Are You an Ethical Traveler?

Are You an Ethical Traveler?

From my own observations while traveling, it seems to me that people assume what is acceptable in their culture is also acceptable when traveling. This couldn’t be further from the truth. To combat ethnocentric tendencies while traveling, ethical traveling is becoming an increasingly popular concept.

So what is ethical traveling? Can it be defined or is it subjective? In the most basic terms, ethical traveling is being respectful of and abiding by cultural norms and protocol. This includes appropriate behaviors, gestures and dress. 

With the proliferation of social media and the perpetual quest to “do it for the ‘gram”, how do we maintain respect & ethics when traveling but also share our adventures on social media at the same time? For those of us who’s every intention is to travel ethically and respectfully, this leaves us walking a fine line. There is no formula, or specific instructions to follow because chances are there will always be someone who is offended by what you do, post or say. Here are some of my suggestions to be more respectful while traveling and to play a part in the growing community of ethical travelers: 

1. Research

This is number one for a reason; it’s the first thing you should do before you even book your flight. Research the customs, norms, and appropriate dress for wherever you plan on going. Sometimes I’ve researched a place and felt it would be either too difficult to abide by or quite frankly, I just didn’t want to put in the effort to follow that cultures norms. If that’s the case, out of respect for that culture, I would choose not to travel there. Don’t be that person, who selfishly and ignorantly goes somewhere and completely ignores the culture. 

2. Ask Permission

Always ask permission when taking photos. I’m guilty of not following this rule in the past, but the more I travel the more I understand why asking for permission when taking a photo is so necessary. Imagine being in your own country, walking down the street to buy groceries and someone snaps a picture of you. It’s intrusive, it can be very violating and it’s just plain rude. The best way to ask, especially if you don’t speak the language, is to point at your camera, smile and nod your head yes or no. I’ve never had someone tell me no. In fact, most likely if you ask, people will be more receptive. 

3. Don’t take pictures with animals.

I have seen countless photos of people with a variety of animals from tiger cubs to koalas. Again, I am guilty of this too, but there is a plethora of information now available about the harm of taking pictures with animals. From my own research, it seems places that have animals caged or shackled in some way, sedate the animals to make the experience “safer”. The problem with this is these animals should be able to roam free, not be sedated 15 hours a day so tourists can get a photo. It is not only unfair to the animal but also unhealthy. Since we’re on the subject of animals, please do not ride elephants (I will have a whole post on this soon). Elephants are meant to be ridden a few hours a day for necessary work, like horses. They are not meant to be ridden by tourists for hours upon hours, back to back. I learned about this recently at Into The Wild Elephant Camp in Thailand.

4. Try to shop/eat/stay locally.

One of the most important things you can do for a local economy is spend your money in places that either contribute to or are owned by locals. Chances are these are better and more authentic than anything foreign owned. I’m not saying don’t spend your money in places that aren’t owned by locals, though. A lot of times foreign owned businesses contribute heavily to the local people through non-profit organizations or by employing locals. Research ahead of time so you know the best locally owned places to eat, shop and stay.

5. Immerse yourself

Immerse yourself in the local culture, try not to be an outsider looking at people like they are animals at a zoo. Traveling is great because you are often an observer but, that doesn’t mean you can’t also participate! Participating and first hand experience are vital components of cultivating tolerance. The more we experience and understand something that is foreign to us, the more we can share in our differences and be more inclusive.   

6. Volunteering Abroad

Be intentional when booking volunteering tours. If you’re someone who wishes to volunteer abroad, I would be willing to bet your intentions are pure and benevolent. There are many variables that can determine whether volunteering abroad is helpful or hurtful to the local culture. Here’s a great article about the potentials harms of volunteering abroad.

While these aren’t the only steps you can take in being an ethical traveler, the more intentional we are in our choices abroad and the more we choose to have respectful experiences and share them with the world, the more we can spread love and tolerance; little by littte.

If you would like to read more about ethical traveling here are some other great articles: