If there’s one thing that guided my transition from being just an absolutely awful adolescent to becoming a middlingly decent and globally conscious adult, it was travel. In my early 20s, I spent a lot of time abroad in developing countries, and that time basically dismantled everything I thought I knew about the world. I was forced to put my world back together in a way where I was no longer at its center, and where my culture no longer took precedence over everyone else’s.
So it rattled me a bit when, during a trip to Southeast Asia back in 2007, I was told that to go to Burma would be to go there against the wishes of the country’s pro-democracy group, the National League for Democracy, and against the wishes of their leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. They had apparently asked that people not visit so as not to support the brutal military regime in power in the country. Since then, Aung San Suu Kyi has changed her mind on tourism, and the country has begun major democratic reforms. But back in 2007, my fellow travelers and I debated the don’t-travel-to-Burma request, comparing it to the apartheid-era “cultural embargo” in South Africa.
We basically kept arguing about it until it was no longer an issue. No agreement was ever reached, and I still wonder: Is it ever truly “immoral” to travel somewhere? Does a local population requesting that you don’t come to their country morally obligate you to stay away? What other circumstances could raise a moral red flag among travelers? Thinking about this over time, I’ve developed two personal rules to decide if a trip is morally problematic or not.
#1: The House Guest Rule
There’s a very basic way to decide if you should go somewhere or not, and I call it the House Guest Rule. When Westerners — especially Americans — think of travel, they often think of it in terms of capitalism. The idea is that I’m going to this country, I’m putting money into this country, and the locals providing me with a service and a product by hosting me. In that mindset, travel is never “right” or “wrong,” as long as you fully compensate people for their service (their hosting duties) and their product (their country and culture).
This is a horrible way to think about travel. Travel isn’t like buying fruit from a shop — you’re basically entering someone else’s home. So you should behave less like a customer and more like a house guest. You wouldn’t go to a friend’s home and not make the bed or leave a mess in the bathroom (I mean, you might, but then you’d be a shitty house guest). And you wouldn’t ask your friend if you could come and, if they said it was a bad time, still barge into their home anyway.
Obviously it isn’t always that simple — after all, a country isn’t just a few people in a household, but often millions of people with different backgrounds and interests. But this way of thinking about travel goes a long way towards behaving more ethically.
#2: The More-Harm-Than-Good Rule
It’s impossible to travel somewhere and not do a little bit of harm. Whether it’s the fact that your mode of travel probably did at least some environmental damage, or the fact that you’re one among many tourists, and those other tourists may have fewer scruples than you — maybe they patronize the local sex trade, maybe they do damage to cultural sites when they visit. Or maybe the heavy presence of tourists precipitates a harsh police crackdown on the local poor or homeless. You’re always going to have an effect on the place you visit, regardless of the size of your footprint.
But that’s just a part of life in general. It’s impossible to live a totally ethical life in a globalized world without living in the woods and never buying anything; you shouldn’t expect your presence in another country to be all good.
What you should do is try to tip the scales towards good. First, try to travel as green as possible, and second, try to patronize local vendors rather than big tour companies. Don’t visit hotels or vendors that treat their workers poorly or have no regard for the surrounding environment. And then behave respectfully when you get there. That may be enough to tip the balance.
If I can’t make my travel plans work within these two rules, I don’t go. It doesn’t usually result in me not going on a trip, but I probably can’t go to the next two World Cups. Regardless of what your personal rules might be, it’s good to have them. Travelers often think of travel as an exclusively good thing, and it’s not. It’s a moral choice, and it’s something we should be thinking about.