Six ethical dilemmas I encountered as a traveler. What will you do?

Six ethical dilemmas I encountered as a traveler. What will you do?

In the last decade, ‘ethics in travel’ has received increased attention from both travelers and the travel industry. As tourism is booming, this increased awareness of the ‘footprints we leave behind’ is a much-needed development.

Because, what footprints do we leave behind? What is the influence of us, travelers on a destination? Are we commercializing cultural festivals and traditions? Ruining remote mountain villages with yet another Starbucks? Are people forced from their homes by governments to make way for our hotels? And what are our ‘footprints on a smaller scale’? What is the impact of choices we make during a regular travel day?

Although ethical travel involves a broad range of issues, in this article I primarily focus on our ‘footprints on a smaller scale’: six ethical dilemmas I encountered during my travels. As these dilemmas are quite difficult to summarize and there are so many different things to keep in mind, I primarily focused on my own personal travel experiences and kept things short. The dilemmas are all quite different, but each single one gave me food for thought. I hope it will do the same for you.

Ethics, plural noun (Oxford Online Dictionary): 

Moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity

Travel ethical dilemma 1: Child beggars

Example case: You’re traveling in a third-world country. In a village you’re suddenly surrounded by poor-looking children holding out their hands. They pull your shirt and move their small hands to their mouth, indicating they’re asking money to buy food. Some ask for pens.

The ethical question: Would you give money or presents to child beggars?

Things to consider: A small amount of money may buy a child some food and you probably won’t even miss it from your wallet. Even little donations can help after all. Maybe giving them some pens, notebooks or candy will make them happy for a while? Or does it encourage child begging? And discourage them to go to school? Is our candy doing more wrong, than right (in terms of teeth health)? Does it encourage ‘child begging maffia’ organizations, sending kids on the street and collecting their money afterwards?

Countries where I encountered this dilemma: Cambodia, India

What I do: I remember I brought some extra pens to India and I think I already gave them all away on my first day. This was in 2009. Now, I don’t give to child beggars any more. How difficult and sometimes heartbreaking this may be. On the long-term I don’t think it will benefit them and I would now opt to donate a small amount of money to a local charity.

Travel ethical dilemma 2: Paying for (portrait) photos

Example case: You’re visiting a small hill tribe village in Northern Thailand. Here, you see an old lady with a beautiful wrinkled face, colorful clothing and the famous ‘neck rings’. You ask her if it’s okay to take a photo and she nods, but also opens her hand to receive money.

The ethical question: Would you pay for (portrait) photos during your travels?

Things to consider: Does it make the photo less fun, genuine or real for you? If you pay, is the smile she afterwards extends for the photo different from the smile for a non-paid photo? Or is it not more than fair to give her some money? After all, you need something and she can provide it?

Countries where I encountered this dilemma: India, Thailand

What I do:  Although I paid for some portrait photos in India, in general I do not like to pay for photos. For me photography is fun and free. If I pay for a photo I somehow feel less comfortable taking a photo. Since a few years, I take my polaroid camera with me on my travels, giving me the opportunity to give a photo back.

I don’t always feel right paying money for photos, but if I’ve spent some time with someone, like a farmer at the side of the road, and I’ve taken a bunch of photos, I might offer him a couple of dollars. It sort of depends, but I definitely am wary if someone wants money right away. It feels like dirty money, and I’ll usually just put the camera away. – Matt Kadey, Canadian travel photographer and journalist, quote from the Smithsonian.com

Thailand. These ladies did not ask for money by the way. ©Bunch of Backpackers
Thailand. These ladies did not ask for money by the way. ©Bunch of Backpackers
Travel ethical dilemma 3: Foreign-owned places

Example case: You’re backpacking in Southeast Asia. In one city there is a highly popular Western-owned backpacker hostel with excellent reviews on the internet. It looks like a busy, fun, chilled-out place to stay and a good place to meet other travelers. They have good burgers. On your way there, you’re also passing by some local guesthouses, which look more quiet, but still inviting. Some don’t have an internet page.

The ethical question: Would you stay in a foreign-owned hostel?

Things to consider: Maybe the Western-owned accommodations provide local jobs? And maybe foreign owners even stimulate the quality of the surrounding local guesthouses and the economy in general? And aren’t they simply providing better facilities for Western backpackers? Or do you, by staying in a foreign-owned hostel or guesthouse don’t support the local economy? Is gathering with all backpackers at the same Western-owned hostel, not fair to the local guesthouse owners? Do foreign-owned businesses drive locals away, ‘take away’ their market and do locals not have the funds to upgrade their accommodation facilities?

Countries where I encountered this dilemma: Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Kenya

What I do: I do a mix. I stay and eat local as much possible, but I sometimes end-up at the occasional Western-owned guesthouses. Simply, because these are sometimes more suited towards travelers needs (obviously depends on what you’re looking for at that moment).

Travel ethical dilemma 4: ‘Controversial’ countries

Example case: Lucky you, you’re currently enjoying a year-long round-the-world trip. During your trip you are likely to pass through countries that are considered politically controversial with almost absent human rights.

The ethical question: Would you travel to controversial countries?

Things to consider: By traveling in controversial countries do we support the regime? Do we provide money to dirty governments? Do we have a ‘fun’ trip in countries where torture of the innocent is still performed on a daily base? Or does traveling in such countries avoid them for becoming ‘secluded’ from the outside world? Does it encourage dialogue between you and the locals? Does it help to see the world (and every bit of it, both the good and bad) with your own eyes? Can it help to take away prejudices?

Countries where I encountered this dilemma: Russia, Tibet, Turkmenistan, Zimbabwe, Iran

What I do: For me, I have traveled and will travel to controversial countries. A while ago, Lonely Planet asked to tweet a photo of ‘the most beautiful place you’ve ever been to’. I simply tweeted: The Yamdrok Lake in Tibet with a photo of only the lake. Within seconds I was ‘attacked’ by Free Tibet movements. “Manouk Bob is promoting tourism in Tibet. #BoyCott @ManoukBoB” including photos of Tibetans held captive. During my visit to Tibet I’ve seen the Chinese soldiers occupying the streets and I’ve heard the terrible stories about the ‘extermination’ of the Tibetan culture from Tibetans themselves. After my visit I actually became a member of Free Tibet movements and it is still a subject I hold close to my heart. I asked the ‘Free Tibet’ movements if they wanted Tibet to become an island? And they answered that they do ‘allow’ tourism, but in a responsible way with a Tibetan guide and Tibetan accommodation. I actually had this all arranged, but they never bothered to ask before starting a #Boycott @manoukbob campaign. In the end,  the whole “#Boycott @ManoukBoB campaign’ (which fortunately only lasted for 2 days) did make me think and I came up with two personal reasons to continue to travel to controversial countries: 1. Dialogue 2. Support local shops and operators. Obviously, these types of trips are entirely different from a trip such as ‘Island Hopping in Thailand’. But yes, I have traveled and will travel to controversial countries.

Travel is one of the great unifiers in the world. We learn and become better images of ourselves through travel. Let’s see if through travel we can become better together.

I encourage everyone to visit a country they’d normally avoid and help to bring about a change that combines the best of both of our cultures.

I’m more than happy to reverse how I felt those few years ago and hope that travelling to controversial countries like Russia will help me not only to learn, but to help tackle problems through attendance, not absence. – Dale and Franca from Angloitalian Follow Us

The Tibet photo I tweeted. ©Bunch of Backpackers.
The Tibet photo I tweeted. ©Bunch of Backpackers.
Travel ethical dilemma 5: Slum tours

Example case: You just arrived in a new guesthouse and the owner asks if you’d be interested in doing a tour tomorrow. One of the tours he offers is a 6-hour slum tour.

The ethical question: Would you visit a slum?

Things to consider: What does it take to understand and truly see a country? Is visiting slums part of this? Can a slum visit take away prejudices? Does taking part in slum tours with local charities actually support slum schools and health care? Is it part of ‘reality travel’? Does it promote understanding? Or is it ‘watching poverty’ from a comfortable air-conditioned car with a 1000 USD DSRL? Is it immoral voyeurism? Is it animal-watching in a zoo?

Countries where I encountered this dilemma: India, South Africa, Kenya

What I do: So far, I have refrained from taking slum tours. I did go on a walk in India with street kids, which was quite comparable. It was organized by the Salaam Balaak Trust. During this walk a (former) street child shows your around in his neighborhood and tells you his story. In the future, I may go on a slum tour without taking photos and with a respectful and fair organization.

A walk in Delhi, India organized by street children with Salaam Baalak Trust. ©Bunch of Backpackers
A walk in Delhi, India organized by street children with Salaam Baalak Trust. ©Bunch of Backpackers
Travel ethical dilemma 6: Animal treatment 

Example case: You’re currently backpacking in Asia and you have the opportunity to visit a small zoo offering elephant riding and tiger petting.

The ethical question: Would you visit such a zoo?

Things to consider: Elephant riding is all part of the fun isn’t it? Petting a tiger makes an awesome profile photo. Or is this a severe form of animal maltreatment? Are the animals treated incredibly cruel with nasty chains and hooks?

Countries where I encountered this dilemma: Thailand, Sri Lanka, Kenya, China

What I do: Unfortunately, I’ve seen quite a variety of animal maltreatment in tourism during my travels. Such as zoos with extremely small cages, tiger petting places, elephant riding tours, street animal shows and I once witnessed the throwing of stones to a sleeping lion during a safari. When I was younger and more naive, I admit I also did two elephant rides in Thailand. These days, I try to select responsible organizations for things involving nature and animals and I’ve always avoided activities like tiger petting.

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear for tourists whether it’s a case of maltreatment and what the consequences may be of a certain activity for animals and environment. When I first heard about cage diving with sharks in South Africa, I was like: “Hell yes!” You’re in a cage and you’re not hurting or touching the animals, right? But on a second thought, this practice also obviously has some concerns. During my coming trip to South Africa, I may do it, if I can somehow do it in a responsible way. But of course, it’s almost impossible to make such things entirely ‘responsible’. Especially in these types of situations it’s a matter of finding balance between your desire (do you really want to go shark diving?) and your values.

The lion awakes because a guide in another safari truck threw a small rock at him. ©Bunch of Backpackers
The lion awakes because a guide in another safari truck threw a small rock at him. ©Bunch of Backpackers
Stop and think

Ethics. It’s simple, but at the same time incredibly complicated. What is wrong? What is right? And if you know something is wrong, will you still do it? Or will you act accordingly? What are your values? And what are they worth to you?

At the website of UC San Diego, I found a simple 7-step path (at the Finance section) to help to make ethical decisions:

1. Stop and think

2. Clarify goals

3. Determine facts

4. Develop options

5. Consider consequences

6. Choose

7. Monitor and modify

“If the unexamined life is not worth living, perhaps the unexamined trip is not worth taking. Our beliefs inform our travels. What we believe to be right or important about our travel will define what we do and how we view it.” – Bill Frederick, Director of Safety and Risk Management Services for Field Studies, quote from Verge magazine

As travelers we are visitors to a country, but even more so we’re citizens of the world. When we travel to a place, the environment and her inhabitants deserve careful consideration of our acts. Just with the first step ‘stop and think’, conversation and respect at all times for your destination and hosts, we’ll already come a long way. To leave no trace behind is quite impossible I’m afraid, but I hope to leave few and mostly good traces behind.

ENG: I’m curious to hear your opinion! Do you recognize any of these travelers dilemmas? And what do/will you do? 

NL: Ik ben benieuwd naar jouw mening! Herken jij een of meerdere van deze dilemma’s? En wat zou jij doen? 

46 COMMENTS

  1. These are defiantly the top dilemmas we encounter while traveling. As time goes on we learn more and realize what an impact we have to these cultures, animals, environment and even the world. sometimes you don’t realize that what you’ve just done may have a negative impact, until you’ve done it.
    great post and tips!

    • Thanks guys :)! For those, who show some interest there is definitely a learning curve! Glad you recognized some of the dilemmas!

  2. This is a great post Manouk! I think it’s normal to not quite comprehend the potential negative effects of our activities while travelling, but travel is all about learning. It’s never too late to change our stance on certain issues and there’s no shame in regretting taking part in something if you don’t know the truth until afterwards. I particularly love this quote: “If the unexamined life is not worth living, perhaps the unexamined trip is not worth taking.” If we aren’t brave enough to put our own behaviour under the microscope then have we really learned anything from our travels at all?

    Also – I like what you said about travelling to controversial countries, and as Dale put it, it’s better to tackle problems with attendance not absence!

    • Another quote: “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have travelled.” – The Prophet MohammedTraveling should be fun, but it should also be about learning and respect for the people and environment.

      As for the traveling to controversial countries I also completely agree with Dale :) Thanks for reading and caring Karyn Jane!!

  3. Great post Manouk! Loved it! I encountered same problems. I read in lots of posts you should rather give pens to children in India rather than money. I never gave money to the child beggars, nor pens as a local told me they will just sell the pen later to get money. In Mozambique I worked 6 months as a volunteer in a small village and I think with such an experience you can help a community with teaching the kids, building a bondage, make friendships and get to know the village and see how the kids live. When I took pictures of their families and the houses it was only to show the pictures to my friends and family in Austria to raise money for the project to buy new school material, etc. I don’t really think too well of the slum tourism, especially not in South Africa where it’s really dangerous.

    Also the animal problem is big. Here in Sri Lanka people don’t care that much about animals so the one restaurant where I go to I always give the dog some food or water as the people just ‘forget’ to think of things like that. It’s hard to deal with it, but it’s part of the experience I guess. Thanks for the 7 steps, will think of it the next time again. PS: Can’t believe a guide threw a rock towards a lion, our guide in Kruger would have never done this….
    Happy travels!

  4. Hi Melanie, re-selling the presents is something I’ve heard of as well and that’s also one of the reasons why I’m not bringing presents any more. Of course, taking photos during your 6-months volunteering is totally different from a one-day slum tour. My friend Claudia suggested she would do slum tours, if afterwards that would be some sort of dialogue with locals or something comparable. I think this would be a good idea because it will bring the tourist and local closer together.

    True! I’ve seen some heartbreaking animal neglect as well (also in the Netherlands by the way). And also still can’t believe, the guide threw a rock. Crazy! I’m sure the large majority of guides would never do that! Our own guide was also shocked (and angry)! Thanks for reading Melanie!

  5. Hi Manouk,

    You raise some great examples here, most of which I have some experience of.

    To be honest the paying for a photograph is probably the one I am most at ease with. It is kind of like they are working, offering a service or such like. Who knows, maybe that is why they are really there in the first place? You can often see people with a snake or unusual animal in busy tourist places inviting you to have a picture taken with the animal (for a fee). With these people less unknown harm is likely to be involved.

    Also, for me it beats begging, at least you are getting something in return, it is a barter of sorts.

    • Even though I think you’re right, it somehow feels less comfortable, less real maybe. Regarding the photos with animals, I completely agree. In those cases it’s likely harm is involved. I’ve always avoided those kind of photos! Thank you for your comments :)

  6. I had the same thing happen to me on Twitter when I posted about Tibet. I had a Tibetan tour guide, a Tibetan driver and obviously ate at local restaurants. But it does not matter on Twitter. There are a bunch of people who search for Tibet tweets and then tell the world that you are responsible for the death of Tibetans.

    I do not regret going. I am glad I saw it for myself. It was eye opening for sure. Much more than being attacked on Twitter.

    • Sorry to hear that Jennifer! Although I did travel to Tibet via the new, controversial Chinese train route, I also did the things you mentioned. Like you I’m glad I heard the stories and saw Tibet for myself, and I’ve never regretted going! Thanks for stopping by :)

  7. A fantastically well researched, thought out, and written article. It was a pleasure to read and it’ll be my pleasure to share it with my friends.

    I’ve made sure in my own articles to promote ethical choices for responsible travel, and I think this really helps to further the awareness that one decision has one hundred reprecussions. Your choice today can have a long term effect on the people you meet, the place you’re in, it’s culture, and how we all as a collective wish to leave our mark during our time as travellers.

    Thanks again for writing a brilliant piece.

    • Hi Dale, thank you again for your using your quote. Also, as I greatly appreciate your writing and topics, I feel honored by your kind words. You’re absolutely right: our choices today, each have their long-term consequences. Looking forward to read more of your posts on ethics. Like I said, I’m no saint, but it’s good to ‘stop and think’ once in a while. I hope my articles provide some guidance, without being too directive or judgmental. Again, thank you! Manouk

  8. Wat een goed stuk Manouk! Tijdens mijn minor Ontwikkelingsvraagstukken heb ik ook ethische kwesties gevolgd en daar kwamen veel van dit soort zaken aan bod. En natuurlijk word je er constant mee geconfronteerd als je op reis bent.

    Het is inderdaad ontzettend moeilijk om kinderen die je zielig aankijken te weigeren, maar je hebt inderdaad geen idee wat er met het geld en de kinderen gebeurt (heb je Slumdog Millionaire wel eens gezien, dat stuk waar de vinger/hand van een kindje wordt afgesneden door zo’n boze maffiabaas?). Zoals je hierboven beschrijft: ik bekijk het per situatie. In Indonesië heb ik wel eens geld gegeven aan kinderen die bakjes rijst verkochten. Omdat ik zelf in een studiehuis les heb gegeven wist ik dat kinderen op Bali vaak maar een dagdeel les hebben, meestal ‘s ochtends. Ze verkochten ‘s middags die bakjes juist om geld te verzamelen om met de bus naar school te kunnen gaan. Maar stel ze zouden dat doen IN PLAATS VAN naar school te gaan zou ik het juist weer weigeren.

    Het betalen voor foto’s blijft inderdaad lastig. Stel ik wil een professioneel portret maken die ik met wat geluk zelfs nog kan doorverkopen of gebruiken bij een sfeerreportage zal ik waarschijnlijk wel wat betalen. Ik verdien immers aan het maken van de foto, dus waarom zou mijn ‘model’ dan niks krijgen? Maar ik ben inderdaad geen fan van die speciale foto-dorpen zoals in Noord-Thailand. Ik heb er toen ook bewust voor gekozen om daar niet heen te gaan.

    Ik kan hier echt nog heel lang over doorgaan, maar dan heb je straks een boekwerk om te lezen! Maar het is erg interessant om hier met reizigers over te praten, te zien hoe zij tegen dit soort ethische dilemma’s aankijken. Vaak is het trouwens ook onwetendheid. Toen ik vertelde dat olifantenritjes helemaal niet tof zijn, omdat die dieren op gruwelijke wijze worden behandeld om ze zo tam te krijgen beseften sommige reizigers dat ze daar eigenlijk nooit over hadden nagedacht. Daarom is het juist goed dat dit soort artikelen worden geschreven, ik ga hem delen! ;-)

    • Hi Jessica, dat voorbeeld van Slumdog Millionaire had ik o.a. ook in mijn hoofd bij het schrijven van het artikel. En je hebt natuurlijk gelijk: elke situatie is anders. Vandaar dat het ook belangrijk is om je te laten informeren door bijv. locals :) Ik heb nu hierboven beschrijven wat ik gedaan heb tot nu toe en denk dat ik zal doen, maar je weet het natuurlijk nooit!

      Qua foto’s vind ik het ook lastig! Zoals ook hierboven beschreven, voel ik mij op de een of andere manier toch minder op mijn gemak bij het nemen van een betaalde foto. Maar misschien is dit iets waar ik over heen moet stappen. Ik begreep dat er een Cuba een beroemde kleurrijke dame is, waarbij je altijd moet fotograferen voor een foto. Deze dame is echter zo fotogeniek, dat ik het dan misschien toch ook wel zou doen! Het blijft lastig ;)!

      Onwetendheid blijft een probleem. Hiernaast is het ook belangrijk of reizigers zich open stellen voor de ‘ethiek’. Ik heb vroeger waarschijnlijk echt wel over de gevolgen van olifant rijden gehoord, maar op dat moment stelde ik mij er toch niet voor open en was de ‘leuke olifanten rit’ blijkbaar toch te aantrekkelijk. Echter, nu ligt dat volledig anders. Iedereen heeft op een moment weer waarden die hij belangrijk of minder belangrijk vindt. Ik heb bijv. deze zes ethische dilemma’s uitgekozen, maar ik had een veel langer lijstje. Ik ben ook erg benieuwd naar wat andere mensen lastige dilemma’s op reis vinden :)

      Nogmaals veel dank voor het lezen en je comments Jessica! Die Minor klinkt echt heel gaaf! Jammer dat ik al student-af ben ;)! Liefs, M

      • Misschien moet je een tweede artikel schrijven over de andere dilemma’s, ik ben erg benieuwd! :)

        Ik moet zeggen dat ik een aantal jaar geleden ook veel minder met dit soort ethische kwesties bezig was. Inderdaad: leuk met een olifant een ritje maken of op de foto met een schattige aap. Het zorgt in ieder geval in sommige situaties voor genoeg gespreksstof (en slapeloze nachten haha)!

        De minor was inderdaad ontzettend gaaf en ik voelde me echt een beetje levenswijzer toen ik deze had afgerond haha. Ik heb er nog over getwijfeld om een master in diezelfde richting te doen, maar de theorie kwam te veel overeen en daarbij ben ik meer praktisch ingesteld (niet echt handig op de uni ;p). Dus ik ben helaas ook student-af. Maar er zijn nog genoeg boeken om te lezen, docu’s om te kijken en interessante blogs om te lezen, dus ik ben nog lang niet ‘klaar met studeren’. ;-)

  9. 1For me the not promoting begging is the strongest reason to not give children pens or candy or money. Pens are ofte welcome at a local school and money to support a sympatheti organisation is fine too.
    2I only pay for a service if its worth it. I think a photograph almost never worth a payment because lots of people don’t mind getting photigraphed but more important. I’d like to keep it that way.
    3In Tibet I travelled eith a yravelagency that ised local tibetan drivers and hotels.Same in Africa. I really prefer yo stay in locally owned places but you’re right. A foreign owned hotel can provide lots of work locally and that’s a good choice too.
    4That experience we had in common. I still don’t understand why isolating a country helps getting back freedom. On the contrary I think it helps dictatorship keeping its grip. No western media to anwer to.
    5Although I think as a traveller I want to see the good and bad yhings within a country, it should not become us westerners visiting slums just to make pictures and gloat at how poor people live. But it is possible to do this decent. Maybe by supporting a local handicraft company abd by using local guides?
    6 In russia I almost kicked someones ass because he yried to sell a circusbear show to me over and over again. The poor bear had a metal ring through its noseand got kicked and beaten when I refused. Good that I was not alone and got contrained

    Love this artcle Manouk!
    A while ago there were also two great inspiring discusdions on freedom at #trlt and it’s good to know that the travelcommunity does think things through. Although that doen’t mean everybody is happy with its conclusions

  10. Thank you for your comments :) Regarding 3: I’m still contemplating what the long-term consequences are of the presence of foreign-owned companies in a destination. For me, this is probably the most ‘difficult’ one of the six dilemmas and it’s something that has been on my mind for the last few years. It’s kind of ironic, since I’ve always dreamt of starting my own hostel in a foreign country ;)

  11. Great post. I recognize a lot of your points and arguments.

    Begging children have always been off limits, since I read that children get maimed in India. In Ethiopia people bought second hand schoolbooks for persisting children in tourist places like Lalibela.. I later saw them new for far less, so I guess the children and the bookstores make some money on the side, Giving pens is a bad idea. I have one been followed by a bunch of boys who kept shouting ‘pen pen pen’.

    I have payed for photo’s in the south of Ethiopia. Since everybody has been doing that for a long time it is mandatory. No money no picture. That ment the Mursii tribe sort of attacked you, pulled your arms and demanded their picture taken. Terrible experience. Apart from Ethiopia I do so only on rare occasions. I guess longnecks would be one of them.

    I do not mind staying in places that are foreign owned. As long as they are small places owned by expats.

    And controversial countries ? What about countries where a small percentage of land- and industry owners combined with corrupt politicians gobble up most of the relatively large GDP leaving the majority of the people in very bad living conditions ? Like South Africa. Democracies that were not really that ? Like Singapore. Even in Bhutan the Nepalese minorty is treated badly. So it is veryhard to draw a line. Basically I go just everywhere.

    I think slum tours, done in the right way, do not have to be bad. You see how the people who are not so wel off live. And not all slums are equal, I did a township tour and heard and saw a lot of different aspects. Visiting a township also puts the relative properity in perspective. I can recommend it: http://www.reisbijbel.nl/reportages/kaapse-townships

    I also did elephant rides in Thailand and Nepal but would not do this again. I have never visited zoo’s because I find them depressing

  12. Wow, that must have been a frightening experience if they demanded to take a photo. In the north of Kenya, there is also certain tribes who demand money if you take a photo, but they were never ‘pushy’.

    Slum tours are indeed a difficult issue. For me, I think it will all depend on the type of organization. I agree that taking such a tour can sometimes put things in perspective :)

    Thank you again Theo! I appreciate it that you took the time to read the article and to join the discussion :) Manouk

  13. I think it depends on the foreign owner. On whether he would really be interested on investing in the local community too. Not only with money but also with knowledge and being part of the community ( maybe organizing and or sponsoring local activities or education. Not all foreign influence us bad. It becomes bad when it’s isolated from the community and acting like it doesn’t have to answer to the locals but only to itself. What do you think about this?

  14. Very thought-provoking article!

    I did a slum tour in Rio. It was definitely eye-opening and at the very least made me feel safer learning the changes being made in the area.

    Embarrassed to say I didn’t think much at the time about it helping the slum neighborhoods. But it did give me a deeper understanding.

    • Hi Melissa! Thanks for reading and commenting :) Yes, I can completely understand if gave you a better understanding. I think that’d probably be my most important reason to do it some day!

  15. This was a great read, and travellers are often faced with such dilemmas. I think it’s all a matter of research into ethical options, although you can never be wholly sure that you’re doing the right thing. I’ll hold my hands up and say that I went to a tiger sanctuary and cuddled an adult tiger in Chiang Mai. I had my reservations but everything I saw that day led me to believe that the animals were well treated and not drugged. Maybe I’m incredibly naive but I really did believe that, and after hearing stories of other tiger petting zoos in Thailand I think it depends on the zoo itself.

    I also went to an elephant nature park in Chiang Mai where we bathed and fed elephants rescued from the tourist trade. We were taught about how the animals are trained and it was really upsetting. We all came away with the idea that riding elephants was a terrible thing to do but since then I’ve learned about how locals ride elephants during work in forests etc and I don’t really see how a tourist riding one is so different. Of course I only think it’s okay if the animal is well treated and not overworked, but as I said before you can never be sure. Ultimately it’s down to trusting your gut instinct and doing your research.

    • Hi Dannielle, I’m sorry for my late reply. I somehow missed your comment. I think you’re absolutely right. It all depends on the organization/place, and each case should be ‘judged’ individually :) I also fully agree to the combo of trusting your gut instinct and doing research!

  16. I enjoyed your thoughtful article and the debate in the comments. I personally only take portraits of people that are a part of my life in some way. It really unsettles me when I see photos of anonymous wrinkled people that appear to conform to tourist attraction stereotypes. People are not commodities to be used to illustrate blog posts or show off to friends as demonstrating how well travelled we are. It is an entirely different matter if you are telling someone’s personal story. In that case the portrait is part of that story.

    • Hi John, good point! I think it’s a different type of connection if you pay someone to take a photo! Thanks for your comment :)

  17. Kid beggars
    Photos
    Foreign
    Controversial
    Slum
    Animals

    Good stuff Manouk, most anyone who travels will encounter a couple of these at least.

    Surprised you had a problem with child beggars in Cambodia. Only place I encountered them was at the Poipet border where they swarm (as you probably well know!). I biked a modest bit of the country over two visits, 2003 and 2007, and never once was approached by a beggar of any age who still had all his or her limbs. Maybe things have changed? Kids everywhere in Morocco will ask you for money and/or food, even if you are driving by in a car they’ll shout at you to give them something. A lot of them hardly looked destitute, ignoring them was not hard. In other places it is definitely much, much more difficult.

    Guilty of #4: Paid USD10 to visit Tachilek, Myanmar for a day. Then I passed on giving a local a few bucks for a rickshaw tour around the area’s sights, whatever they might have been. In hindsight I wish I’d hired him.

    I don’t mind too much the people who go out dressed up to try to attract photo-takers for some coins. But they are usually so painfully stereotypical I don’t feel compelled to take their picture anyway. I would agree with John Williams to a point, but photos of people in their environment tells a better story than a picture of a building. There’s always that line of respect though.

    I avoid foreign-owned places both for eating and sleeping. Economics doesn’t really enter into it, I just feel that when traveling, dealing with the locals lends a much more organic experience – though not always for the better!

    I hope this post gets shared far and wide. This is an important discussion.

    • Hi Kevin,

      Thank you for you kind words! I think it’s a discussion that’s already much alive in the road, but there is still not enough attention for it in the travel media :) I only had the problem once in Cambodia. I did encounter quite a few child beggars in India (and actually also some in Kenya).

      Happy traveling! Manouk

  18. Hello Manouk,

    This is a great post, very honest and thought-provoking. I think most travellers come across these types of ethical dilemmas and it really helps to think about them and make an informed decision about what to do. You’ve really helped that process.

    I spend a lot of time in India and through my research, I learned that most beggars are part of “syndicates” and they have to hand over the money they make. That fact, combined with the knowledge that giving to beggars actually encourages begging, and keeps kids out of school, made my decision to stop giving money to child beggars easier. It’s still not easy, it’s heart-breaking to see them. But I counsel people to give to registered, verified charities instead.

  19. Thanks you so much for reading :)! I know you’re an India expert, so I already was curious to hear your thoughts on child begging in India. Giving to registered, verified charities is a great advice!

  20. This is such a thoughtful post, and I’m glad I’ve stumbled upon it. I was really only very familiar with the child beggars and the animal mistreatment ethical issues. I have encountered child beggars, and usually my response is to give nothing. But it can tug at the back of your mind for a while.

    I was really interested in your discussion about traveling to controversial countries. I think I agree with you in that a reason to do this would be to start a discussion. I am a new reader, so I wasn’t aware of the “Twitter war” that happened after you posted a picture from Tibet. I’m sorry you had to deal with less than happy people, but I wanted to say I think it is very smart and thoughtful how you handled it!

    • Hi Amanada, thanks for your comment! Concerning the child begging thing: that’s what makes it difficult. It truly can break your heart to walk away and even keep you awake in the night. They’re kids. and it’s terrible to see kids begging while they should have fun and be in school. However, like you, I stopped giving to them because of the long-term consequences.

  21. Excellent and very thoughtfully written post that I think highlights and touches on some very “every day” dilemmas for many travellers. Many of these issues are actually very difficult for people when they’re just not really informed on the situation – taking something at surface value compared to reacting when you’ve researched the situation can have two very different outcomes after all. Thanks for sharing!

  22. Totally with you on the tiger-petting, I don’t want to support the drugging and caging of animals. I also try to avoid begging children, not just because of the reasons you’ve mentioned above, but also because I’ve actually experienced children in Cambodia pushing me so they can steal my shoes… :/

  23. I wonder… What’s the difference between riding on an elephant and riding on a horse? Most elephants (yes not all) were circus animals or something of that kind who are now placed in a nice environment and walk around with some tourists on their backs. I think they feel us less than a horse does. Not all elephants are treated badly, many horses are treated badly.

    I don’t really understand what is wrong with getting into a cage and watch some sharks coming at you. Of course they will be fed but they will never become used to the cage or something, they are in the wild, they can go wherever they want to go…

    About begging. Totally agree with you. I’ve lived in Uganda, never give these kids anything. I met a kid who said “give me a laptop” and I looked at him “what will you do with a laptop?” and he said “I don’t know but he got one from that Japanese guy”.

    Good article! =)

    • Hi Milene, it’s not the riding itself that is concerning, but it’s the treatment of the animals. Unfortunately, in many countries (primarily SE Asia), there are elephant centers, who do not treat the elephants well. Since, this article focuses on ‘Ethical dilemmas while traveling’ and ‘Riding an elephant in SE Asia’ is very common among backpackers (my readers) I’ve chosen this particular example. However, the same applies for horse riding obviously.

      Concerning the ‘Cage with shark’ thing, I still haven’t really looked into. However, I can imagine feeding them will influence their life in the wild. They may become lazy or change their hunting territory. In Kenya I read that animals change their natural day/hunting rhythm, due to the visiting tourists.

      Thanks for reading Milene :)

  24. Great article! I think you really captured some of the ethical issues travellers struggle with.

    For me, I think that visiting controversial countries is really important. If we look at sanctions and travel bans to certain countries (Cuba, Iran, North Korea), they haven’t changed the governments or the welfare those countries’ citizens. So I think letting tourists get a (limited, I’m sure) sense of that country, as well as giving locals a window into a different way of life can be incredibly meaningful and beneficial. Not that I think a western/democratic influence necessarily is the solution. I think having other Asians visiting somewhere like North Korea or Tibet is just as beneficial, if not more so.

  25. He Adeline, I think dialogue with people from a different background is always beneficial. For us, travelers and also for the local people :). Thanks for stopping by!!

  26. You are a very deep thinker, I really respect that. You are asking questions in this article that don’t even cross most people’s minds.

    The only thing I have come across so far in my travel life has been child beggars. Unfortunately, you can even see it in major cities like Los Angeles. And also unfortunately, there is usually an adult hanging around that sent them out because I assume children get more sympathy. I’ve heard that if you give money to children in very poor countries then it becomes like a swarm. I really like the idea of giving to a charity that helps, or even volunteering instead! It breaks my heart to know that children are suffering or hungry, but that is where you have to make an ethical decision.

    I also really disagree with touring slums when it isn’t done responsibly and with respect to the people. Your tour with a local guide to get an honest insight sounds like the ideal way to go about it.

    I could go on about this, but I guess that’s more of a coffee talk conversation than a blog comment! Definitely a topic to bring up amongst my traveler friends in the future ^_^ Thank you!

  27. Hi Francesca, thank you so much for reading. I truly hope this article sparks a bit of conversation and discussion between you your travel friends. I’m not sure about the ‘very deep thinker’ part by the way ;)!

  28. Great post! The paid photo point is interesting. While traveling in Cuzco I took photos with some local women dressed in incredible traditional clothing, and they had a little baby lamb for me to hold when I sat down for a photo with them (that was a deal-sealer and they knew it!), but I didn’t even think twice about handing them a few soles afterward – I was happy to do so. The way I see it, they are actually working a unique job by spending time in popular areas in the city, dressed up and encouraging people to take a photo with them. They aren’t there by chance, but because they have an exciting visual gift to give. Because of this, I see no problem giving them some money. If they were rude or demanded more, it would be different, but they seemed fully aware of the fair exchange.

    As for the kids begging, I am just as conflicted about giving money to beggars on the streets of NYC, where I live. It’s not the same as groups of children who make your heart bleed for them, but giving like that is confusing and the outcome is not always positive. I worry what my money will be doing in the hands of someone who is asking for it. Is it really going to feed them? Do they have to give it to someone else who is controlling them? Are they buying drugs? These are sad but real considerations. As for the kids, friends of mine have been pick-pocketed while being surrounded by begging children, which I have heard it pretty common. I would love to hear more about how to deal with that kind of situation genuinely and helpfully without getting taken advantage of or funding the wrong outcomes.

    Anyway, I’ve just subscribed to your newsletter and I look forward to upcoming posts. :)

  29. I know I’m late in commenting, but I just wanted to let you know I liked your list :) . So many nuances when traveling! I hope everyone who travels can be as thoughtful as you.

  30. This is such a great article!

    I worked in counter-trafficking in Thailand so I don’t like to give to children beggars because many of them have been trafficked and are forced to work. Instead, I take bubbles with me when I travel and I spend my time playing with them. They often have never seen bubbles and have so much fun playing and being kids.

    I have a monthly guest post series about volunteering and Sadie wrote about her experience volunteering with a shark conservation organisation and about cage diving in particular in South Africa. As you are interested in possibly doing a cage dive, you might be interested in what she learnt.

    Thanks and I will be sharing this post on all my social media :)

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