The Ethical Traveller 101
Updated: 2 days ago
“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”
Things to be mindful of while abroad
Living ethically in our own countries can be hard enough sometimes – you start to do extensive research in one topic and now that you’ve opened Pandorra's box, there’s countless other things you ‘should’ be doing as well.
Now imagine this scenario abroad, in a country where you potentially don’t even speak the language and are generally more vulnerable than you are at home.
What does living or traveling ethically mean?
I searched for the definition on Ecosia and it said “to limit your effect on the environment”. My interpretation of that is to try and live a lifestyle that doesn’t involve any victims. This is important, especially when we travel to developing countries. We might see practices that exploit humans or animals, but then think ‘oh, that must be how it is here’, which does not have to be the case.
To avoid any interpretation of the order of the list, I just listed the main points alphabetically.
Such an important and prevalent topic, especially because in many countries of the world, tourist traps are built around facilities that enable them to see or touch the animals, but there is no regard or care at all for the animals themselves.
- Avoid seafood (or if you’re not there yet, make sure it’s sustainably sourced): it’s not news anymore that we have overfished over 90% of all fisheries and that if we continue living like we do, there won’t be any fish left in the ocean by the middle of this century. On the other hand, many people around the world depend on the fish trade, so if you do want to ‘treat yourself’, then make sure you at least support the local fish trade, where the survival of the ecosystem is being ensured and monitored.
- Avoid Zoos: of course I get the appeal of zoos. Seeing animals that you may never have the chance to see and learning about them and their habitat is a valuable experience.
However, most of the enclosures are not even close to representing their natural habitat and captive animals suffer from stress, boredom and confinement. Especially in poorer countries, animals often are not looked after at all and are just a means to make quick tourist money. If you want to see animals, try and research orphanages, sanctuaries or wildlife centres in the area. Again, do your research before you go and see what other people have said about the place.
A sloth hanging by the side of the road, an iguana deciding to take over my spot next to a waterfall and two monkey friends watching me from above
- Don’t support animal abuse: horseback rides into the mountains, riding elephants or camels, SeaWorld, swimming with captured dolphins, holding and cuddling sloths or koalas – these things might sound like a “fun things to do” list, but it really is not fun for the animals.
A few years ago I was in Cuba and I went on one of these horseback rides that promised an idyllic ride around the mountainside and I felt like crying the entire time. The horses were bony and malnourished, the owner mistreated and hit them, we went up a really steep and stony hill and you could tell how uncomfortable and scared they were. I don’t know why I didn’t say anything back then, I know I should’ve stopped right at the beginning and refused to get on them, but I was complacent.
But the point is, I learned and now do better, and that’s what we should all do. Generally, if the facility allows you to touch wild animals, you should question their practices. Wild animals don’t like to be touched, especially not by 100+ strangers every day.
I think the best way to have the experience of seeing wild animals and learning about them and their habitat is visiting National parks! Most of the times you can book guided tours as well, which mostly are led by local people, who are passionate about the environment and conservation practices. They will also know where to look out for wildlife and you might still get the experience of seeing animals – only this time it’s on their terms and it does not compromise your values either.
When traveling abroad, we already emit so much co2 with our plane journey (Do you Offset your emissions?), we should really consider keeping them low while we’re there.
- Eat local food and drink local alcohol: I mean, if you don’t, what did you even come here for? 😊 Not only are these usually cheaper and you’re supporting local businesses, but you’re also avoiding imported, pre-packaged and mass-produced food that you probably have enough of at home.
- Avoid internal flights: Many countries have coach systems, which are easily understood, especially when researched in advance. The train system in Europe is amazing, you can use Interrail through pretty much the entire continent and get amazing views on the way. You get to see much more of the country, might be able to talk to locals and find out about their lives and can link up with fellow tourists, who are going to the same place as you are. Just make sure you’ve got pillows/blankets, snacks and water and you’re good to go.
- Take public transport: I know how tempting it is to Uber it everywhere, especially in countries where it is way cheaper than where you might live. However, if you want an authentic holiday, go and try public transport instead! Many countries around the world have amazing, well-connected systems and you get to see how locals actually live. You could also rent bikes or walk – then you even have a good excuse to pig out on all the food 😊
Of course you should do your research before you do any of those things, if it’s not recommended to take public transport or walk in whatever city you’re in, then obviously taking taxis or Ubers is the logical thing to do. Safety comes always first!
- Choose green hotels or resorts that care about the environment: I’d always recommend B&Bs or smaller places, but I understand that many people just prefer the luxury and convenience of a hotel. If you do, just research to see what this brand does for the environment. A friend of mine recently stayed in a resort in the Maldives, where they did not have any plastics, did conservation works for coral reefs and offered talks about it and only served sustainably sourced sea food. I loved the sound of it – this should not be an exception, but the norm!
- Don’t produce any plastic waste: or at least be mindful of your plastic consumption; take your own cutlery kit, reusable bottle (more and more places around the world offer filtered water stations) and tote bag.
I went on a small island in Thailand and was so happy to see a sign that asked people to not bring any plastic bags with them (sign pictured) – then went into a 711 shop and watched them give out plastic bags for every.single.item. they sold. Just saying no and having your own bag ready could avoid so much additional plastic being handed out.
Later that day we went deeper into the island and spotted (and smelled...) a landfill site; that's also something to bear in mind - many places don't have proper recycling schemes in place, so if you do have any waste, hold onto it until you get somewhere they do.
If tap water isn't drinkable and you don't have access to filtered water, try buying bigger bottles or even barrels that you can then fill in your own reusables.
- Pick up litter: I’m not saying everyone should participate in organized beach cleans during their holidays (although that’d be amazing), but if you walk along the beach and you see a piece of rubbish – just pick it up!
Collecting karma points and saving sea life one piece at a time!
While we’re traveling, we tend to live in a bit of a bubble – naturally, many state the reason for travel being ‘an escape from the real world’. However, we should never forget that our escape still is the real world for all the people living in the country we’re visiting and we should always respect them and their environment.
- Choose locally owned boutique hotels, B&Bs or Airbnbs: especially with Airbnbs it’s important you check the reviews; in many countries and cities, locals are driven out of the city centre, because of foreign investment into the properties. This drives the prices up and their own areas become too expensive for them to stay in. When you choose locally-owned accommodation, you’re usually staying with passionate hosts, who are happy to give you insider tips about where to go and you know that the money you’re spending goes back into the local economy, instead of lining the pockets of some investors that have 10 places exactly like it.
- Respect the culture: If they don’t drink on Sundays, then you shouldn’t be shitfaced on the streets. Research before you go; I’m the last person to crucify anyone who’s on a party holiday, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of locals starting to resent any tourists that disregard the rules of their country. If it's a religious country, then leave the tight, mini dress in the closet for next time, especially when visiting a place of worship. Stay open-minded and be willing to learn. They might do things differently than you do at home, don’t judge them for it, but see if you can take anything away from it.
- Don’t participate in the sex trade industry: might seem like an obvious one, but a lot of times we don’t think about what this might entail. I went to Bangkok a while ago and a lot of my colleagues mentioned “Ping Pong shows”.
I didn’t end up going (thank god!) and I won’t go into it too much now, but just think; if something is ridiculously cheap and it involves local people doing something that would never ever happen at home, then they’re probably being exploited. Go visit a burlesque or cabaret show instead.
- Support artisan markets: if you want to bring something home or get your friends and family a gift or souvenir, instead of going to a shop that has been produced somewhere else ("Made in China"), get something hand-made and unique from the locals there. A piece of art or jewellery can go a long way, not only at home, but also for the person you are getting it from.
- Choose tours run by local people: not only do they know best about their city, but again, you are supporting the local economy and enabling them to make a living.
"Be kind to every kind"
This might seem like an extensive list, but at the end of the day, ask yourself why you wanted to visit the country in the first place. If it was to experience the culture and meet local people, then that should always entail being respectful towards people, animals & environment and supporting their local economy.
We need to get out of the mindset where we focus on our pleasure only. If our pleasure involves someone else to get hurt, then we shouldn't be doing it. Everything in life entails both giving and taking and I think, especially while on holidays/travelling, we tend to forget about the giving part, or are ignorant about what it involves.
At the same time, always remember that mistakes do happen and none of us are perfect. I've done most of the things on this list, but I'm now learning how to reduce my impact or rather, how to have a positive one, and that's what counts.