What is Ethical Tourism.. and why it matters for everyone!

Hey there, wanderers!

The past few decades have seen the tourism industry sky rocket and grow at exponential rates, seeing many travel trends rise and fall. Among these travel trends is the growing demand for responsible tourism, seeing many companies incorporate ‘responsible travel’ within their businesses in an attempt to make big dollars while remaining ethical (in most cases). The words ‘ethical’ and ‘responsible’ tourism have thus become big buzzwords in the tourism industry and of course with good reason, however, the message is simply more important than any marketing scheme and this is important to remember when planning your next ethical journey!.

So if your new to this kind of travel or hearing these terms for the first time, you’re probably wondering, “Well okay but what the hek is responsible travel and how can I become an ethical wanderer?”. Well, luckily the concept is quite simple!. Essentially, ethical travel involves practices that attempt to minimize harmful effects that tourism can have on communities and people, be that economic, social and or environmental. The general idea of this type of travel means that when tour operators, hotels, governments, locals and tourist, actively participate in responsible and ethical travel, it makes the places we go to better for people to live and visit. Nevertheless, an ethical wanderer is someone who thinks about the people and environments they interact with by closely examining their potential impacts on such said people and their environments. Such wanderers cautiously choose their accommodation, transportation, and activities – often ensuring that all are conducted in a manner that helps preserve the places they visit and help the local people they come across.

homestay banteay chma
Homestays in Banteay Chmaa, Cambodia. Community-based tourism.

Let’s talk real talk…

Now that you know the basics I’d like to take a quick moment to do what the kids call #realtalk, by acknowledging that yes, taking the time to consider our destination isn’t always convenient when we are in vacation mode, BUT the rewards out way the inconvenience in every way shape and form. Here’s how. Ethical and responsible travel is, in so many ways, more authentic, immersive and often leads to tons of more exhilarating adventures, which often generate a more rewarding and memorable trip!. For example, something I will never forget is being guided by a local through one of the lesser known temples of Angkor Waat in Banteay Chmaa, Cambodia. It was at first eery, considering how quiet it was compared to the busy, tourist-filled Angkor Waat temples found in Siem Reap. We were lucky enough to be guided by a local tour guide, who was enriched with so much knowledge on the history of the temples as well as its future. The beauty of visiting these roads less traveled is you get to escape the crowds and really embrace the culture for what it is. Visiting Banteay Chmaa, therefore, meant that we were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves, I honestly think I saw two other tourists there in our hours spent there! Later that night we were also incredibly fortunate enough to have had dinner, made by locals, under the tree outside the front of the ruins. Here, more locals performed beautiful traditional Khmer music for us as a thunderstorm rolled in, once again our tourist dollars were going straight to these locals, their families, and the community. We danced, we sang, we laughed, and we got soaked by that downpour!. It was something no foreign investor or travel agent could recreate and is one of my most fond memories that I’ll always treasure.

A traditional khmer dinner and Live traditional khmer Music played for us by locals outside the less known Angkor Waat temples of Banteay Chmaa, Cambodia

Evidently, being an ethical traveler takes us off the beaten path, often to places where mainstream tourist don’t get to see. Moreover, getting away from the hustle and bustle allows us to be found in all kinds of odd corners of the planet, often being the best kinds too! I’d also like to add that in no means shape or form is ethical travel limited to nature, the good news is if you’re a city slicker kind of gal or guy, there are plenty of opportunities and ways to immerse yourself into the smells, flavors and culture of the cities we travel too, whilst remaining safe and responsible!. For example, taking city tours with local tour guides, getting around on foot, cycling or partaking in traditional transport means like Tuk Tuk’s in Cambodia’s case. Another great thing I LOVE about ethical tourism is it often allows travelers, as well as locals, to form deeper connections. This is because as we go out of our way to support locally owned businesses within communities, we develop friendships, skills, language, and connections that one simply couldn’t pick up while traveling in large tour groups or quick, half day trips.

The fab four…

You now know what ethical travel means and what it looks like, so now I’d like to quickly introduce you to what I like to call the fab four golden rules of responsible tourism. Essentially these are the four main focuses of responsible tourism. I am not just going to tell you them, but I am also going to show you how easy they are to apply in your next holiday abroad, it’s as easy as 1,2,3… (sorry I had to!).

  • Help Local Communities: Increases in tourism always mean big businesses and franchises move on into town, which means valuable sources of income are taken from local community members, including local business owners like small hotels, cafes etc. The issue here is this means our tourist dollar isn’t benefiting local communities when we choose to stay or eat at foreign-owned hotels, franchises, and restaurants and is extremely problematic as it means we are impacting peoples livelihoods who rely on such to feed not just themselves, but entire families!. So, How can we help apply this rule? Easy! we can support this rule by choosing to eat locally, (including street food) at family-run restaurants and or even support good causes by eating at social enterprises! Take tours from local guides, embrace the culture by staying in homestays (a highlight of my trip!) and by using local transportation means. Something I find most of us travelers do is buy souvenirs, however, we can support local communities by purchasing them from people and places we see along the way in our travels, as opposed to departure lounges in airports…One of my favorite things I did while abroad in Cambodia was take my laundry to a local launderette, run by a beautiful Khmer family. Not only is this bang for your buck but it really was nice to feel like my dollars were going somewhere that would benefit that local family and their future.

  • Embrace and Protect traditional culture: With an increase in tourism comes the demand to accommodate for such. This not only includes infrastructure but also in the way of western food, comfort and culture. Of course, this comes with a risk of overwhelming the very culture they have traveled to see. Indeed this is something I’ve come across in my travels across both parts of Cambodia and Hawaii, where huge shopping malls with advertisements of white western females and males hung, surrounded by traditional western foods like pizza hut…I recall seeing the famously known, ‘pub street’ in Siem Reap for the first time and being completely blown away by not just how touristy and westernized it felt, but by how much it reminded me of surfers paradise back at home. So how can we embrace and protect the traditional culture amidst such cultural confusion? first and for most by educating ourselves about local and indigenous cultures and customs, including arts, foods and local artisans and craftsmen. Visiting and supporting such practices can help keep local traditions alive and passed on to future generations.

  • Preserving the environment: Sigh. This is something so many of us tend to take for granted. These beautiful places we visit or see plastered all over our gram, simply won’t last forever if we do not start taking responsibility for our actions. Not only is this disappointing to so many people waiting to tick certain things off their own bucket lists, but also for local communities that suffer from environmental degradation as a result of irresponsible tourism in their communities. Understandably, even eco-conscious travelers will shed a carbon footprint no matter where, how or when they travel. Luckily, there are many simple ways we can help the environment whilst on our travels, for example, reducing our impact by purchasing offsets for air travel, walking where possible, carrying reusable straws and water bottles and reducing our reliance on plastic products i.e. plastic bags. Another huge thing that was so disappointing to see in Siem Reaps temples was LITTER, quite clearly as well, dumped by tourist who either just didn’t care enough to find a bin or too lazy to hold onto it till they did!. So please, watch your waste and dispose of your rubbish in the RIGHT way.
  • Protecting animals from a lifetime of abuse: For so long now the tourism industry has provided the chance to interact with drugged up, sad and abused animals. However, (thankfully) this is changing! Documentaries like Blackfish, and the closing town of Thailand’s Tiger Temple, have helped the world see this part of the tourism industry and just how, well, UGLY it is. Whether or not these animals are trafficked, whether intuitions are kind or cruel, these animals are exploited and often subjected to a life of abuse. So how can we protect them from this? SIMPLE!, do not engage with facilities and animals that allow you to do things to animals which you wouldn’t do in the wild. I mean, would a wild, normal, healthy, non drugged tiger, really let you brush your face right against his? And would a wild elephant just swoop you onto it and let you ride it as if you are Mowgli from The Jungle Book? NO. I, as I am sure many others are guilty of this, and that’s ok because when we know better we can do better!. So remember your best friend here is research prior to departure. A big red flag is if an operation can’t explain or answer your questions in relation to the care for the animals and their welfare. The truth behind it is that no animal needs to be behind a cage, in a pool, ridden like a horse or drugged up for the enjoyment of any tourist.
My home stay mum (Mteay) and I outside her house, where she had a small shopfront.

As you have just read, now more then ever is the time to be more mindful of the impacts we make on the places we travel to, including the people and animals within them. Becoming ethical travelers is a process but it is one that truly allows for a more immersive and authentic trip of which benefits all those we come across – including ourselves!. Upon arrival home after such trips, often individuals are transformed and experienced beyond imagine, with memories that will most certainly last a lifetime and plenty of snaps to take to the gram – without being at the costs of others welfare!. The earth is our homeland, and as stewards of the land it is our responsibility, our DUTY to preserve it for future generations and at the very least be awe of how our actions and choices impact those that surround us. I want to thank you for reading this first blog, I hope it has enlightened you on what ethical travel is and how easy it is to bring into our lives.

Remember, when we know better we can DO better!

Till next time,

Isabella