The Ethical Traveler?

The ethics of travel represent constantly shifting soil that needs to be navigated with care. Tourism in general comes with both costs and benefits, and those can become even more extreme in particular places; yet, I don’t see many frequent travelers thinking about the impact of their travel. Or, if they do, they assure themselves that they are doing ‘the right thing,’ whatever that looks like, which oddly enough happens to eerily coincide with the desire to keep taking trips to beautiful places, to keep trotting around the world.

I struggle with these ethics myself because I like traveling and I like the idea of seeing more places. But some aspects of the travel industry concern me. The environmental costs, for example, associated with getting somewhere, getting around, and potentially visiting ecologically frail places that are quickly overloaded by huge numbers of visitors who just want to come see who beautiful they are. An understandable desire, but participating in the destruction of a place at the same time I want to appreciate it troubles me.

And, of course, there are the cultural issues bound up in tourism; the destruction of sacred or historical sites, and the debasement of some communities. Practices in some regions of the world like keeping indigenous people in effective living zoos for tourists to gawk at because governments have figured out that traditional cultures are profitable. The destruction of traditional cultures in the name of tourism. Socially, too, travel can have high costs; what happens when a region becomes solely dependent on tourist revenue, with no other sources of income, and people are trapped in a service industry with few opportunities for fair wages and benefits? What happens when the residents of a community can’t afford to live there anymore?

Look at what happened with the Castro, which has become such an expensive and exclusive place to live that some of the very people who shaped it can’t afford to participate in it anymore. It’s one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist destinations, and the high cost of living as well as high profile have made it a sudden destination neighbourhood for heterosexual people, who’ve descended upon the community and gentrified it; don’t forget that the Castro wasn’t all rainbow flags and cute Victorians, but also seat of ACT UP and radicalism, of bears and gritty bars and ferocity, and now it’s been tamed, the edges taken off, the teeth filed down.

But today I am thinking specifically of the ethical issues involved in visiting troubled countries. It’s fair to say that all countries are troubled to some extent, and engage in practices that are culturally dubious; one might want to boycott the United States, for example, over its stance on immigration, its decision to continue using drones, or its subjugation of women. Or one might choose not to visit Jamaica because of the growing problem of homophobia in the nation, which makes it one of the most dangerous places to be gay. Or one might choose to avoid Greece because of the country’s rising far-right politics and the horrific way it treats immigrants.

Some people argue that these countries should be visited precisely because of these issues, allowing people to advocate for change by working within the system. As visitors to nations and regions dependent on tourism revenue, people can carry a lot of weight when they push for changes to social policies; in effect, these advocates are suggesting that nations should be blackmailed into good behaviour. Stop abusing immigrants, or we won’t visit you anymore, and you can kiss us and all our money and job creation and more goodbye. They say they don’t want to punish everyone by withdrawing their support, arguing that an organised and sustained boycott would cause even more people to lose their jobs, create even more instability, isolate a nation even more.

Others say that choosing not to visit is the more ethical choice, making it clear that a country isn’t considered a safe or pleasant place to visit because of the social or ethical issues going on. They point out that this can be an expression of solidarity with oppressed populations, people who are struggling with a government that abuses them, and in some cases, residents actively call for tourists to avoid them, asking that their regions not be considered prime spots for visiting, holding conferences, and other activities that might bring in outside revenue.

What do you do? These are not easily-answered ethical issues, but the problem I see most frequently among travelers is the tendency to self-examine only, without looking to the outside world. If I want to know whether I should return to Greece, one thing I want to know is how Greeks feel about it, and what immigrants in Greece think about the nation’s reputation as a tourist destination. What do the people of the country, particularly those who are experiencing oppression, think would be the most ethical action for a prospective visitor? How do they think I should behave? Because that should be a key component of my decision.

Travel should involve informing yourself about where you want to go. Not just looking up sites and restaurants and making an itinerary and thinking about all the awesome and fun things you want to do, but learning about the issues you may run into, and making decisions about how you want to handle them. You can’t do that without reaching out and finding that information; it’s readily available, so there’s no reason not to look for it and make an informed choice about where you want to go, and how you want to conduct yourself there.

Ultimately, traveling to a troubled nation, or not, is your decision, but you should be able to talk about the origins of that decision and the thought processes that went into it. Because travel can be amazing, life changing, informative, and delightful, when you allow it to be.