Every single time you plan a trip, you make hundreds of different choices: Where will I stay? What will I eat and visit? Who will I spend my time with? How will I commute? Wait, should I pack this iridescent bundle of plastic hair tinsels that’ll only wind up littering my room at the end of the day? Well, each of the choices you make at this stage has the power to change the world.
Meet ethical travelling, a movement hinged on leaving a positive legacy in your wake as a tourist. Here, you get to decide how the place you’re visiting looks and feels—while having authentic experiences and helping conserve it, one journey at a time.
Since the 1980s, the term ‘responsible travel’ has been synonymous with environmental sustainability in particular. Over time, however, keeping a check on our carbon emissions and plastic usage has just become the tip of the melting iceberg when it comes to the tourism industry.
“I have been a travel journalist for eight years now and would say that, when I started, most people’s idea of what travelling sustainably meant was pretty limited,” said Imogen Lepere, author of The Ethical Traveller: 100 Ways to Roam the World (Without Ruining It!). According to Lepere, sustainable travel previously tended to focus on practices like voluntourism, where one participates in voluntary work in the community where they are vacationing.
“[This] is often not particularly sustainable as it may take opportunities away from local people or provide very short-term solutions to problems that are ongoing, and eco-hotels that are either wildly expensive or very basic,” she explained. “Now, the term is recognised as far more holistic.”
Essentially, ethical travelling means being mindful of the consequences a visitor has on the environment, animals and people—and using this awareness to travel in a way that ensures your dollars and actions are benefitting, not harming, the local communities you visit.
Tracing back to the typical association of sustainable travel with protecting the environment, Lepere likes to talk more about ethical travel than the former—given her belief that the real opportunity of tourism lies in promoting social change. “I feel engaging with communities in a meaningful way is the backbone of what it means to be an ethical traveller as it is a way of dispersing cash directly to those who need it most, and also leads to far more memorable and authentic experiences.”
This is exactly why the author recommends community-run tourism projects. “Many are managed as cooperatives—[where] everyone in the community receives a share of the money from your visit—and to me, they feel fairer than voluntourism, which kind of has its roots in colonial ideas,” she said. “By supporting a community-run tourism project, you are acknowledging those in the community as equals who are offering incredible experiences worth paying for, rather than saying they need your support as an act of goodwill.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, residents in Barcelona protested against overtourism in the streets, pleading with the government to curb the increasing number of visitors. Back in 2017, the government of Iceland also implemented the Icelandic Pledge, an online agreement which travellers can sign—vowing to be a responsible tourist staying only in campsites and leaving destinations as they found them.
In a similar vein, New Zealand invites travellers to take the Tiaki Promise to “care for the land, sea nature, treading lightly and leaving no trace; travel safely, showing care and consideration for all; and to respect culture, travelling with an open heart and mind.”
As per Lepere, one of the issues the sustainable travel movement currently faces is the idea that ethical tourism has to involve sacrifices. “[This] is most definitely not true!” she admitted. “It’s not about worthiness or doing things because you feel you ‘should’—it’s about making more informed choices that lead to more meaningful experiences that you would not have had otherwise.” Although the author has noticed the movement gathering steam over the last five years, it has only become mainstream in the last two.
Until global tourism came to a screeching halt in March 2020, more of us were travelling than ever before. While 1999 recorded 639 million international tourist arrivals, in 2019, that figure hit 1.5 billion, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). A little more than a year into the pandemic, however, the travel industry lost nearly a trillion dollars.
As countries continue to ease restrictions across the world, tourism is now hailed as a vital aspect of global recovery. And while it may take years to achieve the same level of economic growth as in the 2010s, the pandemic has given us the opportunity to finally take a backseat and analyse how we can do better this time around.
In The Ethical Traveller: 100 Ways to Roam the World (Without Ruining It!), Lepere lists 100 tips to protect biodiversity, support communities and preserve everything that makes our planet special. It is also the first travel book on the market to be rooted in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“I have been travelling on and off for twelve years now—everywhere from Indonesia’s Spice Islands to Mongolia—and gradually become more and more aware of the environmental impact of my lifestyle,” the author said when queried about her journey leading up to the conception of her book. “Recently, I have been exploring alternatives to flying, such as sailing, hitchhiking and train travel. However, I have also seen for myself how much potential travel has to be a force for good. I have met so many people in remote places who rely on income from tourism, many of whom have been excluded from education because of their gender or ethnicity and don’t have any other opportunities to earn money.”
Lepere went on to address a cooperative of female weavers called Vida Nueva in Oaxaca, Mexico who run workshops in hand dyeing. “They are domestic abuse survivors and come from a traditional Zapotec society, where single women are seen as second-class citizens—tourism is providing them with a vital income to supplement their weaving business,” she admitted.
Lepere chose to align each of the hundred tips in her book with a particular SDG to complement her personal insights. “The SDGs are based on decades of work by 193 countries within the UN and are a blueprint for peace and prosperity [among] people and the planet,” she said, adding how the set of 17 goals recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth—all the while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.
“My understanding of sustainability is holistic. It includes social justice as well as protecting the environment and I feel the goals share that vision. Sustainability is such an overwhelming concept and the goals break it down into 17 easy-to-digest topics. Readers of my book can choose to focus on a goal that particularly resonates with them, or dip in at random,” the author added.
Given how the pandemic has revealed that we are more of a global economy than we previously realised, it’s about time that we travelled with a community mindset well into 2022 and beyond. So, how can you be a guest rather than a tourist merely passing through the place you intend to visit in the future?
When asked about Lepere’s key insight when it comes to sustainable tactics she has discovered and implemented in the past, she said: “My top takeaway is that while travel and flying in particular does cause carbon emissions—although there are tips to mitigate this in the book—tourism also creates one out of every ten jobs globally. Many of these are in remote corners where communities play a crucial role in protecting delicate ecosystems and ways of life. Others allow those on the margins to gain independence in societies where that is far from a given.”
Although The Ethical Traveller: 100 Ways to Roam the World (Without Ruining It!) is the ultimate guide to initiating and implementing slower, softer and kinder approach to tourism, here are a few tips to help you get the ball rolling:
According to Lepere, travel can be one of many ways to make our planet a safer, fairer and kinder place—where people and nature thrive together in harmony. “The main thing you can do is be mindful of where you are spending your holiday money,” she explained.
“Spend it directly with ethical businesses based in the community you are visiting and it can be a force for social change. If you spend it thoughtlessly, it will just be syphoned out of the country by international companies and in this way local people and ecosystems become a product rather than shareholders.”
Over the years, Airbnb has evolved into a disruptive force in the travel industry—sporting six million active listings and more than four million hosts as of 31 March 2022. Lepere also mentioned how most of us have relied on the vacation rental company for affordable accommodation that allows us to experience a place “like a local.”
At the same time, however, the popular contender is not without flaws. “In cities that suffer from overtourism, such as Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona, short-term lets have caused skyrocketing rents that displace locals,” the author said. “What few people realise is that many of these are, in fact, breaking the law: in New York, it’s illegal to rent entire apartments to tourists for less than 30 days without a licence, yet it is one of the most popular cities on the platform.”
“Do your research and, if necessary, opt for a locally-owned guesthouse, hostel or serviced apartment that shouts about its sustainability practices instead,” Lepere continued as she then listed a few peer-to-peer platforms to consider, including:
Fairbnb was partly developed by a panel of European citizens concerned about the negative impacts of Airbnb. Here, hosts must be local and can only list one property each, while 50 per cent of the platform’s fees go towards community projects.
Ecobnb offers accommodation that fulfils ten criteria including car-free access, 100 per cent renewable energy, organic food, and recycling more than 80 per cent of their waste. Current listings include a farmhouse overlooking a deserted beach in Corinthia, Greece and a Tuscan villa nestled among organic vines.
“A hotel belonging to an international group can feel like the safe option but homestays are far more ethical and my favourite way to travel,” Lepere continued, adding how you’re bound to have more memorable experiences while making sure 100 per cent that your money benefits your hosts this way. “Browse global sites like Homestay or see if the specific region you’re visiting has its own version,” she mentioned. “For example, Your Home In Japan covers Tokyo, Look After Me is the equivalent in New Zealand, and Homestay Ireland has rural options in Ireland.”
The rise of remote work over the pandemic has forged a new breed of digital nomads who leverage modern technology to see incredible places, learn from different cultures, and work when or where they want to. As the phenomenon continues to spike travel rates worldwide, is there a possibility of it becoming more advantageous to one as an ethical traveller?
“More than 45 countries now offer digital nomad visas allowing foreign professionals to stay for an extended period without paying income tax. Brazil, Cape Verde and Georgia all have excellent internet coverage and competitive living costs—why settle for a homemade sandwich when you could be trying satsivi (Georgian stew) for the first time?” Lepere shared.
“Of course, we must acknowledge that not everyone has the privilege to choose to work remotely and to those people I would say, don’t worry! Short holidays can still be super impactful if done in an ethical way. If you really want to see the world but can’t work remotely, it’s worth asking yourself if there is a way of working on the road. Can you get a paid job with an ethical business?”
Lepere is a big fan of WWOOFing, which involves working on an organic farm in exchange for board and lodging. “Workaway also has plenty of opportunities to learn skills like regenerative growing while living for free and meeting cool people around the world,” she recommended.
Now, onto one of the major debates that have gripped the ethical travelling movement to date: Is the practice actually affordable and financially accessible? Heck—could it even help you save money?
“This is a topic that comes up a lot and the reality is that, traditionally, many sustainable hotels were aimed at the luxury market,” Lepere explained. “However, I would say that once you begin to understand ethical travel as a more rounded concept, it is accessible for the average person and can definitely save you money. For example, nine times out of ten, booking an experience like a boat tour of a crocodile lagoon directly with the local community rather than through a travel agent based in your home country will be significantly cheaper.”
According to the author, the major issue in this case is that local companies often don’t have the capital to invest in fancy websites or marketing tactics and it may take some digging to find them—as well as a leap of faith that the dingy Facebook page is actually a legit organisation.
“I would suggest reading other travellers’ reviews, and if they’re good, go for it! Ethical accommodation like homestays, locally-owned hostels and campsites are almost always cheaper than hotels, while taking public transport rather than hiring a driver almost always leads to memorable interactions.”
This also makes yet another pro on the list for ethical travellers. “Travel provides a unique opportunity to create a shared sense of stewardship for the earth among people of different cultures—and ultimately an understanding that we are all in this together,” Lepere continued. “How could someone not want to act on the rising temperatures that recently caused famine in Madagascar when they’ve just spent an afternoon playing fanorona (a board game) with an old man in the shade of a baobab tree? Always have a smile to offer and a hand ready for a fist pump or shake. If you have food on a journey, ask the person next to you if they’re hungry.”
The author also recommends trying couch surfing and Meetup to connect with like-minded locals. “Strangers really can be just friends you haven’t met yet,” she added.
In July 2022, several public figures including Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian, Mark Wahlberg, Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey sparked backlash for routinely using their private jets for trips that were under 20 minutes. While Jenner was branded a “climate criminal”—who later went on to attempt damage control by hitting a local Target—Canadian rapper Drake failed to read the room and replied to his accusations by claiming no one was actually on board.
As @CelebJets (a flight-tracking Twitter account created by Jack Sweeney to highlight the extravagant habits of the wealthy) continues to upload screenshots showcasing the lavish lifestyle of the uber-rich, the discourse has angered a majority of the public—with many taking to social media platforms to routinely slam celebrities for their love affair with private jets.
So, how can the public stay motivated to try their own best when they witness such climate criminal acts from the top one per cent of the world?
“‘Climate burnout’ is a term I’m seeing more and more in the media and I really do understand it,” Lepere shared. “When we’re seeing more natural disasters every year, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and there’s no point in even trying. When I feel this way, I listen to primatologist Doctor Jane Goodall’s podcast The Hopecast, which is all about reasons for hope in the face of the climate emergency. She argues that hope is the most important weapon we have as it spurs on positive action—and enough positive actions can create meaningful change.”
The author dove deeper into the persistence of inequality by highlighting how there are, in fact, many people who are doing incredible work to tackle climate change as the fight is far from over. “A great example is Patagonia, [that] makes some of my favourite travel clothes. Aside from donating one per cent of their profits to grassroots activist groups, their entire supply chain is carbon-neutral. They are also in the process of rewilding a 170,500-acre former sheep ranch in Patagonia. When finally handed over to the Chilean government, the reserve will link the Jeinimeini and Tamango National Parks, creating corridors expansive enough to allow populations of several endangered animals to become self-sufficient.”
“Engage with enough positive news like this rather than Jenner and Drake’s antics and you’ll soon be feeling inspired to carry on with your own efforts, no matter how small,” she added.
That being said, should governments actually be promoting domestic tourism to combat this ‘flight-shaming’ instead? “It’s great that people are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of flying but shame isn’t a good thing because it discourages positive thinking that leads to positive actions,” Lepere admitted.
“Staycations are one of the most sustainable holidays out there. Aside from the obvious carbon savings on air travel, they’re also a chance to redistribute wealth within your home country by visiting less prosperous areas—many of which are often the most isolated and therefore also the most beautiful. And there’s a lot to be said for not having to kill time in airports.”
At the end of the day, know that you don’t have to completely change the way you travel all at once. Ethical travelling is not ‘all or nothing’ but it’s about being mindful of your consequences and acting from a place of care and awareness for the place you visit. So, pack with purpose, be bold to take the road less travelled and leave more than just footprints in your wake. Oh, and don’t forget to add your very own SDG to the last page of The Ethical Traveller: 100 Ways to Roam the World (Without Ruining It!).