Essential Guide to Responsible & Ethical Travel

Satya Prem / PixabayCC0

Overtourism and the problems it creates may make you feel like giving up your passport. But responsible travel experts say there's a better way.

Early in 2020, when plastic straws (and not a global pandemic) were still the tourism industry’s biggest concern, I loaded up my rental car. I had been commissioned to write a guidebook to New Zealand. Over eight weeks, I’d go on multiple tours a day, spending my time with a wide cross-section of tourists, from backpackers and young families, to retirees from around the world.

Setting out, I wanted to believe that Greta Thunberg’s scrutiny had transformed travellers into reusable-water-bottle-toting beacons of hope. After all, every tourist entering NZ is asked to make the Tiaki Promise; a pledge to demonstrate respect for the country’s culture and environment.

You all know what comes next.

At Cape Reinga, the country’s most significant Māori spiritual site, where eating and drinking are clearly prohibited, I watched a white dude chow down on a sandwich. (I suspect this same guy wouldn’t pound back a bucket of KFC in the Sistine Chapel, but I could be wrong.) At a seaside conservation area, a middle-aged woman scooped handfuls of sand into a sandwich bag, presumably to add to her existing (and ever-so-exciting) collection of sand from around the world. Then there was the yacht in the Bay of Islands, which plowed bow-first into a mega-pod of hundreds of dolphins and their young.

It wasn’t just the tourists. Countless hotels and tour companies with gold seal certifications in sustainability handed out plastic cutlery like it was going out of style (which it is). And who was I to judge? On that same trip, I drove thousands of kilometres solo in a soccer team-sized SUV.

When I hit the road, I’d been hopeful for the future of travel. But by the time I got home, I was ashamed of an industry that I’m complicit in.

Shouldn’t we just stop travelling?

In the last three years, overtourism and climate change have dominated headlines, while the number of hotels, tour operators and airlines championing their green policies has risen exponentially.

Carbon emissions aren’t the only cause for concern—your holiday can also contribute to the destruction of cultures, the commodification of spiritual practices and the exploitation of animals. Arguably a form of colonization, tourism continues to push already-marginalized groups further into the margins.

It’s enough to make you want to give up your passport and commit to a lifetime of “staycations.” But responsible travel experts say this isn’t the answer.

“Tourism is very transversal. It’s got the power to devastate a destination and destroy the environment—and yet, it can also be the vehicle to allow a destination to grow socially, economically and to protect the environment.”

“Tourism is very transversal. It’s got the power to devastate a destination and destroy the environment—and yet, it can also be the vehicle to allow a destination to grow socially, economically and to protect the environment,” says Paloma Zapata, CEO of Sustainable Travel International, a non-profit dedicated to reducing the negative impacts of tourism and maximizing its benefits.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, in 2019 the travel and tourism industry contributed 10.3 per cent (or around US$8.9 trillion) of the world’s GDP. Without it, 330 million jobs—or one in 10—worldwide would disappear.

It’s not just about the economy, though. Travel allows us to immerse ourselves in others’ cultural and historical landscapes and everyday realities. It fosters empathy, leading to transformative personal growth and widespread community change, particularly when a traveller studies, works or volunteers abroad.

So just how can you become an ethical traveller, and avoid incurring the wrath of the Swedish (who we can thank for term “flygskam” or “flight shame”)? The first step is to understand what the term means.

What exactly is “ethical travel”?

Since the 1980s, the phrase “responsible travel” has been bandied about, usually in reference to environmental sustainability.

In recent years, that’s changed. Gregory Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) says that offsetting carbon credits or reducing your plastic use is now just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg.

“Those are clearly good steps, but they are nowhere close to being holistic. Travellers need to be more thoughtful and deliberate and look at the natural, cultural and spiritual resources of a destination,” he says.

Some argue this is why even the phrase “ethical travel” doesn’t fully encompass what’s necessary to preserve cultural and environmental resources.

Being a responsible or ethical traveller means trying to understand every part of the supply chain to ensure your dollars and actions are benefitting—and not harming—local communities and environments.

“Ecotourism, responsible, sustainable, green or ethical tourism [are] labels that can be confusing, overlapping and constricting,” writes G Adventures’ founder Bruce Poon Tip in Unlearn: The year the earth stood still. “[That’s] why we’ve begun to use the term ‘community tourism.’”

Essentially, being a responsible or ethical traveller means trying to understand every part of the supply chain to ensure your dollars and actions are benefitting—and not harming—local communities and environments.

Here’s how:

Choose an ethical destination

• Avoid over-touristed countries

You’re probably already familiar with the term “overtourism.” It was coined by Skift founder Rafat Ali in 2016 after he witnessed the volcanic rise of tourism in Iceland. In 2010, it only had 459,000 tourists. By 2018, it had more than 2.3 million arrivals—seven times more tourists than locals.

Since then, the phrase has become synonymous with selfie stick-brandishing crowds—the most obvious symptom of overtourism. Long-term effects include overloaded infrastructure, destruction of natural habitats, and the alienation and pricing-out of local people who can no longer afford to live in neighbourhoods that have been gentrified for, and overrun by tourists.

If you want to choose an ethical destination, it’s not just about choosing someplace off-the-beaten path—it’s about considering whether your destination has the infrastructure to support visitors and whether your trip will negatively impact an ecologically sensitive area, or a community of people.

• Carefully reconsider visiting countries with known human rights violations

Countries are much like brands or businesses; their behaviour can be influenced by your dollars. This is particularly relevant if you’re considering visiting a country that has a government known for its human rights violations.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t visit; your holiday could potentially create positive change by putting money into the hands of local people. (And, as journalist Sarah Dohrmann points out in this Conde Nast Traveler article on the subject, even countries like the United States aren’t “exempt from this ethical dilemma.”) However, it does mean that you need to do your research before you depart and be prepared to engage with others whose political beliefs differ from your own.

• Don’t judge a book by its cover

Before choosing your destination, don’t judge a book by its cover—or a region by its reputation. Ethical travel is a concept that can be found around the world, even in places you might not expect.

For example, Jordan may be located in the Middle East—a region that’s long been perceived as dangerous—and shares its border with countries with poor human rights records. But it’s a leader in promoting ethical tourism through its Meaningful Travel Map, a guide to 12 social entrepreneurships through the small country.

Book local and green accommodation

• Choose sustainable accommodation

Once upon a time, our biggest concern was whether a hotel wasted water by washing our sheets and towels every day. Now, the rubric for selecting a sustainable spot to sleep is a lot more complex: Where is its power sourced from? Does it have refillable (rather than individual) toiletries? Was it built in an ecologically sensitive area? Is the food farm-to-fork or organic? How does it give back to its local community? What are the labour conditions for its staff?

Certification systems are one method of cutting through the noise, but they’re not always reliable; accommodation providers may be evaluated on future aspirations rather than current conditions. There’s also the “pay to play” factor; getting certified is expensive, which is why many larger chain hotels boast marks of approval, while smaller family-owned businesses are left behind. Greenwashing, it seems, is also prolific in the tourism industry.

That’s why Zapata of Sustainable Travel International recommends looking past the certifications. Instead, seek out operators that actively promote their environmental or community initiatives in their marketing materials.

“Businesses that actually care about sustainability? They talk about it,” she says.

• Book local

At first, the emergence of Airbnb and its competitors was like a revelation—the share economy allowed travellers to meet locals and stay in “real” neighbourhoods far from the city’s tourist traps. It was also way cheaper than a hotel room, with a portion of the money going directly into the hands of local people.

Then came the horror stories: Hosts who were discriminating against prospective guests based on their race, nationality or sexuality. It was contributing to gentrification and creating disenfranchisement amongst locals. Housing crises began to spring up in cities around the world, as property owners shifted from long-term leases for local residents, to short-term holiday rentals. And that’s not even touching on the health and safety issues, such as the lack of fire safety regulations and other checks.

So if Airbnb isn’t the answer, what is?

Again, the answer lies in community. Put your money into the hands of local people by seeking out locally owned accommodation, including traditional hotels, motels, campgrounds, hostels, bed and breakfasts and homestays.

Reduce your carbon footprint

• Keep your transportation low and slow

According to a 2018 study published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, global tourism produces about eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation makes up a large part of this footprint, which brings a whole new meaning to the adage “it’s the journey, not the destination that matters.”

Reduce your footprint by keeping it “low and slow”: travel by train, car, bicycle, tuk tuk, dala dala, chicken bus, cargo ship or horse. If you have ample time, carpooling or even hitchhiking might be good alternatives. To find a ride, download an app such as BlaBlaCar, check the bulletin boards at hostels or make a posting on the CouchSurfing message boards.

Once in your destination, remember that you’ll see far more of it by hoofing it. Sure, Uber and taxis are convenient, but you’ll gain a cultural experience (and save a lot of cash) by taking public transit instead.

• Fly green

Non-profit Atmosfair reports that taking just one return flight can produce more carbon dioxide than citizens of some countries will produce in a year. (If that horrifies you, then we recommend staying far away from The Guardian’s interactive emissions calculator.)

But as my fellow expats will understand, it’s impossible to avoid flying entirely, particularly if you’re living, working or studying far from your family and friends.

To make your flight greener, choose economy class; according to research conducted by the World Bank, business class seats have a significantly higher carbon footprint. If possible, book a direct flight (planes burn the most fuel on take-off). And, of course, you can choose to offset your carbon credits, but rather than just buying them through your airline, take the time to do the research and choose a certified carbon credit project that’s demonstratively doing good work.

• Be considerate of fellow travellers

At the time of writing, COVID-19 has still prevented much of international travel from resuming. When it does, airports and airplanes will likely look very different.

As an ethical traveller, you can protect yourself and your fellow travellers by getting your flu shot, wearing a mask, washing your hands frequently and using hand sanitizer. If you have any symptoms, consider rebooking your travel.

Buy only ethical tours or holidays packages

• Don’t be guided solely by your budget

We’ve all been there. In the deepest depths of February, when you’re sick of wearing long johns under your jeans, the appeal of a quick and cheap holiday getaway—one where you won’t have to make a single real decision upon arrival—may be too great to ignore.

There’s a reason why “cruise ships” and “all-inclusive resorts” are the two dirtiest phrases amongst responsible experts.

But there’s a reason why “cruise ships” and “all-inclusive resorts” are the two dirtiest phrases amongst responsible experts.

Putting aside the environmental infractions, these two models of tourism are based entirely on maximizing profit with little concern for local people. Tourists are either separated entirely from communities, or dumped on them for a few brief hours. Nearly all of the revenue ends up in the hands of large multinational companies, with as little at US$5 for every US$100 spent actually remaining in the country.

“A lot of these host communities have been displaced and yet they cannot participate effectively in the tourism value chain,” says Zapata.

Bottom line: When it comes to choosing a holiday, don’t let your budget (or impulses) be the sole guiding factors.

• Choose ethical package holidays

But it is possible to find ethical (and affordable) tour packages.

For example, on G Adventures’ trips, you’re likely to visit a local social entrepreneurship supported by the company’s non-profit arm, Planeterra. Intrepid Travel also has its own foundation that supports sustainable travel experiences—and both companies employ local people as tour guides. Meanwhile, self-proclaimed “activist travel company” Responsible Travel connects travellers directly with 400 small companies that specialize in sustainable travel.

You may also choose to book a tour or holiday package directly with a locally owned tour operator in your destination country, which can often be the most affordable option.

Practice zero-waste travel

• Leave no waste and leave no trace

We’ve been espousing the values of “treading lightly” for years, but why not take it one step further by trying to have a “zero-waste” holiday?

In her article for Verge Magazine, writer Karin Murray-Bergquist outlines all the ways you can reduce your waste while on the road.

If it feels a bit overwhelming, start with the basics: pack your own refillable toiletries, grocery bag, water bottle, cutlery and straw. When shopping for your trip, hit up the thrift store or gear swap forums before purchasing new. Finally, brush up on Leave No Trace principles. They were developed for the outdoors community, but can be applied to any holiday—whether you’re trekking through the backwoods of Canada or the backstreets of Rome.

Leave with no waste

You might think your souvenir shot glass from Paris gently whispers to your guests “I’m cultured and worldly,” when it fact it screams “I buy mass-produced goods made-in-China under dubious labour laws.”

If you do choose to return home with a souvenir in your bag, make it locally produced, fair-trade, free of cultural appropriation and something practical for your everyday life at home.

• Eat local foods

Who hasn’t craved the sweet-salty familiarity of McDonald’s on a day when nothing has gone to plan?

Well, remember when we said that global tourism produces about eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions? That isn’t limited to airline travel. In 2020, a study commissioned by Responsible Travel found that what you eat can be your largest source of carbon emissions—even more so than your flights.

Food waste and a reliance on imported goods can be problematic, particularly in smaller island countries. Take Bali, for example, where it’s estimated that a typical traveller contributes half a kilogram of waste to the tiny island every day.

“Island countries have a limited amount of [landfill] space and don’t have recycling solutions,” says Zapata. All that garbage from tourists ends up buried, burned or in waterways. She suggests the solution is as simple as a willingness to try local foods, which will also deepen your cultural experience.

• Respect biosecurity laws

Not only does shipping imported food and goods to island countries create a considerable carbon footprint, it also creates opportunities for invasive species to enter sensitive habitats. One such case is the Galapagos, where introduced species have increased from 100 to nearly 1,300 over the last 30 years partially due to cargo shipments, putting 3,600 endemic and native species at risk.

That brings us to our last point: Biosecurity laws exist for a reason. Hiding a wooden souvenir or packaged food in your bag might feel harmless, but it’s illegal and may devastate a country’s ecosystem.

Avoid animal exploitation

• Choose animal sanctuaries over animal attractions

We’re always surprised by the number of travellers who boycotted SeaWorld after watching the 2013 documentary Blackfish, but will still go swimming with dolphins in the Caribbean, pet lion cubs in South Africa, ride elephants in Thailand, or who would have visited Joe Exotic’s Zoo if given the chance.

The one thing those activities have in common? They all exploit animals for profit, including harming vulnerable or endangered species. One study by World Animal Protection found that 75 per cent of wildlife tourist attractions have a negative impact on the wild animals in the attractions.

If you’re planning to visit an animal attraction—whether it’s advertised as a zoo or a sanctuary—it pays to dig a little deeper first. Look for organizations that clearly have the animals’ best interests in mind, such as those that focus on rehabilitation. Steer clear of any attractions that take animals from the wild, promote holding or touching animals, or use animals for entertainment.

• Animals are not for selfies

It’s not only the caged animals you need to respect; it’s the wild ones, too. Keep a safe and respectful distance from wild animals, especially if they are foraging or have young.

The cardinal rule “do not feed the wildlife” applies to all animals, as it can alter their natural behaviour and ability to survive in the wild. (Just a little “food for thought” before you sign up for that shark diving experience that uses chum to attract the sharks.)

• Examine what you eat

You don’t have to be vegetarian or vegan to make sustainable and humane eating decisions when you travel (although it helps). Shop local, eat food that’s fresh and in-season, and when eating out, choose sustainably sourced meat.

The WWF produces country-specific guides to sustainable seafood, which you can download for free from its website.

Demonstrate cultural sensitivity

• Do your research

From the long-necked women of Thailand to the ayahuasca ceremonies of Peru, the commodification of cultural and spiritual practices has been well-documented. Our perpetual quest for authenticity is putting that very thing at risk.

Spend time learning about the history, socio-economics and politics of your destination, which will help you to gain insight into local customs, culture and value systems.

Respecting culture isn’t just about practicing the right etiquette though—it’s about being open-minded and not passing judgement. Instead of constantly focusing on differences, look for the similarities instead.

• Don’t perpetuate stereotypes

“#TIA: This is Africa, amirite?”

No, you’re really not right.

Sharing travel stories is a powerful vehicle for education, yet so many fall back on over-generalizations, simplifications and familiar tropes.

Remember: Anything that you post online can be viewed around the world. Before you hit “publish” on a social media or blog post, ask yourself: How would a member of the community feel if they saw this image or read what I wrote? Would they grant permission? Would they agree that it reflected their community accurately?

Ultimately, your experience belongs to a specific place in time, and the lens through which you view it is limited in so many ways: by the length of time you spent there; language barriers; and even your own race, gender, sexuality, religion or country of origin.

• Ask before you take pictures

There’s a lot of debate over requesting permission to take photographs (some argue that it ruins the moment or artistic merit of your subject), but there is a definitive answer:

“Would you be comfortable if someone was taking a picture of you if you were just going about your everyday life?” asks Sébastien Desnoyers-Picard, chief marketing officer of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.

• Think before you geotag

Social media sensitivity isn’t just essential for the preservation of local cultures and people—it’s also key to preserving local environments.

Geotagging has contributed to overtourism, both in countries and in hyper-specific locations. Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, for example, only received a couple thousand tourists per year 20 years ago. Today, it receives 1.5 million per year, thanks to its popularity on Instagram.

So if you find a gorgeous waterfall that isn’t on the (social media) map? You might want to keep its exact whereabouts to yourself.

Do good by not doing good

• Choose sustainable volunteering over voluntourism

Verge is dedicated to meaningful travel opportunities, including finding sustainable volunteer abroad opportunities, which is why we’re not going to devote too much space to this complex issue here.

Instead, we encourage you to navigate over to the Volunteer Abroad section of our website, where you can learn more about the dangers of volunteering on medical projects, at orphanages, and with human trafficking survivors.

Want to know if your volunteer abroad program is ethical and legitimate? Here are eight signs to look for.

• Don’t support poverty porn

There’s another name for township or favela tours: slum tourism—and it’s more common than you think. These “reality” tours take visitors to the backstreets and shantytowns of cities worldwide, exposing them to the stark realities of how the other half lives. While they can help bring socio-economic benefits to impoverished areas, they also run the risk of further perpetuating stereotypes, exploiting communities and romanticizing poverty.

In 2016, UK non-profit Tourism Concern published an excellent resource on slum tourism and the questions you should ask before setting out on tour, the most important of which is “who is benefitting from the tour?” Always ask the tour operator how they work in consultation with the local community, and ask for proof of where the proceeds go.

• Think carefully before donating money or goods

If you’re thinking about packing goods or toys to give away on your next holiday, do an Internet search for SWEDOW. That is international development speak for “stuff we don’t want.” Got something to give away and are wondering if it’s a good idea? Use this brilliant flowchart to determine whether to pack it. (Hint: The answer is almost always “no.”)

Next, read this blog post by Uncornered Market blogger Audrey Scott. As she neatly summarizes, handouts have ripple effects of unintended harm, the worst being encouraging a continued cycle of poverty and a beggar economy.

If you want to help, donate money to an established non-profit or social enterprise doing sustainable work in the region that you’re visiting instead. Or, if you really, really want to put a physical object into the hands of a local in a country that you’re visiting, volunteer with Not Just Tourists to carry a suitcase of pharmaceutical or medical equipment to a clinic in need.

Be aware of your own power and privilege

Who hasn’t read Song of the Open Road and nodded along with the idea that travel is the represents freedom?

Sadly, this is a reality for only small percentage of the world’s population. Class, race, religion, gender, sexuality, physical ability and country of origin all affect our ability to travel.

Even for those of us who do hold one of the world’s most powerful passports and have the financial means to travel, our experiences abroad are affected by the way the world views us and the lens through which we view the world.

Women travelling solo have to take extra safety precautions. Queer couples have to hide their relationships. BIPOC will experience systemic racism at immigration. And people with disabilities have to spend hours researching accessible spaces.

Travel and tourism, by and large, caters to white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied individuals. The locals of the very countries that we’re travelling to may never be able to afford—let alone be legally allowed to visit—the countries that we’re from.

“Brown countries welcome tourism—for the money—and never question why we are not welcome in return,” writes Sri Lankan Indi Samarajiva. “Some of us are tourists. The rest of us are the zoo.”

That’s why the ultimate act of ethical travel is acknowledging your own power and privilege in the world—and choosing what to do with it.

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Published in Beyond the Guidebook
Jessica Lockhart

Contributing Editor

Although Jessica has travelled to more than 30 countries, her favorite place to throw down her bag is still her hometown of Cold Lake, Alberta. A freelance journalist, Jess has worked for international development organizations and tour operators. She’s conducted workshops in Vanuatu, perfected the use of a satellite phone in the jungles of Guyana and supervised teenage pool parties in the Dominican Republic. Although she's based in Toronto, Jess works remotely from all around the world.


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Travel with purpose; travel for good. Articles, resources and events for ethical and meaningful travel, volunteering, working and studying abroad.

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