The Ethical Traveler: 8 Strategies to Maximize your Positive Impact

  • Luke Armstrong
May 24, 2016

Tourists and travelers, whether you know it or not, are at the crux of the clash of traditional and modern cultures. It is impossible for you to travel without serious political, environmental, and cultural ramifications. Oh no! And, you just wanted to go to Mexico, drink a margarita, and get a tan!

Well, you can still have your suntan, because traveling can powerfully influence the culture and economies of countries. So, it’s worthwhile spending the time it takes to drink a margarita and read this article to understand how academics view the tourist or traveler. From there, I'll give you eight tips to put you on the good team when it comes to traveling.

Economic Implications of Tourism

While tourism can showcase inequality, as an industry, it helps redistribute wealth throughout the world.
Tourism fuels economies throughout the world. Scholars who study it 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 economy. Of the 172 countries where statistics are available, 61 have tourism as a highly significant component of their economy.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, tourism is a top-three export for 19 less developed countries (LDCs), and for seven such countries, tourism is the single largest source of outside earnings. Good job tourist! — not only are you getting that tan you wanted, but you are driving global economies!

Tourism Under the Positive View

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!

Another estimate from the International Labor Organization postulated that every job in the tourist industry adds 1.5 jobs to the economy — meaning 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, along with growing economic prosperity, contribute to a burgeoning global tourism industry,” writes Monica DeHart in her book Migration and Tourism: People on the Move. Dehart is a professor of Anthropology at the University of Puget Sound.

But before you buy travel insurance and help the world by taking a trip to Fiji, tourism isn't without its dark side.

Even as a force of good, tourism can be too much of a good thing. Consider that “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,” writes Dehart.

The other side of the coin is that tourism can be used as driver of protection and preservation. Examples include Angkor Wat, Macchu, and the ancient Timbuktu, whose protection is financed through tourist dollars. But let's look for a moment at tourism’s dark side, and then I’ll equip you with strategies that keep the good times and effects rolling.

Negative Effect of Tourism: Tourism that Harms

Some argue that the above conclusions are misleading. This camp likens tourism to neocolonialism. 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 multinational corporations. Revenue which stays in the country is often concentrated in the hands of the economic and political elite, because the tourism jobs are often low wage, sometimes dangerous, working class jobs with little hope for advancement.

Tourism can lead to the commodification of 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.

It can also be a tool to spread less attractive qualities of our culture as traditional values, lifestyles and behavior are traded for Western materialism.

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.

The Ethical Traveler: 8 Strategies to be a more Responsible Traveler

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 carry with them a mindset that maximizes positive outcomes while minimizing negative ones. Below are strategies for travelers to employ when visiting another country.

1. An ethical tourist acts in the way he/she would like visitors in his/her own country to act

You would be a little off put 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 were graceful about putting their hand up when they didn't want pictures, Americans (the ones snapping the photos of the Vietnamese) were far less receptive, and much angrier, and one buff guy rather threatening, when the tables were turned and the lens focused on them in their country.

2. An ethical tourist learns something about the social practices, customs, language, government and culture of his/her destination country.

I'm not asking you to enroll in a college class just because you are taking a one or two-week trip somewhere, but it certainly is worthwhile to do a little googling about a destination before you travel there. If you are going to Nicaragua, why not spend that 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 intelligent questions and listen to those who have lived their whole lives in the country that you are visiting.

3. An ethical tourist supports the local economy whenever possible.

Do you want the money you spend abroad to be repatriated by 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 entrepreneurial locals.

4. An ethical tourist is an ecotourist

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 curbing 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.

5. Leave your books with the locals. Bring back local books.

In many countries, the books we can find 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 valuable possession.

6. Learn the language by trading vocabulary with a local who’s interested in learning your language.

Why pay a teacher to teach you the local language of a country you’re visiting, when there are everyday people on park benches, or riding transportation with you who are happy to exchange their words for your English words?

7. Volunteer in a charity that makes real sustainable changes using short-term volunteers as part of their puzzle. 

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!

8. Visit another country as a guest in someone else’s home.

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 and teach 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 traveling. 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.

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 before you book your next adventure.

About the Author

luke armstrong

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.

Read more of Luke’s blogs Visit Luke's website

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