In the last decade, ‘ethics in travel’, ‘sustainable travel’ and ‘responsible 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’: eight 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 responsible travel experiences and kept things short. These ethical travel dilemmas are all quite different, varying from eco-friendly tourism and green travel to social responsibility, but each single one gave me food for thought. I hope it will do the same for you.
Last update 2019.
Ethics, plural noun (Oxford Online Dictionary): Moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity
Ethical travel 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 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 anything 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.
Ethical travel 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: I paid for some portrait photos in India, but 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. Since a few years, I take my polaroid camera with me on my travels, giving me the opportunity to give a photo back. For, me this is way to cope with ethical travel photography.
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
Ethical travel 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, South Africa
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).
Ethical travel 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 protects them from 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?
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’ travel to Tibet, but in a responsible way with a Tibetan guide and Tibetan accommodation as this trip overview from another traveler describes. I actually also 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
Ethical travel 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.
Ethical travel 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 and eco-friendly 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 South Africa trip, I decided not to go cage diving. Instead, I opted for a baited dive. However, this also may have influence on shark behavior in the long-run. It’s a controversial topic. It’s difficult to make things entirely ‘responsible’ and eco-friendly. Especially in these types of situations it’s a matter of finding balance between your desire (do you really want to go cage shark of baited diving?) and your values.
Ethical travel dilemma 7: Traveling to countries which are considered dangerous.
Example case: You’re currently backpacking in Central Asia, and you’ve heard quite a few stories from fellow travelers who hopped over to Afghanistan, to explore Wakhan Valley or even traveled all the way to Kabul.
The ethical question: Would you visit a country that is considered dangerous?
Things to consider: Isn’t it all relative? What is ‘dangerous’ anyway? Some might consider Iran dangerous, some Turkey, some Colombia, some Afghanistan, some the Central African Republic… And if you don’t go to an actual warzone, you should be okay… Right? After all, many travelers have the time of their lives and do not get into dangerous situations. Or is it a stupid and reckless thing to do? If you do get into trouble (e.g. kidnapping, bombs), does it cost your government and their government lots of money to get you save again. Do you risk other people’s lives for your ‘holiday’? Then again, some people stick to ‘safe countries’, but act like total idiots and get themselves in dangerous situations as well. And by traveling there, do we trivialize the actual situation there?
Countries where I encountered this dilemma: Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Nigeria, Burkina Faso
What I do: During my last trip, I strongly considered heading into Afghanistan. Beforehand, I specifically obtained a double-entry visa for Tajikistan, with a side trip to the Afghan Wakhan Valley in mind. I probably would have gone, if I had a found a travel buddy in Khorog (Tajikistan) to come with me. Quite a few backpackers I know went into the Afghan side of Wakhan Valley (read Tony’s story here, whom I met in Tajikistan OR read Matthew’s experience here, a fellow travel blogger). It’s supposedly a safe area, although this is in my opinion quite difficult to judge as an ‘outsider’. For example, when I was there, the cross border market at Ishkashim was closed, because of Taliban threats in Wakhan. I also heard stories about border guards giving travelers a hard time getting back into Tajikistan and about the border closing ‘randomly’ forcing travelers to find their way all the way to Kabul. Also, in 2016, a group of tourists were attacked by the Taliban in Afghanistan. When it comes taking risks, we are free to make our own choices, but I can also relate to people who would mark people heading into Afghanistan as crazy and completely irresponsible.
In February 2018 I visited the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia (foreign government advice: do not travel there). The remote Danakil Depression can only be visited with an armed escort, since there have been a few kidnappings and murders of tourists in the last years. In December 2017 (only weeks before my own visit), a German tourists was killed. Is it ethical to visit a region you’re clearly not welcome? Or is it ‘plain terrorism’? Is it ethical to endanger the lives of these guards so we can visit? Or is tourism in this poor and desolate region with harsh living conditions a good thing?
A large part of Tajikistan is marked as ‘only essential travel’. Interestingly, if you travel in Tajikistan, you will travel right through that orange area!
Ethical travel dilemma 8: Publishing photos of other people
Example case: You took some beautiful portrait photos during your last trip in Africa. You post them on Instagram, in an album on Facebook and on your travel blog. Obviously, as you don’t speak the local language, you did not ask whether it is fine to publish the photos online.
The ethical question: Is it ok to publish photos online of other people without permission?
Things to consider: If people give permission for taking their photograph, don’t they also give permission for publishing the photo online. I mean, it is the 21st century, so they know the photos might appear in other places? But...do they know? Does everyone know the impact of internet? Or does it not even matter, because they indeed not use the internet at all? What about kids? Should we always ask permission to their parents?
Countries where I encountered this dilemma: Everywhere
What I do: Ethical travel photography… I find this a difficult dilemma. I sometimes do publish photos of people of my travels on social media (like Facebook and Instagram) and my blog. They don’t know. They don’t get a reward. This does make me feel a bit uncomfortable. However, a travel photo collection needs photos of people. And since it’s difficult to ask/explain in the local language, for now I’m just using the photos. Obviously, if someone would ask me to take down a photo, I would do it. On my travels, I often try to take a polaroid camera with me or send some photos later. In general, with the rise of social media craziness and sharing every single thing in our lives, I feel we need to find a balance between the rights of those behind the camera and of those in front.
Stop and think – How to be a responsible traveler?
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
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 are 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 in sustainable and ethical travel. 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 ethical travel dilemmas? What do you consider a responsible traveler? 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?
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