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?

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.

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."

You can't buy ethics, he says.

Part of what may drive people to try to "purchase" ethics is the motivation for going on vacation in the first place. Many Americans, who have the shortest vacations of any developed country, travel for escape - to leave behind overstressed, overworked lives.

"If your purpose in traveling is escapism, one of the things you want to escape from is thinking about these questions," Hasbrouck says.

Weaver concurs: "I think a lot of people probably get a bit tired of behaving ethically every day." When on holiday, he suggests, some like to cut loose.

Broadly defined, ethical travel is low-impact tourism - something that conserves the environment and benefits the locals. And there are travel companies who design the tours they offer to do exactly that. World Expeditions, an Australian adventure travel company in the forefront of the field, offers this motto: Take only photos, leave only footprints.

Brad Atwal, president of World Expeditions' US operations, says, "When you talk about leaving a footprint, you're talking about a physical and mental footprint.... You don't want to leave an impact on the culture."

Tourism with a positive impact

Each traveler who signs up with World Expeditions gets a 20-page "Responsible Travel Guidebook" before their trip, which expands on the do's and don'ts and the sometimes less obvious whys. For instance, not giving money to beggars seems straight- forward. But handing out other gifts like pens or drawing paper is also discouraged because "this only decreases the respect for us, creating expectation and dependence that turns into disappointment and resentment when future travelers do not hand out similar goodies," the booklet explains.

Or on shopping, it asks: "Please don't enter into price negotiations unless you are serious about purchasing the goods. Price haggling for its own sake is insulting to the trader and an unethical form of amusement."

Not cutting the vegetation or taking souvenirs from the environment, and picking up litter are all basics of ethical travel.

And in that vein, various green certification programs and industry association codes of ethics have recently sprung into being.

Although the number of consumers insisting on such standards is still minimal, Weaver estimates that as much as 50 percent of the population are veneer environmentalists who could be pushed into the "committed environmentalist" column with a bit more education and motivation. Weaver likens the movement to public demand for organic food which has filtered into the conventional grocery industry.

The question travelers should ask, he says: What can I do to make my travel a positive impact - not just a neutral impact, but a positive impact?

How to be an ethical traveler

• BE AWARE OF WHERE YOUR MONEY IS GOING, and patronize locally owned inns, restaurants, and shops. Try to keep your dollars (or baht, or pesos) within the local economy.

• NEVER GIVE GIFTS TO CHILDREN, only to their parents or teachers.

• REMEMBER THE ECONOMIC REALITIES OF YOUR NEW CURRENCY. A few rupees one way or another is not going to ruin you. Don't get all bent out of shape over the fact that a visitor who earns 100 times a local's salary might be expected to pay a few cents more for a ferry ride, a museum entrance, or an egg.

• BARGAIN FAIRLY, and with respect for the seller. Again, remember the economic realities of where you are. The final transaction should leave both buyer and seller satisfied and pleased. Haggling for a taxi or carpet is part of many cultures; but it's not a bargain if either person feels exploited, diminished, or ripped off.

• LEARN AND RESPECT THE TRADITIONS AND TABOOS OF YOUR HOST COUNTRY. Each culture has its own mores, and they're often taken very seriously. Never, for example, pat a Thai child on the head, enter a traditional Brahmin's kitchen, or open an umbrella in a Nepali home.

• CURB YOUR ANGER, AND CULTIVATE YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR. Anger is a real issue for Westerners - even the Dalai Lama remarks on this. It's perversely satisfying, but it never earns the respect of locals or defuses a bad situation. A light touch - and a sense of cosmic perspective - are infinitely more useful.

• LEAVE YOUR MEDIA-BASED PRECONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE WORLD AT HOME. The inhabitants of planet Earth will continually amaze you with their generosity, hospitality and wisdom. Be open to their friendship, and aware of our common humanity, delights, and hardships.


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