Part of the thrill of travel is trying new things. Unfortunately, not all of the experiences available to tourists are beneficial to the environment, the local population or the world in general. This problem is glaringly apparently in impoverished areas where the need for money can make people desperate, but it is also a problem in more developed parts of the world.
Responsible travelers strive to leave the places they visit better than they found them, or at least not worse. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to parse what is benign from what is potentially harmful. Even seemingly altruistic experiences, like volunteering at an orphanage in Cambodia, can have terrible big picture consequences.
Here are a few tactics for determining if a tourist experience is ethical.
Before you even leave home, do some reading on your chosen destination. Guidebooks, travel blogs, even Wikipedia can help make you aware of common ethical issues associated with tourism. You'll learn the most up-to-date recommendations when it comes to giving money to street kids (don't), visiting the Tiger Kingdom in Thailand (don't) and tasting shark fin soup in China (please don't). Armed with this information you are far less likely to make an ethical faux pas.
One of the biggest trends in travel right now is voluntourism– traveling in order to volunteer. While the sentiment is great, many of these organizations are not very helpful or worse – actually harmful to local people. If you are planning to volunteer abroad, thoroughly vet the company you are working with to make sure they are responsible and beneficial to the community.
No matter how much research you do, you won't have an answer for every situation that pops up on your travels. Once you are on the ground you will have to use your own good judgment to evaluate new situations. Ask questions, think critically and don't accept everything you're told as fact. Does that zoo look well maintained, with happy, healthy animals? Or is it rundown and kind of sad? If it's the latter, don't support it with your tourist dollars.
Some situations aren't entirely black and white. Activities like bull fighting, swimming with whale sharks and even diving around the Great Barrier Reef all have strong arguments for and against tourist participation. When it comes down to it, it is really up to your own personal moral compass and what you feel comfortable with.
Being ethical doesn't mean you are never allowed to have any fun! Many ethically murky activities have more preferable counterparts. For example, many people who have dreamt of riding an elephant in Thailand are disappointed to learn that this practice is widely discouraged because of its negative affects on the animal's health and well-being. Luckily, there are some appealing alternatives for pachyderm enthusiasts. At the Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai visitors can closely interact with, feed and even bathe rescued elephants. It's a much gentler, and even more intimate experience that's good for everyone involved.
How do you deal with ethical problems when you travel?
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Stephanie Yoder is a girl who can't sit still! Since graduating college in 2007 she has either been traveling or planning to travel. She's lived on four continents and visited everywhere from the Great Wall of China to the Great Barrier Reef. She now writes and travels full time, blogging about her adventures on Why Wait To See The World? (formerly Twenty-Something Travel). Follow Stephanie on Twitter or visit her on Facebook.
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