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Travelers who strive to do no harm

More tourists today say they want to travel in an ethical fashion. But how many really act in accord with their words?

By Susan Llewelyn LeachStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 22, 2004



We've all heard the stories. Tourists who climb sacred sites to snap the spectacular view, or demand CNN in a remote mountain village, or shoot photos of shy locals even as they wave their hands in objection.

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But what about the tourist who just wants a hot shower after a hard day's hike? In parts of Nepal, that request could also be thought unethical, as guesthouse proprietors there are apt to raze local forests to heat the water.

So just how worried about ethics should a tourist be? Judging by the growth in the "ethical tourism" trade, it appears that more travelers today may be willing to skip the shower.

Definitions of ethical tourism, often loosely referred to as ecotourism (which now encompasses cultural and political issues as well as environmental), vary widely and this makes meaningful stats hard to come by. But according to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), ecotourism now makes up a 20 percent slice of global tourism and is growing three times as fast as the industry as a whole.

Academics who study the industry suggest that percentage needs a big asterisk behind it. David Weaver, professor of tourism management at George Mason University, says it's critical to distinguish between "hard" and "soft" ecotourism. The latter might include a trip to a seaside resort or an air-conditioned bus ride through a game preserve - activities he calls "ecotourism lite," which display an interest in the environment without the real ethical dimension.

So how big is the hard-core ecotourism crowd, the people who stay in ecolodges in remote areas? Maybe 1 percent, he says.

Yet despite that tiny percentage, travel companies' desire to be perceived as eco-friendly and label tours as ecological or ethical is spurred by a genuine groundswell of public interest in traveling in a responsible way, says Edward Hasbrouck, author of "The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World."

The media have helped make global warming, pollution, rain forests and endangered species household words and with that has come a greater recognition of the downside of tourism and its impact. Political instability in some popular travel spots such as the Maldives and Burma (Myanmar) have also pushed consumers to demand more accountability from the tour companies who bring travelers there.

Over the next few years, the expected boom in travel will make this kind of approach more critical. Tourism is the world's largest economic sector. It plays a significant role in lifting people out of poverty, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said, and is one of the few ways the least developed countries have managed to increase their participation in the global economy. Last year, almost 700 million tourists made international trips. By 2010, the figure is projected to reach 1 billion, according to the WTO.

With that flow of foreign visitors comes greater wear and tear on fragile ecosystems and the danger of swamping the charm and uniqueness of popular destinations.

The gap between words and deeds

Recent surveys by the International Ecotourism Society all point to a public that says it is willing to put social responsibility higher up its list of priorities. Thirty-eight percent of US travelers say they would pay more to use travel companies that strive to protect and preserve the environment; 39 percent would pay more to use a company that "protects the historical and cultural aspects of a destination."

Yet as heartfelt as those sentiments may be, tour operators report anecdotally that when the chips are down people often opt for the cheaper vacation.

"It's one of the most persistent truisms in our field," says Weaver, "that you will always have a significant gap between the proportion of people who claim they are willing to behave in a green manner or an ethical manner and the proportion who actually do it when push comes to shove."

"Veneer environmentalism" is his term for packages and vacations that have only a hint of green or ethics. "Tourism has engaged in a pursuit of sustainability and ethics on a veneer basis, which is logical because the market consists mainly of veneer consumers," Weaver says.

So why isn't the public willing to put its money where its ethics are?

They're looking for an easy way out, suggests Mr. Hasbrouck. "It's natural and understandable that travelers would like to take care of the ethical question by booking a tour that has a green label on it and then not have to worry about it any more and essentially offload onto the tour operator the responsibility for fulfilling that promise," he says.

But buying from an ethical company suggests that ethical travel is an industry rather then an activity of life, Hasbrouck says. "I do not think ethics in travel or anything else can be reduced to who you do business with. It is also about how you behave."

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