Need to know
Travel is one of the great joys of life. But, increasingly, many of us have a desire to tread more lightly as we travel – to reduce the negative impacts that we’ve heard it can have on communities and the climate, and to travel in ways that benefit them. In short, to travel more ethically.
Perhaps you feel this desire, too. Amid the global disruptions of recent years, many have felt the urge to get off the hamster wheel and re-examine what they value. That reflection ought to extend not only to where we live and how we work, but also to where we go in our free time. For many, enduring the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need to be in awe of something, to visit sites of natural beauty, to engage in cultural exchange, to learn new things. These activities all contribute to our wellbeing, and they are all among the reasons why we yearn to travel. At the same time, we have witnessed how, in some ways, the planet benefits when we stay at home: sharp reductions in travel due to the pandemic lockdowns led to signs of nature recovering, and the oceans and skies clearing up.
The environmental harms and other negative consequences of mass travel (we’ll examine some of these below) might make you wonder if you are being selfish by travelling cross-country or overseas. Does choosing to travel mean you are putting your own desires above the needs of other people, or of future generations? Can it still be ethical to travel? Indeed, I would argue that travel, including recreational travel, remains a valuable endeavour and is good for humankind – as long as we make conscious choices about how to do it.
If you’d like to become a more ethical traveller but aren’t sure how to proceed, let’s first take a closer look at a few of the main problems posed by conventional forms of travel. We can then explore how to adopt more responsible approaches to travel while still enjoying its many benefits.
The ethical challenges of travel-as-usual
Tourism has grown exponentially over the past century, with an estimated 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals in 2018. While recreational travel has long been hailed as a tool for economic development – through spending on things such as accommodation, food and tours, and the creation of jobs that support the industry – the economic benefits are commonly overshadowed by drawbacks such as low pay and seasonality in work, limited opportunities for the advancement of local employees, and the leakage of money away from the local economy. Many travellers now stay at all-inclusive resorts, on cruise ships, or in big tourism complexes, so their spending largely flows out to multinational companies.
The negative sociocultural impacts of tourism on local communities are varied, but they can include outcomes such as crowding and the displacement of residents; the loss of local culture or its commodification; and resentment stemming from tourists having favoured access to resources. ‘Access’ has many meanings here. Think of inflation that hikes up prices for locals, the strain on local water resources due to hotels, cruises and golf courses, or a loss of access to beaches because of large-scale resorts. All of these are examples of a power struggle in which tourism is developed from the top down, instead of being used as a tool for locals to enhance their quality of life.
Among the most consequential effects of mass travel, of course, are the carbon emissions of the airplanes, cruise ships and cars that get us where we want to go, which are significant contributors to the climate crisis. At individual travel destinations, tourism can lead to problems such as pollution and the loss of natural habitats.
Here’s the important thing: as a consumer, you have the power to help shift practices in the travel industry. When many food consumers started demanding more organic options, the food industry responded. Similarly, consumers who collectively choose tourism products that are better for the planet and for people can push suppliers to adapt. There are signs that many travellers’ views have shifted – that more of us are seeking more authentic and ethical travel experiences.
Travel’s benefits should not be discounted. Not only does it provide opportunities for personal fulfilment, it can also lead to international friendships and has the potential to promote intercultural understanding and, ultimately, peace. Organisations such as the International Cultural Youth Exchange and the Fulbright US Student Program were founded partly based on this premise. Visiting other countries and encountering other cultures reminds us that we are all part of one planet, one human race. By making conscious choices about how we travel, we can also contribute to cultural preservation, the conservation of ecosystems, and the support of local livelihoods at our destinations.
So how can you start travelling in a more ethical way? Increased awareness of your options is key. I have worked in the tourism industry as a tour guide and an adventure guide, in hotels and resorts and on cruise ships, and I have researched and written about tourism for more than 15 years. Much of my scholarship focuses specifically on ethical travel and, in my role as a professor in tourism, I oversee our global sustainable tourism degree and regularly lead groups on trips. In this Guide, I’ll draw on what I’ve learned from these experiences, so you can take your own journeys in ways that benefit both you and the places you visit.
What to do
Select your destination with care
As you decide to travel more ethically, you will ideally want to choose destinations that have not been overrun by tourism and where your money can be especially beneficial. While you might understandably be drawn to places like Venice, Amsterdam or Bali – which get filled to the brim with tourists – it is worth also considering destinations such as Slovenia, Botswana or less-visited islands in Indonesia. These places also have much to offer travellers, the destinations will not be as overrun, and your money will likely have a bigger impact. So take some time to explore options that are less crowded. If you do choose a typically crowded destination, take the time to research when its peak seasons are (for much of Europe, it’s the summer months) and when the cruise ships are in town to avoid the highest-density times.
Also consider alternatives to all-inclusive resorts or cruise ships. Destinations that have been overdeveloped and that are now heavily characterised by all-inclusive resorts often see extreme economic leakage as a result (ie, much of the tourism money spent within the country is sent elsewhere). And locations that are on cruise itineraries commonly suffer from crunch times in which they are overcrowded by tourists. Cruises may visit many destinations, yet they offer relatively few benefits to those destinations and can have detrimental impacts on the environment. They also tend to keep travellers in a ‘tourism bubble’ and contribute to economic leakage.
You might be wondering if ethical travel is costlier by nature. Thankfully, that is not necessarily the case: staying in accommodation in a less touristy place will typically cost less, and local foods and souvenirs purchased outside of tourist zones are often more affordable.
Once you have decided where you want to go, choose your accommodation wisely. If possible, choose lodgings that are locally owned, as opposed to a brand-name hotel or resort run by a corporation that is based elsewhere. In this way, you can help ensure that your tourism spending actually benefits the local community. If it’s not clear whether an establishment is owned by locals (eg, from an ‘About’ page on its website), you might want to call or send an email to ask.
When researching accommodation, you can also seek out places that have been certified for sustainable practices. Be mindful of the fact that many operators (the companies that provide travel services) pretend to be environmentally friendly, knowing that consumers want to feel good about their choices. In order to avoid ‘greenwashing’, choose properties that have received the stamp of approval from an accredited certification agency or that can at least show you that they do more than just let you choose when to wash your towels and linens. You might look for properties that have been certified by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), EarthCheck, or Green Globe (which lists members on its website). And many booking sites now make it easier for travellers to identify more sustainable options. Booking.com and KAYAK both have sustainable travel badges for properties that meet certain guidelines. Similarly, TripAdvisor has a ‘GreenLeaders’ badge.
For some establishments, often called ecolodges, benefiting the local environment and community is a core part of the mission. By staying at one, you can contribute to the preservation of natural resources. For example, when I lead my university’s sustainable tourism study-abroad programme in Belize, a favourite stop is Chaa Creek Ecolodge by the Macal River. Its 400-acre nature reserve protects local forest from timbering and preserves a habitat for wildlife. The list of sustainable practices at Chaa Creek is long: staff collect rainwater to use for washing and laundry; food is grown on the resort-owned farm or purchased from local vendors; facilities are built from sustainable materials, and in a way that blends with the natural environment of the rainforest; and so on. Environmental interpretation is another important feature of ecolodges; guests at Chaa Creek are educated about the local environment and Maya culture on free guided walks. These practices are communicated to guests on their website.
Weigh your options for how to get there
Is it possible to take a train or bus on the way to your destination rather than flying the whole way (or flying at all)? Public transportation is often an affordable option and has a much smaller carbon footprint.
Research shows that a full bus is a relatively low-carbon solution for travel. Travelling by train is another good option: it can cut your carbon emissions by half, or more, when compared with taking a flight. Things get a little more complex when you consider a flight’s occupancy rates. An article in 2021 on the website Treehugger notes that, if a plane is largely empty, the rate of emissions per passenger increases dramatically. So carpooling with other people is probably more climate-friendly than riding on an unfilled plane. But a flight full of passengers is likely a better option, in terms of CO2 emissions, than travelling the same route by yourself in a gasoline-powered car. Some online carbon-footprint calculators can estimate the climate impact of your trip, based on which mode of transport you use.
If you have to fly, try to fly nonstop and on routes that are booked more fully. Google’s flight-booking tool now displays and compares estimates of carbon emissions for each flight (though the tool currently appears to underestimate the full climate impact of flying). While many argue that it is most important to reduce the carbon footprint of travel, you could also seek to offset a portion of the greenhouse gases that flying emits through a plethora of offset programmes, such as the one offered by Sustainable Travel International. Just be sure to research your options, as not all carbon offset programmes are considered effective.
Lastly, avoid jam-packed itineraries that have you jetting from destination to destination, and instead opt for a slower approach to travel – one where you take more time to engage with your destination, unwind and connect more deeply with the culture, people and the environment there. This can be better for the environment, in terms of saving carbon emissions, and also better for your wellbeing.
Choose dining and activities that support local interests
Plan to eat local while at your destination: that is, choose locally owned restaurants and food that is typical for the region. Not only will you get a taste for the cuisine, but you will also help to reduce economic leakage. When I plan my tours, I make it a goal to include a few days staying in a relatively small community (ie, a village) that engages in community-based tourism – in which tourist activities are planned and implemented by, and bring benefits to, the local community. One of the communities I visit in Belize features a restaurant that is entirely run by a women’s group. All monies earned are divided between those women. Not only do the visiting groups get to taste local dishes such as chimole or garnachas and meet families in the community, they also directly contribute to the livelihoods of the families of these women (and to the broader community, as these families in turn spend locally).
When planning other activities, seek operators that aim to educate, to conserve, and to minimise negative impacts on the local environment or community. For example, a snorkel operator who also teaches you about the local reef – and how you and other visitors can help reduce damage to it – adds more value to a trip, from an ethical perspective, than one who simply takes masses of people for a quick ride to the reef. Certain operators also make it a point to give back to local communities by training local guides, providing scholarships for children, or charging guests a community fee that is then used for development. Check out the websites or materials of tour operators. Are they transparent about where the money goes and who their suppliers or vendors are? Do they have a purchasing policy that favours local sources?
Try to get out of the tourist bubble, both physically and psychologically. Tourists typically stay in well-known tourist districts marked by guidebooks and touristic facilities. Many also travel to their destinations through tour operators from their country of origin, then stay in big resorts where they can eat food from their home country, watch TV from their culture, and so on. This restriction to a comfortable cultural bubble often happens without the tourist being well aware of it. Getting out of the tourist bubble – such as by venturing outside of a resort, taking a local class, going to a local music performance, staying in locally owned places, and using the transport options of your host country – not only gives you more of an opportunity to connect to your destination and the people who live there, it allows more of the financial benefits of tourism to reach them.
Also consider visiting a protected area that is open to the public, such as a national park, state park or even private protected areas. The aim of protected areas is conservation, and regulated tourism is a tool for monetarily supporting the existence of many of these areas. When you pay entry fees to protected areas, you contribute to their preservation. In Florida, I love visiting the Everglades National Park, which charges an entrance fee; in turn, the area is spared from the sprawling development of south Florida, there are no airboats allowed, and nature is conserved. Similarly, the Saba Marine Park in the Caribbean was established to protect the coral and marine environment around the island of Saba, and divers are charged a small fee for each dive there. Local guides will help you understand the environment you visit, and you will return home with a deeper appreciation for the wonders of this planet and the resource you had the privilege to see.
Seek genuine and respectful interaction with residents
Always travel with a sense of respect for your hosts and their culture. You are a guest at your destination, and also a cultural ambassador for your home country. Travel with that consciousness. To guide your interactions with locals, learn a few words in the local language if it differs from yours, ask before you take pictures of people or their possessions, and respect local customs and traditions.
Try to engage in at least one experience that allows for meaningful, direct interaction with people who live locally at your destination. Why are these experiences important? They provide opportunities for intercultural understanding and bridge-building, and they can enrich both the host and the traveller. If you travel with a socially conscious tour operator, they will often plan these encounters for you through a community visit, giveback activity or other social interactions. If you are an independent traveller, you could connect with locals through events on websites such as Meetup or Airbnb Experiences, or you could book a local cooking or dance class or another experience hosted by a local.
Another way to engage in meaningful and respectful interactions is through programmes that match visitors with hosts, enabling them to experience local culture, play a sport, volunteer, cook or share a meal together. One example is the Bahamas People-to-People programme, for which individual travellers fill out an online profile and are then matched with local hosts. I personally tried this when I visited the Bahamas and was matched with an amazing local couple who took me out to eat conch salad. We had a beer at their favourite local spot and talked at length about life and the culture of the islands. We stayed friends for many years – and they later came to visit Miami, where I took them out to one of my own favourite places.
For similar opportunities at your specific destination, you might check out a travel website such as Withlocals (which enables travellers to book experiences with local guides) or try a homestay visit. Homestays are programmes that let you stay directly with a local family, either in their house or in specific tourist housing in the community.
After the trip, share the experience with others
Give a positive review to operators and vendors who have gone above and beyond to aid the local community and to contribute to the preservation of local resources – all while providing you with an excellent experience – on the websites where they are listed and/or a shout-out on social media. Mention key terms such as sustainability, giveback and ethical travel. In this way, you help other travellers find these companies and individuals more easily and support their work.
As you share pictures and stories from your travel adventures on social media, mention the conscious choices you made and what you liked about your experiences. For example, if you made choices to reduce your environmental impact, what were they? In doing so, you can entice other travellers to think more consciously about their own travel choices and give them ideas about where to start.
Key points – How to be a more ethical traveller
- Mass tourism has negative impacts on people and the planet. Travelling has many potential benefits, but travel-as-usual comes with environmental, economic and social drawbacks.
- You can still enjoy the rewards of travel in a more ethical way. Making thoughtful travel choices not only enhances your trips but could help encourage change in the industry.
- Select your destination with care. Think twice about choosing the most crowded places. Seek accommodation that is locally owned and that has been recognised for its sustainable practices.
- Weigh your options for how to get there. Flying is costly to the climate. Try to minimise your emissions from flights – or, better yet, take buses or trains, or carpool instead.
- Choose dining and activities that support local interests. Get outside the tourist bubble and find restaurants run by locals, community-minded tour operators, and others who benefit the place you’re visiting.
- Seek genuine and respectful interaction with residents. Think of yourself as a cultural ambassador, and aim to have at least one experience each trip in which you interact directly with locals.
- After the trip, share the experience with others. Promote those who helped to enrich your journey, and spread the word about options for more ethical travel.
Volunteer tourism’s pitfalls and potential
Volunteer tourism – aka voluntourism: the combination of tourism and volunteering at a destination – can be a worthwhile way to connect with local people and give back to the local community. Traditionally, the volunteering was organised by churches, youth clubs or nonprofit agencies, and required a lengthy time commitment, intense preparation and planning. Over time, volunteering became a popular activity for travellers, turning it into a big industry. Unfortunately, this huge demand shifted the focus from making a difference in local communities toward fulfilling the desires of the traveller – eg, with more flexible programmes and short-term volunteering opportunities. The focus on the consumer created problems that have haunted this niche market, including inadequate volunteer preparation. In short, the industry rushed to meet the needs of tourists with insufficient regard for what communities really needed.
If you are interested in volunteering while abroad, it’s important to inform yourself about any organisation that facilitates volunteer tourism – including how it chooses projects and prepares volunteers, how much of the money that’s spent on a programme stays with the local community, and what your specific duties as a volunteer would be.
Special attention should be given when the volunteering involves working with children. Many companies in this industry do not run background checks on their volunteers or vet them for appropriate skills. Well-meaning volunteers are often not sufficiently trained to teach or work with children. And many tourism organisations do not directly manage volunteer programmes on site, instead outsourcing the oversight to local organisations. This means that often children have no one to report to, and likewise volunteers who witness violence or other problems may be unable to find a responsible person to talk to. Volunteering in an orphanage abroad is especially something to avoid, as many of these have been built specifically for tourism. In these cases, children are often recruited from their parents in small villages based on promises that they will get a good education and opportunities.
Misguided volunteer tourism has also led to many mismanaged projects, such as a building project in which shoddy construction work done by volunteers has to be redone properly by locals.
When it is done well, however, volunteering abroad can have positive impacts on a community. It can help fill the gap where local resources are insufficient, and tourists who volunteer can also help stimulate the local economy through their tourism dollars. Projects that have you commit a few weeks minimum are likely to be more beneficial and ethical. The Karenni Social Development Center in Thailand asks volunteers to commit to three months. Many programmes do work with local stakeholders and train volunteers. The nonprofit Reef Doctor, which does conservation work in Madagascar, offers a good example of a transparent programme.
To engage in ethical volunteering, avoid projects and operators that lack transparency into how projects are selected and where the money goes. Also avoid those that use belittling ‘poverty marketing’, which uses images of starved or poor children or adults to attract the attention of the volunteer. Look for an operator that shows responsibility in selecting volunteers and projects, and most of all involves the local community in project selection so that real local needs are met. Reflect on your own preparation and motivation for volunteering, too: are you willing to adapt to and respect the local culture, to be trained for your role or to show the necessary skills?
Links & books
In my book Destination Unknown: Sustainable Travel and Ethical Tourism (2021), I highlight the problems that mass tourism has created and the ways the industry can change for the better by using ethical accommodation design, creating space for local encounters, facilitating cultural tourism, and offering meaningful volunteer activities.
The documentary Gringo Trails (2013) beautifully tells the story of various destinations over a period of several decades. It highlights the many devastating consequences for tourist destinations of unplanned travel, but also shows how tourism can be used for good.
The nonprofit organisation Ethical Traveler selects its top ethical travel destinations each year, shares advice for ethical travel, and also offers group trips. Its main aims are to protect the environment and human rights.
The episode ‘The Appeal of Mass Tourism in the Age of Authentic Travel’ (2015) of the Skift Podcast summarises the issues with mass tourism and argues for the diversification of tourism areas as well as imposing carrying capacities for destinations.
The short documentary Crowded Out: The Story of Overtourism (2018) eloquently explains the impact of excessive tourism, and documents the factors that allowed the industry to grow to such proportions.
The film Bye Bye Barcelona (2014) highlights the many impacts of overtourism on the Spanish city, suggesting that it has lost its soul or essence. It also shows how tourism has displaced locals, and the fight they put up for their hometown.