Ethical tourism: Everything you need to know

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(Last updated on: 30/11/2020)

Ethical tourism is on everyone’s mind these days. Over the past decade or two, people have become far more conscious of their actions. Whether it’s by turning off the lights when we leave the room, recycling our empty cereal box, not riding elephants in Thailand or eating at local restaurants in Costa Rica, there are many ways that we can be ethical tourists.

However, whilst you might read simplistic articles that give you a list of ‘things that you should do to be an ethical tourist’, these are exactly that- over simplified. In reality, ethical tourism is a multifaceted concept that requires a deep understanding if a person truly wants to demonstrate ethical behaviour.

In this article, I will tell you what is meant by the term ethical tourism, why ethical tourism has become more prominent around the world and what ethical issues the tourism industry is up against. I will also give you lots of examples of ethical tourism, discuss the criticisms of ethical tourism (because it is not perfect!) and then give you that infamous list- how to be an ethical tourist.

Don’t want to read it all? Use the list below to scroll to the bit that interests you most.

What is ethical tourism?

young woman on fallen trunk in forest ethical tourism
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Ethical tourism is a concept that has been developed in response to the critiques of mass tourism. Essentially, ethical tourism encourages tourists to move away from’ the four Ss’ (Sun, Sea, Sand and Sex), and exchange these for ‘the three Ts’ (Travelling, Trekking and Trucking).

To put it simply, ethical tourism is a form of responsible tourism. Ethical tourists consider the impact of their actions with regards to the three pillars of sustainable tourism– the environment, the economy and society. They minimise negative impacts and maximise the positive impacts.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? There problem is however, that many people are undereducated in these areas. Tourists are inherently naive. A person may think that they are demonstrating ethical behaviours and adhering to ethical practices, but in reality this may not be the case. This is through no fault of the tourist. The simple issue is that they do not know everything that they need to know in order to be an ‘ethical tourist’….

A definition of ethical tourism

So lets delve into the concept of ethical tourism a little deeper….

As with many concepts that I attempt to define here on this website, there is a degree of ambiguity over what ethical tourism actually means. It is somewhat subjective. Ultimately, what one person may believe is ‘ethical’, another person may not.

This problem is particularly evident when we compare the way that the term ethical tourism is understood between those who live in the global north to those who live in developing countries.

The concept of ethical tourism has been developed predominantly by Western nations, in response to global concerns about the impact of mass tourism and the negative impacts that this often has. But whilst these problems are increasingly recognised in the northern hemisphere, many countries in the south lack the education and experience to facilitate the same level of comprehension. This has resulted in different interpretations of the term ‘ethical tourism’ around the world.

lake and mountain ethical tourism
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Nonetheless, there have been some attempts at providing a universal definition of ethical tourism.

The World Tourism Organisation (1999) state that;

‘The understanding and promotion of the ethical values common to humanity, with an attitude of tolerance and respect for the diversity of religious, philosophical and moral beliefs, are both the foundation and consequence of responsible tourism’.

Ryan (2002, p. 17) further suggests that although it may be easy for tour operators to agree with the principles outlined by demands for an ethical approach to tourism development, it is sometimes hard to implement them because of the complex and ‘pragmatic issues of management’. He argues that although laudable in intention, ethical tourism has been an extremely difficult niche product to provide.

Harold Goodwin, the director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism (ICRT), supports this, reporting that ‘currently what tour operators are looking for help with is ways to make themselves more responsible’ (Goodwin, 2003).

This demonstrates that there are also disparities between the way that ethical tourism is understood (either intentionally or naively) between the different stakeholders in tourism. Businesses, for example, may promote ethical practices as a means of enhancing their corporate image, whereas tourists may have a true and natural desire to lessen their carbon footprint, for instance.

Why is ethical tourism important?

Ethical tourism is paramount.

Ultimately, we have been destroying our world for centuries and the pace at which this has happened has increased exponentially in recent years. We simply cannot continue to act in the way that we have been.

Yes, people are are recycling more than they used to. Governments are funding the building of solar and wind power plants as an alternative to coal. Biofuels are being developed for use in aircraft and electric car technology is rapidly developed. Children are taught to be ‘global citizens’ at school. BUT we are not doing enough.

If you haven’t yet watched the Netflix series Travellers, then you should do. This dystopian drama gives us insight into what our future world might look like if we continue living the way that we are… I highly recommend it.

If you haven’t watched Travellers yet then you should!

If we want to continue to travel the world, then we must do it responsibly. And this is what ethical tourism is all about…

The rise in ethical tourism

female traveler on high hillside in mountains ethical tourism
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Ethical tourism is not a new concept, but it is one that has become more recognised in recent years.

Over the last 30 years or so, ethical tourism has become an important discussion point for academics, businesses, Governments and the general public.

It’s scary to think that when our parents travelled in their youth, there was little regard for ethics. In fact, holidays were seen as a time to ‘let loose’ and to be ‘care-free’. Turning off the lights when you left a room was often the last thing on a tourist’s mind.

Fast-forward a generation and the picture is quite different….

This TED talk by Christopher Winter helps us to understand why ethical tourism is so important.

The emergence and growth of the ‘ethical consumer’ has been apparent since the 1990s (Shaw & Clarke, 1999). In response, companies began to realise the importance of social responsibility and began to implement ethical practices into their business models. Sadly, this often means that companies have little regard for ethics, but instead their motives are profit-driven. But nonetheless, ethical practices are adopted, which is a good thing!

Ethical tourism over the years has moved from a micro form of niche tourism to a macro niche in tourism. However, it remains just that- a niche.

However, there are a number of predictions that show an accelerated growth in the interest of ethical tourism in the near future. Therefore, I predict that it is only a matter of time before ethical tourism is integrated into the mass tourism model.

In fact, there is a strong argument to suggest that ethical tourism should be part of an attitude towards tourism, rather than a niche product.

The global code of ethics for tourism

tourist next to tent in desert in daytime ethical tourism
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So how to we monitor and measure ethical behaviour? What are the guidelines for ethical tourism? Is there a code of conduct?

These are all very important questions. The problem that we have with broad and subjective concepts, such as ethical tourism, is definition and measurement. When is something ethical and who decides?

Unfortunately, there is not one set code of conduct for stakeholders in tourism to work towards. This makes for somewhat murky waters… nonetheless, there are a number of guidelines and codes that are used in different spheres and contexts.

Some examples of codes of conduct used in ethical tourism include:


The purpose of codes, such as these, is to raise awareness and to educate the tourist.

They do also play an important role in informing other stakeholders of tourism, such as private organisations of Government. Codes of conduct help to explain how it is possible for people to support the management of tourism in a sustainable, and ethical, manner.

Major ethical issues in tourism

There are many many ethical issues within tourism. After all, tourism is one of, if the the, biggest industry in the world- so there are bound to be a diverse range of issues.

Below, I have briefly outlined some of the most common ethical issues in tourism.

Distribution of income

woman in red dresses carrying firewood ethical tourism
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There is lots of money to be made in tourism. However, the income is rarely distributed evenly.

More often than not, the vast majority of wealth made from tourism goes to large, Western corporations. Even if we concentrate on an area of tourism that is in the developing world, much of the income from tourism is still swallowed up by international organisations, known as economic leakage.

Inherently, most of the jobs in the travel and tourism industry pay low salaries. Think- the chef in your hotel restaurant, the maids who clean your beds and the theme park ride operator at the fun fair. None of these people are likely to be paid high salaries.

Tourism can also cause other negative economic impacts, such as gentrification (when local people are pushed out of the area that they have traditionally lived in because the cost of living has risen too much). Tourism can encourage theft, gambling and cause people to leave their traditional methods of income generation behind (such as farming) in exchange for tourism.

The sex tourism industry in Thailand is a good example of this, where young girls frequently leave their homes in rural areas to join the sex trade in the city in search of a more prosperous economic outlook.

Access to services and facilities

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Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com

The tourism industry is known to use and abuse local areas and resources. This is often at the detriment of the local population.

Take golf tourism, for example. Golf courses require a huge amount of water in order to be maintained. In some parts of the world, where there are water shortages, this means that local people may go without essential water needed for cooking, washing etc at the expense of the tourism industry.

Exploitation of children

boy sitting on dirt ethical tourism
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Sadly, children are exploited with the tourism industry more often than we care to admit.

Have you ever bought an item from a kid who is a street seller? If the answer is yes, then you are helping to fuel this exploitation…. if the parents know that their kids can make money from tourism, they will continue to keep them out of school and working on the streets.

There are many jobs that kids do that are indirectly linked to the tourism industry too. From working in factories to farm work to begging, to sex tourism.

Exploitation of women

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Photo by Yulia Rozanova on Pexels.com

Similarly, many women are exploited within the tourism industry.

The most obvious example is this is through sex tourism, which is a prominent industry in South East Asia, amongst other parts of the world.

However, there are also many other ways that women are treated unfairly in the tourism industry. Most of the top jobs are done by men and women salaries, on average, are significantly lower around the world than men’s salaries.

Sex tourism

amsterdam canal lights red light district ethical tourism
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As I mentioned before, the sex tourism industry is pretty significant. While many people like to pretend it doesn’t exist, the truth is that this is a multi-million Dollar industry.

However, many people who work in the sex trade do not want to be there. Some are forced into this line of work against their will. Some are only children.

Animal welfare

photo of an elephant carrying people on a green grass field ethical tourism
Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

Wildlife tourism has moved towards the forefront of consumer awareness in recent years. People are now largely empathetic of animal rights and welfare.

People are now preferring to visit safari parks over zoos, going to animal sanctuaries and conservation projects and volunteering their time to help, rather than hinder.

Nonetheless, maltreatment of animals does still happen in many contexts around the world; from dolphins in captivity to cat cafes to riding elephants.

Environmental destruction

black airplane in the sky ethical tourism
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It’s ironic really that tourism all too often destroys the environment that it relies on.

For tourism to be ethical, stakeholders need to ensure that any damage to the environment is minimised. This includes a range of aspects such as reducing CO2 emissions to picking up litter to reducing the amount of plastic that we use.

Cultural impacts of tourism

photo of man in red and white lungi skirt standing on grass field ethical tourism
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There are many ways that tourism can adversely affect culture.

Authenticity in tourism is often a controversial topic, as is globalisation. Tourists should be mindful of local cultures, religions and customs and try not to offend people during their travels too.

Examples of ethical tourism

So, now that we understand what ethical tourism is, lets look at some examples of ethical tourism in practice. Below, I have outlined some of the major examples of ethical tourism. Please note that this list is not exhaustive and not all of these types of tourism are entirely ethical 100% of the time.

Agritourism

silhouette of person riding a horse ethical tourism
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Agritourism, also referred to as agricultural tourism, argotourism or farm tourism is a subset of the rural tourism industry. It focusses on agricultural operations and involves tourist activities based in or around farms. This includes activities such as wine tours, horseback riding, clay bird shooting, animal petting and historical agricultural exhibits.

Charity tourism

selective focus photography cement ethical tourism
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Charity tourism, also referred to as aid tourism, is a form of travel which centres around charitable activity. It can involve helping those in need directly by joining a volunteer tourism programme, for example. It can also involve booking tours and travels or providing financial donations through organisations and tour operators which promote charitable tourism, such as Tourism ConcernBarefoot or the Travel Foundation.

Community-based tourism

adventure backlit dawn dusk ethical tourism
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Community based tourism is a term used to describe holidays that benefit both the traveller and the destination. Community based tourism is based on the premise of collective responsibility, allowing the local community to have an active involvement in the development and management of tourism in the area.It often involves rural, poor and economically marginalised populations, where individuals are given the opportunity to raise money through work as land managers, entrepreneurs, produce and service providers and employees.

Cultural tourism

two women wearing traditional dress carrying basins ethical tourism
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Cultural tourism is the act of travellers visiting particular destinations in order to experience and learn about a particular culture. This can include many activities such as; attending events and festivals, visiting museums and tasting the local food and drinks. Cultural tourism can also be an unintentional part of the tourism experience, whereby cultural immersion (with the local people, their language, customs, cuisine etc) is an inevitable part of a person’s holiday.

Ecotourism

man carrying black backpack standing beside trees ethical tourism
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Ecotourism is a form of tourism directed at preserving fragile environments and eco-systems. Ecotourism commonly occurs in threatened natural environments, where the intention is to provide conservation. Ecotourism efforts include building tourist facilities that have minimal impact on the natural environment, adopting the use of products such as compost toilets or solar-powered electricity. Ecotourism has become somewhat of a ‘buzz word’ in recent years and is closely related to the concept of sustainable tourism.

Geotourism

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Geotourism is tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical features of a destination. Geotourism adopts the principles of sustainable tourism, with a focus on the synergy of the destination- it aims to bring together all of the elements of geographical character to create a fulfilling and rewarding tourism product. Examples of geo tourism may be holiday homes that are run locally and built with local products (e.g. stones) or local produce being sold to tourists.

Pro-poor tourism

little boy carrying can ethical tourism
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Pro-poor tourism is not a sector of the tourism industry per se, rather it is an approach to the industry. Pro-poor tourism, often shortened to PPT, intends to provide net benefits to the poor. These can be economic, social or environmental benefits and can be achieved through a range of means such as taking part in charity tourism or purchasing a holiday package through a charitable operator.

Rural tourism

cozy wooden house and chairs in autumn forest ethical tourism
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According to the World Tourism Organisation, rural tourism is ‘a type of tourism activity in which the visitor’s experience is related to a wide range of products generally linked to nature-based activities, agriculture, rural lifestyle / culture, angling and sightseeing’. Rural tourism takes place in non-urban areas such as national parks, forests or mountain areas. Popular rural tourism activities include cycling, walking or hiking.

Slow tourism

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Slow tourism is based on the concept of speed. It involves travelling for a prolonged period of time at a slow pace, allowing the tourist a deep, authentic and cultural experience. An alternative tourism form, slow travel is typically associated with sustainable practices, taking into consideration the impacts of travel on the environment, society and economy. Slow travel can be undertaken in any destination, but is particularly popular amongst traditional backpacking routes in destinations such as South East Asia, Central America or Australia.

Sustainable tourism

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Sustainable tourism, similarly to responsible tourism, relies on the premise of taking care of the environment, society and economy. Sustainable tourism principles intend to minimise the negative impacts of tourism, whilst maximising the positive impacts. As defined in the Bruntland Report, sustainable tourism is ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

Volunteer tourism

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Volunteer tourism is a type of tourism whereby an individual will travel abroad to a destination that is predominantly considered ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ to offer their support to those in need. According to Steven Wearing, the founder of the concept, a volunteer tourist undertakes holidays that might involve aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments or research into aspects of society or environment.

WWOOFING

man planting on field ethical tourism
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WWOOFING stands for world wide opportunities on organic farms. It is a form of homestay tourism, whereby the tourist works on the farm in exchange for free board. WWOOFING has grown as an industry in recent years and is particularly popular in Australia, where many international tourists undertake agricultural work in order to extend the duration of their working holiday visa.

Criticisms of ethical tourism

Ethical tourism is all about doing good. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Too good to be true even? Well, perhaps it is…

There are, in actual fact, many criticisms of ethical tourism. Yes, it done well it has some fantastic positive impacts. But all too often this is not the case. The most common criticisms of ethical tourism include; the naivety of tourists, the fact that small-scale projects often can not solve large-scale problems and the subjectivity of the term ethical tourism. In addition to this, some people actually question whether achieving true ethical tourism is even possible!

Tourists are naive

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Many tourists don’t want to exhibit unethical behaviour. The problem is that they simply do not realise that they are doing it!

I remember when I first moved to Thailand to teach English and I leant that it was culturally offensive to show the soles of your feet. I was horrified to learn this, given that I had been sat on the floor in temples and other public places with my legs straight out in front of me- and soles completely on show! This is one example of how tourists are often ignorant to local customs and traditions, and can this easily cause offence, albeit in unintentionally.

Wildlife tourism is another good example. For years, tourists would ride elephants, completely unaware of how much the elephant would suffer in order to provide them with this pleasure. Fortunately, there is now a lot more awareness in this area.

This debate by tourism academics and professionals provides detailed insight into the complex issues surrounding ethical tourism.

Small-scale projects don’t solve larger-scale problems

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Many examples of ethical tourism, such as volunteer tourism projects or areas which are adopting geotourism principles are small in size. Yes, there are positive impacts to such projects, but they are barely a pin-prick into the bigger problems at hand.

Take pro-poor tourism, for example. There are some fantastic initiatives around the world, however these projects are small. Every little helps, for sure- but they only have a small impact on the wider issue and problems.

The subjectivity of the term ‘ethical’

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What is ethical behaviour?

Part of the problem with ethical tourism is that different people have different perceptions of what is ethical and what is not. In China, for example- it is deemed as perfectly ok to keep animals in small enclosures. Whereas, in much of the Western world, tourists would look upon this in horror.

Perception of ethics vary around the world and between different types of people. And a large part of this is done to education and awareness. If you have never been taught that fois gras is made by force feeding geese to fatten their liver, then you might be perfectly happy to eat it. If you have not seen the documentaries about how plastic is filling our oceans then you may have no problem with using a plastic disposable straw.

The point I am trying to make is that people view ethical tourism and understand ethical tourism in different ways. This includes not only tourists, but also tour operators, travel agents, tour guides, Governments and a range of other tourism industry stakeholders.

Ethical operators may have unethical motives

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The last criticism of ethical tourism that is worthwhile mentioning here is motivation.

Why does someone make a commitment to be an ethical tourist or to promote ethical tourism? Is it because they genuinely care about said ethical issues? Or is it because they are making money from it is some way?

We live in a world where consumerism and commercialisation are key. The capitalist marketplace demands competitive prices, innovative practices, superior marketing and a USP.

One way of achieving these things is for organisations to promote themselves as ethical operators. This enhances their corporate social image and makes them look more appealing to customers. In turn, this increases business and makes the organisation more money.

So, does the organisation who is promoting ethical tourism really care about ethical tourism? Maybe they do care, but I suspect that profit comes before ethics in most instances. Sad, but true.

Can tourism ever really be ethical?

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So we have concluded that ethical tourism is subjective and difficult to measure. Does that mean that there is really such a thing as ethical tourism? Can any tourism be entirely and truthfully ethical? what does this actually mean?

Monbiot (1999) makes a valid argument in this regard, stating that; ‘tourism is, by and large, an unethical activity, which allows us to have fun at everyone else’s expense’.  Hickman (2002) further concludes that tourism is inherently a ‘self centred act’. Butcher (2009) takes this one step further by questioning whether ethical tourism is actually a good thing at all, in his chapter entitled ‘Against Ethical Tourism’ in the book Philosophical Issues in Tourism.

Perhaps the answer is that ethical tourism should not be seen as a form of tourism per se, but instead should be approach that is taken in an appropriate way, depending on the specific context. It is certainly not a black and white issue… and is certainly an area worthy of further discussion.

How to be an ethical tourist

I would like to end this article with a practical overview of some of the things that tourists, and other tourism industry stakeholders, can do to exhibit ethical behaviour.

It is extremely difficult (if possible at all) to be 100% ethical for 100% of the time. BUT, there are many things that we CAN do to help to protect and preserve the environment, society and the economy. Keep reading to find out what YOU can do to help.

#1 Be kind to the environment

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If you want to be an ethical tourist, you must demonstrate a commitment to reducing any negative impacts on the environment. Some of the things that you can do include:

  • Don’t buy animal souvenirs
  • Don’t touch animals
  • Don’t feed wild animals
  • Avoid unethical wildlife tourism
  • Don’t drop litter
  • Don’t touch coral
  • Try slow tourism
  • Opt for eco-friendly transportation options
  • Turn off the lights
  • Try ecotourism
  • Avoid plastic
  • Recycle
  • Don’t waste water
  • Stick to main paths

#2 Be kind to society

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Ethical tourists also have a care and consideration for society and the communities that they interact with as part of their tourist experience. Here are some things that you can do to be an ethical tourist:

  • Learn the local language
  • Be respectful of local customs and traditions
  • Immerse yourself into local life
  • Be sensitive
  • Don’t give to beggars
  • Treat people fairly
  • Avoid sex tourism
  • Don’t take photos of people without their permission

#3 Be kind to the economy

Lastly, an ethical tourist should be mindful of their economic behaviour. Here are some things that you can do to ensure that you have a positive impact, where possible:

  • Shop local
  • Avoid multinational chain hotels
  • Limit economic leakage where you can
  • Avoid all-inclusive holidays
  • Leave positive reviews for local businesses
  • Consider who you are booking your holiday with
  • Haggle fairly

Ethical tourism: Further reading

Ethical tourism is a fascinating and important subject that is only going to grow in the coming years. Want to learn more? Check out the resources below:

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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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