Advocates for ethical travel don’t want tourists to stop having fun, they just want them to think about how they’re spending their time and money.
"Essentially we're talking about mindful travel, with an awareness of the place you're going and whether the money you spend benefits the economy of the local hosts," said Jeff Greenwald, a travel journalist and co-founder of Ethical Traveler, a
California-based nonprofit organization. "Be aware of the countries you're going to and the impact that you're having, with an understanding that there's an opportunity to be a great de facto ambassador for your own country."
With that in mind, here are some tips for being an ethical traveler.
Support local businesses: Just as you might frequent independently owned businesses at home, do the same while you travel.
“Watching where your money goes is very important,” Greenwald said. “Go to locally owned restaurants, stay in small hotels or use Airbnb to stay with a local.”
When travelers help keep money in the community, residents become empowered, said Mark Watson, director of Tourism Concern, a British nonprofit organization and a leading advocate for ethical tourism.
“Global companies impose on local communities,” Watson said. “It’s better to support a place where tourism is not done to them but is something they’re a part of. For instance, in Vietnam I stayed in the village of Phong Nha, where people build accommodations on their property. You get to stay with a local person and the place doesn’t look any different than it always looked. No overdevelopment, no overwhelming the local culture, and each resident gets a little income.”
Tourism Concern’s “Ethical Travel Guide” provides a free online directory of recommended lodging and tour operators, many of them grass-roots initiatives.
Think before you volunteer: Volunteering overseas as a means of traveling, sometimes called voluntourism, continues to be popular among travelers of all ages, but there can be inherent risks — to the recipients.
"I think volunteering and traveling are both good things, but putting them together doesn't always make it a good thing," said Watson, whose group issued an in-depth report on international volunteering in 2014. Watson warns against signing up with high-volume tourism operators, which he said focus on profit margins.
Its travel guide includes a list of recommended volunteer groups.
“The fundamental issue with volunteering is it takes work away from local people and can even cause harm, in the case of working with children,” Watson said.
Tourism Concern is opposed to direct involvement with children. “When you get into schools and orphanages, you are doing something harmful,” Watson said, even including teaching English.
“Just because you can speak English doesn’t mean you can teach it. One person teaches one way with one accent and another way,” he said. “These kids are not getting a proper education, just a mishmash.”
UNICEF and other international groups have spoken out against “orphanage tourism.” In worst-case scenarios, children are placed in residential centers solely for the benefit of Western tourists. Volunteering at legitimate ones isn’t recommended, either, because forming attachments to children and leaving does more harm than good, said Watson, who recommends that travelers instead donate money to reputable organizations .
Just say no to ocean cruises: "There isn't anything positive you can say about going on a big-ship oceanwide cruise," Watson said. "I think it's the worst kind of mass tourism there is — consumption taken to its extreme."
A cruise “ticks all the bad boxes,” he said, including mistreating workers, polluting the sea and air, land grabbing and keeping money out of the local economy.
“Even when they go into port, they control most of the tours and in some case build their own islands to dock in,” he said.
Greenwald concurs, saying “As a journalist, I’ve been asked to write about cruises’ attempts to be ethical, but cruising is not something I can get behind in any way.”
Watson added that the growing trend of all-inclusive resorts share much in common with cruises. They provide little benefit to the local economy and discourage travelers from having an authentic travel experience.
Consider animal welfare: Virtually every responsible travel organization has come out against elephant riding, a common tourism practice in some parts of Asia. Many other travel activities potentially include interaction with animals, directly or indirectly.
“We never advocate touching,” said Kelvin Alie, executive vice president at the Washington-based nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare. “We urge people to resist that instinct.”
Other ways to protect animals include steering clear of exotic cuisine that includes endangered species or involves animal cruelty, such as whale meat, bush meat or game meat, which is damaging animal populations. Researchers estimate that about 100 million sharks are killed every year for shark-fin soup.
Souvenirs from animal products also contribute to mistreatment and declining populations, said Alie, whose group’s website includes examples of what to avoid buying, such as anything made from alligators, turtles, snakes and big cats; traditional medicines containing rhino horn, bear bile or tiger bone; and carvings and jewelry from ivory, elephant hair or coral.
"The major threat to
high-value species is consumer demand," Alie said. "Choices around consumption are really important when people are traveling overseas."
Look into 'ethical destinations': For nearly a decade, Ethical Traveler has compiled a list of "most ethical" developing countries, selecting 10 it considers are doing the most impressive job of promoting human rights, preserving the environment and supporting social welfare — all while creating a lively, community-based tourism industry.
This year’s list includes, in alphabetical order, Belize, Cabo Verde, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominica, Mongolia, Palau, Tonga, Uruguay and Vanuatu. For each country, Ethical Traveler lists reasons to visit, positive changes and points for improvement — continual improvement is a mandate.
“It’s become a very widely read list, and I hope it’s influential,” Greenwald said.
The group confines the list to developing countries because their travel and tourism trade, as a significant part of the economy, is likely to be linked to the government, making it more possible to effect change.
“People take the list very seriously and they work hard to be included,” he said.
By visiting those countries, travelers can use their economic leverage to support and reward destinations’ efforts.
While there, Greenwald hopes travelers will follow Ethical Traveler's "13 Tips for the Accidental Ambassador," available on the organization's website.
“It’s critical to realize that when you’re visiting someone’s country, you’re visiting their home,” he said, “so bring the sensitivity and awareness that you would bring to anyone’s home.”
Daniel is a writer based in the Netherlands. Her website is bydianedaniel.com.
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