A look at the ethics of world travel

Ethical travel companies encourage tourists to look at the social and economic impact of their travels

Ethical travel starts with considering the implications of travelling, Global Development Studies Professor Paritosh Kumar said.
Ethical travel starts with considering the implications of travelling, Global Development Studies Professor Paritosh Kumar said.
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Imagine your dream vacation: maybe you’re sitting on a beach at a fancy resort, drink in hand, with nothing but water and sunshine in front of you. Or maybe you’re sailing the ocean in a larger-than-life cruise ship, surrounded by good food and endless amenities.

When you’re thinking about your vacation, do you stop to ask where the money you’re paying for your trip is going? Or whether any wildlife was ploughed away to make way for your resort? Or how the fumes from your cruise ship are affecting the environment?

If you’re like most Western tourists, probably not. But questions like these are just the kind that ethical travel advocates are hoping you’ll ask.

Travelers interested in learning how to make their trips more ethical need look only as far as the Internet. There are many online organizations dedicated to ethical travel, including UK-based charity Tourism Concern.

Their website claims that they are the “only organization in Europe actively campaigning on tourism and human rights issues.”

Rachel Noble is the campaigns manager at Tourism Concern. She told the Journal via email that ethical travel isn’t difficult, even for those on a tight budget.

“Travelling ethically doesn’t have to be expensive,” she said. “Package holidays may be cheap and tempting, but may not provide as much direct local benefits. On the other hand, even venturing beyond the walls of your resort for some local shopping and eating can enhance the positive impact of your holiday.”

Noble said there are many steps travelers can take to improve their ethics.

“Use water sparingly: even in places with high levels of rainfall, lack of infrastructure means that many local people have very limited access. Use a tour operator or hotel with a responsible tourism policy that addresses key issues, such as basic labour conditions, how they ensure local communities benefit from their presence and protect against environmental degradation,” she said. “You should also consider your carbon footprint—something which we all need to be reducing in order to address climate change—especially if you’re flying.”

Noble said although travel is a lucrative industry, the profits are spread very unevenly and often don’t go to the people who need them the most.

“This is perhaps particularly true in the global South, where land and labour are cheap, and many people are marginalised, poor and easy to exploit,” she said. “Many of the human rights violations associated with tourism development are hidden. These include forced displacement of communities to make way for resorts and hotels, unsustainable water consumption that curtails access for local people, and poor pay and working conditions.”

Global development studies Professor Paritosh Kumar said travelers should consider all the participants who are affected by travel. There are four important players in world travel, Kumar said, including the tour companies, the tourists and the governments of the countries being visited.

“The fourth player is the people, who are probably most affected and impacted by it but have little say in the whole thing,” he said. “The important question of ethics is bringing their concerns forward. Start asking different questions.”

Kumar said companies that claim to offer ethical or eco-friendly trips aren’t necessarily doing as much good as they say. He pointed to the example of a so-called eco-friendly tour company that purchased a cruise ship to use for their trips, even though cruise ships are known to be harmful to the environment.

“If we look at some ethical travel and eco-tourism, it’s hogwash,” he said.

Companies that label themselves ‘ethical’ are at least asking questions that others are not, he added.

“It’s better than companies that don’t talk about it at all.” According to Kumar, one of the most important things a tourist can do is learn about the people and culture of the country they’re visiting, including trying to become aware of their customs.

“Some people take pictures and it’s not only about asking consent. In some countries it’s considered very rude to say no,” he said. “A friend of mine, she was traveling with us and there was a death in a family and they were having a ceremony in a temple and she wanted to take pictures. She asked for permission ... and they said yes, but you could clearly see that it was a very private ceremony.”

Since some cultures don’t like having their pictures taken at all, Kumar advises doing your homework before you go away.

“Tourism itself is a very pornographic way of looking at a culture,” Kumar said, adding that this is because a country’s culture comes to be seen as how tourists– outsiders—perceive it.

One of the issues that can arise from this pornographic view of culture is misguided generalizations, Kumar said. He used the example of white women fearing for their safety while visiting Kenya because of sexism.

“What we do often is that we generalize about culture and people and this is not to say that it doesn’t happen, but by stepping into local people’s shoes and trying to understand what sexual violence means to people in Kenya, has it increased after the 1980s, and why has increased, that way we’re saying it’s not something in their genetic code, we are trying to understand.”

Kumar said learning the language can also be an important step in becoming an ethical tourist.

“Language is also important. Just kind of knowing the language or at least having some kind of knowledge not only makes your travel easy, it makes you interact with local people. It’s one way of showing respect to the country.”

Kumar said in some countries, such as Thailand, revenue from tourists goes directly to development, which means the people of Thailand are actually benefitting from tourism. Travelers should ask questions about where their money is going, he added.

“Doing research is also important, to see whether the money from travel is going to a regime that is oppressing its people. Do you want your money implicated in issues like this?”

Western tourists should also question their belief that travel is a right, Kumar said.

“In context of climate change we start seeing travel as a privilege, when it’s international travel playing a big part in climate change,” he said. “Should we travel? Our attitude of what travel is changes, it’s not a right but a privilege, so that’s an important issue we don’t really talk about when we talk about the ethics of traveling.” Jeff Greenwald is the executive director of Ethical Traveler, an organization based out of Berkeley, California.

Greenwald said ethical travel can simply be defined as mindful travel.

“It’s travel with an awareness of your impact and where your money is going.”

The Ethical Traveler website includes a list called The Developing World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations. This year’s list included Argentina, Barbados, Chile, Costs Rica, Dominica, Latvia, Lithuania, Palau, Poland and Uruguay.

“All these countries have wonderful social justice for their citizens, they’re very conscious of how they deal with their tourist economy,” Greenwald said of the countries listed.

For example, some countries ensure that tourist dollars go directly to helping their country’s people.

Greenwald offered a few tips for the would-be ethical traveler.

“Take care to look at the situation of the country you’re going to. [Research] where you can stay or where you can eat that benefits people most directly,” he said.

“Are you staying at a big luxury hotel owned by foreign interests or a local hotel owned by local people? Was a coral reef destroyed to build the hotel or is it well incorporated with the landscape?

“Travel is actually a huge industry, actually as big as oil or steel,” Greenwald said. “As travelers our economic power is tremendous, but we’re really slow in learning that.”

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