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.
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."
Promoters of ethical travel see vast potential. Tourism is expected to generate $6.4 trillion in revenue this year and is often cited as the world's largest industry. Travelers by definition have disposable income to spend, and they often enjoy direct access to needy people whom they would otherwise never meet. For these reasons and others, travel can be a major way to advance social change.
Though ethical travel remains a small subset of the travel industry, the sector seems to be growing. For example: the British website responsibletravel.com could find just five tour companies worthy of recommendation when the site launched five years ago. Now its stable of screened operators has grown to more than 160. The site expects to do more than $30 million in sales next year.
Some industries say that the market is ripe for services touting good ethics. The American Hotel & Lodging Association, which estimates that 43 million domestic travelers each year are "environmentally minded," has for two years let its most energy-efficient members display a Good Earthkeeping logo.
Conscience-driven travelers leverage their clout in various ways. In Tasmania, travelers visit endangered forests, support nearby businesses, and write tourism officials in a bid to persuade locals that their trees are more valuable as tourist attractions than as furniture. Elsewhere, discerning travelers discourage overfishing by not eating Chilean sea bass, shark, bluefin tuna, and other at-risk types listed by the Monterey (Calif.) Bay Aquarium (www.mbayaq.org).
Do such tactics get results? Maybe. In June 2003, travelers launched a boycott of Nepal, a popular destination for Himalayan trekking, in response to the government's repatriating 18 Tibetan refugees to China. When Nepal reversed its policy a few months later, boycotters felt they'd had some measure of influence.
"You can't absolutely say, 'we stopped this,' " says travel writer Jeff Greenwald, cofounder of ethicaltraveler.org, a network of travelers and travel businesses. "But we did have an impact. The positive results emerged because of pressure from many sides. I think the pressure we asserted was an important part of that equation."
But a Nepalese official denies a strong connection. "I don't think that because of their boycotting, the Nepalese government changed the policy," says Lekhanath Gautam, press officer for Nepal's Embassy in Washington. Other factors played a pivotal role: "Maybe that [boycott] also helped ... but I cannot say it is only because of that," he says.
As ethical travelers learn what works and what doesn't, they're honing the notion that they have power to reinforce local behaviors, either positively or negatively. Several agree, for instance, that giving money to children who beg is a bad idea because it rewards habits of dependency and makes truancy profitable.
"With begging, you don't know where your money is going," Miano says. "There are better ways to help." He suggests, for instance, donating to a local agency or school that knows the community needs.
Still, certain ethical dilemmas haven't yielded consensus about what's the right thing to do. Among the toughest is whether travelers do more harm than good when they visit nations notorious for human rights abuses.
"It's fine to travel to countries [with checkered track records] as long as you're aware of what's going on and you take pains not to support the government regime or industry that is promoting the unethical practice." Mr. Greenwald says. "Individual travel to a country like Burma [Myanmar] is morally acceptable if you go with an awareness of the political oppression there, but going with large groups that support government-run industries and airlines is not acceptable."
Barnett, however, has skewered travel writers who recommended a Myanmar hotel that was built with the uncompensated efforts of political prisoners. In her view, Myanmar should be avoided by all people of conscience. "Money that the regime gets out of tourism goes to fund their military campaign against minority groups," she says. Business there is "either government-run or part-owned by government and family members," she says, which makes it impossible for visitors to maintain ethical purity.