Have you ever considered responsible travel? Because, how ethical is it actually to travel a lot? This is a question that has often popped in my head while I was travelling full-time with my boyfriend. For instance, by using an airplane, bus or train so frequently we were hurting the environment. And when we visited the DMZ I also felt a bit weird, a bit too privileged to be there while at the other side of the border people were locked into their own country. Therefore I decided to research this topic more closely and see how responsible travel works. In this post I share 7 reasons why travel is (or can be) unethical and how you can travel as responsibly as possible. Because, how cliché as it may sound, this is the only Earth we have.
How ethical is travelling?
When I started to research this topic, I was surprised that there was not a lot of clear information. Travel is always seen as something positive, something that enriches your life. Although I agree 100% with this, I still don’t understand why it was hard for me to find a lot of information about the bad effects of travel. The media often highlights negative effects in the fashion, food or forestry industry, but why is the tourism industry so overlooked?
More and more people travel each year. (Air) Travel is becoming cheaper and cheaper, but isn’t this actually a bad thing in the long run? We should at least consider the effects. Not only for the environment, but also for the citizens of the world, all humans and animals.
Below I share some not so happy facts about how travel can be unethical. Of course I also share some insight into how we can avoid these unethical practices or at least avoid them as much as possible.
7 Ways Travelling is (or can be) Unethical
1. Let’s face it: Travel is bad for the environment
By flying, using boats, cruises, cars, buses, campervans and more we are hurting the environment. Basically anything that uses a combustion engine produces greenhouse gases. Even if you’re not using an airplane to travel, but decide to go everywhere by car, you are still hurting the environment. Of course people that stay in one place also hurt the environment, but if you travel a lot and to far places, then you produce more carbon emission than someone that stays put.
But it’s not only the transport that is bad for the environment. Think about all the towels you use in hotel rooms, or the air conditioning that you keep on running. Unfortunately a lot of people also leave their trash in places where they definitely shouldn’t, such as at beaches, lakes, mountains and more.
How to avoid this (as much as possible):
Some things are just hard to avoid when travelling. For instance, if you’re planning on going to the other side of the world within a certain time frame, you most likely need to catch an airplane. Furthermore, for me it’s a bit unclear whether travelling by car is better than flying or vice versa. According to this article cars hurt the environment more than airplanes, but it still can vary because of certain factors.
What you can do for instance is staying somewhere as long as possible. Don’t fly somewhere far for just a few days and jet off again. Because it’s so much emissions for only such a short time period: is that really worth it?
Furthermore, pack lightly! Every kilo of luggage counts. And it’s also possible to buy your way out of the damage you cause, which is called “carbon offsetting“. This means you pay a company to invest in a project that reduces your carbon emissions, such as planting trees. To be honest, I’m not informed enough to know how beneficial it is, as of course it takes some time for the trees to grow. But, I guess it’s better than doing nothing about it and it may help in the long run!
Obvious ways to minimise the environmental damage is by reusing your towel as much as possible, decrease the amount of time you spent under the shower and minimising your waste.
2. Tourism industries often exploits animals
One of the saddest things is animal abuse and it happens a lot more than you might think. The reason animals are often exploited is often because of tourism. Most travellers love animals and often want to have a unique encounter with wild life. I get it, because animals are the best and you just want to cuddle them. However, once it’s with a domesticated wild animal, you can be pretty sure it’s not a good thing.
Because most animal tourism is abusive to the animals. They haven’t chosen this life, they were forced. Think of riding elephants, swimming with dolphins, posing with a tiger. These animals aren’t supposed to be there. Often these animals live in captivity just to be a tourist attraction for our entertainment.
How to avoid this:
In my post about riding animals, I already shared certain wild life activities that you should avoid at all cost and I also shared tips on how to make sure that you don’t take part in animal cruelty. Often it’s as simple as this: if it’s not in the wild, the animal isn’t where it should be. Of course there are some sanctuaries that are the exception, but you can’t even know this for sure.
And be sure to share your knowledge. Not everyone is aware that they are actually hurting an animal when they are riding or posing with it. The best thing we can all do is educate each other.
3. Travel ruins special places
The most beautiful places, landmarks and monuments, those that are so rare and special, are often the ones that suffer under tourism. With the internet nowadays it’s hard to keep a very unique and beautiful place undiscovered. We all want to know about it and go there!
Certain spots get so populair and locals realise that there is a way to turn those places into profits. Such as the fort of Jaisalmer that is suffering from conservation problems due to too many restaurants, hotels and shops, which I mentioned in an earlier article. The reason for this is in the most part because of the high number of tourists that visit the fort.
How to avoid this (as much as possible):
Of course there are just certain places you really want to visit. I’m not going to deny myself certain spots just because they are popular. For instance, we went to the Taj Mahal and absolutely loved it. However, when you do visit a popular place, make sure you read up about it beforehand and only support sustainable tourism practices. Don’t support practices that are harmful for the spots that you visit. If you go to a almost deserted island, go for the little cabin and not for the five star hotel.
For instance, we visited the Fort of Jaisalmer, but didn’t spend any money there as we know that they should actually start renovating the place. Although usually it’s a good thing to support locals, in this case we would be supporting a bad cause. The people there refuse to move, because they know they can get money out of it. Of course it’s even better if we wouldn’t have paid a visit at all!
Another thing is by making sure you are being as respectful to a place as possible. So don’t trash it. Realise that you’re in a special place and treat it that way.
4. Travellers can be disrespectful to local cultures
Unfortunately certain travellers can also be disrespectful to local cultures. When tourists are visiting sacred places, it’s unethical when they don’t consider the appropriate way to dress. In certain countries it’s also wise to consider the local customs and respecting the places where people live.
One thing that is very common is that travellers take photos of the local people without their consent. I’ve seen a lot of people taking portraits of poor villagers in mountains without even considering asking their approval and I too have taken photos of people without asking. Often it’s because you see others doing it and as the locals seem to be okay with it (big smiles on their faces), it feels fine. However, we should at least ask them beforehand and especially as a blogger I should let them know if I’ll be using their photo online (which I’m not that comfortable with anyway).
Think of it this way: How would you feel if someone in your hometown suddenly photographs your face without asking and puts it all over the internet?
How to avoid this:
Do some research and consider the right way to dress and check what the general customs are for the country you’re visiting. Of course you don’t need to know every last detail and it’s okay to make mistakes (we do all the time). But just at least try to be as respectful as possible. When you want to take a photo always ask first or make sure their faces aren’t visible. Or just wait for the right person to photograph. During our travels a lot of locals often asked us if we could take a photo of them.
5. Trying to travel as cheap as possible isn’t always ethical
We love budget travel, because by travelling on a budget you get so much more out of your travels. However, most of us go to cheap destinations such as Asia, planning on spending as little as possible (so do we). But, how ethical is budget travel really?
We bitch and complain about the prices and try to barter as much out of a deal as possible. Of course, in a lot of countries it is actually a custom to negotiate the price. But, why do we bother to lower the price by a few cents while for us it doesn’t make that much of a difference and in developing countries it can help the local economy.
Some tourist can be downright disrespectful when they are battering and expect to pay nearly nothing for certain products and services. I believe there is a line you can cross. An example are the tourists in Gili Trawangan who stole a bicycle (and karma immediately turned on them) or the German guy who begs for money on the streets, and merely uses it to party and fund his travels. Or actually a lot of backpackers who decide to beg on the streets of underdeveloped countries to finance their travels, instead of working for it.
The reason this isn’t ethical is because you are asking (or stealing in the case of the Australian couple) money from someone who probably needs it more than you and needs it for more basic needs in life. Of course those people have the choice to give you the money or not, but why not try to actually work for your money instead of merely begging for it.
How to avoid this:
Pay fairly for products and services you use in different countries and try to buy local. Realise that by spending your money there you are actually helping the local economy. No, I’m not saying people should rip you off. If you notice that someone is trying to get you to pay way more, just take your money elsewhere. But maybe we need to change our perception on how cheap certain countries are, and not try to travel for basically nothing. There are definitely still ways to travel on a budget while you still support the local communities.
6. Travellers often sustain the cycle of poverty by trying to help
In most developing countries you often come eye to eye with beggars, and probably the most painful: children that are living on the streets. It feels like the right thing to give them money or food. However, this creates a cycle of poverty that we are sustaining.
For example, in Nepal I gave a little boy my breakfast and I was happy that he had something to eat. But the best case scenario is that he has one good meal, and that’s it. That’s only a short-term solution. By giving that little boy who was begging for my food what he wanted, I showed him that if he wants food he can just ask for it.
By giving children on the street food, we are keeping them poor, most likely for the rest of their lives. Children that actually have the possibility to go to school often want to work on the streets or even their parents want them to beg on the streets, because it brings in more money.
This cycle of poverty also creates organised begging. There are large criminal organisations that force children to bey for them and give them their “earnings”. Each year thousands of children disappear, they are kidnapped and forced to work for criminal groups.
How to avoid this:
You can help by not giving beggars on the street anything, even though it may feel completely wrong. There are other ways to help, such as certain charities that work with homeless people. Be sure to read the article Why you should not give money to children on the streets for more information.
7. Travel may support corrupt governments
Think of destinations that abuse human rights, have a dictator, corruption or other unethical practices such as animal abuse or environmental issues. This is a tricky one, as it can be debated on both sides of the coin. Is it better to boycott a country like this, or are you also hurting the local people by not bringing your business there? Tourism is sometimes the most important part of the economy of a lot of countries. But, perhaps you are supporting solely the regime and only giving your vacation money to them instead of the local people?
How to avoid this:
The question is, should we boycott these countries? Because the only way to make sure you aren’t supporting corrupt government is by not going to that country. However, like I said before, there are two sides of the coin. For instance, for North Korea it has been debated that by the increased tourism, North Korean citizens are more aware that they are behind from the developed world, so they will question their government’s intentions more. On the other hand, others argue that the tourism increase legitimises the regime and actually support it by bringing in your foreign money. Check out the article by the Guardian for more information about this subject on North Korea.
Let’s just say that this is an ongoing debate, and perhaps I’ll write a more in-depth article about it once I’m more informed about the subject.
That were 7 reasons why travel can be unethical and ways to make sure that you avoid these practices (as much as possible). I hope this article doesn’t come across as too negative, as I merely tried to educate myself on responsible travel by writing about it and educating others by sharing it. Also, don’t feel bad if you’ve done some of these practices, because I have too. And some things are just not able to avoid, such as hurting the environment when we fly. But we can look for ways how we can still help to minimise this.
Travel is one of the most amazing things in the world to me and I want to keep on travelling. We can’t do everything perfect, but let’s try to make sure that we travel as responsibly as we can!
What about you? Do you have any advice on responsible travel?
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Wow this has opened my eyes so much…! I never thought about all the consequences to travelling and I will definitely be more aware now – thank you!
I wasn’t sure if I would like this article – travel gets a bad rap when many other things, like having children, hurt the planet more. I am a responsible tourism operator and I see first hand the good and bad sides of travel. And I liked this article – you’ve taken a different approach, you’ve addressed some problems that few are brave enough to discuss (eg. Traveling too cheaply) and you’ve offered solutions. Thankyou, I will share.
Thank you Janine, that is so nice to hear. More people told me that they were pleasantly surprised that I actually offered solutions rather than just point out what the issues are. 🙂
I can’t agree more with your thoughts. Indeed as travellers we need to be more empathetic to the cause of sustainable tourism else we will be leaving only bad footprints behind.
A well thought out article and an important reminder to think about the footprint we leave. Respect cultures respect animals and the people that live there! I remember being really disapointed in vang vieng where the culture is very conservative yet the big attraction was a boozy trip down the river stopping to play or rope swings etc where many tourist have died because the water was so shallow – its almost become a trophy to go there get drunk and brave it! We opted instead for a more ethical kayak trip on the river avoiding the touristy bars. Much nicer.
A very thoughtful and insightful article! I totally agree with your point about animal abuse – some tourists don’t even realise how badly the animals can be treated. thank you for sharing.
Thank you Mattea! Yes, it’s really a shame how some animals are treated…
I love that you’re calling attention to an often overlooked issue. What I love even more is that you give suggestions for how to avoid making a negative impact as much as possible. Thanks so much for sharing!
Thanks Erica! Appreciate the kind words!
I so appreciate you writing this. I also had many qualms as a full-time nomad traveling around the world. Was this ethical? Was I really contributing to the world in a positive way, or was it a selfish desire to want to see the world? Obviously, travel can be SO enriching both personally and for the communities we visit, but on the flip side of that, if there is no consciousness as to how we travel things can get murky. I absolutely witnessed lots of bad tourist behavior on my travels, and wasn’t immune to making mistakes myself (we’re only human after all!) I love how you presented options for how to travel more ethically. Even if we don’t have a perfect answer, every little step in the right direction counts!
Hi Eva, thank you for your thoughtful comment! Agreed, I make mistakes too and everyone does.. Even when you sometimes think you’re doing the right thing (like I did initially by giving that boy some food). And luckily there are a lot of positive sides to travel too, I just think some issues are quite overlooked! And yes, like you said, every little step counts!
Insightful and thought provoking. It’s hard when you love traveling so much to realize how much harm you can be doing! We are currently on a relatively quick trip and know we are harming the environment by taking super cheap flights in and out. It’s important for travelers to keep talking about these issues to try and change them. I’ve seen so much improvement over riding elephants for example that I’m now truly shocked when I see people still doing it.
Hi Sarah, thank you for your comment! Yes, it’s the reason why it’s not an issue a lot of people talk about.. we all want to travel a lot. But yeah, better to see how we can do it as ethically as possible.
Thank you for this article! Very well written and I totally agree that if you choose to travel do it in the most ethical way possible! 🙂
Hi Sabine! Thank you for your comment and I’m happy you agree!