clue is in the name – Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on a practice of over 2,000 years old and there has never been a law passed in the country regarding the treatment of animals. That is not to say that ill treatment is right, we need to comprehend that as a culture, compassion for animals is simply not ingrained in the Chinese psyche.

The sheer size of the continent has to be taken into account too – glancing down this page, it may seem as though Asia is a hotbed of ‘problems’, but if we were to gather together all of the responsible tourism concerns across Europe, that wouldn’t look too pretty either. The key thing to recognise is that all of the points discussed below are a snapshot – take a look at our country-specific travel guides according to those issues you’re interested in understanding further and you will not only have the opportunity to explore both sides of the coin, but, in many more cases than not, you will also see that there is significant and positive action being taken to alleviate the issues that currently exist.

People & Culture

Corrupt ‘orphanages’

There are countless organisations offering volunteer placements in orphanages across Asia and in Southeast Asia and Nepal particularly, but be aware that your presence could be inadvertently supporting a corrupt industry that, on the false premise of providing their children with an education, is tricking parents into sending their kids to fake orphanages in order to extract money from well-intentioned tourists. Not only is this exploitation of some of the poorest families in rural Asia, who may feel they have little choice, but it’s also a huge manipulation of our purse strings, not to mention our intentions. Sadly, many orphanages have become businesses rather than places of care and your volunteering there is not only an ineffective solution – it actually makes matters worse. Not only does it cause further emotional damage to the children in care, it can also, ironically, create more “orphans”.

What you can do
Responsible Travel, in collaboration with organisations such as Save the Children and ECPAT, launched a campaign against unqualified and/or unnecessary orphanage volunteering. The issue is a complex one, so do see our campaign for more information and guidelines for volunteer organisations and questions for volunteers to ask.

Human rights

The issue of human rights in Asia falls mainly with China and Central Asia. China is a very tricky one to address - there are certainly some problems, but there are problems in pretty much every country in the world, so it is a bit hypocritical for any other nation to tar China with such a harsh brush. Having said that, the main problem with China is the state’s constant drive for control and the need to represent an image of perfection – very minimal begging; litter; graffiti; prostitution; crime – to outsiders looking in. With this all comes a human price and there are obvious human rights abuses against anyone who goes against the country’s communist system.

Additionally, there have long been question marks lingering over the topic of human rights in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and, unsurprisingly for countries which were formerly part of the Soviet Union, both have been slammed by the UN for their highly repressive policies with more than 20 UN-sent rapporteurs denied access to monitor the situation over the years.

You can read about the issue of human rights in further detail in our guides to China and The Silk Road.

What can you do?
The answer here is very straightforward: it’s not what you can do; it’s what you can’t. Both China and Central Asia are very proud and their mindset is one you should neither try and permeate through questioning nor change with your opinions. Small things you can do surreptitiously without causing problems for anyone are to support any local minority villages you might visit by eating locally and hiring local guides wherever possible, and the best and most useful thing you can do is to learn about the issues that you may face while visiting and come back with an educated opinion, which you can then put to use volunteering for a human rights association back in the UK.

They’re porters, not packhorses

As you trek your way around the world’s most majestic peaks, your porter is there to lend a hand and carry your kit, but while it's tempting to think of your porters or guides as heroic individuals who can trek for hours carrying two packs, while wearing flip flops and an old jumper with no discomfort, Nepalese porters have been found to suffer four times as many accidents, according to research by Tourism Concern, and reports of porters being forced to carry up to 40kg are not uncommon.

Whilst many porters and guides do indeed have incredible strength and stamina, it is not fair or responsible for tourists and tour companies to employ often impoverished local people in this way. You can read more about both sides of this issue in our Nepal trekking guide.
What can you do?
Ask your tour company if it has a clear policy on porters' rights and working conditions. They should have a clear maximum weight limit for porters to carry - typically 25kg in Nepal - and their porters should have proper clothing and footwear. Ask about insurance and the provision for porters if they are injured or fall ill on the trek, and check that they are paid fairly. Read our article about porters' rights when high altitude trekking; and if you see or experience something that you feel uncomfortable about then make it clear to your tour company that this is not acceptable, and report any concerns to us as soon as you can.

Stamping out the underage sex trade

The sexual abuse of children is a shocking reality in Sri Lanka, particularly on the southwest coast, Kandy and in the capital, Colombo, with most activity taking place in bars, brothels and even on the beach; sickeningly, it has been known for some brothels to be disguised as children’s homes. In addition, over a third of the people connected with sex tourism in Cambodia are under 18, and there are significant problems in India, Thailand and Vietnam too – Vietnam has one of the highest numbers of children forced into the sex industry in the world. Note that we do not refer to these young people as 'child sex workers' or 'child prostitutes', because as campaigning organisations have rightly pointed out, these children are not working. They are victims of abuse and rape. Indeed many children are now being trafficked – kidnapped or sold – to be abused overseas or in their home country.

What you can do
Thankfully, there is a lot that we as tourists can do to help stamp out this horrendous industry - you can read further into this issue in our CambodiaVietnam and Sri Lanka guides – and a great place to start helping is to always report any suspect activities with regards to children to local authorities and, in particular, the tourism locations which are allowing it to happen. The Code (short for “The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism”) is an excellent point of contact for this purpose.


The one danger of us highlighting poverty as an issue across parts of Asia is that it adds to the tired, clichéd conclusion reached by many tourists that countries such as India are just full of beggars and thieves. Tricksters and touts. It isn’t. Nor is everyone poor. In 2013, the Indian government stated 21.9% of its population was below its official poverty limit, which, with a population of 1.27 billion, is a lot of people. Too many people. However, since the 1950s, the Indian government has, with the help of food subsidies, improved agriculture and education, reduced absolute poverty levels by half, and greatly reduced illiteracy and malnutrition.

Likewise, people think of Mongolia as some sort of entirely undeveloped wilderness, but it isn’t – it’s not what we would call modern, but poverty in Mongolia is a relatively recent reality and is a direct consequence of the country’s transition to a market economy in the 1990s; the privatisation of industry and introduction of state farming brought with it high levels of unemployment, so incomes shrank and inflation ate away at purchasing power leaving one in three Mongolians living in poverty with herders among the poorest of the poor.

If you’d like to read more on the issue of poverty across Asia, please delve deeper into our IndiaMongolia and Cambodia guides, for a fair and balanced look at both sides of the story.
What can you do?
Make sure your money stays in local hands: stay in log cabins, homestays or heritage properties, use local guides, ask your guide where you can eat locally – they’re often more than happy to swerve an itinerary item in favour of this if you ask politely, shop in local food markets, buy genuine handicrafts, and ask your guide about worthwhile tourism projects that you can visit and get involved in.

Wildlife & environment

Watch out for wildlife

The issue of animal welfare across Asia is not a simple one – on the one hand, you have China, a country whose treatment of animals is indefensible. The dog and cat fur trade is out of control with millions being slaughtered every year in the most horrendous ways, beautiful endangered species are being starved, beaten and often fed to one another in cramped and squalid conditions at various ‘parks’ across the country, and then there’s the ‘medicinal’ purposes for which animal parts are put to use.

On the other hand, you have India, home to 50 percent of the wild tigers left in existence across the entire world. Poaching is a serious threat to these majestic creatures and it is vital to support conservation efforts through tourism, but this throws up the issue surrounding the use of elephants in national parks where tigers have their habitats. Although we do not endorse elephant trekking at Responsible Travel, as you will see from our ‘Elephants in tourism’ guide, we do recognise that, at Periyar, for example, the survival of the remaining tigers is simply too precarious to risk withdrawing the funding gained through elephant rides from the park; to do so would risk an instant increase in poaching and the demise of the species. Allowing elephant back safaris is far from an ideal situation, but we believe it is the “least bad” solution to a complex problem.
What you can do
This welfare of Asia’s wildlife is a complex and very interesting topic; you can read more about it in our guides to China, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and understand more about the use of elephants in conservation here.
Sophie Hartman, owner of our supplier Chinkara Journeys, specialising in central India:
“I think that name ‘tiger watching’ should be banned. Don’t go with tigers as your sole focus, there is so much to see in India’s national parks and spending the whole of your safari charging around the park on a hunt for a tiger is such a wasted opportunity. Ask your guide and driver to stop for ten minutes by a lake or stream, listen to the sounds of the jungle, watch the birds, enjoy the beauty of the light coming through the forest. SO much more fun than just thumping along in a jeep.”

Daniel Turner, Born Free:
“Elephants used for elephant back safaris may be overworked and subject to strict training and management, leading to physical and mental suffering and injuries, as discussed above. They are especially prone to injuries to their backs – in particular blisters or cuts caused by howdahs (wood or metal seating). Walking regularly on hard surfaces with a heavy load can also increase the risk of foot problems.”

Watch orangutans the right way

The islands of Sumatra and Borneo are synonymous with the orangutan, the long-limbed old man of the forest, whose iconic ginger frame can be seen swinging through the canopy of ancient rainforests of these mysterious islands. However, while 100 years ago over 300,000 orangutans roamed these forests; today just 20 percent remain. The Bornean orangutan is classified as endangered, with around 54,000 individuals remaining. The Sumatran orangutan is critically endangered, with just 6,600.*

Eerily human, it is – ironically – the orangutan’s similarity to us that has endangered it so; the apes prefer the lowland forests, proximity to freshwater and fertile soils that are so appealing to farmers. The illegal wildlife trade, logging, forest fires and mining all threaten the future of the orangutan, but the greatest danger by far comes from palm oil plantations, which flatten and fragment ancient forest.

*Source: The Orangutan Foundation UK

What can you do?
National parks, sanctuaries, rescue and rehabilitation centres are dotted across their habitats, and supporting these places is an important step in guarding their future, as well as raising awareness of their plight. Whether you come to volunteer, see them feeding in a rehabilitation centre, or support local communities who strive to protect their historical neighbours, make sure you do it in the right way.

Read more about responsible orangutan watching and the ways in which you can help protect their future in our dedicated guide here.


The sad stories of Phuket, Haad Rin, Koh Samui and Pattaya in Thailand, Vietnam’s still beautiful, but increasingly polluted Halong Bay, and the ancestral land lost to Burma’s Bagan residents have entered traveller folklore, and many consider them too far “gone” to be saved from the concrete blocks, mounting piles of waste and international hotel chains that scar them. However, there are many beaches and places across Asia that remain free of overdevelopment – in some cases of any development. The general consensus is that preventing similar catastrophes in these regions is both easier and more economically viable than attempting to reverse the damage already done in the most overdeveloped regions - so supporting them now will contribute to their protection.

What you can do
In Thailand, it’s surprising how close to the tourist trail many still-lovely beaches actually are. Even islands such as Koh Phi Phi and Koh Samet still have their wilder sides – it just means travelling further from the boat docks to find them. Avoid the huge resorts and all-inclusive breaks too, and stay in locally owned accommodation. This makes sense for both the environment and for the local economy – and your beach experience will be so much more authentically Thai.

If you’re visiting Halong Bay, choose an operator with a responsible tourism policy. Ask about their methods of disposing of trash and wastewater, and whether they invest in any local clean up initiatives. Find out if the staff are local – many of the fishing communities around the bay are no longer able to fish – as the sealife is dying, and the waters polluted – so employment in tourism is a way of sustaining their floating communities. And, don’t just stay on your ship. Find a tour which visits local communities, and which allows you the chance to interact with the people and spend money by buying refreshments or crafts.

If you visit Burma, hire a local guide, and ask them to take you to the hidden corners of Bagan – it’s a vast site, and tourists huddle in the same spots. Support local vendors, visit the markets, and get on your bike to explore more of the region and its culture. Ensure you book a locally-owned hotel or guesthouse, and avoid the 5-star behemoths at all costs. You can also stay in New Bagan, rather than Old Bagan.

You can read more about overdevelopment and it’s implications in our ThailandVietnam and Burma travel guides.

A word on Mongolia’s mining boom…

A landlocked country nearly the size of Western Europe, Mongolia is inhabited by less than 3 million people and is the most sparsely populated country in the world, but is in the midst of a mineral boom and is a nation extraordinarily rich in copper, coal and gold. Mining represents a massive opportunity in Mongolia, but one that’s loaded with risks.

Read the full story about Mongolia’s mining boom in our Mongolia travel guide.
John Williamson, from our supplier Zavkhan shares his opinion on the issue of mining in Mongolia: “You can’t really talk about Mongolia without talking about the country’s current mining boom, which is changing things very fast. There are incredible amounts of mineral wealth in Mongolia; apparently there is enough wealth in the ground to give each person in the country a million dollars. Foreign multinationals are moving in thick and fast to develop the mining industry, which is starting to produce wealth, but the issue lies in how the country will best spread that wealth, so that it can benefit the people living in the slums and alleviate the growing problems there. It’s normal for 33 percent of the wealth generated from mining to stay in the country, but there are rumours of corruption and the danger is that the profit will end up in back pockets instead of filtering down to the Mongolian people. The government does have agreements in place with external companies who have a responsibility to train up a certain number of unskilled locals to become employable within the industry though, but mining is never going to employ enough people to spread wealth that way – the government will have to find other ways to spread the benefits to its people.”

Responsible tourism tips

In Bhutanese culture it is offensive to show what you receive as a gift or gratuity. Always give your tip directly to the recipient in a sealed envelope if possible, which you should never expect to see opened in front of you. Don’t give pens, money, or sweets to the local people you encounter on visits to villages and it can encourage begging and may be seen to establish a non-equal relationship between tourist and local with tourists being seen as simply ‘givers’ giving to ‘the poor’. Instead, buy local handicrafts directly from villagers and show an interest in their skills. Sweets may seem like an ideal gift for children, but access to dentists is extremely limited to rural dwellers and the last thing you want to give them is tooth decay! Chinese people, particularly men, love to smoke. Handing out cigarettes is considered a respectful gesture and non-smokers should decline politely. Privacy is almost non-existent in China; don’t expect much space to quietly contemplate at sights and don’t be surprised if someone strikes up a conversation while you’re sat on the loo. Being aware of cultural sensitivity is very important in India and Southeast Asia (particularly Burma), when it comes to dress sense. For women, in particular, showing bare legs, shoulders and wearing low cut tops are a faux pas. And, in fact, if you cover yourself with light cotton, it is actually cooler as the sun isn’t hitting your skin, and also culturally acceptable. Women should also have a shawl to cover their head in a mosque. Also, being intimate with a partner in public is not welcomed either. When it comes to watching wild animals perform, Japan is still locked in the past. We have addressed dolphinariums above, but bear parks are also a feature. Vaguely disguised as homes for orphaned bears, they are now merely entertainment parks, where bears are housed in concrete cells, and trained to perform. Find out more in our Japan guide. Similarly, dog fighting still happens. You won’t find it on any responsible tourism itinerary, but known locally as token, it is on offer to tourists. The Mongolians are a very calm and contemplative people. You may find yourself in social situations that are completely out of your western comfort zone. If you don’t understand something, ask quietly and be patient. Think before you take pictures. It’s easy to get snap-happy when presented with Asia’s incredible landscape and traditional lifestyle. Remember, this may be your trip of a lifetime, but it’s reality for the locals, so introduce yourself and ask permission. Whenever possible, it is good idea to ask for a postal address and follow through by sending photographs back to local families. A high number of Nepalese taboos are to do with food – once you’ve touched something to your lips, it’s considered polluted for everyone else. If you take a sip from your own, or someone else’s water bottle, try not to let it touch your lips and don’t eat from someone else’s plate or offer anyone food you’ve taken a bite of. In India and Nepal, know your left from your right - if eating with your hands, use the right one only. The left hand is reserved for washing after defecating. You can use it to hold a drink or cutlery while you eat, but don’t wipe your mouth, or pass food with it. In Mongolia, use either both hands together, or your right hand only to give or to take something and roll your sleeves down before you do so. Western China is a region where several ethnic groups exist and of these ethnic groups are devout followers of Islam. So as not to cause offence, travellers should not expect to eat pork in Muslim restaurants (or even talk about it for that matter). Vietnamese people make up for their conservative dress by asking impertinent questions – it’s not uncommon to be asked about your marital status, income or family by a virtual stranger – but be polite even if you don’t want to answer directly. It’s all just part of the culture.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: dia_n] [They’re porters, not packhorses: Steve Hicks] [Poverty: Satbir Singh] [Watch out for wildlife: USFWS Mountain-Prairie]