TRAVEL BRINGS STRANGERS TOGETHER — over 2 billion of them last year — and yet, like a lot of the world at the moment, it sees real divisions, between those of us who want to stay away from local people in cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts, and those of us who see integration and interaction with strangers as an intrinsic part of the appeal of travel.

Worryingly, these divisions are reflected in wider society. In the US, hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise, anti-immigrant sentiment is being stoked by politicians, and the Ku Klux Klan is actually growing. Across the pond, in the wake of the Brexit vote in the UK, there have been reports of increased incidents of racism across the country. A climate of mistrust appears to be growing — mistrust of immigrants, of EU politicians, of other voters with opposing views to our own.

What we see now is a debate which will run for the foreseeable future between those of us who see someone different than us in a positive, tolerant way, and those who react with more fear of the unknown.

For the sake of wider society, tourism, with its inherent ability to bring people together, must play a role in countering this mistrust, and responsible tourism needs to take the lead.

Responsible tourism grows trust and understanding

Responsible tourism brings strangers together in a fair and respectful way. It offers positive and optimistic opportunities to challenge stereotypes and to foster understanding. This is invaluable in an industry where local people may not always feel the full benefits of the visitors they host.

Take the recent reports of ‘Tourists go home’ graffiti in Palma de Mallorca: it is a small minority protesting, but it points to wider tensions between local people and tourists across Spain. In Barcelona, the mayor herself says tourism is harming the city’s residents. There is a growing feeling that despite the economy and a large proportion of livelihoods dependent on tourism, visitors are taking more than they are giving back, and that mass tourism is not creating better places in which to live.

But this is precisely what tourism should do — creating better places to live is a fundamental pillar of the responsible tourism movement, and bringing strangers together in a mutually beneficial way has huge implications for reducing tensions in wider society as we navigate our way through an increasingly connected, yet increasingly divided world.

It’s a win-win situation

It’s not all one-sided — there’s a real benefit to choosing a more responsible holiday. If you treat people and places fairly and with respect it pays back by the bucketload, because well-cared for local people will give you the chance to get closer to their culture, their people, and their nature. It means that you get a much more memorable holiday experience, while local communities and conservation efforts benefit fully from your visit.

A small community tourism project in Laos sums this up nicely. Tasked with protecting the largest group of breeding tigers in Indochina, communities in the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area have come together to make tourism and conservation work for them. Wildlife sightings reported by tourists translate into financial rewards for rewards for villagers (including those who may otherwise turn to poaching), that are spent on small-scale community development projects. The initiative is extremely successful, with increased wildlife sightings for visitors, revenues shared between 1000+ villagers and a positive relationship built between communities, wildlife and tourism.

Responsible travelers have the power to create change

You can help change the world simply by going on holiday. It’s great having activists, academics and advisers lobbying governments to look at tourism in a more responsible way, but if customers aren’t demanding it then there is little incentive for tourism businesses to operate more responsibly.

When holidays are organized in a responsible way, they directly support local businesses, provide income for local people, protect endangered species and environments, preserve culture, connect people and foster understanding.  They create better places to live in and consequently better places to visit. A pretty awesome outcome from simply going on holiday.

One of the most exciting things about responsible tourism is that it’s not elitist — it’s not all about expensive eco-lodges, private reserves or far-flung hideaways. Conversely, it’s not only about cheap backpacking either. All types of tourism from niche to mainstream can be arranged in a responsible way.

And there are already hundreds of diverse organizations that are promoting responsible tourism: There are ecolodges, yes, but also mainstream beach resorts such as Turtle Bay Beach Club in Kenya, city hotels in Johannesburg and Brighton, UK and tiny ecotourism projects such as the Nam Nern Night Safari, and tourism giants like the German multinational TUI.

All of these are organisations (including the one I founded — Responsible Travel) are working to popularize responsible tourism. So too must everyone who believes in a tolerant world when every stranger is a potential friend and ally.