Ethical Travel Is Hard to Get Right: Here Are 5 Questions You Need to Consider

We certainly mean well when we buy carbon offsets or volunteer at overseas orphanages. But are we actually making a positive impact? Five ethicists confront the tough questions.

Ethical Travel Is Hard to Get Right: Here Are 5 Questions You Need to Consider

In 2018, the United Nations World Tourism Organization counted an estimated 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals.

Illustration by George Wylesol

At its best, travel connects us—across walls literal and metaphorical. That’s what Mark Twain meant when he wrote that travel was “fatal to prejudice” and that “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” But what would Twain make of us now, 1.3 billion travelers and counting, boarding millions of pollution-spewing flights per year, with some corners so overtrodden they can’t bear the weight? What does a good trip look like? We enlisted experts in ethical travel to address some of the most vexing quandaries of our day.

Meet the Experts

Justin Francis
Cofounder of Responsible Travel, one of the first agencies to specialize in sustainable travel, and producer of Crowded Out: An Overtourism Documentary

Judy Kepher Gona
Founder and principal consultant at Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda (STTA), a research and advocacy group in Kenya, and host of the Sustainable Tourism Africa Summit

M. Sanjayan
Global conservation scientist, writer, Emmy-nominated news contributor, AFAR Vanguard member, and CEO of Conservation International

Greg Sullivan
CEO of AFAR, former adjunct professor of ethics

Anu Taranath
Ethical travel consultant, Fulbright Scholar and Specialist, University of Washington Distinguished Teacher, and author of Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World (2019)

What makes a good voluntourism program?

Justin Francis: With volunteering, skills-matching is really important. I know some businesspeople who volunteered to build a brick wall in South Africa. They were terrible at building a brick wall. As soon as they left, the community knocked it down and rebuilt it. Yet they were desperate for people with business skills. So in that case we had talented, willing people contributing entirely the wrong task.

Anu Taranath: How many stories have I heard about Western volunteers knowing so little about the communities that they’re entering? Or of local people feeling they can’t speak up because of the dollars coming in? It’s important to remember that the global privileges we travel with don’t get erased just because we pick up a shovel.

Organizations like Omprakash directly connect community groups with volunteers, so there’s more accountability, and local people have more of a voice. Can they vouch for every placement? No. But they’re asking the right questions.

Greg Sullivan: Certainly we want to have a positive impact on the people we’re trying to help. But there are intangible benefits as well. When I volunteered in Roodepoort, South Africa, I was fully cognizant that others might be better painters or blanket dispensers than me, but I saw a side of life in South Africa I would not have otherwise. And hopefully I shared some perspectives and spirit with the locals that they found positive.

Should I donate money or food when I’m abroad?

AT: Wanting to spontaneously donate suggests noticing that things look different than they do at home, or that you are in a position of privilege. This happens in the U.S., too. But we are culturally encouraged to not see inequality at home, so when we go abroad and see it, it can be shocking.

If you have more than others, my sense is that you need to be sharing what you have, whether that means giving to an organization in Kenya or researching places at home that you can align with.

But it’s important to reflect on the hard questions ahead of time: What does it mean for me to lead an intentional life, knowing that I have more? How do I want to use what I have? Then giving or not giving in the moment isn’t a quick, transactional thing, but part of a larger ethos of how we live.

Our actions will not erase inequality, but intentional giving—whether it’s a portion of your salary or the gift of your time—matters immensely.

One expert says some organizations connect community groups with volunteers directly, which encourages accountability and gives local people more of a voice.

One expert says some organizations connect community groups with volunteers directly, which encourages accountability and gives local people more of a voice.

Illustration by George Wylesol

How can I spot “greenwashing”? JF: Ask to see your hotel, tour operator, or volunteering company’s policy for sustainable or responsible tourism, and make sure it covers environmental, economic, and social issues. If an organization is serious, they should be transparent about it.

Judy Kepher Gona: Look for verifiable testimonials and licenses from professional third-party organizations, not from paid certification programs. [Respected programs include the U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees LEED certification, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, and Green Key, which all have searchable databases.] Certificates should be evidence based and achieved through on-site assessment, not awarded through online voting.

Should I buy carbon offsets?

M. Sanjayan: Yes! When you offset your footprint, you neutralize your emissions by protecting forests that absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Conservation International’s carbon calculator lets you calculate your footprint, then offset it by investing in these critical forests, which are also essential to wildlife and the human communities around the world who call them home.

In addition to offsetting your impact, carry minimal luggage. Bring reusable bags, water bottles, and straws to cut down on plastic. Be picky about where you go, what you do, and what you eat—a local dish, rather than splurging on imported lobster and steak.

JF: I could say take fewer flights a year, travel by train, or take fewer, longer holidays. They’re all worthwhile efforts, but they’re tough asks, with some impractical compromises. What I can say is that if we all stopped traveling, there would be consequences, too. One in 10 jobs around the world is in travel and tourism. It’s an important part of the economy, particularly in developing countries.

[Responsible Travel] was one of the first companies in the world to take up carbon offsets, but I felt they distracted from the real need: reducing the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere. I would rather advocate for a small tax on aviation fuel—which is unique among fuels in that it’s tax exempt—and see the revenues invested in electric planes.

Should I visit a destination with a repressive government or discriminatory laws?

JKG: Yes and no. If you feel strongly connected to the destination; if you can identify social enterprises where the visit contributes to strengthening the social cause; if the purpose of [your] travel is to support people and change, then travel can be justified. But you should have detailed information on how your visit will make a difference.

AT: There’s not one place I have traveled to that has been an oasis of justice and dignity for all—the U.S. included. All places are repressive in some ways, some more egregious than others. But marginalized people everywhere are marginalized by similar processes. People in power often maintain power by similar processes. It’s surprisingly cross-cultural.

A government’s official stance matters immensely, yes. But it’s important to remember that it might not reflect where [everyday] folks are at. Travel can offer opportunities to grapple with these hard issues.

GS: I’m a believer in the power of education and one-to-one interaction. There may be aspects of a repressive regime we don’t understand from reading press accounts. Not to excuse bad governments, but good can come from understanding the context better.

And interactions between travelers and locals are good for all involved. The economic benefit to the regime can be outweighed by the benefits the locals receive and the understanding that comes from personal interaction.

>>Next: How One Company Is Changing the Voluntourism Game

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