Ethics in the world of travel.

In recent weeks, travel industry scribes have been scratching their noggins and, in a time-honored tradition, weighing in on the hottest destinations for the coming year. Lonely Planet taps El Salvador (“for being so unexpected”) and Suriname (“known for its peacefully coexisting cultures”) on a list that includes more predictable destinations like New Zealand and the good ol’ U.S. of A. (“Suddenly the USA is cool again!”) Frommers rambles from Tunisia to Hawaii to Hanoi with its 2010 picks; Conde Nast Traveler shows its typical taste for the exotic and the opulent with heli-skiing in Kyrgyzstan (“the thrill-a-minute nation known as the Switzerland of Central Asia”), custom tours of post-boycott Burma, and expeditions to Antarctica – “perhaps the last time this wilderness will be as accessible to visitors.”

Thought you knew Kyrgyzstan? Think again! (courtesy of Conde Nast Traveler)

El Salvador: Not just gang warfare anymore! (courtesy of Lonely Planet)

Burma: What would the Ethical Traveler say? (courtesy of Conde Nast Traveler)

Antarctica: The last, (courtesy of the AP)

Today, courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle, I came across Ethical Traveler’s picks for the developing world’s 10 best ethical destinations in 2010. If you, dear reader, were unaware that a destination could, in and of itself, be ethical or un-, then we’re in the same boat. The Chronicle, explaining the crypto-methodology and purpose of the list, elaborates.

The list is based on three general categories – environmental protection, social welfare and human rights – as well as a number of subcategories, including preservation of resources, mortality rate, civil liberties, safe drinking water and political rights, to name a few. The idea is that nations with responsible policies, not just sexy attractions, should be recognized and rewarded. “By visiting the countries mentioned here,” [said the ET group in its report], we ‘vote with our wings.’ “

I don’t, on principle, have a problem with “ethical travel” – what ET describes as “the positive impact travelers can have by being open, informed, and willing to immerse themselves in other cultures.” (You can find their list of 13 ethical travel guidelines here.) In fact, I think if you’re going to be a traveler of one stripe or another, I’d prefer you be an ethical one than a self-serving prick.

There is a tendency, though, to use ethical travel as a sort of karmic hording – a way to stockpile feel-good points and remind yourself (and, most likely, everyone on your Facebook page) that your heart is of the of-gold variety. Even if you were to ignore the fact that it appears on a site called, this blurb from The Ethical Travel Guide nutshells my complaints pretty well.

Warning: reading this travel guide will induce reactions such as cringeing, shame and embarrassment. Side effects include making many readers look back in horror at the destinations of some of their holidays and activities once there.

One of our favorite beach reads. Well, if it's an ethical beach, at least.

Is this really the sort of book you’d want to see as a stocking suffer? I mean, really? Don’t enough travelers have enough to feel guilty about from holidays past: strange tattoos, embarrassing pics, STDs?

As for the ethical destinations list: going to a particular country is not itself an ethical decision. What you do in that country is. Visiting Namibia might, according to ET, reward that southern African nation for its strong track record on conservation and social welfare. Visiting Namibia to club seals, though, would send a very different message. (Admittedly, I don’t know what that message would be. Maybe something like, “Hey, even Nazi pederasts need to kick back and unwind…and club the shit out of something.”)

Rolf Potts, having been asked, “What is it like to be a privileged white American traveling through the second or third world?” offered a lengthy and insightful diatribe against “the rhetoric of ethical travel.” His ultimate verdict on what it means to travel ethically sums it up well.

Patronize the mom-n-pop economy. Go slow. Respect people. Practice humility, and don’t condescend with your good intentions. Make friends. Ask questions. Listen. Know that you are visitor. Keep promises, even if that just means mailing a photograph a few weeks later. Be a personal ambassador of your home culture, and take your new perspectives home so that you can share them with your neighbors.

And lest it sound like I’m unnecessarily griping over Ethical Traveler’s 2010 list, I’d like to congratulate Lithuania on its “sustainable forestry practices,” Chile on its “outstanding air quality,” and Poland for its low infant mortality rate. Here’s to cleaner air and healthier babies for all in 2010.


Speaking of ethics, Gawker continues to follow the never-ending saga of ethics-related firings over at the NY Times. I can proudly say that my ethical practices as a journalist are absolutely impeachable. The tricks I turn are purely for sexual gratification.

One response to “Ethics in the world of travel.

  1. Pingback: Places to Go in 2010: Mercenary Edition. « This Is Africa

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