What is (ir)responsible tourism in Asia?

Laura Pattara

As the modern tourism movement moves towards a more respectful, and sustainable

From doing the wrong thing to visiting the wrong places and taking home all the wrong souvenirs: irresponsible tourism continues to wreak havoc in countries all over Asia and is finally being recognized as one of the most (if not only) toxic side-effects of the tourism industry. Understanding the need for responsible tourism in Asia also means understanding why irresponsible tourism ever became an issue in the region, and why foreign tourists and travel agencies alike must take it upon themselves to ensure they do the right thing by the very places they wish to visit or promote.

Asia is one of the most bio diverse, friendly, fascinating and spectacular travel destinations on the planet. If we all band together to protect all of its treasures, we can ensure it continues to be so forever more.

Surreal landscape by the Song river at Vang Vieng, Laos
Surreal landscape by the Song river at Vang Vieng, Laos. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

In our 3-part post series, we aim to lift the light on the insidious problem of irresponsible tourism in Asia and provide clear and concrete tips on how we can all travel responsibly, respect and protect our chosen destinations. You’ll find links to our 2n and 3rd parts at the bottom of this page.

What is irresponsible tourism?

Irresponsible tourism comprises any activity or product that risks disrespecting, suffocating, exploiting, polluting and causing suffering in the local wildlife and human population, as well as the environment of any given destination. The most obvious culprits of irresponsible tourism in Asia have gotten extensive coverage over the last few years. So much so that there surely isn’t a single avid traveller left on earth who doesn’t know that, when visiting Asia, one shouldn’t ride elephants, cuddle tigers, visit orphanages, drink Luwak coffee or buy snake wine. All these things, once favoured by tourists, have created an overwhelming demand for more, effectively supporting the capture and inhumane treatment of wild animals and the exploitation of children and their parents. Where once wild civet excrement was used to make the famed Luwak coffee, nowadays wild animals are captured and held in awful conditions, caged and forced-fed to ensure a continuous mass supply of Luwak’s not-so-secret ingredient. Where once honest and reputable orphanages opened their doors to foreigners with the greatest of intentions, unscrupulous business owners now kidnap or buy children off desperately poor parents.

Like it or not, we have all had a hand in creating the problem and we all have the potential to reverse it and have a much more positive impact on the countries we visit.

Yet irresponsible tourism in Asia reaches far beyond the obvious. Whilst the scandal of the atrocious Thai Buddhist temple found with dozens of dead tiger cubs in freezers shocked the world, seemingly less innocuous options have managed to slip through the tracks. They’re still out there. Local zoos and animal shelters who have now banned riding excursions are still offering ‘painting’ workshops or ‘elephant football matches’ ensuring the animals continue to be kept in submissive captivity. Overcrowded destinations are risking losing their authentic appeal and even all-inclusive resorts have come under fire in recent years, being blamed for greatly contributing to global warming due to their colossal need for resources.

If it all starts to sound very broad and overwhelming, that’s because it is. New risk-groups are being constantly assessed and recognized, making it imperative for us all to be well-informed.

Wild Elephant. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Why Asia is at greater risk of irresponsible tourism

There’s no denying that irresponsible tourism is a worldwide phenomenon (this interesting news article highlights the main at-risk destinations) yet countries that have yet to fully develop economically, and politically, seem to be at greater risk of this kind of indirect corruption and degradation.

Generally speaking, the poorer the country, the higher the instances of irresponsible tourism practices and that’s why Asia (and south-eastern countries in particular) have been some of the hottest spots in the world, in this regard. Put simply: people in need will resort to anything to feed their families, even if that ‘anything’ risks ruining their long-term livelihood as well as social structure, culture and overall well-being of their own nation. This is a simple fact of life and something most citizens of well-developed countries find hard to understand. Yet understanding notwithstanding, knowledge is what is needed.

Educating visitors on the pitfalls of mass tourism in Asia will certainly go a long way in reversing the damage done and ensuring it is no longer perpetrated. That’s the only way any of us can thoroughly enjoy our travels: knowing our visit is not causing any harm.

Two locals with umbrella’s, Myanmar. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The most common irresponsible tourism practices in Asia

The negative aspects of orphanage visits and elephant riding safaris have been well documented in recent years and it’s wonderful to see that this practice has been swiftly reduced in even the most touristy destinations.

Responsible tourism, Luang Prabang, Laos, Asia
Local sign in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Here are just a few of the most common issues that have greatly contributed to irresponsible tourism in Asia:

Child sex tourism

Child trafficking is an ongoing problem in Asia although we’ve seen a great increase in organizations that aim monitor, report and stop cases of child abuse. Visit the Childsafe website for more information on how you can directly but easily help the cause as you travel. Things like choosing hotels certified to ban and report tourists who request accommodation in the company of a local minor takes little effort on visitors’ part but can have beneficial consequences. These 7 tips for travellers will also give you a clearer idea of where problems lie and what you can do to prevent – even inadvertently – being part of the problem.

Unexploded ordnance souvenirs

Laos holds the infamous distinction for being the most bombed country on the planet and the catastrophic effect of leftover unexploded ordnance still claims up to 50 lives, every year. Cambodia, on the other hand, fares even worse. There, up to 200 people a year are still killed or maimed today, from UXO that rained from the sky over four decades ago. Vast regions of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are consistently being cleaned of UXOs with the help of dozens of countries from every corner of the world. If you’re interested in learning more about this devastating issue we can highly recommend a visit to the Cambodian Landmine Museum, just a few kms out of Siem Reap. Aside from learning how to keep yourself safe whilst travelling, the museum does a great job in retracing the country’s history and its efforts to combat this most tragic of problems. Another excellent place to visit is the COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane, Laos, and learn more about the professional agencies that have created a livelihood for victims by manufacturing souvenirs made from metal scraps of uncovered and defused UXO.

UXO souvenirs are a very contentious issue in Laos (you’ll come across them at the Luang Prabang Night Market and all over Cambodia) and it’s important to research and think long and hard before making a purchase you think may help the cause. The rise in popularity has enticed farmers and non-professionals into specifically searching for UXO just to sell the metal by-products to tourists. This causes untold suffering as hunters bring their loot home, right in the line of fire of their entire families and villages. Read this interesting HuffingtonPost article to understand the difference between souvenirs you find in local markets and those sourced from responsible agencies.

Local decorations. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Traditional Chinese Medicine

China has its own rather extensive list of irresponsible tourism risks, none more debated as traditional medicines, some which use ingredients sourced from some of the most endangered animals in the region. There’s no denying that TCM has its own startling merits but the problem lies in the potions, powders and talismans derived form unethical sources. It is believed that up to 22% of ingredients used in TCM are on the endangered list and although the government has banned them their use is still prolific. From pangolin to anteaters, elephant and rhino horns, the trade in illicit animal products is still a tremendous problem, not just in China, but in all of Asia.

As a mere tourist, chances that you’ll come across a banned product are slim to none, yet there are still many souvenirs found in local markets accessible to tourists which sell souvenirs made from the skin, hooves, horns, beak and antlers of endangered animals.

A practice that dates back more than 2000 years isn’t going to top overnight and, in reality, this very famous problem is only one of many that have been identified. The systematic mistreatment of animals is something with which China has grappled over the last few years. As the nation blasts forward towards modernity and strives for being recognised as the superpower it has the potential to be, it’s also realizing that all the countries with which it wants to compete are on another planet when it comes to recognizing animal rights. And it’s finally realised what a big deal it actually is.

The unsuspecting culprit

Sheer tourist numbers alone are enough to irreversibly change the essence of a country, even if every single one of these visitors does, and buys, all the right things. By visiting a once-isolated nation like Bhutan, for example, we are guaranteeing its evolution into something altogether different. In this case, the local government is quite intent on limiting numbers of tourists each year and imposes somewhat steep fees to ensure only very dedicated travellers visit. Yet rest assured that clever tactics notwithstanding, Bhutan may well be unrecognisable in just two decades, thanks to the modern, Western and capitalist influences that every tourist inadvertently imports the moment he, or she, gets off the plane Paro Airport. This is when cultural awareness comes into play, when we must learn how to behave in a culturally-appropriate matter so that we may adjust to our destination culture rather than the other way around.

Why it’s important that each and every tourist make conscientious decisions

Although many people may believe that the onus of responsible tourism need only apply to over-touristed destinations, evidence has shown that lesser-visited areas are, in fact, at even greater risk. Away from the spotlight and out of prying eyes of millions of foreigners, and with the added lack of information in isolated and remoteness, locals living in regions not yet considered mainstream can be enticed into offering irresponsible activities, tours and souvenirs in order to attract more tourists. Should one country start banning elephant riding, for example, its usually quieter neighbour may eagerly pick it up in the hope of attracting more tourists, effectively creating a problem that wasn’t even there to begin with. That’s is why it’s imperative that tourists, first and foremost, take greater care and responsibility for their own actions and purchases in Asia. This makes sure every traveller makes a positive impact on the country they visit.

Rice terraces, Vietnam. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

We hope our guide to (ir)responsible tourism in Asia has given you a comprehensive overview of the issues that exist and will entice you to be more aware on your travels.

Look out for our upcoming posts that detail the constructive ways in which you can help:

  • Tips on How to Be A Responsible Tourist in Asia
  • Buying Fair & Ethical Souvenirs When Visiting Asia

Our Responsible Tourism in Asia blog series was created in the hope of educating and guiding travellers to fairer, more ethical and beneficial travel experiences, making them as rewarding for travellers as they are for the countries they visit and the locals they meet. For more info, have a read of our two previous posts:

Choosing to be a responsible t

At GetAboutAsia, we strive to ensure that every single one of our tours, local guides and partners adhere to responsible tourism and sustainability policies. We are proud to craft tours and experiences that support local communities and help foster understanding and appreciation of local cultures in all of our destinations. We constantly monitor the impact of our Asia tours to ensure our economic, social and environmental bearing is minimal.

Visit our Asia Tours page for more information.


Author: Laura Pattara

“After spending years taking short vacations in Asia, Laura finally managed her dream, travelling extensively through Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia on a 3-year-long overlanding adventure that she describes as “SIMPLY EPIC”. Following in the footsteps of ancient traders, Laura meandered along the famed Silk Road through the Stans, delighted her tastebuds for 8000km across China (no mean feat) visited an insane number of temples in Southeast Asia, all the while snorkelling, diving and beach-bumming along the way. Tickled pink by history and culture, Laura loves off-the-beaten-path destinations in Asia and anything that isn’t gift-wrapped for tourists”

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