Traveling ethically has always been important and necessary, but it’s never been the default way to travel. Isn’t that interesting to think about?
Similar to the way that organic food is labeled “organic” to differentiate it from the norm—GMO foods, foods treated by pesticides, and heavily-processed food—travel deemed as “ethical”, “responsible” or “sustainable” are labeled as such to differentiate it as a type of travel, because, by default, travel is not these things.
But I believe travel should be, by definition and decree and dogma, what it means to travel ethically and responsibly.
Traveling should already imply traveling in such a way that supports the local community, the local environment, and the local economy.
But again, the reality is that travel is not by default these things.
Does that make travel bad? Absolutely not.
Travel can change the most bruised of hearts, open the most blocked of minds, and soften the most hardened of dogmas. 💛
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We need travel just as much as travel needs us.
Travel is good by nature until it is corrupted by power-hungry people and unassuming, uneducated tourists. (Hey, me included! I didn’t always prioritize responsible, ethical travel. But now I do and want you to, too.)
The reality is that not all tourism is good, beneficial, responsible, ethical, or sustainable.
So my intention for this guide is to share a complete breakdown of what it means to travel ethically and how you can become a more ethical traveler.
In it, I’ll cite and reference ethical travel companies and destinations, plus include a few actionable tips on how you can adopt ethical travel practices into your travel lifestyle today.
Here is my complete guide on ethical travel! 🌿🌍
The Complete Guide to Ethical Tourism
What Does Ethical Travel Mean?
In essence, I believe ethical travel to be very multifaceted and intrinsically complex, so I will dissect it the best I can below from my travel experiences, humanitarian education, and research.
In my definition or worldview, ethical tourism includes all of the following themes, and possibly much more.
However, below are what I consider to be the big pillars:
- Human Rights & Humanitarianism
- Animal Rights & Wildlife Welfare
- Environmental Conservation & Protection
- Social, Economic, & Diplomatic Prosperity
- Global Citizenship
Should one’s travel choices, beliefs, or behaviors go against these fields—and the core values that they hold—then surely that means there is room for improvement in becoming a more conscious and aware traveler.
No doubt, every single one of us can improve in becoming better travelers for the good of communities, creatures, and the planet we all share.
PS — I hope you know that there is no shame in endeavoring to travel more ethically. Many people feel ashamed if they come to realize or learn that their previous travel experiences or decisions would be deemed “unethical” if judged by a jury. We all can, and should, try to do better. It’s not a competition.
And if you are reading this, that means you are already aware of your small impact on a global scale and are endeavoring to learn more about how you can do even better. As Nelson Mandela famously said,
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”Nelson Mandela
And he is forever right.
So, as we look at examples of ethical tourism versus non-ethical tourism, keep Mandela in mind (and give yourself a bit of grace).
Examples of Unethical Tourism
Most often, the people who pay to interact with wild animals in captivity are usually big animal lovers.
But whether it’s posing with tiger cubs in Africa, riding elephants in Asia, holding sloths in Central America, or watching orca shows in North America, paying to hold/touch wildlife or see them perform and entertain is unethical and should be avoided at all costs.
“Remember: if you can ride, hug, or have a selfie with a wild animal, it’s animal cruelty.”World Animal Protection
Simply, wild animal entertainment is inherently cruel and unethical.
A part of being a responsible traveler is doing due diligence when planning your trip.
If part of your trip involves tours or activities with animal encounters, you should research the company thoroughly and ensure that the tour activities do not promote or promise close wildlife encounters deemed unethical including, but not limited to, taking selfies with tigers or sloths, handling wild animals, swimming with dolphins in captivity, etc.
To give an idea of how large and damaging this industry is, review this infographic about sloth selfie stats below.
And take a look at the below quote from this article reporting on a new study highlighting the harmful lion cub industry,
The study referenced above was about cub-petting tourism. In it, researchers closely examined approximately 50 YouTube videos taken by tourists at 11 or more safari parks in South Africa.
Animal/wildlife tourism is but one example.
More examples of unethical tourism often include:
An example of this is volunteering in orphanages under the guise of doing charitable or humanitarian work.
Orphanage tourism—one example of bad voluntourism—is irreversibly damaging to the mental, emotional, and psychological health of children, families, host communities, and even the volunteers who are unknowingly feeding this corrupt and immorally-hungry industry.
Visiting disaster-affected or war-torn countries to exploit the situation; lower cost of goods and services, no crowds at tourist sites, etc.
*This is different from dark tourism (i.e. visiting former tragedy/genocide sites such as Chornobyl, Auschwitz, or the Cambodian Killing Fields), which isn’t unethical or immoral so much as it is controversial.
Since ethics are generally subjective, this can vary from individual. The ethics of dark tourism will depend on your intention and behavior, too.
For example, the massive amount of money that cruise tourists bring to the Bahamas doesn’t even reach the local community. Meanwhile, the cruise industry is woefully disastrous for host environments, economies, and communities.
🌟 Did you know that roughly 80% of people visit only 20% of places?
Exploiting children/women/men for sex, for example. Note that sex work is different than sex trafficking. However, the two often get conflated.
Obviously, human exploitation is an egregious human rights violation. And while sex work isn’t unethical in and of itself—and many human rights organizations are working to decriminalize sex work to address global human trafficking—it is still illegal in many countries, such as Thailand where there are approximately 125,000 known sex workers.
Elitism tourism and gentrification are basically the act of “prettying up” destinations for rich (foreign) tourists, thereby pushing out the local population who can no longer afford to live/work there.
As such, such type of tourism contributes to the deterioration or commercialization of formerly traditional villages, neighborhoods, and entire communities. This can be seen all over the world. One such example of this is Tulum, Mexico.
Natural and Cultural Degradation From Tourism
You could call this “bad tourist behavior tourism.” This could look like (un)intentionally polluting national parks and trails, disrespecting cultural, religious, or art sites, or contributing to socioeconomic degradation from your travel choices while abroad.
🌟 I highly, highly recommend watching the travel documentary “The Last Tourist: Travel Has Lost Its Way” if you wish to deepen your understanding of the detrimental effects—and positive potential—of tourism. Many of the examples listed above are featured.
More unethical travel practices, and their descriptions, can be found in this online encyclopedia by the Union of International Associations.
All the examples above are deemed unethical because they cause harm—most often directly, indirectly, or have the potential to—humans, animals/wildlife, or the environment.
When you take part in a behavior, an act, or a choice, it has consequences. And the ones I listed above (which are not all-inclusive), all have negative consequences.
By contrast, the below examples shed light on what could be deemed ethical.
Examples of Ethical Tourism
Tourism that is ethical is inherently good. It doesn’t harm; it helps.
It helps people, wildlife, and the environment thrive, prosper, and grow. One’s behavior or decisions directly or indirectly (or have the potential to) do good.
Again, ethics are, in general, subjective. What I consider ethical and what someone else considers ethical could be as opposite as black and white.
The problem is that “doing good” is hard to measure. It’s even harder to be certain that what we do is, indeed, doing “good” long after we are removed from the choice/act/situation. Ethical tourism is sustainable tourism, in that regard.
I cannot point at XYZ as easily and say with certainty, “Yes, that is ethical.” It’s more about not doing what is unethical.
For example, not paying or contributing to the wildlife-in-captivity industry.
Keeping Nature Wild
The ethical choice to see wildlife would be to visit a proper, accredited sanctuary, or simply make the effort to see wildlife in nature.
The experience may not involve hugging a sloth or posing for a picture next to a tiger cub, but it will be much more worthwhile, meaningful, and the way it’s supposed to be.
Some other examples of ethical tourism might be:
Taking your business “local” helps inject money into the community, not big corporations (think of the example of the cruise lines).
- Shopping locally from artisans instead of buying cheap, imported souvenirs
- Staying locally in guesthouses, locally-owned hotels and eco-minded hotels instead of chain hotels or sprawling resorts
- Eating and drinking locally
- Enlisting local tour guides and operators who know the lay of the land and aim to protect it
Regenerative travel is meant to incorporate aspects of sustainability into your trip. Essentially, to give back what you take.
For example, in Hawai’i, tourists can plant native tree species to help offset their trip’s carbon footprint.
While not the exact same, this type of “do-good tourism” is similar to work exchanges, volunteering to work on organic farms abroad (known as WOOFing), agritourism, and more.
Mostly, though, ethical tourism is not so much about X tourism = ethical, but rather:
- How you travel
- The choices you make when traveling
- Your behavior (including your openness to cultural exchange, etc)
- The way you treat people, animals, and the environment
- What you take
- What you leave behind
- How you represent your nationality or culture
- Where you spend your money
- The way(s) in which you contribute or support the community and environment
- How you use (local) resources
- … And much more that I’m most likely leaving out!
Above all, one of the most important aspects of practicing ethical tourism, I believe, is doing your research, which allows you to be more aware of the situation you are in (or will be in).
Awareness of oneself, of others, and of the world—and your impact whether intentional or not—is key.
Is 100% Ethical Travel Possible?
Is ethical travel possible? I consider myself to be a realist optimist, so I’d say, yes!
Now, if we were talking about sustainable travel, that very thought is somewhat of a paradox.
No travel can be 100% sustainable, can it? We as travelers consume and pollute.
It also depends on the comparison you make. Does slow traveling across the Atlantic by sailboat pollute less than a relatively quick 9-hour airplane ride? Yes.
Are cruises more harmful than wildlife tourism? What about war tourism? Now that is a tricky debate.
That’s because, while we can measure sustainable travel, it is much harder to measure ethical travel on an individual basis. Swimming with dolphins is, in my worldview, unethical.
But that doesn’t prevent other families vacationing in Mexico from doing it, does it? Again, awareness of our travel choices, behavior, and so on, is key.
I believe the difference lies in awareness. Until then, and perhaps even then, people cannot fully see our travel impact to scale.
Ethical Tourism Relies on Making Conscious Choices
If we could see how our one small decision to do X impacts global industries, economies, or nations, we would most definitely see how important it is to make conscious choices.
We would see, for example, that cruises are destructive to the environment, and that wildlife tourism is disastrous not only for the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of sentient creatures but also for local and global ecosystems.
That is why people may think that their purchase of an illicit tortoiseshell bracelet or an ivory carving is what it means to “support local” when shopping for souvenirs abroad, but what about the impact they don’t see?
In this case, a person who endeavors to travel ethically would think about their local impact on a global scale. They would consider the pillars I mentioned above.
They would think about how such a purchase would, directly and indirectly, contribute to the immense poaching and illegal wildlife trading industry (which is apparently valued at a billion dollars), and the destruction of endangered species.
This person would therefore avoid purchasing such products even if they were found in a “local” market stall in Vietnam that may have seemed legitimate. I cite Vietnam as an example since ivory from slaughtered elephants is shipped by the tons there from Africa.
If we are not careful, we can, through our choices and acts, contribute to the sustenance of exactly that which we believe we are choosing and acting against.
This is why mindful, responsible, and ethical tourism is so important.
23 Quick Tips to Travel More Ethically & Responsibly
1. Always question and consider your impact.
2. Support local businesses and artisans.
3. Don’t partake in any activity that exploits wildlife, people, or religious/cultural heritage.
4. Respect and be aware of local customs and traditions.
5. Learn the local/host language, even if it’s the basics.
6. Report animal abuse or human rights violations that you witness to local authorities.
7. Eat and drink locally when possible. Local beers, local food, local goods = less waste, more sustainable, and more generative for the host community.
8. Vet all tours, hotels, etc., that you choose to support during your travels.
9. Don’t over-barter in developing countries.
10. Always be fair.
11. Never force your beliefs or opinions on someone else.
12. Opt for eco-certified hotels, tours, etc., when and where possible.
13. Consider your intention when visiting religious/cultural attractions, historic sites, or sites with a dark past.
14. Follow all local rules and regulations.
15. Respect the host environment. Leave No Trace, always.
16. Be aware of and avoid “scams”
17. Try to avoid giving money to begging children on the streets, as this can further encourage detrimental school dropouts and empowers the cycle of poverty they are in.
18. Follow the “do’s and don’ts” when visiting religious/art/cultural sites (e.g. temples, shrines, etc).
19. Avoid “pay to volunteer” schemes for humanitarian clout.
20. Use less, shop less, and adopt a more minimal travel approach.
21. Be mindful of your resource usage in host communities. Think about your water and electricity usage, your waste, and your overall impact on local resources.
22. Always keep in mind your purchasing power. Everything you buy is a vote.
23. Before you make a decision or act, think of whether or not that could cause harm or “do good” to each of the ethical/responsible travel pillars (essentially, consider the social, economic, and environmental impact).
🌿 While some of these may overlap, you can read more in my guide to eco-friendly travel tips.
Now, let’s look at a few examples of ethical travel destinations that are working hard to usher in and attract a new generation of responsible travelers through ecotourism.
Ethical Destinations & Their Ecotourism Activities
Consistently, the lush and wild nation of Costa Rica tops the charts for environmental conservation and ecotourism.
For travelers, Costa Rica is an ideal ethical and eco-travel destination.
It has one of the highest concentrations of eco-hotels and eco-lodges, certified tours, responsible wildlife watching, and activities that prioritize local communities, cultural exchange, sustainability, and more.
In previous years, Costa Rica has won the United Nation’s prestigious Champion of the Earth award and the Earthshot Prize granted by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, proving to the world once more its commitment to sustainability (which is not limited to tourism) and to combatting climate change.
Considering its sustainable dive operators, community-supported cultural activities, eco-certified resorts, and the fact that over 60% of the island—including the surrounding reef—is protected, Bonaire Island is a great ethical/responsible travel destination.
I had the lovely opportunity to discover ecotourism on Bonaire Island through a press trip. From my experience, I gathered that this unassuming (and often overlooked) island in the Caribbean Netherlands definitely deserves a spot on the list for being one of the top sustainable and ethical travel destinations.
It is Tourism Corporation Bonaire’s hope that they can be a role model to other Caribbean nations also heavily dependent on tourism, and educate and spread awareness about the powerful potential of good/ethical/sustainable tourism.
Since the Caribbean region is the most dependent and affected by tourism (or lack thereof) it is crucial that nations prioritize responsible travel to sustain their livelihoods and future.
My friends over at the EthicalTraveler.org have listed The Gambia as a top ethical destination in 2019, 2020, and 2021.
The country is increasingly focusing on responsible tourism by promoting a different experience of The Gambia away from the beaches. According to the tourism board, they are the second nation in the world to have created a Responsible Tourism Policy.
While I haven’t been to the “Smiling Coast of Africa” (yet!), I look forward to one day partaking in their activities surrounding ecotourism and their natural and cultural heritage.
Notice that these nations, except perhaps Costa Rica, are not “common” travel destinations for most travelers. But that’s another part of the ethical tourism solution: Travel to alternative destinations to avoid contributing to over-tourism.
Again, about 80% of the world only sees about 20% of places, and the consequence is detrimental. A part of traveling ethically is considering this when planning your vacations. How can you get off the beaten path and spread your support?
Of course, I don’t mean to say that you can’t ever take that bucket list weekend trip to Paris, France (or even that you should feel guilty about going to over-loved destinations).
But it’s something to consider and be aware of.
Other quick examples of places and activities that are ethical/responsible might include:
- Ethical African safaris in Kenya (since all safaris are not created equal);
- Learning from women-led weaving cooperatives in Peru;
- Visiting an accredited elephant sanctuary in Thailand;
- And much, much more.
Ethical (Global) Tour Companies & Group Trips
If you’re wanting to join a guided group trip or excursion that abides by ethical tourism policies, then here are my top three recommendations for who to go with (in no particular order of merit).
Intrepid Travel is the world’s largest adventure travel company. They are a recertified B-Corp and offer sustainable, experience-rich travel opportunities to the world’s most sought-after and off-the-beaten-path destinations, in line with their mission to “create positive change through the joy of travel.”
I went with them on their San Juan Islands bicycling trip in Washington (familiarization trip) and really enjoyed it!
G Adventures is another top choice for sustainable adventure travel but they especially place their focus on community-based tourism. Their small group tours focus on helping bring positive change to local communities, Indigenous peoples, women, and youth. You can read more about their responsible travel policy and ethos here.
Geographic Expeditions (GeoEx)
Next, I can highly recommend the small group luxury tours curated by Geographic Expeditions. They have been operating since 1982 with the aim to bring travelers to the remote edges of the world with, of course, responsibility and respect in tow. Their trip leaders are experts in their field and finely attuned to the local destination in question.
Note: I will be writing a round-up post to include in-depth details and trip examples in a future post. Stay tuned!
Final Thoughts About Ethical Tourism
As you can gather from all of the above, ethical tourism goes beyond just a dictionary definition. It’s extremely nuanced, subjective, complex, and controversial.
But it is also extremely necessary. (And we’ve only uncovered the surface.)
It is my hope that, with this guide, you may start to think of (or further deepen your awareness of) the ethical tourism industry and its many facets and implications. (I know it has helped me to write it, at least!)
Please feel free to add to this discussion about ethical tourism and responsible travel by leaving me a comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts!
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