What Is Ethical Travel?

by Sarah Menkedick Dec 17, 2009

Photos: author

The Toronto Star recently published a list of ten ethical travel destinations for 2010 (although the headline, in a little mathematical/editorial confusion, advertises seven). The ten countries have supposedly been selected on the basis of “everything from promoting natural environments to building tourism industries that benefit locals.” There seems to be a somewhat imbalanced emphasis on countries who have made conservation a priority and who boast exceptional natural environments, but the list seems fair enough.

However, I find the notion of “ethical travel destinations” bizarre. What, after all, is an “ethical destination?” And how can one classify a whole country as ethical or unethical? Obviously, the article is referring to governments and government policy and judging on that basis, but I still find the label odd.

In the context of travel, I wonder how useful it is to label certain countries ethical and others not. I can see the logic behind it and understand what kinds of factors might be figured into the ethical equation – but how much would be lost in travel if we only traveled to “ethical” places?

Mexico is deeply unethical in its treatment of women and its obscene corruption, and China is unethical in more ways than I can count, but would not having traveled to or lived in either of these places make me a better person and a “better” traveler, and would it have enhanced that global understanding we like to think emerges from travel?

Behind this definition of ethical travel lurks the old beast of holier-than-thou presumption. You, Ghana, we choose you for your “impressive commitment to genuine democracy” but you, Senegal, or Benin, or Bolivia, we’re not really going to grace you with our presence because you’re not ethical enough. And we’re going to hand pick, according to our criteria, what satisfies our definition of ethics and spend our time and our money accordingly.

I agree that it’s important to be aware of the ethical background of any place you travel. I’m always surprised at people who can travel somewhere and enjoy coral reefs and turquoise bays without giving the slightest about the situation of the people serving them, talking with them, living there year round.

But I’m not sure that defining a place as “ethical” or “unethical” is really useful in travel, and I’m not sure that avoiding places which lack the ethical standards established by Western media is really a productive or helpful idea. I lived for a year in China – couldn’t see my own blog and a whole range of other websites, saw the migrant workers working twelve hours a day throwing up buildings for the Olympics, breathed air that gave me pneumonia in two months.

But I learned more in that year than I’ve learned from any other experience, hands down.

So I ask – do you seek out ethical places? Avoid unethical ones? What is your travel ethic?

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