Is there such thing as ethical travel? Perhaps staying home is the more responsible thing to do.
Travel is always spoken of in such aspirational terms. From a young age, we're told seeing the world is one of the best ways to educate oneself, to become more cultured, to broaden one's mind. A person who has traveled is perceived as someone who has lived their life more fully than one who has not.
This is why the suggestion to stop traveling comes as such a shock. It goes against everything we've been conditioned to believe is right; and yet, as Allison Jane Smith explains in an article called "The next trend in travel is... don't," the time has come to challenge the narrative.
The travel industry has grown enormously over the past 20 years. Smith writes that in 1996 tourists took 560 million trips abroad; by 2016 the number had doubled to 1.2 billion. No matter how careful a tourist tries to be, the sheer number of people has become a problem in itself. Not only does this represent huge emissions from air travel, but it generates wear and tear on cities, historical sites, fragile ecosystems, and outdoor spaces. It increases demand for water, which is partly why Bali's rivers are drying up; it generates unwanted trash, which motivated Thailand to shut down some of its most famous beaches; and it pushes locals out of the housing market, which has happened in Venice and New York City.
A backlash picked up steam last summer, with violent protests wracking a number of European cities, resulting in slogans such as “Tourism kills,” “Tourists go home” and “Why call it tourism season if we can’t shoot them?” In many countries, displacement is becoming associated with growing tourism sectors. Governments prioritize tourists over the wellbeing of their own citizens. Smith writes:
"Last year in Tanzania, an estimated 185 Maasai homes were burned down by authorities that operate hunting tours, leaving 6,800 people homeless. So-called 'ethical travel' doesn’t necessarily provide a solution; it’s been argued ecotourism in Tanzania contributes to the problem, as tourism dollars provide an incentive to turn Maasai pastures into safari grounds."
So, what is a conscientious traveller to do?
Perhaps the uncomfortable, squirm-inducing, grimace-making answer is, "Don't go." Believe me, these are tough words to write, given how travel has always been near the top of my most-beloved list, but these are issues we can no longer ignore; nor can feel-good descriptors like "ethical tourism," "responsible tourism," and "eco tours" really make it any better.
What's needed is a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about travel, vacations, and getting away in general. One thing I've realized is that it's possible to broaden the mind and expose oneself to different cultures and ways of living closer to home; or, as one friend told me years ago, "Why would I visit other countries if I haven't first gotten to know my own?"
I have tried to embrace this idea with my own family. Rather than saving for exotic overseas vacations, which used to be my goal, I want them to camp in every province of Canada by the time they're adults, as my parents did for me. Last summer, rather than driving to the east coast, we headed to an off-grid cabin on a lake for a week and did nothing. It was glorious.
This leads to the idea of slow travel, and embracing modes of transportation that may not take you as far as an airplane, but will still get you somewhere new and interesting where, presumably, you'll stay for longer. Whether it's by bus, train, bicycle, or walking, these will give you wonderful new ways of seeing the world. They have the added benefit of making the journey part of the experience, too, instead of something unpleasant (like a long flight) that must be tolerated.
I love the enthusiasm with which Peter Kalmus, author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution (reviewed here), describes slow travel. He has cycled from Denver to Chicago, driven from California to Illinois in an ancient waste vegetable oil (WVO) powered Mercedes in the dead of winter, crossed the continent by train and the ocean in a sailboat, and hitched a ride on a container ship from LA to Hawaii. His point is, you can still go places; it just happens in a different way.
"Slow travel is powered by creativity instead of fossil fuels. There are so many other ways to go about it. You could build a WVO-powered motorcycle that gets 120 miles per gallon and drive it down to Tierra del Fuego, refueling with grease from empanada stands along the way. You could build a wood gasifier and drive it on wood chips. Maybe you could even travel cross-country in a WVO-powered self-launching motor glider, harnessing the power of updrafts. Or, you could fully experience the simple miracle of being on this Earth: you could walk."
At the very least, when planning trips abroad, it is imperative to think about where one will be welcomed, and to avoid places where tourists have been explicitly condemned by locals. Respect their wishes and stay away. Similarly, avoid destinations that rely exclusively on tourism (Bali, Aruba) or are wracked by conflict. Fodor's annual "no list" for 2018 includes Myanmar, Missouri, Honduras, and Cuba, due to their levels of corruption, civil unrest, and refugee crises. From the report: "Root for accountability and vote [with] your (lack of) dollars in the upcoming years."
Mostly, though, I think we need to start thinking of exotic travel less as a right and more of a very special privilege, a rare opportunity to be cherished.