Ethical travel. Sustainable travel. Ecotourism. Green travel. Whatever you want it to call it, it is IMPORTANT. Travel is a huge part of my life. Even when I'm not travelling I'm planning my next trip, blogging, posting, and of course dreaming about it. As the years of gone on and my experience has broadened, I have realized the importance of being socially and environmentally conscious during my adventures. This was instilled in me on my group trips to Kenya and Cuba, but during my solo trip to Southeast Asia it was up to me to be aware of the effect I was having, and make smart decisions.
Being mindful of our impact on the places we visit is extremely important, but not everyone is aware that they have such an impact, and may not know how to look out for unethical travel practices. I've created this post to help with that. So how can you know if something is unethical? Well, first off it's important to ask yourself: does it negatively effect or exploit the local culture, environment, or people? Does it harm any being? If you aren't sure, do your research. That's one of the great things about technology today, almost everything has a review on the internet if you know where to look. Here's some tips on where to find them:
1) Instagram: hashtags/location - see what people are posting/saying about businesses and activities you're interested in. It's important to check out multiple posts (and comments on those posts), as some people may have no idea that something is unethical. For example, I've seen many people posting pictures riding elephants or at the Tiger Temple in Thailand that clearly have zero clue what kind of impact they're having.
2) Facebook: now this isn't my favourite method, but for some smaller businesses, this might be the only advertising/information they have. Be sure to check out several reviews!
3) Travel Blogs: I have included some of my experiences in this post, but there are many more (and bigger) travel bloggers that share similar experiences and reviews: Some that I rely on and respect are: Green Global Travel; Eco Traveller Guide, Girl Around the Globe, and I Am Aileen.
4) AVOID Trip Advisor- businesses can pay to have bad reviews taken down, so it is not a reliable source for an honest review.
5) ASK!: A local who works at your hostel or your favourite restaurant, or even other travellers. If you aren't sure about it, simply ask! You may have to ask around, but that's the best way to be sure. Overall, it's important to trust your gut, usually if something doesn't feel quite right it's because it isn't.
I have run into a few instances where the people I was travelling with and I had completely different perspectives on what is ethical, and what isn't. For example, we have all heard of the famous "ping pong shows" in Bangkok. For those of you who haven't, tourists visit clubs in Bangkok's Red Light District and pay to see women do tricks, such as blow a ping pong ball at the crowd, with their you-know-what's (definitely not their mouths). If you're walking at night on Khao San Road, every tuk tuk driver has a list of what these girls can do, and a "special price", and my travel mates jumped right on it. Does it negatively exploit the local culture or the locals? Red flag. Myself, and one other guy from our group opted out and head back to the hostel to play some cards. Upon returning later that night, most of the group seemed rather horrified at what they had encountered. These shows are an example of the "hidden" sex trade. It's "legal" so it's okay, right? Wrong. These shows exploit women and make dirty money, and the only reason they still exist is because tourists keep indulging in them. That's the reality, and it's up to us to help change it.
Elephant/camel riding, tiger temples, and swimming with dolphins. Does it harm any being? Not everyone is aware of the negative impact of animal tourism. Unless you are seeing an animal in it's natural habitat, or a sanctuary that is focussed on rehabilitation and release for injured, sick, or retired working animals, it is not ethical. For more information on animal tourism, check out Ride Bikes, Not Elephants.
A less "in your face", but just as important example is the exploitation of culture that occurs when tour companies bring mass amounts of tourists to visit and have an "authentic" experience with local tribes, or to be a part of cultural practices. For example, on a day trip to Doi Inthanon National Park in the Chiang Mai region of Thailand, our tour made stops at the highest point in Thailand, two beautiful waterfalls, the twin pagodas, and one of the villages of the Karen hill tribe. The tour was a great way to see and learn about the region and see some beautiful scenery, but one thing didn't sit well with me. The "tour" of the village showed us the rice fields, and the inside of a shop where two women were weaving and selling scarves and blankets. It was obvious the tour guide received some sort of commission if any of us on the tour bought something, as she was quite pushy and was negotiating deals for us. Now don't get me wrong, I am happy to support the local economy and businesses, especially for the beautiful works of art that were in front of me. However, what was the true cost? How many of these tours came through in a week or a day? How much of the tradition of this hill tribe has been lost because of the mass tourism these companies bring through? There was one moment in particular that bothered me. We were heading back to the bus, and I noticed an older woman sitting on the front steps of what I presume to be her home, washing some clothes in a bucket. Without even asking, one of the girls from my day trip went up and started taking photos of her. She seemed a little confused and uncomfortable, but said nothing. Does it exploit the local culture, environment, or locals?
About a month later during my volunteer trip with ENP, I spent several hours with members of a different Karen hill tribe. I played soccer, looked at photos and read books with local children, and had tea with members of the local community. We planted trees with the chief, his family and other community members, and witnessed a beautiful Buddhist ceremony at the local church. It may not be as easy as booking a tour the day before, but there are other ways to experience a culture, a community, and a country without exploiting it.
There is almost always an alternative. Whether you want to support the local culture or businesses, experience wildlife or indulge in cultural practices, there is almost always an eco-friendly, ethical way to do so. The best way to find out is to do your research. Ask a local if you aren't sure (honestly, this is the best way, and a lot of times you will end up somewhere most travellers have never been). If you aren't able to find an alternative, then it's time to ask yourself: is the experience worth the impact?
There is no doubt that travel leaves a footprint, that is something that we as travellers must accept. However, it is possible to reduce that footprint through eco-friendly and sustainable practices such as the ones I mentioned above. Other examples include volunteering and giving back to local communities, donating unused clothes, toys and toiletries when you're done with them, and educating other travellers about simple practices, and how easy they really are. I have a rule for myself when I travel: to leave a place better than how I found it. Whether that's by spending a week volunteering, or participating in a beach clean-up, there is always something I can do. We may be a guest when we travel to a new country, but the earth is our home, not matter where we may be. If we want to continue to have the privilege to travel then it's our job to be smart about it, educate fellow travellers and friends, and to strive to leave it better.
Not Your Average Travel
"Whatever is good for your soul, do that"
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