First of all, what exactly do we mean by ethical travel? As any of us who are lucky enough to get to explore the world know, travel is a great privilege – and therefore a great opportunity which we can either seize or miss.
Every time you plan a trip, you make a hundred different choices – What accommodations will I use? Where will I eat? How will I get around? Where will I spend my time, and with whom? Each one of these choices has the power to change the world in tiny increments.
Here’s a good way to think of it: Picture your favorite place to travel, or that one spot you’ve always wanted to visit. Imagine how you interact with that place and its people when you’re there. Next, imagine that everyone else who visits that place acts exactly the same way you do.
Now fast forward twenty years. What does your place look like now? Are the beaches pristine or covered in garbage? Are the children in school or begging on the streets? Do the locals smile and greet tourists or avoid them at all costs?
We like to pretend that one person can’t make a difference because that’s easier for us, but here’s the truth: YOU get to help decide how your place turns out.
To us, ethical travel means exploring your destination from a place of respect and reverence rather than one of carelessness and entitlement.
Here’s one example: A friend recently told me that he was taking his family to SeaWorld, despite the revelations about the misery their show animals are put through, because “My family boycotting them won’t stop them from doing those shows.” But the fact is, that’s the only thing that will stop it. SeaWorld has begun phasing out its orca shows because of poor ticket sales and public outcry.
But I know – you just want to have an awesome vacation and not worry about the state of the world for a week. I get it. If all this talk about ethics is raining on your vacation parade, there’s good news: You will absolutely enjoy your trip more by traveling consciously!
Our most amazing experiences have been the results of traveling with respect for and investment in our destinations. From tasting local delicacies at a street market in Zanzibar, to staying at a one-of-a-kind AirBnB built from reclaimed rainforest wood in Costa Rica, to learning a little Swahili with our safari guides in Tanzania – I can’t even begin to list all the amazing adventures that ethical travel has created for us!
You don’t have to completely change the way you travel all at once. It’s not all or nothing, and there are plenty of gray areas in the definition of “ethical”. But once you open your eyes to the power of your choices, you’ll start finding them everywhere and you’ll get a kick out of having an adventure while simultaneously making the world a better place!
To get you started, here are 8 tips we use to travel more ethically:
1. Support local businesses. Taxi drivers, tour companies, accommodations, you name it – you’ll always have a choice between a big corporation or the mom and pop shop down the street. We had an amazing time visiting cenotes near Cancun by paying the local landowners rather than joining a big canned tour. And remember to buy your souvenirs at a local market instead of at the airport gift shop! In all of these cases you’re likely to save money, have a more fun and authentic experience, and probably make a friend.
2. Dine consciously. I beg of you, don’t fly halfway across the world to eat at McDonalds. Ask your taxi driver or accommodation host what the local delicacy is and where they think is the best place to taste it. Also do a little research to see if there are any restaurants supporting a good cause nearby. When we were living in Tanzania, we used to go weekly to Shanga, a restaurant that uses its profits to support projects for disabled locals. It had amazing food, a beautiful outside seating area where they’d let us hang out all day, and the benefit of addressing an important local issue.
3. Be kind to the environment. If you are enjoying a white sandy beach or a vibrant coral reef, do your part to keep them that way. It goes without saying that we’re not littering anymore, right? Also keep in mind that every plastic bottle of water you buy will end up in a landfill or, in places without organized trash collection, on the street of the city you’re staying in. For that same reason, when I’m traveling to a developing country I make sure to take everything I can out of its packaging while I’m packing – not only does it save you space in your bag, but it cuts down on pollution at your destination.
If you’re planning on enjoying a dip in the ocean (aren’t we all?), make sure to pack reef-friendly sunscreen. Research has shown that even small amounts of most sunscreen can destroy coral reefs. Our planet is on the brink of losing many of these beautiful places – which is why we’re blowing our budget to see the Great Barrier Reef this summer while it’s still there – but there’s also evidence that these unique ecosystems can bounce back if given the chance. So check the ingredients on your sunscreen carefully, or even better, just pack an extra t-shirt or a rash guard to protect you from the sun while you’re in the water.
4. Don’t exploit the wildlife. Riding an elephant means a fun afternoon and some cool pictures for you, and a lifetime of misery for the elephant. Same with swimming with captive dolphins. That absolutely doesn’t mean you can’t have a great time interacting with local animals! There are always organizations offering up-close experiences without torturing the creatures you’re so excited to see.
We had a fantastic day at the Jaguar Rescue Center in Costa Rica, where all of the animals are being lovingly cared for until they can be released back into the wild. And all kinds of organizations are popping up that will allow you to respectfully interact with elephants (like the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, where you can visit with orphaned elephants like the one pictured at the top of this post). If you love these animals enough to pay to see them, then it’s worth a bit of research to make sure your money is going to the right place. Check out this guide to ethical animal tourism and World Animal Protection’s guide to animal-friendly travel for more tips.
5. Don’t give money to children. When we see kids begging, everyone wants to help. While that instinct comes from a good place, doing so only contributes to the cycle of poverty. At best it encourages kids to skip school to beg, and at worst the children may be part of a trafficking scheme that abducts children and exploits them for money. If you really want to help, look into supporting local organizations that fight poverty and improve access to education.
6. Dress appropriately. I didn’t know until I landed in East Africa for the first time that it was considered scandalous for a woman’s thighs to be visible. Did I throw on the shorts I’d packed anyway because that’s not my problem? Of course not. I ended up buying some long wrap skirts at the local market and now I can’t get enough of them.
On another trip, I was embarrassed to see American women wandering through a majority-Muslim city in skimpy sundresses, when it was common knowledge that women were expected to cover their shoulders and knees. You are not endearing yourself to a place and its people by openly flouting their cultural norms.
You can find these details for any destination with a quick google search or inside any good guidebook. Lonely Planet books come with us everywhere and they’ve never steered us wrong.
7. Learn a little of the language. Just a few phrases, you don’t have to be fluent! Saying hello to someone in their native tongue immediately starts your interaction off on the right foot. That small effort is an easy way to show people that you care about their culture. It’s always shocking to me that some tourists expect everyone to automatically speak English. That’s quite arrogant, actually! Plus a few important words can save your skin in a pinch. I like to arrive prepared to say at least: Hello, please, thank you, bathroom, and vegetarian. I’m a big fan of the free app Duolingo for learning languages!
8. Photograph respectfully. This one is a challenge for me, since I LOVE to take pictures, especially of the everyday details that make a place different from my home. I once saw an adorable little boy wearing a heavy “Merry Christmas” sweater and a knit cap on a 70-degree July day in Kenya, where that’s about as cold as winter gets. I couldn’t stop myself from snapping his photo.
But imagine if you were walking down the street with your kid and a total stranger leaned out of a taxi and took a picture of you. That would feel intrusive and creepy, right? That rule applies in other countries and cultures, too. I’ve been to places where locals absolutely LOVE having their photo taken, and to places where it’s considered very rude. It’s always a safe bet to just ask for permission before you take someone’s picture, especially if it might end up on the internet.
Also, keep in mind what perception your photos are portraying to the world. If you’re traveling in a developing country and sharing pictures of slums and impoverished children, what story are you telling? You wouldn’t visit a friend’s home town and then share the worst parts of it. As a nurse who travels often on medical missions, it would be easy for me to only share the most tragic images from the places I’ve been. But even in the most difficult locations, it’s not hard to find unique beauty and amazing people. I’d rather share the whole story that helps us recognize our common humanity than focus on narrow images that breed only pity.
Are we perfect at this? Of course not! Nobody is. We’ve gotten lazy and ordered takeout from Pizza Hut in Puerto Rico, and been enticed into swimming with captive dolphins in Mexico (which I still regret). We make the best choices we can and give ourselves some grace when we slip up.
If you’re like us, it will get easier with practice as you realize that you have more fun travelling consciously than carelessly. For example: I will literally never forget the meal I had at a local restaurant in a township in South Africa, when others were spending twice the money for a dinner at a hotel restaurant that they’ll never think of again.
Give it a shot! We challenge you to take one trip, just one, with an awareness of the effects your choices are having on the place you’re visiting. I’ll bet anything that you end up having more fun than when you were traveling by only thinking about yourself.
And when you get back, drop us a line and tell us all about it! We’re always looking for new ideas to add to our to-do list of ethical adventures!