Photo: WitR/Shutterstock

Devil's Advocate: Six Reasons Why Foreign Travel Is Unethical

by Apolon Polonski Dec 29, 2008

Transcontinental flights from New York to Europe generate up to two tons of carbon dioxide. Feature photo by author. Photo by Almighty_Fotografie

Considering the damage, should we really be travelling at all? Apolon Polonski says, “Maybe not.”
1. Travel damages the environment.

Travel is, almost by its very nature, bad for the environment.

Even if you travel the Middle East exclusively on horseback, you still have to get there in the first place. And just one transcontinental round-trip flight – let’s say from New York to Istanbul – generates two tons of carbon dioxide. That’s 10% of the average person’s annual carbon footprint in just one afternoon.

Going to Phnom Penh to do some volunteer work? A round-trip flight from New York with two layovers consumes a full quarter of that yearly average in just a day or two.

The more you travel, the worse it gets.

Of course, if you don’t fancy riding bareback across Asia, getting around your destination will pump even more poison into the sky, especially since many poor countries lack the already questionable environmental standards of the United States or other developed countries.

Unless you plan on crossing the ocean in a sailboat, do the environment a favor. Stay home and drive a hybrid.

2. Travel commercializes a nation’s greatest monuments.

In the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul there is a room which only the Ottoman Sultans could enter. Even they could enter it only once a year. That room contains the holiest Islamic relics outside of Mecca: the mantle of the Prophet. His swords. A hair from his beard. His footprint.

In Ottoman times, this room was wholly holy. Now, hundreds of tourists tramp through it every day.

These religious relics have been commodified by travelers who legitimately and earnestly wish to see these pieces of history. Nevertheless, the very presence of non-Sultans drives away any chance of a truly authentic experience.

It is natural to want to see the wondrous with your own eyes. But when 10,000 people visit a monument every day – like at the Great Pyramid complex at Giza – they destroy the very wonder they set out to see.

The grounds around the Pyramid are no longer a fitting setting for those ancient tombs; it is not the remote desert plateau of centuries past. The grounds look like a trash dump. Years of refuse cast aside by careless tourists and locals have destroyed the pristine beauty that made Giza famous.

A few truly sacred sites remain scattered across the world: the Crown Jewels of Scotland, the royal memorabilia of King Tut. You will know when you are in one of these holy places because the guards won’t let you take photographs.

3. Travel turns culture into a commodity.

Fiesta Americana Villa in Cancun caters specifically to the tourist industry. Photo by Serge Melki

Unlike all those common tourists, you aren’t deluded by cute tour packages. Not you.

You travel far off the beaten path, the true spirit of a country. And when you get to one of these secret hinterlands, you will find entrepreneurs who are more than happy to sell you the authentic experience, complete with everything you perceive it to be.

You will sleep in the traditional housing that nobody actually uses anymore, buy the trinkets people maybe — maybe! — used to wear a hundred years ago. You will go home happy but none the wiser about what the locals’ lives are actually like. Wherever travelers go, a travel industry will arise to accommodate them and meet their needs. The only difference is scale.

How can you get the authentic experience?

Learn the language, live there for years, put down roots and become an eternal visitor. Everyone will know you and treat you well. But you will forever be the guest, the expatriate, telling stories of your home country late at night.

Might as well stay home.

4. Travel creates foreign dependence and promotes fragile economies.

Many smaller countries, especially the Caribbean and Pacific islands, depend almost entirely on tourism and agriculture for income. Both the people and the governments themselves become dependent on wealthy visitors like you.

In Cairo, seven year old boys will tug on your shirt incessantly and ask if you’d like to buy a hat or a bottle of water. Dozens or hundreds of enterprising merchants set up shop wherever foreigners go. And travelers flood the country with very easy money.

The trouble comes when the country is flooded by something more literal than money.

A strong hurricane. Or a terrorist strike, or a currency devaluation, or an increase in the cost of oil – the backbone of their economy dries up overnight.

It happened in 2001 when America suddenly became fearful. It happened in 2006 after the tsunami wracked the Indian Ocean.

Without tourism, many of these countries have no safety net. No matter how judiciously you spend your money abroad, you contribute to increasing dependence on this single industry.

Some places, like Dubai, reinvest the money to diversify their economy. Fiji has propped itself up by exporting luxury water. But most countries are not so farsighted.

Your dollars allow them to rest on their laurels, allowing a single disaster to plunge an entire nation into poverty.

5. Travel promotes crime.

It doesn’t matter how carefully you watch your wallet. The influx of comparatively wealthy travelers into a depressed economy guarantees that crime will flourish.

People everywhere pursue opportunity, and scamming foreign tourists is nearly as good a career option as legitimately servicing them.

Does the Egyptian Museum really need dedicated toilet attendants? Does an endless line of overpriced bistros add the same value as manufacturing or infrastructure development?

The vast majority of travelers don’t experience crime abroad. But every time travelers go to countries substantially poorer than their own, they allow crime to proliferate.

It is too great an opportunity to pass up in places where other opportunities, educational or vocational, are often far out of reach.

6. Long-term travel promotes broadly reaching but shallow experience in the traveler.

If you don’t care that your travel perpetuates a cycle of poverty and dependence, at least think of yourself.

It’s impossible to get even a semblance of an authentic experience abroad, even if you volunteer on traditional farms, shy away from metropolitan areas, or join the Peace Corps.

Your mere presence makes the experience inauthentic. When a guest visits your home, you act differently. Even an American who emigrates to Britain or Australia shall never have quite the same experience as someone born and raised there. It’s too late.

If you truly want an authentic experience of a culture, stay at home.

Immerse yourself in your native culture. Put down roots and forsake wandering. Experience the multifaceted joys of the one country you have most neglected – your own.

Once you truly join a community, you may find what you always sought abroad but never quite found. You will learn how other people live.


Do you agree that travel is unethical? Can any of the threats posed by travel be minimized or eliminated? Share your thoughts below.

Other articles engaging issues about the ethical dilemmas travelers encounter on the road include The Shameful Truth About Sex Tourism, and The Secret to Avoiding Beggars.

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