A growing number of travelers want their journeys to be less invasive and more beneficial to the local community. They want to better understand the culture of the people they meet in the places they visit. Visitors should be mindful that we are entering a place that is someone else's home. Sounds complicated? Try this — imagine what irresponsible tourism looks like and then imagine its opposite.
What exactly is responsible travel?
Responsible tourism has several goals: sustainability, environmental integrity, social justice and maximum local economic benefit. Responsible tourism asks individuals, organizations, governments and businesses to take responsibility for their actions and the effects of their actions. Everyone involved must be responsible for sustainability.
Most principles of responsible tourism were put forth in the Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism in Destinations (Responsible organization).
Responsible travel vs Ecotourism
There is an annual Responsible Travel conference, held in a different country each year.
World Responsible Day is celebrated in Europe on June 2.
Responsible Tourism Day is held on November 7.
Community-based tourism (CBT) is a form of sustainable development where small, rural communities set up accommodation & activities to generate tourism. CBT allows travelers to experience life in such communities—taking part in language or cooking lessons, eating freshly-prepared meals, experiencing local music and dance, and venturing with a local guide to nearby nature/landscape attractions—while the community gains much-needed revenue. NGOs and aid organizations (like the U.S. Peace Corps) help villages establish CBT facilities, organize appropriate activities, and establish governance of the project to ensure that revenue is shared with the community. Local villagers earn money for providing homestay accommodation, becoming guides, providing lessons, growing extra produce, and creating art/crafts for sale, while a portion of revenue (20-50%) is typically reserved in a community fund that can be used to improve the CBT experience or be used for development purposes. The number of CBT projects is growing. CBT is established in Central America, Central Asia, & many countries in Africa; countries with well-established CBT projects are Guatemala, Costa Rica, Kyrgyzstan, Ghana, & Uganda.
Travelers who participate in CBT will typically book a package online for a stay of one day to one week. Bookings are handled by someone in the community, not a commercial tour operator. Accommodation is simple but sufficient by Western standards, with a private room, bed, telephone access, and a private bathroom (don't expect a toilet & shower, but at least an enclosed room with a hole in the ground and water...you should not be left to do your business outdoors or in a grotesque community toilet). Food will consist of local snacks, lunches, and at least one meal will be a smorgasbord of local dishes to taste (a dozen or so dishes are prepared, but it's there for everyone to share). Travelers can take lessons from locals in activities such as cooking, drumming, singing, dancing, body-painting, hunting/fishing (traditional methods), native medicines, or playing a traditional game with some of the village children or elders. A local guide will be able to take you to nearby attractions, like waterfalls or rainforest, or walk along trails or ride horseback. In some communities and especially during longer stays, travelers may have the opportunity to volunteer on development projects.
In the development of many tourism projects, indigenous people have not been considered as valued stakeholders from the start. In the worst cases, they are not listened to in the development of 'charitable' projects. Adequate consultation is a must.
Indigenous peoples manage more than 40% of all IUCN-recognized protected areas in the world, and many of them - if not most - use tourism as a complement their economic benefits from these areas. Yet the challenge for travelers is finding which communities wish to be visited and with which protocols. In 2012 the Global Workshop for Indigenous and Local Communities: Biodiversity, Tourism and the Social Web took place at the 11th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
See also: Ecotourism.
While nearly all forms of transport a traveler uses will release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, aircraft are especially notorious offenders and the aviation industry is the fastest-growing contributor to the acceleration of climate change. This is not just due to the vast distances traveled, but because they release greenhouse gases high in the atmosphere where their effects are more potent. On long-haul flights, the amount of carbon dioxide released is roughly equivalent to a car traveling the same distance with one passenger. A flight from London, UK to Perth, Australia releases the equivalent of 4.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide, or about half the average yearly emissions of a person in the U.K. Shorter flights have higher emissions than longer ones per km traveled due to the amount of fuel used taxiing, and during take off. (See: Environmental impact of aviation on Wikipedia).
The benefits of travel in increasing an individual's cultural awareness and knowledge are immeasurable. Despite its effects, air travel is essential to the modern world and traveling. There are ways in which individuals wanting to travel responsibly can offset their impact on the environment. For example, they can use an airline that has been rated more environmentally aware  or they can use carbon offset schemes. These schemes collect money which is transferred to projects, like installing renewable energy or planting trees, which generate zero/low-carbon energy or reduce levels of greenhouse gasses. By purchasing carbon offset "credits" through these schemes, travelers are investing in portions of projects which, over their lifespan, will reduce/eliminate carbon emissions (through the burning of fossil fuels) equivalent to the amount emitted on their flight. Reputable carbon offset schemes are independently verified and adhere to an international standard for measuring offset emissions.
Carbon offset can be calculated & purchased by individuals, through an agency like ClimateCare, or through your carrier. Airlines offering carbon offset programs for their passengers include: British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta Air Lines, easyJet [dead link], Lufthansa, Qantas, & United Airlines.