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Last Updated on 13/06/2021
We all have our different travel styles. Some of us like to wander aimlessly through a destination taking in the sights and sounds. Others prefer a more regimented itinerary filled with tours, museums and activities.
Whatever your style, what we choose to do on the road impacts the destination we visit. Responsible travel is all about turning our actions as tourists into a force of good. By choosing to do an ethical activity when we travel, our own itinerary can help support the local economy, protect the environment and even keep families together.
From wildlife attractions to supporting the local community, here’s how to pick the ultimate ethical travel activity on the road:
Define the purpose of your travels
The best way to ensure that all your activities are ethical when you travel is to define the purpose of your trip before you book it. Having an understanding of what your goals are for your holiday will guide you towards how you want to spend your time. Responsible travel takes more time to plan because finding an ethical activity abroad requires you to do a little digging.
Before you book your trip, outline your intentions. Are you looking for two uninterrupted weeks of sun, sea and relaxation? A beach destination would be ideal for you. Explorer? Then perhaps a week-long hike in the mountains is more your jam. Culture lovers and foodies might be more inclined to roam the cities and local street food markets whereas gap year enthusiasts might have a party scene in mind. You might also want to find hidden gems and get off the beaten track.
Defining your goals for your next trip will not only help you figure out what kind of holiday you want, but it will also lay the foundations for step two of responsible travel: the research.
What to look for when picking an ethical activity
Greenwashing is a popular trope in the tourist industry. Any tourist company can say that their operations are ‘eco’, ‘ethical’ or a ‘sanctuary’ while being anything but. Distinguishing a truly ethical activity from pretenders takes a little research if you want assurance that they’re not taking you for a ride.
Here are the key signs of an ethical activity:
Travel is exciting. You’re surrounded by new experiences, tastes and cultures so it’s all too easy to get carried away if you’re offered the chance to get close and personal with a tiger or visit an indigenous tribe. Unfortunately, these types of experiences can be exploitative and cruel without you even realising.
An ethical activity will conserve and protect the local environment, respect the wildlife, promote cultural diversity and improve the welfare and livelihoods of local communities (like these ones here!).
Distinguishing the ethical from the unethical can be a bit of a minefield, especially when you’re unfamiliar with a destination. In my opinion, if the idea of it makes you feel uncomfortable then it’s probably for a good reason.
How to choose an ethical wildlife activity
Most of us would jump at the chance to cuddle a big cat if we weren’t already aware of the cruelty inflicted. Behind this rose-tinted fantasy, the reality is much darker than any of us would want to imagine. It’s not uncommon for the tiger to be beaten, drugged, malnourished and in a constant state of fear at the mercy of its handlers. Most of these handlers don’t know or don’t care how to look after the animal properly. To them, it’s a moneymaker, not a sentient being.
It’s worth mentioning that not every handler offering wildlife tourist attractions is entirely to blame for this cruelty. After all, there’s no business if there’s no market for it. Most of them are just trying to earn a living out of their knowledge of what tourists enjoy. By putting our money into ethical animal attractions, we have the power to change wildlife tourism for the better.
Negotiating what is or isn’t animal cruelty can be challenging if it doesn’t appear to be obvious unless you know what to look out for. To help make it easier, consider how the animal attraction is displayed and what it involves.
How is the animal affected?
Does the experience look like it might be detrimental to the animal?
Is it stressed or in pain?
Is the animal in its natural habitat?
Can you observe it without getting too close?
Does the activity make you uncomfortable?
Plenty of wildlife attractions put the animal first above everything else. Here’s what an ethical animal activity looks like:
- The attraction is a registered NGO and puts the animal’s welfare first over profit.
- The attraction is licensed by legitimate local authorities.
- Its goals and code of ethics are transparent and easily accessible on their website.
- It uses respectful images and languages when promoting its activities and animals on social media.
- Reviews have no concerns about animal cruelty and all criticisms are handled well.
- Animals are observed at a safe and comfortable distance that causes them no distress or harm.
- The attraction works to rescue, protect and rehabilitate the animal rather than use them as a display for profit.
How to pick an ethical activity that supports the local community
The role of a responsible traveller is to protect the community they visit by choosing activities that make a positive impact rather than exploit. It’s a good idea to research activities promoting sensitive subjects beforehand to ensure that they’re truly ethical.
Some of these sensitive subjects include:
Orphanages prey on the intentions of do-gooders and volunteers and they have been criticised for their mistreatment of children. Studies have shown that children are happier and healthier in a nurturing family unit rather than an institution. Wealthy countries have long since done away with orphanages, favouring foster care, reunification and adoption instead.
In poorer countries, orphanages exist not because the child is without a family (most have at least one living relative), it’s because they make a profit from rich donors, volunteers and tourists from all over the world.
Some orphanages send out ‘baby finders’ to convince poor families to give up their child with promises of comfort, food and education. Instead, the child is abandoned and mistreated. Each do-gooder that visits these orphanages unwittingly causes the child more distress when they leave a few weeks later.
It’s best to avoid orphanages altogether on the road. Instead, choose activities that help keep families together. Pick a tour operator that supports organisations fighting against orphanages. Shop, eat and engage with local family-run businesses so that they don’t have to put their child into an orphanage out of financial necessity. Consider donating to organisations that return children to their families or communities.
Sex work is a complex subject and the laws around it change depending on where you are. My advice would be if you don’t know the rules then don’t do it because you don’t know what you’re getting into or who are really benefiting. If the activity is non-consensual, involves children or sex trafficking then it is, of course, illegal.
Over the past few years, indigenous tourism, otherwise known as ‘ethnic’ or ‘tribal’ tourism, has grown in popularity as tourists seek cultural learning experiences and meaningful interactions in the destinations they visit. Now concerns have been raised over the ethical nature of visiting indigenous tribal communities and how it inflicts on their way of life.
Ideally, these indigenous communities should have a degree of control over these visits and receive a financial benefit, however, very little money remains in the villages. Instead, unethical tour operators take busloads of tourists to visit their homes to observe their traditional dress and culture, subsequently turning their life into what has been described as a ‘human zoo’.
A lot of the time, tourists are only looking for that perfect photo opportunity rather than immersing themselves in the culture. Far more dangerous attractions include illegal excursions to rarely contacted tribes which can harm to both the indigenous communities and tourists.
Meeting indigenous communities can be ethical if they’re carefully arranged. The best way to take part in one of these visits is to go with a tour company that promotes small-group or individual homestays that generate income for the communities. The homestay might be a little rough and ready by Western standards but it offers a unique, once in a lifetime cultural immersion like no other.
Ethical activities and cultural sensitivity
As tourists, we are ambassadors for our own countries. The way we conduct ourselves makes an impact on how we and future visitors are received and treated. Being a responsible traveller and opting for ethical activities abroad shows respect for the destination, its people and its culture. It makes travel into a force of good that supports local businesses, economies and traditions all over the world while protecting the vulnerable against exploitation.
Choosing where to put our money is the first part of responsible travel; the second is our behaviour on the road. Whatever activity you choose to do, whether it’s sightseeing, taking a tour or visiting an animal attraction, it’s a good idea to spend a bit of time researching the destination’s culture and laws before your trip so you know how best to conduct yourself.
There are too many stories of drunk tourists angering the locals or behaving badly at sacred sites. Knowing the rules, respecting cultures and even asking before taking a photograph can be the difference between an enriching experience and ending up in jail.
Further reading on responsible travel
- Taking Responsibility for Tourism by Harold Goodwin
- Looptail by Bruce Poon Tip
- Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams
- First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung
- In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall