Does the Ethical Tourist Really Exist?

Luda Berdnyk | February 26, 2019 | Leave a Comment

Picture this: Your bags are packed, everything is booked, and your plane is about to take you to a fun-filled week of vacation in Thailand. What’s on your agenda? Some days are spent sun-tanning on the beach near your hotel, while others include a flurry of activities like riding an elephant through the jungle, attending a full moon party, or going souvenir shopping with your friends.

While all of this sounds like a typical vacation, have you taken a second to consider whether or not you’re an ethical tourist?

If not, stop and ask yourself: Is your accommodation a local guesthouse, or is it a multinational chain? Do you know how much carbon emissions your plane is producing? Is your elephant ride harming the animal? Do ethical tourists even exist?

Yes. Although the concept is still new to most people, ethical tourism is quickly spreading across the travel industry as an ideal. As tourism rises, it also places increased responsibility of an area to host tourists, which can lead to negative effects in the destination’s delicate ecosystem. That’s where ethical tourism comes in. At its core, an ethical tourist is someone who is aware of the consequences and privileges of their actions as a “visitor” on the local environment, whether that includes the local people, physical environment, or wildlife.

More than ever, we need to be conscientious and ethical tourists for three main reasons: it preserves local culture, maintains the environment for future generations, and sets a positive example for others. In this article, we’ll take a look at examples of positive and negative effects of tourism on local populations, and how ethical tourism comes into play.

 According to the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization, the number of tourists traveling internationally was 165 million in 1970. In 1990, that number rose to 440 million, and last year (2017), the number jumped to an astounding 1.25 billion. A 750% increase in tourism over a span of four decades places an immense strain on local resources, especially for underdeveloped countries where there is not enough money in the budget to improve infrastructure. The influx of tourists can lead to a destination’s slow demise by overcrowding, over pollution, and dilapidation of resources. To combat this, some destinations have placed limits on the amount of tourism.

Take, for example, the country of Bhutan. The government charges a mandatory “tourist fee” of $200 or $250 per day (depending on the season) to every single visitor to their country. This model of High Value, Low Impact attracts travelers who truly want to see Bhutan’s history and culture, instead of those simply looking for a random destination to travel to. Moreover, the tourist fee includes a $65 per day Sustainable Development Fee that goes towards free education, free healthcare and poverty alleviation for Bhutanese citizens. Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, took a similar initiative last year when it introduced a ticketing system and limited the number of tourists that can enter at any given time. By carefully choosing and respecting destinations, ethical tourists help preserve the rich history and culture of their host country.

Although these two examples show an organized way of reigning in tourists, not every destination has such checks and balances in place. In recent years, there have been reports of tourists taking items, such as sand or pebbles from a beach. One destination, Lalaria Beach in Skiathos, Greece, was so fed up with tourists taking pebbles that it imposed a fine of more than a thousand dollars if caught. The municipality argued that over time, the lack of pebbles will deteriorate the beach and negatively impact the ecosystem. Ethical tourists are mindful of the delicate balance of the destination’s ecosystem and try their best to leave a place the same way it was – or even better! In fact, there’s somewhat of an unofficial motto amongst ethical tourists: ‘Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.’

Speaking of footprints… Do you know your carbon footprint? Many travelers fail to realize that the most common methods of transportation, such as planes and cruises, are some of the worst offenders in terms of pollution. According to a Yale study, the average cruise ship produces around 21,000 gallons of human sewage, one ton of solid waste, 170,000 gallons of wastewater, and 8,500 plastic bottles daily. In addition, a 2010 report from NASA found that about 25 percent of airplane emissions come from just landing and taking off. Ethical tourists are well-aware of the negative impacts of their carbon footprint and try their best to offset it by taking alternate transportation, such as interrail trains, buses, and trams, especially now that the average domestic flight emits 29 times more carbon than a high-speed electric train. By conscientiously choosing the least damaging method of transportation, ethical tourists are lightening the overall pollution that comes from traveling.

Another important concept in sustainable tourism is the leakage effect. This “leakage” happens when the revenue generated by tourism in the destination is lost to other countries’ economies. This can be in the form of foreign companies setting up hotels, importing goods for sale, or employing foreign workers instead of locals. One simple example of this effect is buying a souvenir. More often than not, the souvenir, such as a magnet, is mass-made in a factory somewhere in China instead of locally. When you purchase that magnet, your tourism dollars are ultimately going towards that factory and encouraging them instead of the local artisans. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, for every $100 spent by a tourist on a holiday to a developing country, only $5 stays in the host community. This is a tourism leakage of 95%. According to the latest figures from the World Tourism Organization, the total worldwide tourism expenditure in 2016 was 1.362 trillion USD. When we think about the total amount of money being spent on tourism and how little of it actually goes to the locals, there needs to be a change.

Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to travel ethically in these situations. The simplest is to buy souvenirs and gifts from local artisans and sellers; stay at locally-owned accommodations, such as guest houses; and take tours from local students and guides. These small but powerful steps ensure that the money will stay in the community and benefit the people who live there.

One final area that is affected by an increase in tourism is the local wildlife. According to the WWF, 17 million hectares of forest, roughly the size of the country of Panama, are lost each year. Thousands of animals have to flee their homes due to developments for new hotels, restaurants, and various tourism infrastructure. In addition, many popular tourist destinations have been exploiting animals. Some examples include riding elephants and taking photos with tigers in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries; Swimming with dolphins in the Bahamas; visiting unethical and poorly-maintained zoos around the world; and even something as simple as feeding stingrays in Bora Bora. While this might seem like harmless fun to unassuming tourists, there’s usually a dark backstory. Tiger cubs are prematurely taken from their mothers and drugged with sedatives so they don’t attack; elephants are beaten and pierced with sharp bull-hooks as part of their “training” to carry people on their back; stingrays have their barb cut off so that they cannot injure tourists; and much more. Ethical tourism is a critical part of the mix in ensuring the survival of wildlife and in fighting wildlife crime,  and can be as simple as choosing to visit animal sanctuaries that capture, rehabilitate, and care for animals, instead of zoos and tourist traps.

Although it may seem like tourism causes pollution, habitat loss, overcrowding, and a wave of other negative effects, there is a bright side. Last year, China announced that 12 million people will be lifted out of poverty through tourism development programs that will provide jobs to locals in rural areas. Countries that are slowly opening up to tourism are also benefitting from the shift to conscientious travel, as travelers effectively redistribute money from the developed world into developing countries. In Kenya, wildlife trusts are creating jobs for locals, preserving the natural habitat of wildlife, and caring for endangered animals – all thanks to revenue generated by ethical tourism.

Ultimately, tourists have the final choice in how they choose to travel and where to spend their money. It’s up to them to choose whether or not they want to be an ethical tourist and respect the local communities, environment, and wildlife that they encounter during their travels. By doing research and being conscious of where they stay, what problems the locals face, and how they can help, ethical tourists are paving the future of travel.

Luda Berdnyk is a tourism and marketing consultant based in San Francisco. She writes extensively for online travel publications and runs a travel blog at Adventures With Luda ( When she’s not writing, Luda can be found volunteering, giving tours, and discovering offbeat destinations.


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