Travel globally, spend locally
How do you take an ethical vacation? New tour operators, guidebooks, and organizations offer a widening – and perhaps confusing – array of choices.
Travelers with soft spots for low-impact lodging or mom-and-pop merchants are finding no shortage of options these days as companies around the world cater to visitors' ethical sensibilities.Skip to next paragraph
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Sifting out the legitimate gems, however, isn't easy. Proponents of ethical travel say hundreds of organizations purport to certify travel operations as ecofriendly, sustainable, or responsible. "Certifiers" bring highly variable standards and sometimes conflicting interests to bear on labels that aren't necessarily in line with consumers' values, critics say.
"With certification of tourism products, they often emphasize the 'eco' rather than social [factors]," says Ron Mader, founder of planeta.com, a website for dialogue among travelers interested in ethics. "You can go to a very expensive, foreign-owned ecolodge in Costa Rica. Next door could be a not-so-eco but locally owned place. Which is the better option?" Regional and national certification programs, he says, rarely address that.
To help would-be ethical travelers find their way in this maze, publishers are offering their own ethical seals of approval in new guidebooks. Lonely Planet, for instance, in May published "Code Green," an illustrated guide to about 100 "responsible travel experiences" on every continent. In June, Britain-based Earthscan published for US readers "The Ethical Travel Guide," a global directory of tour companies, hotels, and other operations that benefit local people and preserve their environments. Planeta put out a guidebook electronically this summer describing ethical destinations identified after 12 years of research.
These new resources make a lively case that ethical travel can be fun and meaningful. Among the experiences passing moral muster: picking breakfast fruit off trees at a Hawaiian cliff-top campground; boating among icebergs and humpback whales in Antarctica; supporting long-forgotten but ever-friendly local merchants with a road trip on America's historic Route 66.
Publishers say that they're providing an essential service for well-meaning travelers who otherwise might support harmful endeavors without knowing it.
"How would you know that this beautiful hotel is on land snatched from fishermen, for which they weren't compensated?" asks Tricia Barnett, an ethical travel advocate in Britain, in her foreword to "The Ethical Travel Guide." "How would you know that the water in the pool and shower are depleting local people's resources and that their access to water is limited to two hours a day, as in villages in Goa [India]?"
Still, not everyone agrees as to what constitutes an ethical vacation. In general, promoters of the concept prioritize environmental protection and financial support for indigenous people. But should travelers visit nations that spy on their people or restrict Internet access? Should they give money to children in nations where begging is customary? On these and other questions, the terms of ethical travel are still being decided.
Consider the issue of what makes a trip successful. Ms. Barnett's advocacy group, Tourism Concern, urges travelers to "avoid guilt trips" by finding accommodations through local merchants rather than large corporations that often profit by catering to tourists. With other steps that range from shopping discreetly to buying carbon credits to offset emissions from one's air travel, "The Ethical Travel Guide" says, even luxurious trips to the Greek Islands can be guilt free.
But for Peter Miano, a Methodist clergyman who leads Christian groups on what he calls "socially responsible" trips to the Middle East, travelers who return feeling guiltless have missed the point. Responsible travel, he says, involves fielding questions from local residents, witnessing the effects of American foreign policy, and feeling contrite enough to work for political change upon return.
"We're not trying to make people feel good. We're trying to make people be good, and that's a little bit different," says Mr. Miano, executive director of The Society for Biblical Studies in Arlington, Mass. "When they begin to realize they've done nothing about communicating the truth or promoting justice and reconciliation, in fact they've been part of the opposite, there is a sandpapering of the moral conscience that takes place.... In typical socially responsible travel, they're never doing this stuff."