Travel's Dirty Secret: The Truth About Traveling Ethically

We'd all like to think that travel is inexplicably good. We convince ourselves that we are contributing to communities in far-flung destinations. We tell others that travel has enlightened us and has allowed us to experience other cultures. We say we are doing something good, pat ourselves on the back and put no more thought into the subject.

But there's a dark side to tourism. A dangerous side we rarely talk about and shield our eyes from. 

Tourism is a two-headed beast that is hard to tame. Yes, it creates jobs and provides a (sometimes) steady influx of money to towns that may direly need it. But it also brings with it corruption, pollution, over-development, westernization, exploitation, and a cycle of dependence. 

Communities are often not equipped to handle tourism, and crumble under its effects. Traditions are lost. Beaches are polluted. McDonald's and Starbucks replace local shops. Towns often sacrifice their previously quiet and sustainable way of life and years later are sorry they did so.

And we, as travelers, are the culprit. 

How will you leave your mark?

Like many people before, I’ve drifted through towns that were surely once beautiful but now are lined with trash and filled with drunk foreigners leaving their mark. It’s eerie to see the shadow of beauty that was once there but has been dulled by all those passing through.

Full Moon parties on Thai islands leave the ocean waters littered with trash. Elephants have been mutilated in order for tourists to ride their backs. The infamous ping-pong shows in Bangkok are a display of sex workers, and the people of the “Longneck Village” in northern Thailand are treated as if they’re exotic animals in a zoo.

This is just Thailand, but this type of depravity happens all over the world. 

I'm not claiming that I haven't contributed. But the more I travel, the more aware I've become of the large footprint I'm leaving and more determined to wipe it away.

We have all added to pollution and corruption in ways we aren’t even aware, but that doesn’t mean we can continue turning our heads. We must do something. We must educate ourselves and others and choose to travel consciously.

How can I travel ethically?

Whether we like it or not, as tourists, we are asked to "vote" in the form of money. When we support companies that are harming the environment or exploiting locals, we are telling them that these practices are okay, and the cycle continues.

The effects vary. Some companies are run by businessmen/women whose sole intention is to make a quick buck, and we give it to them. Other times, we may be funding something much more sinister – like the abuse of animals or the sex trafficking industry.

We have a responsibility to do the research before opening up our wallet.

The Internet has made it increasingly easy to investigate companies before you shell out money that supports their cause. Before embarking on your travels, look at company websites, browse reviews on TripAdvisor, and read other travelers’ accounts on blogs.

Things to consider:

  • When traveling in a developing country, ensure that the company you choose is locally-owned, or works closely with local people and is beneficial to them.
  • If you’re looking at doing any type of animal tourism, REALLY DO YOUR RESEARCH. More often than not, animals are exploited for the benefit of humans. And the effects cannot be reversed.
  • And when traversing through natural places, choose tour operators that give back to the environment in some way – whether through conservation or education.

Sometimes reputable companies cost more. But isn’t protecting this earth and contributing to a company that is doing good things worth it? I sure think so.

The bad news is that doing research ahead of time is not always foolproof. It’s difficult to really learn the motives of a company when you are booking an excursion from the comforts of your own living room thousands of miles away.

So do the digging in person as well. Talk to the company owners. Ask the tough questions: Where do the profits go? How are the employees treated? Where to the elephants go after all the tourists have left?

And evaluate your experience with a critical eye. I’ve certainly booked tours through companies who claim to be “protecting the environment”, but the guide throws their trash on the ground. And I’ve spoken to employees who don’t feel like they are compensated fairly, despite working for a company that claims to “treat all employees generously”.

One of the most powerful things you can do after traveling, whether your experience was good or bad, is to post your own reviews online so others who travel after you know how to “vote”.

This doesn’t only apply to tour companies, but to hotels and restaurants as well. There are some incredible organizations all over the world actively bettering their communities, and they need your support. Find them!

For instance, throughout our time in Cambodia, we stayed exclusively at Mad Monkey Hostels because of their socially responsible practices and overwhelming support for the local communities. Find out how they are helping rural students build a new school and providing clean drinking water to hundreds of families. They also have some impressive hostels, including one on a secluded island with a private beach

Final Thoughts

Although this is a subject I am very passionate about, I am no expert. I’m still learning how to travel in a way that will leave the smallest footprint so that the world stays beautiful, people are treated with dignity, and animals live without harm.

It’s our responsibility to think about what we’re contributing to while we travel. Do you purchase “green” products at home because you care about the environment? Do you shop local and buy handmade items in order to support individuals rather than big corporations? Do you believe that employees in your home country should be paid a fair wage for their work? Do you recycle? Why should it be any different when you’re traveling?

I dream of someday telling my children about the places I’ve gone, and I hope they’re able to visit them and see the same exquisite beauty as I have. But I know all too well that if we don’t start doing something soon about the way we travel, this will only be a dream.