ethical travel

Adventurers are living in a time when satiating our deepest sense of wanderlust is no longer a luxury reserved for the rich and famous. With frequent flier programs, “travel hacks” and cheap accommodations marketed specifically toward explorers of the world, we are increasingly able to book vacations in the most exotic locations without having to break the bank. And let me tell you, it’s a great feeling to book an adventure of a lifetime on a dime!

Yet, while I traipsed through the wild jungles and gritty city streets of Thailand, pleased with my penny-pinching plans and ready to see the best of the “land of smiles,” there were moments filled with incredible wonder and splendor followed by an intense feeling of guilt and privilege (a strange and new emotion for me).

Before landing in Southeast Asia, I truly had no idea how much tourism played a role in the native Thai people’s livelihood. Shanties stood directly behind five star hotels and market workers waiting for their next customer fanned themselves in the sweltering midday heat, while the rest of us tourists complained about finding air conditioning. I wasn’t quite aware of just how many excursions and experiences were offered to European and American tourists at a cheap price, but often at the expense of the Thai people’s low income and intense workload.

Ironically, “off-the-beaten-track” travel is actually very well worn. This often creates resentment with local people towards tourists. Even the most intentional travelers forget that when they climb to the top of the highest temple or snap the perfect Instagram of rare wildlife they stumble upon, they are almost always in the homes of others. We forget the pennies we spend on our cheaply priced, yet opulent hotel rooms can displace fishing communities. These are just a few examples of how tourism affects local people.

The truth is, traveling responsibly isn’t an automatic option; you have to consciously choose to do so. The good news is that to adventure with some peace of mind there are some simple steps you can follow.

What is Ethical Tourism?

Simply put, ethical tourism is a term used when travelers choose to avoid participation in activities that contribute to or support social injustices (such as gender and race injustices,  human rights, poverty and environmental welfare) and instead choose to travel in ways that benefit people and the environment. Tourists currently exploit almost 30%  of the world’s “untouched” spaces. It’s easy to see why traveling responsibly is now becoming more and more of a necessity.

How Can We Practice Ethical Tourism?

Say no to layovers! Air travel is one of the biggest causes of global warming in our world today. So, obviously, reducing unnecessary flights or choosing to take the train or bus (when it’s possible) is a great way to minimize this problem. And since take-offs and landings release the most carbon, it’s a great excuse to avoid the headaches of a long, long layover in who knows where.

Research tour operators. There are some great adventure companies that organize experiences that give back to the local people,instead of exploiting them. Look into their “about” page on their website and if you don’t see anything listed, send them a quick email. It’s really simple and feels good to be participating in something that is incredible for you and beneficial to the natives. Once you’re ready to get exploring, you can ask your tour operator for even more tips on how to travel responsibly throughout your destination. They may have great advice based on their experience with the local culture, environment and people.

Think (and spend) locally. Although booking through large corporations and eating at the familiar fast food chains around the world are often the easiest choices to make while enjoying your travels, make sure to research alternative options in which your expenses can directly benefit the local economy. Look into local guides and tour companies, buy locally, stay in family operated hotels and feel good about where you are spending your money.

… traveling responsibly isn’t an automatic option; you have to consciously choose to do so.

Learn the language. A simple “hello,” “please,” and “thank you” will get you so much further with natives. By at least attempting to speak their language, you are demonstrating a sense of respect and desire to engage in their culture.

Bargain with a smile. In Thailand, I ran into many markets with unwritten “Thai prices” and “tourist prices.” Bargaining is definitely a huge part of the Thai culture, so it’s perfectly fine to offer a slightly smaller price. Just remember that for the sellers, this is their source of income, so keep a smile on and a sense of kindness. Aggressive or angry tones go nowhere!

Ask yourself, how can I present myself as a caring and aware visitor?

Look into local customs. It’s easy to forget that foreign countries do not share the same traditions and codes of ethics as we do. To avoid any faux pas and show respect, do a quick Google search before you go. A responsible traveler does their best to immerse themselves in the culture as much as possible. So, take the extra step to learn about the cultural nuances you can quickly adopt, like appropriate eye contact, customary greetings and how to show gratitude in restaurants, businesses and other public places. .

Respect, don’t exploit. Visiting Long Neck Tribes in Thailand may sound like an incredible journey, but remember that these are cultures and people to be honored, not viewed like an exhibit. Choose excursions that celebrate the indigenous culture or assists them in some way, instead of those that exploit them.

Give back. It sounds silly, but if you book with a local business, leave your positive feedback as publicly as possible. Leaving a nice TripAdvisor comment may end up landing the local people some extra business. You can also volunteer at a nearby conservatory or farm for a day or so. Or if your itinerary is booked, donate to an organization that supports a place or community that you visited.

The best part of ethical tourism? The feeling of giving back to a group of people who endlessly give new and exciting memories to you.

Have you traveled ethically or are you interested in doing so for your next trip?

Image via Gillian Stevens


  1. I share the sediment about travelling. It is amazing that travelling is becoming more accessible. However, we need to keep in mind that people actually call these travel destinations home and that we need to respect that.

  2. I share the sediment about travelling. It is amazing that travelling is becoming more accessible. However, we need to keep in mind that people actually call these travel destinations home and that we need to respect that.

  3. Ethical travel is so important. There is a great deal of power in acknowledging how we are perceived in the world and behaving in a way that respects other cultures and customs. Thank you for writing this article!

  4. I also traveled to Thailand a couple years ago and remember having the same convictions. This is a great article, and I wish I had this wisdom for all of my past adventures. Thank you for sharing concrete ways to honor other cultures and uphold the practice of “keeping it local”—even while abroad.

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