Travel’s Dirty Secret: The Truth About Ethical Tourism

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Travel's Dirty Secret: The Truth about Ethical Tourism | Two Wandering Soles

We’d all like to think that travel is inexplicably good. With ethical tourism in mind and our hearts in the right place, 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 oftentimes 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 isn’t easily tamed. Yes, it creates jobs and provides a (sometimes) steady influx of money to towns that may direly need it.

But tourism 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 to westernization. Beaches are polluted. McDonald’s and Starbucks replace locally owned businesses. Towns often sacrifice their previously quiet and sustainable way of life to accommodate the masses and years later find they are sorry they did so.

And we, as travelers, are the culprit.

How will you leave your mark?

Ethical Tourism | 1,000 year old tree

Like many people before, I’ve wandered 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 tourists who are just passing through and won’t stick around long enough to bear the consequences of their destruction.

Full Moon parties on Thai islands leave the ocean waters littered with trash. Elephants have been mutilated in order for tourists to go for joy rides on 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 put on display and treated as if they’re exotic animals in a zoo.

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

Related Reading: How to travel ethically in Thailand

I’m not claiming to be the poster child for ethical tourism or that I haven’t contributed. But the more I travel, the more aware I’ve become of the large footprint I’m leaving and the more determined I am to wipe it away.

We have all added to pollution and corruption in ways we aren’t even aware of, but that doesn’t mean we can continue turning a blind eye. We must do something. We must educate ourselves and others and choose to travel consciously with ethical tourism in mind.

How can I contribute to ethical tourism?

Ethical Tourism | Two Wandering Soles

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 to make sure you are doing your part to be a responsible tourist.

Things to consider:

  • Read our tips for traveling responsibly. We’ve put together practical tips that will help you make better decisions on your next trip.

  • 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.


Ethical Tourism | Local porters on the Inca Trail Peru

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 tour company owners. Ask the tough questions: Who benefits from the profits of this company? How are the employees treated? Where do the elephants go after all the tourists have left?

Afterward, evaluate your experience with a critical eye as to how it relates to ethical tourism. I’ve certainly booked tours through companies who claim to be “protecting the environment”, but turn around the see the guide throwing 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!

Final Thoughts

Although the subject of ethical tourism is one 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.

Ethical Tourism | Koh Rong Sunset, Thailand

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.

Interested in learning more about Responsible Travel?

We are passionate about traveling in a way that is ethical, sustainable and responsible. Visit our resources page on Responsible Tourism to learn more about how you can create a positive impact everywhere you travel! Or read some of our favorite articles on responsible travel below…

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Ethical Tourism | Two Wandering Soles
Ethical Tourism | Two Wandering Soles

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Comments (12) on “Travel’s Dirty Secret: The Truth About Ethical Tourism

  1. brightintheworld@hotmail.com says:

    Hey Katie,

    Such an important message you are sharing, and I love how your entire blog embodies these values. I’ve always tried to do the same in my travels (make connections with and support local communities), and you provided a lot of great tips here.

    I agree that travel in itself can bring a lot of problems to the places that are shaped by the demands of tourism. But if people are more mindful of there actions abroad, I like to think that travellers can have a more positive impact by appreciating where they are and fostering real relationships.

    Great stuff, and would always like to see more travel stories about this!

    -Lindsay Bright

    • hello@twowanderingsoles.com says:

      Thanks so much for the support, Lindsay, we are truly kindred spirits! Love when we connect with others who are also passionate about this. Travel has so many positive aspects, and if we all just make little changes, we can truly make this world a better place!


  2. vinde@image.dk says:

    I must say I am a little amazed about this blog.
    For those seeking to travel it has a lot to offer.
    But – please – be aware of this. Travelling by air is one of the most polluting travel methods at all. I can heat my house for a year or I can travel to Thailand – the CO2 is the same. So. please start by putting that in your blog. And then give away all the petty but good ideas you have on how to be sustainable at your destination. Just dont think travelling can be sustainable when its mostly initiated by buying that airticket from some multibillion travel company. Speaking of which – are you aware of which companies advertise on your blog? I am not sure they all agree with your sustainability thoughts….

    • hello@twowanderingsoles.com says:

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Jovin. You’re right — traveling by airplane is not good for the environment. Period. But the thing is, people are still going to travel internationally. In fact, the number of people taking trips overseas is rising and showing no signs of stopping in the near future.

      And we think there is SO much value in travel. It connects people from around the world and introduces people to issues that need a voice. And our blog is to share with people HOW they can travel a little bit better. There are a lot of downright frightening statistics out there, and it is so good to become aware and informed. But this blog is focusing on the positive — on the things we can all do BETTER when traveling.

      We hope to provide practical tips and advice for those looking to do so instead of just saying "Don’t travel." (Most people who want to will still travel anyway. So why not focus on HOW we can do so in a better way?) And I wouldn’t say these things are "petty". In fact, if we all try to incorporate some of these things on a daily basis, it can make a big difference.

      Sure, it’s not a perfect solution. Traveling in itself isn’t perfect. And we are by no means perfect. But isn’t it better to try to travel more consciously than not trying at all? Our goal is to encourage and empower people to travel better.

      And as for the advertisements on our website, we use a 3rd party provider. The ads that appear on your page are chosen based on your interests. So what you see is completely unique to you. This is part of how we earn a living and are able to continue producing content on our website. If you would not like to see ads (on our site or any other site), consider installing AdBlocker.

      Thanks again for your thought-provoking comment.

  3. thanhleamy@gmail.com says:

    Just found your blog. What a great series! I think more often than not travelers either forget or choose to ignore. I was in Hoi An and completely overpaid for a souvenir from a young girl. I felt bad/full of pity at the time so I opened my wallet but then my husband reminded me the realities these children face and I felt even worst. Now, I’m much more conscious of my impact during travels and as you said trying to travel as ethically as possible!

    • ktdieder@gmail.com says:

      Hey Amy, thank you so much for the kind words. I totally agree – I think many people just may not know the impact (good or bad) they can have while traveling. Nobody is perfect, but continuing to learn about ways you can travel more consciously is the most important thing. Happy travels!

  4. cortny says:

    Love this! Retweeted!
    The other thing my SO and I do when we travel is donate to carbontax.org or Friends of the Earth (FOE.org). You can calculate your carbon footprint online (from gasoline vehicles and jet fuel) and donate to these organizations (proceeds go to renewable energy).
    IG: cortny25

    • ktdieder@gmail.com says:

      Thanks so much, Cortny 🙂 It’s always nice to meet others who are passionate about ethical travel! And what a great tip! Thanks for sharing! We’ll definitely have to start doing that as well.

    • ktdieder@gmail.com says:

      Thanks for the comment, Robert. We are certainly not perfect, but we strive to travel in a way that brings more good to this world than bad 🙂

  5. Jake says:

    This was an awesome post, and something I have been guilty of forgetting to keep in the forefront of my mind while traveling. Thank you for bringing this back to mind. A couple extra dollars towards a good company improving the world is money well spent in my opinion.

    • ktdieder@gmail.com says:

      Thanks so much for such a thoughtful comment, Jake. We have definitely been guilty too of trying to find the best deal and forgetting to think about where our money is going. I’m glad you can relate and that you also believe that a few extra dollars here or there is worth it when it’s going to organizations that are focused on bringing more good into this world. We can certainly use all the good we can get! Cheers!

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