How to Be an Ethical Traveler
These days, it’s not enough to just travel the world and share your stories with friends and family. It’s becoming more and more important to be an ethical traveler supporting sustainability efforts in as many ways possible. My tagline “travel like a local, not a tourist” isn’t just about finding hidden spots and avoiding guidebook recommendations.
It’s about caring for a place as though you were going to live there, ensuring you bring no harm to the residents, aren’t treating locals like zoo attractions, and spending your hard-earned travel dollars to support the communities you visit. There are small steps, and huge life-altering steps that you can take to become an ethical traveler. These are just a few of my favorites tips for travelers who want to make a difference.
Support Sustainable Companies
Before making reservations with a tour company or hotel, do a bit of research about their practices. It’s not always a case of local vs global. Some global hotel chains are really excellent about giving back to the communities they serve, and some small tour operators hand out plastic water bottles and utensils with no regard for the environment.
Big names like American Airlines and Sandals Caribbean Resorts are giving up plastic straws and drink stirrers as a way to reduce plastic consumption and waste. It’s OK to call a hotel and ask about their recycling policies before you decide to make a reservation. You might be shocked at how many hotels and resorts do not recycle. Sometimes, it’s a local issue, and other times, it’s a corporate issue.
While global brands are pitching in to help, it’s always beneficial to support local communities as directly as possible, especially when shopping. For example, in the American Southwest, you can buy turquoise jewelry nearly everywhere. However, buying it from a fancy boutique owned by an out-of-state proprietor means the money gets filtered down before ever reaching the original artists. It’s not hard to find Native artists selling their wares throughout the same region, so don’t stop at the first place you see. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the origins of the item you want to buy. Often when talking with an artist, you’ll get a much more interesting story about the piece you are buying. Buying local can also have a multiplying effect on the local economy, as many of the materials are sourced locally as well. Buying local is also beneficial to the environment, as there are fewer emissions associated with long distance transportation.
Avoid Human Attractions and Exploitation
Many years ago, visiting orphanages to play with children, or interacting with native residents ushered in a new kind of voluntourism that had good intentions. Unfortunately, the popularity of these types of tours has led to wide-spread corruption and exploitation of native people and their children. It’s gotten so bad that Australia recently formally recognized orphanage trafficking as a form of modern day slavery, as it’s estimated over 90% of children in some orphanages actually have parents. The long neck hill tribes in Thailand are another questionable example of potential human exploitation. The best thing you can do is research and ask yourself why you want to interact with locals in this way. Is it “for the ‘gram?” Then you should probably reconsider.
Avoid Animal Exploitation
Similar to human attractions, many animal attractions are now widely criticized as more travelers become concerned about the plight of animals. Sea World is a famous example, with millions of families visiting for the orca shows. Thanks to a well-timed documentary and a few well-publicized incidents, people are beginning to understand just how wrong it is to keep orcas in captivity, and this has caused Sea World to change their approach to orca programs. Unfortunately, “Swim with Dolphin” programs are still very popular with families visiting tropical destinations. Very few of these experiences are beneficial for the animals, so more work is needed to spread the word.
Zoos and aquariums can be very confusing, as some are heavily dedicated to research, rehabilitation and education. Research prior to your visit is critical to determine if you are supporting an ethical organization. (Hint: if the animals are made to perform or interact with humans in any way, that’s a red flag.)
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
This is nothing new or earth-shattering, but even the best recyclers at home can forget their habits while traveling. It’s so easy to grab convenience items in tiny plastic containers while you’re traveling. Reducing your plastic consumption is the best way to be an ethical traveler. There are fun products you can buy to help you avoid increased plastic use on the road. Always carry a refillable water bottle (most airports now have refilling stations) and it’s not hard to carry your own set of utensils and/or a container for takeaway food. (LightMyFire Sporks are a great addition to your carry-on bag!) If you must use plastic on the road, try to reuse things as often as possible. You can refill a plastic water bottle several times before popping it in the recycle bin. Lastly, once a product has outlasted its usefulness, be sure to recycle it. Many items can be recycled into a new purpose, or placed in the appropriate recycling bin.
The best thing anyone can do to become a more ethical traveler is to do their research. Before you visit any attraction, do some internet research and you’re liable to find some good information. For example, if someone were to Google “elephant riding in Thailand,” the second and third articles on the search results page are “Why You Shouldn’t Ride an Elephant in Thailand.” If you are interested in animal welfare, you are likely to click on those stories and will promptly change your mind about riding elephants. An informed traveler is an ethical traveler. If you’ve gotten to this point in the article, you’re well on your way to being a more ethical traveler.