Luke Armstrong | May 24, 2016
This blog post was updated December 5, 2019.
It is impossible for you to travel without serious political, environmental, and cultural effects. Oh no! And all you wanted was to go to Mexico, drink a margarita, and get a tan!
Well, you can still have your suntan, because responsible travel can have a powerfully positive influence the culture and economies of countries. So, it’s worthwhile spending the time it takes to drink a margarita reading this article to understand how academics view the tourist or traveler. From there, I'll give you 8 tips to become ethical travelers.
While tourism can showcase disparities, as an industry, it helps redistribute wealth throughout the world.
Tourism fuels economies throughout the world. Scholars say that when tourism contributes to five percent or more of a national economy, it is considered to be a highly significant component of the country’s economy. Of the 172 countries where statistics are available, tourism is a highly significant economic component of 61 of them.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, tourism is a top 3 export for 19 less developed countries (LDCs). For 7 countries, tourism is the single largest source of outside earnings.
Good job, tourists — not only are you getting that tan you wanted, but you are driving global economies!
Under a positive view, tourism is a progressive force for countries. In 2005, it was estimated that 77 million people around the world worked in travel and tourism. That's three percent of the world’s employment!
The International Labor Organization also estimated that every job in the tourist industry adds 1.5 jobs to the economy. This means tourism creates almost 200 million jobs globally (almost 10 percent of the world’s employment). This isn't just for "poor countries." Even in diversified, modern economies like Spain, tourism is a primary driver of the economy.
Tourism is also seen as a driving force for democracy. Travel requires political freedom, and the “global trend towards democracy and openness will ... contribute to a burgeoning global tourism industry,” writes Monica DeHart in her book Migration and Tourism: People on the Move. Dehart is a professor at the University of Puget Sound.
But before you buy travel insurance and help the world by taking a trip to Fiji, know that tourism isn't without its dark side.
Even for ethical travelers, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Dehart explains, “The very things that attract tourists in the first place, be it mountains, beaches, or rainforests, often become threatened as visitors quickly exceed the destination’s carrying capacity.”
Still, some argue that ethical travel is a driver of protection and preservation. Examples include Angkor Wat, Macchu, and the ancient Timbuktu, whose protection is financed through dollars from ethical travelers.
But let's look for a moment at tourism’s dark side, and then I’ll equip you with strategies to become a responsible traveler.
Some argue that the above conclusions are misleading. Critics point out that there are many revenue leakages in the global tourist system, which result in profits going not to local people, but to foreign international corporations. Revenue which stays in the country is often in the hands of the economic and political elite. Tourism jobs are often low wage, sometimes dangerous, working class jobs with little hope for advancement.
Tourism can commercialize a culture, which strips the original meaning of traditions, festivals and customs as locals cave to commercial pressures and incentives to produce their culture for profit.
The nature of modern travel also relies on an infrastructure, which contributes considerably to pollution from greenhouse gas emissions. For the New York Times, Elisabeth Rosenthal writes, “air travel is [the] most serious environmental sin.” One flight from NYC to Europe produces two to three tons of carbon dioxide per passenger.
There is certainly some truth to the darker side of tourism, just as there are clear and tangible benefits that you can contribute to another country’s economy.
Though most tourists are not involved in governmental policies governing tourism, every person traveling to another country should be conscious of tourism’s effects. Below are strategies for responsible travelers to employ when visiting another country.
Would it be a little off putting if a Cambodian man with a camera barged into your yard and snapped a picture of you gardening? People from another country are not tourist attractions; they are people from another country. Interact with them before snapping their photo, feel out the situation, and ask permission.
Once, as a little social experiment, I pretended to take photos of people on the streets of New York. I had just returned from Vietnam where I was off-put by how many tourists snapped photos of the locals at any opportunity.
While the Vietnamese gracefully put their hand up when they didn't want pictures, Americans were far less receptive when the lens focused on them in their country.
I'm not asking you to enroll in a college class, but it certainly is worthwhile to google a destination before you travel there. If you are going to Nicaragua, try spending downtime at the airport googling something like, "10 things every traveler in Nicaragua should know.”
This is a start to your knowledge, and the best way to add to it is to ask the locals questions about their home country.
Do you want the money you spend abroad to be given to a large transnational corporation? Or, do you want it to go to a local family struggling to pay for their children’s schooling in a less developed country?
I’d venture that most travelers support the latter. When buying souvenirs, finding lodging, eating dinner, scheduling tours, among other tourist activities — ask questions and find out where the money goes. Whenever possible, patronize establishments owned by locals.
Do your research on protected areas. If tourism is destroying the local ecology, find a different place to plan a trip. Take the greenest travel options available to you in your price range.
Find out which airlines have the strongest commitment to reducing carbon emissions and reward them by patronizing them. United Airlines is the U.S. carrier making the biggest steps towards going green, while in Europe it is Airberlin that has curbed more carbon emissions than any other career.
In many countries, the books we have in any Barnes & Noble simply cannot be found. Since people around the world seem to be in a race to learn English, you can really brighten someone's life by leaving with them a book in English. That “Pulp Fiction” paperback might just become someone's new most valued possession.
Why pay a teacher to teach you a new language when you can converse with everyday people on park benches or riding public transportation with you?
Can you really make a difference volunteering on a one-week trip? I think you can to the point that I wrote a whole article answering this question!
Whenever you are a guest in someone else’s country, be an ambassador for your own culture. Be there to listen and learn, and in appropriate circumstances, share about your own culture. There are differences in cultures, but people everywhere share the same baffling, yet wonderful human nature.
There’s a lot you can contribute to other cultures through responsible travel. Patronize local businesses in the areas of the world where you travel, because that keeps your money in the local economy. Remembering to be respectful of other people’s privacy will go a long way toward establishing a good ambassador relationship — after all, you are representing your home country and its people.
Also, remember this: People don’t like their privacy disturbed. Just because they look and act differently doesn’t mean you should whip out your camera and snap a picture. They may not want to be a part of your Kodak moment.
Finally, learn about the culture of a country before you travel to it. Googling to learn about local customs, traditions and other behaviors you should know, will show the locals you’ve done your homework, that you’re open to their culture. With this advice, you can be well on your way to ethical travel.
Of course, we always want you to travel well. Part of that is protecting yourself and your belongings when you're in another country. Check out our line of travel medical insurance plans before you book your next adventure.
Luke Maguire Armstrong is the author of "The Nomad's Nomad." He has spent the last decade traveling, writing and designing, and funding philanthropic programs around the world.