If you know me, you know that I never feel freer than I do when I’m traveling. And I’m truly blessed to be able to enjoy this passion! The world is full of fascinating, beautiful places and people that many people don’t have the will, means, or the desire to explore. It’s a shame, because there’s so much out there to see.
But as the world is a fascinating place, it’s also a murky one dotted with terrors we can’t turn a blind eye to. The last thing I want to do as a traveler is contribute to human rights violations, climate change, crimes against animals, ecological and economic damage… well, you get the picture.
By now it’s obvious that whether you’re at home or globe-trotting, the good is tangled up with the bad. Travelers, for example, may stimulate foreign, local economies, but they also contribute to Co2 emissions through plane travel. This personal and collective responsibility is something we have to reckon with, and though we’re all far from perfect, the more we can counter it the better.
Earlier this year I wrote about what being a global citizen means: mainly, educating yourself, participating, and doing good wherever you go. This takes effort! And considering most people go on vacation to relax, too many neglect to do their due diligence to become a more ethical traveler.
But taking steps to travel more ethically doesn’t mean you can’t have a wonderful time (in fact, it can make things even better). Here are a few ways to get started for your next trip.
It’s true that tourism is a vital source of income for about third of developing nations. But not every country distributes these funds fairly — if you travel to Burma, for example, just staying in a hotel means lining the pocket of a military state that commits atrocities regularly. That’s not to say you can’t go — but it might be worth understanding how your actions may or may not supporting NGOs.
On the flip side, Costa Rica is an example of ethical tourism done right. Their government worked with the private industry to pioneer a form of “eco-tourism” so that travelers’ tourism money directly enriches the local economy and protects the island’s wilderness. There’s nothing quite like interacting and appreciating tropical wildlife, and knowing that your presence is beneficial sweetens the experience.
Travelers should first and foremost be respectful of the places they visit. I get so angry when I see tourists littering or making locals uncomfortable. It’s not hard to be a respectful traveler… In fact, I would argue that it’s essential. Nurturing mutual understanding between communities and peoples is one of the benefits of travel – the more we are exposed to others, the more our empathy and understanding for them should grow and visa versa. It also follows that if you’re not respectful, you won’t be respected and the opportunity for mutual understanding and growth is lost.
How can one be respectful? On a superficial level – be polite, if locals don’t want you to take photos of them don’t force it, and don’t litter. If you really want to connect with the new culture you then take the time to learn the traditions, laws, and values of the land, including a bit of the language if you’re able. Locals will appreciate your attempt and be far more hospitable once you prove you truly care.
Along the same line, traveling is a good opportunity to support local communities by choosing independent lodgings, stores, and restaurants to patron. Big hotels are more likely to funnel their money toward rich real estate investors than local economies, so do a little research and you may be surprised at what you find. Often you will get accommodations that are just as lovely and feel great while doing it!
A good blog on the topic calls this traveling off the beaten path, detailing ways in which travelers can “go beyond the well-worn tourist path to explore the unexplored and economically empower rural communities through their travels.” Not only will you see unique sights and enjoy a more authentic experience, the time and money you spend will enhance the lives of residents more directly.
It can be hard to know when is and isn’t a good time to travel, especially in the wake of natural disasters like hurricanes or other problematic incidents. Would-be travelers often wonder if they should cancel their plans if a country is suffering from storm damage, or worse, human rights violations — and the answer isn’t as clear cut as you’d think.
I think it’s always best to educate yourself about the situation and where money is going. If a country has known human rights violations, opt to stay with locals to find out about their lives and experiences. If there’s been a natural disaster, consider volunteering to help out if you end up going. It may be that communities would benefit from continued tourism, or it may be certain regions are not safe for travelers and you’d be a burden. But you won’t know unless you ask.
Traveling is an incredible privilege that enriches the soul as a vehicle for collective and individual fulfillment. Ethical travelers will make sure they honor every corner of the earth they touch as best as they can, one trip at a time.