The Importance Of Ethical Tourism

Explore the world around us responsibly and mindfully.

Traveling is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself: it is an exhilaration of the senses, a time for curiosity and self-exploration, and an opportunity to open the mind to unique possibilities and perspectives.

When we travel to a new destination, that experience will likely have an invaluable impact on us, yet we are beginning to understand that we will undoubtedly impact the place as well.

As one of the world’s largest industries, tourism has positively affected societies around the globe by promoting cultural awareness, increasing infrastructure, and boosting economies. And at the same time, for many people around the world, the growth of tourism has resulted in an array of harmful effects such as environmental degradation, loss of culture and language, and displacement of local communities. How can we enjoy a meaningful experience when traveling while also promoting a destination’s economy and protecting its culture and land?

Defining Ethical Tourism

Ethical tourism simply means keeping in mind the effects of one’s actions as a traveler on the environment and local community. Geared towards consumers as well as the industry, ethical tourism aims to avoid participation in activities that contribute to or support negative ethical issues. Traveling ethically varies by region, but there are a few key points to remember when planning your next trip with cultural and environmental respect in mind.

Keeping it local

The tourism industry is considered an effective contributor to socio-economic development around the world.  As with anything relating to globalization, development has created complex positive and negative effects on communities at large.

Unfortunately, the increase of foreign investment in chain restaurants and stores have put many local shops out of business. To support the community and preserve the environment, buy locally-sourced products from locally-owned businesses. Eating at street stalls and buying souvenirs from local artisans are great ways to promote the regional economy and ensure that traditions are preserved.

When searching for accommodation, it is best to book with family-owned hotels rather than multinational chains. For those who travel light and are interested in gaining a unique insider perspective, try out Couchsurfing to live with locals. While it does not support local businesses, couchsurfing allows for incredible cultural exchange and authentic experiences.


Volunteering while traveling may seem like a great way to give back while immersing yourself in a new culture, but good intentions can create a lot of problems for communities.

Something as as simple as donating clothes or water filters may seem like a harmless act, but in reality, local markets may suffer as people begin to rely on donations rather than buying goods from community businesses.  

Voluntourism can also hurt local economies, as volunteers may take jobs from locals. Particularly in the case of physical labor, it may be more beneficial for a community to employ locals rather than utilize free labor.

There are mixed views throughout academic and tourist communities around whether voluntourism can be effective in aiding global communities or not. In some cases, it can be downright harmful — orphanage tourism is a prime example of when volunteering causes serious damage to children. In fact, the majority of the 8 million or more children who live in orphanages are not orphans at all, but are separated from their families due to discrimination, disability, or poverty. Countless “orphanages” in Cambodia have been found to exploit children (many of whom, had parents) in order to make profit from tourists looking to “give back.” In reality, most volunteers do not have the appropriate skills necessary to work with children and their behavior could potentially have serious negative impacts on children’s’ emotional stability. Even more, forming attachments to volunteers who perpetually leave will surely lead to psychological trauma for the child. Rather than volunteering at an orphanage, support programs with sustainable solutions that are committed to economic development, family strengthening, and the establishment of laws to protect children.

This is not to say that all forms of voluntourism will harm a community; in fact, there are many organizations that are doing good work across the globe. Despite potential consequences of voluntourism, Shannon O’Donnell, author of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, argues that “international volunteering is part of a complex ecosystem that can, when done well, help a community grow in a direction they support.” If you are interested in volunteering abroad, be sure to do your research on the organization and the type of  volunteering itself. To be certain that your time spent volunteering is generating a positive impact, click here for a volunteering 10-point checklist to evaluate the ethical implications of your potential volunteer engagement.


For the purpose of respect as well as safety, it is important to research cultural norms before you arrive. Social etiquette will be considerably different depending on the destination. For example, in Spain, it is polite to greet someone by giving two kisses on the right and left cheek, while in Thailand, you should avoid physical touch and instead “wai” the person you are greeting depending on age and rank.

Learning some key phrases in the local language is also a fundamental way to immerse yourself, show respect, and connect with locals. Though many people may speak English in touristic areas or cities, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone can. But even more, as a foreigner it is necessary to make an effort to communicate.  A simple “hello” or “thank you” in the local dialect can go a long way. Stepping out of your comfort zone is a key part of traveling, so why not start with language?

Florence, Italy.
Florence, Italy. Photo: Gillian Rose

Say no to plastic

Though this can be harder than it seems while traveling considering that we are constantly on-the-go, there are a few easy ways to minimize waste at home and abroad:

  • Dine in! Takeout inevitably produces waste from containers and disposable bags. Enjoy your meal at a restaurant instead.  
  • Always carry a reusable water bottle. This is also a great habit to bring back home, as switching to a reusable bottle will save around 1,460 plastic bottles per year.
  • Ditch the straws. This may take some getting used to, and you’ll have to be quick to tell the server your request, but saying no to straws will make a huge influence on the environment. If you love straws and can’t bear to part with them, then consider purchasing a steel or bamboo straw.
Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: Gillian Rose


Traveling can cause a lot of waste for our planet, but it doesn’t have to. With a little care and awareness, you can travel anywhere without adding to pollution.

To reduce carbon emissions, minimize internal flights and travel overland when possible. Though buses and trains will take more time, these forms of transportation are much less polluting and a great way to enjoy a country’s beautiful scenery. Taking public transportation, bicycling, or walking will also save fuel and give a true perspective into local life.

Mallorca, Spain.
Mallorca, Spain. Photo: Gillian Rose

Seek ethical animal encounters

Animal tourism may be a notable part of a travel experience, but many of these activities involve the harm and exploitation of animals. While in recent years activists from around the world have taken measures to end animal abuse and neglect caused by the tourism industry, there are still many travel organizations that (intentionally or not) continue to mistreat animals. As a matter of fact, a recent study by World Animal Protection found that 75% of wildlife tourist attractions have negative impacts on wild animals. For wild animals to become so docile and tame, there is often excessive mistreatment involved. As a rule of thumb for seeking ethical animal encounters, look for organizations that promote observation instead of hands-on contact.

It is also important to note that even sanctuaries and nonprofits that claim to be “ethical” may not be ethical at all. In Thailand, most people are aware that elephant riding is incredibly exploitative, and many elephant sanctuaries have transitioned from riding to more hands-off activities such as feeding or bathing. Though this is a significant move towards bettering the lives of elephants, there is still much to be done to increase the wellbeing of both elephants and mahouts. The best sanctuaries are ones which have the least amount of human interaction, with plenty of space for the elephants to roam freely. If you are interested in seeing elephants on your next adventure, be sure to read these 5 tips to spot an elephant-friendly venue.  And if you are curious for more information on elephant tourism, check out this report by World Animal Protection.

Mandalay, Myanmar.
Mandalay, Myanmar. Photo: Gillian Rose

To be an ethical traveler is to explore the world around us responsibly and mindfully, constantly questioning the results of our actions. While this term is distinct and perhaps daunting, it is simply a means to describe the way that we should all act when traveling – with curiosity, compassion, and understanding. In the future, hopefully there will be no term for ethical travel; instead, there will simply be travel.

Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: Gillian Rose

Gillian Rose

Contributing Editor

Since graduating from Berkeley with a degree in international development, Gillian has lived in four continents and currently calls Tel Aviv home. She speaks five languages and is an avid traveler, foodie, and lifelong student. As a yoga, breathwork, and meditation teacher, Gillian has a deep passion for somatic healing.

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