Ethical Travel: Who Decides Which is ‘Ethical’ and Which is ‘Unethical’?

Ethical Travel: Who Decides Which is ‘Ethical’ and Which is ‘Unethical’?

I love travelling and I always have. Travelling to as many places as possible and experiencing different cultures with unfamiliar people is a dream I am most passionate about. While I may not have fulfilled this dream yet, I am not alone in this passion to travel and see the world. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), there were about 1.2 billion tourist arrivals annually in 2018. The travel market is worth more than eight billion dollars and accounts for 10.4% of the world’s GDP, all of which makes it the biggest business in the world, even bigger than oil. 

Now as with most aspects of life today, the adverse effect of this alarming rate of movement in the travel industry is not pleasant. The travel industry alone is responsible for eight percent of greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere. In addition to this are other environmental issues such as the degree of plastic waste generated by the industry and this is where the concept of ethical travel steps into the equation. 

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Travelling by train has less impact on the environment than flying. Credit: Pexels

There is no precise definition, but ethical travel and tourism loosely translates as, ‘thinking about the consequences of your actions as a tourist on the environment, local people and local economy”. Put simply, the eco-community urges travelers to be more mindful of the impact of their activities on other people, places and our communal environment. This concept of ethical or eco-travel has not always been popular across the globe but in the last decade, this has slowly changed. 

The results of a recent study showed that many Americans are now more conscious of ethical travel than ever before. Here are some of the highlights from a recent survey of 2,000 internationally-traveling Americans conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Exodus Travels:

  • Four in 10 Americans (39%) experience “travel guilt,” after a trip they worry may have been unethical.
  • 91% of international travelers say it’s important for their trips to be ethical.
  • Taking an ethical trip involves learning about the culture (63%), learning simple phrases in the language (56%) and buying souvenirs from local merchants (56%).
  • 78% consider themselves to be more ethically-conscious travelers than they were a decade ago.
  • Respondents include riding on elephants (18%), swimming with dolphins (19%) and posing for photographs with captive wildlife (21%) on their list of unethical activities they wouldn’t do again.
As a tourist, do you take photos of people without their permission? Credit: Unsplash

From the results of this study, the biggest achievement of the eco-community as it relates to the travel industry lies in the fact that ethical tourism and travel is now actively on the agenda of Americans. The fact that 91% of the respondents believe that a trip should be ethical is a sure sign of this. 

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However, it is one thing for more people to believe that their trips should be ethical and an entirely different matter for these trips to actually be ethical. This is because looking at what the participants of the study believe constitutes ethical travel, it appears to be more of a common-sense issue than an ethical one. For instance, it is only reasonable to learn about the culture of the place you are visiting or to learn a few phrases in their language (if for no other reason, to be polite and not to get fleeced). Would it be deemed an “ethical act” if you read that an Arabian was brushing up on his English because he would be visiting New York in the summer? I would guess not; that is the most natural thing to do isn’t it?  

A tourist meets a camel on her travels. Credit: Unsplash.

How then did we arrive at these ‘constituents’ of ethical travels? How did we decide for instance that swimming with dolphins is unethical and flying airplanes is not even brought up for discussion by these respondents (air travel is responsible for a growing share of global carbon emissions). Would your decision as to what constitutes ethical travels be different if you found out that whole families depended on the stipends from your elephant-riding for their livelihoods? Or that if you refused to take those staged photos with their camels, the economies of whole communities would collapse?

The study does nothing to answer these questions but it shows the popular views of primarily successful Americans who can afford to repeatedly fly ‘there and back again’, amassing a carbon footprint in a single week of travels that a family of elephant groomers in India would probably not incur in a whole year. Do you imagine that the ideals such a person would consider “ethical” would be remotely similar to what the man who performs with his monkey in Kenya thinks? Has a study been conducted on the views of the locals in these villages that the tourists visit? I do not know of any and frankly, I am not holding my breath. 

Credit: Unsplash

You see, the problem here is with the assumption that the American traveler knows and decides it all; and the missing core component is the opinion of the people whose cities are being toured. What do they consider appropriate, environmental-friendly and ethical? Without these answers, the narrative of ethical travel (and perhaps ethical and eco principles in general) is at best fundamentally unbalanced and at worst grossly biased. The respondents in this study have in their own opinions, become more ethical and environmentally aware than they were decades ago; based solely on standards they have determined and set for themselves. 

Despite the foregoing, these Americans have shown what I consider most important in the fight to save our planet; an honest desire to do better. The buck now rests on the shoulders of the ethical and eco-community to show them (and everyone else) how best to do this. I can think of no better way to achieve this than by doing something uncomfortable; getting out of the eco-chamber to seek the actual views of all parties involved. 

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Title image credit: Shutterstock.

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