Back in June, I went with my family to Sibadan Fish Cage in Hinatuan, a small town in Surigao del Sur that’s best known for the Enchanted River.
While it was really nothing to write home about — it’s a floating restaurant a 15-min boat ride from Enchanted — its main draw is a fenced-in area, a fish cage, where you can swim with various fishes including some stingrays.
Visibility was poor and we couldn’t see the rays so I got out of the water, just walking around the walkway. Finally, I saw one heading towards a corner and headed there, intending to take a picture with my action camera.
A man in the water beat me to the stingray. He came closer and closer to the point where he had the ray cornered. When the stingray tried to swim past the guy, he took it by the fins, folding them this way and that, playing with it like it was a toy.
Aghast, I shouted at him repeatedly to stop doing it, but he just ignored me. I reported him to the people in charge of the Sibadan Fish Cage (or at least the ones taking the tickets, as they said they had no manager onsite), but they ignored me as well.
That incident really left a bitter taste in my mouth. Taken with other news of tourists doing horrible things with the wildlife — from the horrible people who caused the death of a dolphin by taking it out of the water for a selfie and the capture of weird animals around the world for entertainment, to the indirect encouragement of the illegal wildlife trade in Thailand’s Tiger Temple — I realize how badly we all need a lesson in responsible travel.
I remember that in the early 2000s, when I joined the University of the Philippines Mountaineers, I learned the Mountaineer’s Code by heart. It’s very simple, but it covers a lot of areas. It goes like this:
Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.
While it is very popular with mountaineers and climbers — although judging by the state of the more-popular mountains, it doesn’t seem to be followed — it doesn’t seem to have much traction on the traveling world.
And it should. Because travel, by its very nature, destroys the place that is being visited.
Our mere presence as travelers already has an impact on the environment and the people living there, changing their routines, and ultimately destroying that which we are seeking in our travels.
The only surefire way of preserving a place is to not let anyone visit it, and the only way we can be sure of not destroying something is to stop traveling altogether.
Given that both are not possible to do, is there something we can do to somehow mitigate our negative impact on the world when we travel?
Certainly, there is, and it starts with education.
Take nothing but pictures…
Yes, the white sand is so fine and white, and there’s kilometers of it, so it must be okay to take some in a water bottle, right??
Don’t take anything from the park, the beach, or wherever you’re traveling, even if you think it’s insignificant as a piece of stone or sand. This is to encourage the natural course and preserve the state of the environment within the park.
I did this as a child (and even as an adult). Whenever we went to the beach, I would look for shells to bring home. We all need a souvenir, right?
Unfortunately, if every visitor took away a small piece, there will be nothing left after a few years. The centuries-old rock face would be pitted with holes, a cave’s stalactites and stalagmites would be broken off, and sand will get depleted.
Admire the place, but don’t take anything home. You have your photos, you have your memories. It should be enough.
Leave nothing but footprints…
Disposing of trash properly — whether you’re traveling or not — should be common sense; unfortunately, I found out that it’s not. It is so heart-rending to go snorkeling and see trash on the sea floor, or find plastic water bottles on mountain trails while hiking.
If you can’t see a no trash bin where you are, put the litter in your bag. Never just throw it anywhere, as littering will not only ruin the view, but will have a long-term effect on the environment, too.
If you’re in a national park, as well, your trash can be eaten by animals that are already threatened or endangered in the first place. If they mistake it for food, they can become sick or poisoned, their extinction hastened by some piece of plastic left behind by inconsiderate tourists.
Kill nothing but time.
Last year, when I went to Bucas Grande to swim with the stingless jellies, I was surprised that there weren’t so many.
“A lot of them died in the past few months,” our guide said, explaining that several factors had contributed to the jellies’ demise, including sunblock-wearing tourists, and tourists who held the fragile jellyfish in their hands.
“When people hold them,” he added, “their tentacles come off, and they will have a harder time getting food or defending themselves.” The organization managing Bucas Grande had implemented new rules, he said, that forbid people who swim from putting on sunblock, and by telling them not to touch the jellyfish.
One year later, though, I saw an Instagram video of a woman cupping a jellyfish, and she said the guide had told her it was okay. Clearly, either the learning from the guide I talked to was not passed on to the others, or it had already been forgotten.
In short, don’t touch or feed wild animals.
Don’t pat them, touch them, poke them, or throwing anything at them as it may cause them stress. Admire them from a distance, not only for your safety, but also for theirs. Don’t feed them as well, let nature take its course. Choose life over an Instagram photo or video and likes. Please.
An addendum: choose your souvenirs well
Think twice before buying that nice coral paper weight, cute baby turtle key chain, or pressed butterfly frame. In Banyuwangi National Park in Indonesia, for example, the butterfly population had steadily declined because of poaching.
Unscrupulous people catch and kill endangered animal species to sell them as souvenirs, and buying them is an encouragement for the practice to continue.
So despite how much you wanted to see those animals gracing your home, don’t. Be a responsible traveler and stick to souvenirs that don’t require animals dying.
Being a responsible traveler is more than just a buzzword. It’s a lifestyle. Let’s help educate the people around us to ensure our children will still have a world to travel around in when they grow up.
What are your other tips for responsible travel? Share in the comments, please.