How to Spend Consciously When You Travel

BY Georgina Ustik

haggling how to support ethical money spend local
Photography by Filip Bojović


Often, we assume that travel is only sustainable when it isn’t environmentally harmful and we end up ignoring the economic and social impacts of misguided travel. Since the economic damage caused by the pandemic, sustainable spending has only become more important. This is especially the case for small businesses and tourism-dependent economies.

Ethical travel has increasingly become a hot topic of debate, and travellers are moving away from spending money in ways that both damage the environment and handicap the local economy. As we continue to travel to locations where our currencies have considerable spending power, it is essential to ensure that this economic imbalance is used to empower local communities. To do so, our travelling must be intentional and considered.

Below, we’ve created a travel tool that covers all the need-to-know tips for the conscious traveller when it comes to spending their money in a purposeful way. Ethical travel has a reputation for being daunting and expensive, but, as our tips show, conscientious travel doesn’t have to break the bank.


Where is your money actually going?

It’s easy to assume that because you’re spending your money locally, that it’s going to the local community.  Unfortunately, simply visiting a country and spending money there isn’t enough. As a result of globalisation and international investment, economic leakage remains a massive issue for many tourism destinations. Economic leakage is the process where revenue generated by the tourism industry in the destination country does not remain in the country but rather is lost to other countries. For example, 70% of profits from tourism in Thailand leave the country, enriching foreign investors and business owners.

Even when spending at local businesses we can accidentally contribute to this economic leakage, which is why doing your research is so important. Make sure you prioritise spending within local supply chains rather than just focusing on small businesses as this reduces the intermediaries between producer and consumer, which in turn reduces economic leakage.

Small companies aren’t inherently good because of their size as some can be exploitative of workers, use child labour or even contribute to economic leakage as they funnel back into bigger corporations via their supply chains. Also, we really encourage you to support businesses that have a circular economy approach; they’re doing the right thing, both economically and environmentally.


Opt for local-owned stays

As we recommended in our article on environmentally sustainable travel, staying locally is the best thing to do. Sadly, online rental companies, like Airbnb, are often pushed as the best way to ensure organic experiences. However, in cities across the world, AirBnb has been blamed for hiking up property prices for locals, locking them out of their own housing market and pushing them out of locations that have been their homes for decades. This tourism-related gentrification is a massive reminder that your spending has an impact on the community.

As a solution to this, we suggest that you avoid hotels that aren’t locally owned. Look for small family-run hostels and homestays, and couch-surfing opportunities; these keep profits within the local community and tend to be more affordable, culturally immersive experiences. Occasionally, families will involve their guests in their meals and give them great insider tips on navigating their hometown.

Super sustainable accommodation options are increasingly available. They’re conscientious of their impact on the local ecosystem and attempt to cap the negative effects of tourism. It’s important to conduct your due diligence and ensure these locations aren’t greenwashing – pretending to be more sustainable than they actually are.

Finally, perhaps the most cost-effective accommodation is a workaway experience. Exchanging labour for lodging and meals is one of the oldest forms of payment in the world, and also gives you the opportunity to work within the local community.


Spend with small businesses run by locals

In essence, this means buying local and not imported goods, which includes everything from fruit and vegetables to cheaply-made imported souvenirs. We’re not suggesting that you should forget about souvenir-shopping entirely, but where possible, buy locally-made goods from a co-operative of local artisans or an independent stall to minimise economic leakage and be sure that your money makes its way to the individual who actually made the product. Oh, and say no to cheaply-made imported fridge magnets!

Keeping the money local also means eating locally. If you’re planning to cook, look for seasonal fruits and vegetables; pick them up at local farmers markets rather than supermarket chains. For those who generally try to avoid cooking when abroad, visit street food stalls and local restaurants instead of big chains. Not only will the food – more often than not – be tastier, you’ll also be supporting small businesses.

As a quick addition to this section, we recommend that you tip fairly. Some employees rely heavily on tipping to top up their wages. Understandably food and service may be outrageously cheap, so we suggest you use the difference to make sure that the individual is compensated for their work


To haggle or not to haggle

In many countries, haggling is part of the process of buying and selling, and we certainly wouldn’t advise always accepting the first price you’re told. For many, haggling is a new experience that can seem fun, but as tourists, we must learn to haggle with respect. Haggling to get the local price, for instance, isn’t acceptable. As a tourist we should expect to pay more especially in countries where our currencies have more purchasing power.


Avoiding animal cruelty

For a lot of countries, the flora and fauna is the central attraction of their tourism industry. As a general rule, attractions that involve heavy interactions with animals tend to represent an animal cruelty risk. Needless to say, opportunities to take pictures with wild animals in poorly-maintained zoos are not examples of animals overcoming their wild instincts but rather they are cases of heavily drugged and beaten creatures, forced into submission.

The best way to counteract these exploitative institutions is to ensure that your money is channelled into (authentic) conservation efforts. There exists a plethora of wildlife trusts and conservation organisations that prioritise the wellbeing of the local ecosystem, however, sometimes these very institutions that dedicate their time to animal conservation are renowned for their exploitative treatment of local indigenous communities. Always make sure that the organisation you’re thinking about support doesn’t contribute to the marginalisation and displacement of these people.

Tours, but not as you know them

To the creative traveller, the “tour” can be a dirty word. A preference for organic and serendipitous travel often means travellers shun these organised events, however, they can often be educational, economically sustainable, and fun – especially when travelling solo.

Whereas many commercial tours play up to the problematic, voyeuristic aspect of tourism, tours that are run by local organisations can offer a more immersive and respectful experience. Small, community-based tours and activities can have a long-lasting impact on both travellers and guides.

In the case of nature-focused or other activity-focused holidays, ensure that you hire local guides. In some cases in the Himalayas, Nepalese sherpas make only 4,000 dollars whereas Western guides can make over 50,000.

Words by Georgina Ustik

Photography by Filip Bojović