If you are at all aware of current events, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the number of human rights abuses abounding across the globe. Human rights is one of the most difficult ethical issues in tourism, as we try to decide which countries we can visit with a clear conscience. But it is more nuanced than just deciding not to go, and I want to try to give us a starting point for our journey into ethical tourism.
Ethical Issues in Tourism: Why should we care?
If you’re reading our blog, I’d like to think that you have at least a passing interest in sustainable and ethical travel. But just in case you are still on the fence, let’s take a look at why you should care at all. The global tourism and travel industry had a economic contribution of around 7.6 trillion US dollars in 2016, making it one of the world’s largest industries. It is also experiencing steady growth, with international tourist arrivals growing from 528 million in 2005, to 1.9 billion in 2015.
It’s important to understand just how big the tourism industry is, because it means that tourism is vitally important to many economies and communities across the world. By taking part in the industry, we help to shape what services and attractions get attention. We can have a direct effect on what kinds of activities receive funding and attention by the what we choose to engage with on holiday.
An example of this that most of us are aware of, is the attention that elephant riding is getting at the moment. For years riding elephants was one of the ‘must-do’ activities when visiting South East Asia. Recently, however, animal rights activists have helped expose the cruelty of the industry, and attitudes are changing.
A study by World Animal Protection reveals a 9% drop in the number of people finding elephant riding acceptable from 2014 to 2017. This may be a slow start, but in the age of social media, messages on ethical issues in tourism are getting out, and travellers are slowly changing the game.
Ethical Issues in Tourism: What should we care about?
Once you realize how much impact your tourism can potentially have, it can be slightly overwhelming to sift through all the issues demanding your attention. It can feel like every special interest group has a slew of equally worthy and important issues all clamoring to be heard. How do we decide which issues will keep us out of a country, and which we can learn to live with?
In a way, it’s easier to navigate animal rights issues, as often we can choose appropriate activities once we are aware of the impact they have on animals. Human rights issues can be much more invisible, and are harder to identify. By the time we are made aware of human rights abuses, they can be devastating, like the war in Yemen, or the inhumane detention of refugee children in cages in the US. Unfortunately, there are many other smaller abuses that we may be completely unaware of.
Australia is beautiful, but their current government inhumanely detains refugees and asylum seekers in awful conditions on Nauru, with little access to healthcare. Japan is a stunning destination, but the Supreme Court has just upheld a law that requires transgender people to be sterilized before they can seek gender reassignment surgery. Many countries across the world still consider homosexuality illegal. The Rohingya in Myanmar are being systematically exterminated by the current government. Indonesia is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, however religious minorities face harassment, intimidation, and violence. Bolsonaro’s regime in Brazil looks set to destroy the lands of Indigenous people in the name of agricultural development. The list goes on and on. If you’re looking for it, you will find a reason not to visit any country.
Ethical Issues in Tourism: What should we do?
So what do we do? Stay home? My opinion is that we need to decide whether our travel dollars can help to improve the lives of local people or not. I may not agree with the politics of current leadership in a country, but if I can find local, sustainable organizations that I can support during my travels, then it is possible that my money and support can make a direct impact on the lives of local people. In this way, it would actually be unethical for me to boycott the country, as there is a chance I can help to improve the situation, even in a small way.
The converse is that there are definitely areas where our tourism creates more of a burden than a benefit to local communities. As Claire Bennett noted for us on her piece on ethical volunteering, travelling somewhere to volunteer in an area in which we have no expertise can definitely be more damaging than helpful.
A country that comes immediately to mind is North Korea. The few state sponsored tours that allow tourists to visit the otherwise closed off dictatorship are expensively staged propaganda machines. There is no chance that the money you spend will at all benefit the poor and starving North Korean people, lining instead the pockets of the rich politicians and providing the Government with justification for keeping the status quo.
In my opinion, travelling to North Korea at the moment is completely unethical and unjustified. If you are interested in learning more about the country, it is far more ethical to take a tour of the Demilitarized Zone from the South Korea side, where you can hear from a North Korean defector and use your knowledge to raise awareness and affect change.
Ethical Issues in Tourism: Not just for activists
After all of this, we may still be tempted to bury our heads in the sand and just do whatever you were going to do anyway. I was recently told to get off of my moral high horse and stop my ‘social justice warrior nonsense’. So I understand if you are nervous to take steps into ethical travel that may be seen as straying into activism.
But let’s be perfectly honest. The world is a horrible place to live for the great majority of people. We are people who have the great privilege of having the health, resources, and passport to travel for leisure. It would be unethical not to at least consider how we can use this position of power and privilege to better the lives of others in some small way.
It is vital that we as responsible travellers learn to do much more in-depth research before we visit a country. Whereas we are all used to putting tons of effort into finding the best deals and most interesting activities, we need to put as much enthusiasm into researching the living conditions of the people in the country we are about to visit. This goes beyond the glossy tourism leaflets, and asks us to visit the darker side of travel, something we may at first want little to do with. After all, who wants to get depressed by human suffering while planning a beachside getaway?
But now in 2019 we can’t just claim ignorance when we rush off to exotic luxury locations. It is all of our responsibility to seek out education and information on ethical issues in tourism and travel, so that our travel can benefit communities, and hopefully, change lives. We’re going to post our holiday pics on Instagram anyway, what if those pictures could raise awareness and benefit community organizations as well?
It’s time for us to stop selling each other the lies of glossy travel magazines and heavily edited Instagram photographs. But rather than fall into the trap of poverty porn, or travelling to poor areas just to make yourself feel better, we need to find ways of supporting local, sustainable, ethical organizations to create better lives for people. It’s not just lazy to close your eyes to ethical issues in tourism, it could well be a matter of life and death.
Ethical Issues in Tourism: Further reading
Read about our ethical experiences in travel that have created change and given us the gift of amazing travel experiences.
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