As travel starts to slowly open up again in some parts of the world, how can we make our trips more ethical? This is the question explored in the new book Tread Brightly: Notes on Ethical Travel, with essays from more than a dozen writers. In this essay excerpt, writer and editor Juhie Bhatia looks at how actions from making travel a more active exchange to examining our power and privilege can move us in a more ethical direction.

Whether it’s visiting acclaimed Parisian museums, hiking through the Grand Canyon, or exploring ancient temples in Cambodia, there’s a reason so many tourists flock to the same places around the world: to experience these extraordinary natural and human-made masterpieces. Travel can be awe-inspiring, fun, and a temporary escape. It opens up the world, connecting us and allowing us to better understand other perspectives. Travel leaves an impact on us, long after we’ve returned home.

A view of Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia. The temple is vast and ancient and is extremely popular with tourists.
Cambodia's giant Angkor Wat Temple is the country's big drawcard © Waj / Shutterstock

Like for countless others, travel has had a significant influence on my life. As the daughter of Indian immigrants who settled in Canada, I learned early on that there were many ways to do things in this world. While this sometimes created a feeling of never quite fitting into either world, it also sparked a lifetime of wanderlust.

My itchy feet have taken me on many globetrotters’ clichés. Studying abroad in Glasgow, Scotland, followed by backpacking across Europe for a summer. Traveling through Asia after university and volunteering in India. Moving to Paris to learn French, though in truth, my fluency barely improved. Becoming a journalist, in part so I wouldn’t be bound to any one place. And, of course, many vacations.

Travel is a privilege

But over the years, these experiences began to raise questions for me about the purpose of travel and tourism, its impact on a destination, and the role privilege can play in who gets to travel and how we are treated once abroad. Often, the personal benefits we gain when traveling come at the expense of the places and people we visit. These include degradation of the environment, threats to local culture and heritage, overcrowding, and residents being priced out of their own cities.

How might we continue to reap travel’s many benefits while minimizing its damaging impacts? Are there ways to travel besides getting elbowed at the Louvre? How can we turn travel from consumption into an active, positive exchange? Is it possible to travel better, more ethically?

Visitors take photo of Leonardo DaVinci's "Mona Lisa" which hangs on a plain wall at the Louvre Museum, August 4, 2012 in Paris, France. The painting is one of the world's most famous.
Millions of tourists jostle with the crowds each year to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris © S-F / Shutterstock

“Ethical travel really is simply mindful travel,” says Jeff Greenwald, executive director of Ethical Traveler, a California-based nonprofit organization. “It’s travel with an awareness of the places you’re visiting, your impact on those places, where your money is going, and how you can be a good representative of your own country when you travel, rather than just an example of everything that’s wrong with your own country.”

But for Greenwald, a truly ethical traveler should do more than just be mindful. “It’s being proactive in taking steps to reduce your impact, to support local businesses and individuals, and to be aware and engaged with people in these countries.”

Until the outbreak of COVID-19, international tourism had been growing rapidly. In 2019, 1.5 billion people traveled abroad for leisure, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, a four percent increase from the previous year. The UNWTO attributed this growth to a strong global economy, a growing middle class in emerging economies, technological advances, affordable travel costs, and greater visa facilitation.

Consequences of travel habits

While the COVID-19 outbreak has majorly slowed down the tourism industry, the good news is that even before the pandemic, increasingly more people were becoming conscious of the consequences of their travel habits and wanting to change. Recent surveys and market studies indicate that a growing portion of travelers are interested in authentic and localized travel experiences that are good for residents and destinations.

A small herd of Elephants in a field at Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Many travelers say they feel guilt over past unethical travel experiences, particularly those involving animals © Oriol Querol / Shutterstock

For example, a 2019 study conducted on behalf of Exodus Travels, an adventure holiday company specializing in cultural, walking, and cycling holidays, found that about 80 percent of American travelers say they hope to become more ethically conscious in their future adventures.

The research, which surveyed 2000 internationally-traveling Americans, also revealed that 39 percent feel “travel guilt” over their past experiences abroad, especially if it involved practices like swimming with dolphins or posing for photos with captive wildlife. Respondents say that a combination of personal research, greater concern for the environment, and documentaries like Blackfish have made them more conscientious.

Ethical travel or responsible travel?

There is no set definition of ethical travel, sometimes known as responsible travel. It means different things to different people. Ethical travel can pertain to all types of travel, from all-inclusive resorts to tiny ecotourist lodges. It can cover a wide range of actions, from small gestures – like making more meaningful connections with locals – to fundamentally changing how one travels. For some, ethical travel means showing up to a place with more openness and humility or buying fair trade products. For others, it means reducing one’s environmental footprint while traveling. And for some, it means avoiding a particular destination altogether.

A female hiker with a large rucksack makes her way along the Rota Vicentina hiking trail in Portugal. Ahead of her is a wide sandy beach, which is being lapped by a calm sea.
One way to be a more ethical traveler is to use greener forms of transport, including your own two feet © hansslegers / Getty Images

For Jonathan Day, an associate professor of sustainable tourism at Purdue University, ethical travel means taking individual responsibility. 

“When I define what is ethical, I’m thinking about it both as am I being environmentally ethical and am I being socially ethical?” he says. “At the end of the day, what is ethics? Ethics is about doing the right thing.”

Wanting to “do the right thing” and make a positive impact while traveling can sometimes be tricky. Whether you’re studying abroad, backpacking through a foreign country, or going camping, it can be difficult to figure out if you’re making ethical choices, or at least not actively causing harm with your travels. But sometimes even the best of intentions can go awry.

Travel writer Faith Adiele is trying to get people to think more ethically about how they travel, and the narratives used to depict our experiences abroad. Adiele is the founder of the first and only workshop in the U.S. for travel writers of color. Her goal? To decolonize travel and have us reflect on its imperialist origins.

Unidentified buddhist monks, wearing red robes, pray in Bodhnath monastery, Kathmandu. One of the monks is just a boy, while the other is a grown adult man.
Some conventional travel narratives can reduce local people to stereotypes and push them into the background © Det-anan / Shutterstock

“People have this rhetoric of what travel does in terms of opening our eyes,” says Adiele. One shortcoming of this approach, she says, is that it can turn locals into backdrops for our grand transformation narratives. For that to work, these people must remain primitive, “authentic,” and unchanging.

Adiele believes it’s important to travel. However, she wants people to make an effort to move past the colonial nature of travel – by thinking carefully about how to travel, how we treat the “natives” we encounter, and how we describe our travels once we return home, including on social media and to our friends and family.

Once you arrive at a destination is when the fun starts. This is no different with ethically-minded trips, with an added layer of consciousness about how you spend your time and money and interact with the people you meet.

Getting the most out of a trip can mean moving away from travel’s typical focus on consumption to an active exchange. There are many ways to do this, but a lot of it boils down to two things: being mindful of your actions and being respectful of the communities you visit. For example, when meeting new people, ask about their lives, listen, and if possible, learn a few phrases of the local language. Be aware and respectful of local customs, and approach daily experiences with a genuine desire to learn.

Extracted from the book “Tread Brightly: Notes on Ethical Travel,”  available for order here.

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