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The Mindful Rebel: Traveling Ethically (What does that even mean?!)

Ethical Traveler’s Best Ethical Destinations Awards for 2015 are in! Plus rumination on the rebellion of travel and the importance of being a mindful rebel.

And the winners are…

  • Palau
  • Lithuania
  • Vanuatu
  • Cabo Verde
  • Dominica
  • Mauritius
  • Chile
  • Uruguay
  • Samoa
  • Tonga

“Travel is rebellion in its purest form.”


Some days I feel like more of a rebel than others. The world tells us that we should seek comfort, but in travel we often find comfort in our discomfort. We trust strangers, we choose spontaneity, we shed our fears and conventions, we stop dreaming and start doing, and we learn to trust ourselves. Sometimes it is subtle — a solo trip to that local waterfall you’ve heard about, but haven’t yet visited. Sometimes it is dramatic — packing up your entire family and moving to a foreign nation where none of you speak the language. Most of the time it is in between, but the more we do it, the more dramatic it seems to those who do not.

The quotation above made the rounds a while back and becomes increasingly appropriate in my life as time passes. A new friend recently asked me if I ever had a rebellious moment growing up, and the honest answer is that I am having my moment now. Leaving a stable career, refusing to stand still, understanding the risks, but still being unwilling to fear the world the way that people and the media tell me I should. Travel is not just rebellion in the abstract. It is my rebellion and I am not alone. International tourism was a $1.4 trillion industry in 2013. In 1950, the number of international tourist arrivals stood at roughly 25 million. By 2013, that number had grown to over one billion.

The smaller the world gets, the larger it gets. A few decades ago, trekking to places like Cambodia, Bolivia, and Tonga was reserved for an intrepid few. It took a particular kind of traveler to enjoy the lack of creature comforts and the complete disconnect from home. And for those willing (and even excited) to deal with those things, the logistics of visiting such places could be both difficult to manage and costly. But that was before. Before air travel became accessible to so many more people. Before countries like Rwanda started laying fiber optics cable alongside dirt roads and through villages. Before a person could take the same phone with him from the United States to Argentina to France to Tanzania, and know that home was just a phone call away. Increased wealth, increased knowledge of the world, and increased ease of travel mean that much of the world has been opened to tourism. In some cases, long before parts of the world are ready.

As more and more of us contribute to the industry of tourism, it is important to recognize our increasing power, and with it our increasing responsibility. Because it is not just travel in which we are engaging. It is rebellion. And doesn’t that warrant a tad bit more thought?

Founded by travel journalist Jeff Greenwald, California-based nonprofit Ethical Traveler (and organizations like it) aims to empower travelers to “vote with their wings.” The goal is to harness the immense power of tourism to support positive change where it is already occurring and to help effect it where it is not. It is a laudable mission and is straightforward enough, but the use of the word ethical always gives me pause. It is the King Kong of concepts — a ginormous, unwieldy beast. Sure, nobody wants to travel unethically, but I doubt many of us have given a whole lot of focused thought to what that actually means. It is hard to know where to start.

Over the previous months, I had the pleasure and responsibility of being one of several researchers from around the world who worked on curating the Best Ethical Destinations list. The list focuses on the areas of human rights, social welfare, environmental protection, and animal welfare, and aims to shine a spotlight on developing nations that are making strides in those areas. But combing through news sources, government documents, and NGO reports, drafting white papers, and casting my vote for and against the inclusion of various nations on this year’s list had the added effect of pushing me to more carefully define what ethical traveling actually means to me. As it turns out, although I had never used the phrase, I had naturally implemented certain traveling practices that fit with my ideas of “ethical traveling.”

A thousand people could plausibly come up with a thousand different meanings. It is not important that we reach some sort of consensus about what ethical travel means, but I encourage all of us to spend some time thinking about what it means to us individually and then doing our best to implement it in our own travels.

Traveling ethically for me breaks down into three stages: Before the trip, during the trip, and after the trip.

Before the trip.

Deciding where to go. In the resources section at the bottom of the post, you’ll find a link to a worksheet/flowchart that might help explain my thought process. Yeah, that’s right. A flowchart. Why? Because I was up late, but mostly because nothing screams rebellion quite like a flowchart. You can also check it out now if you want. Should I Really Go There?

Deciding where to go might be the most important decision I make when I travel and it’s no big mystery. How does anyone decide where they want to go? I want to go somewhere because someone who’s been has told me about it, or I’ve read about it, or I’ve seen something spectacular in a picture. But where I want to go and where I actually end up are not always the same thing.

The first question I always ask is whether tourism to a nation is adequately regulated and sustainable. This is generally a threshold question, although there are rare exceptions. Any time we visit a place, we change it and it changes us, for better or for worse. Unless there is an absolutely compelling reason to go, I don’t want to be in a place where my mere presence is a detriment. Unregulated tourism can be devastating to the environment and the culture of a location.

The next step is considering how a nation is doing with regard to issues that are important to me. No place is perfect, not even the home of which I am very proud, but how a country is addressing (or not addressing) certain things factors significantly into whether I want to spend my time and money there. Admittedly, I don’t hold all nations to the same standard. I expect a country with a recent history of political stability and economic wealth to be at a different place in its development than one that faces instability, poverty, and other hurdles.

Yes, the research involved in figuring out whether a nation is addressing its domestic violence or coral reef conservation problems can be a little time consuming, but I plan on investing quite a bit of time into my trip, not to mention other personal resources. A couple of hours of research is not going to kill me. Travel is rebellion, but the idea is to be a mindful rebel.

If everything lines up, great. If not, I traverse the rest of my decision-making process. I never discount the value of cultural exchange. Meaningful cultural exchange is something this world could use more of and if a trip offers that, I consider it to be a compelling reason to visit that may override my issues with a country.

During the trip.

Supporting local entrepreneurship. Strong, stable economies are best built by local entrepreneurs. I try to patronize local businesses as much as possible and ensure that my money flows back into the local and national economy. Beyond the economics of it, a local entrepreneur is generally more invested in the health of his nation, his city, and his community. His emotional and financial incentives to provide services in a sustainable manner and to reinvest in the community are greater than those of a large international corporation. The flip side of course, is that local entrepreneurs may not always have the resources to focus on sustainability and reinvest, but I think the bigger picture here is more important than the immediate visit. They might not be there yet, but local entrepreneurs will never get there if their business fails.

Learning the customs and culture. As a tourist, I consider myself a guest in someone else’s home and an ambassador of my own. When I visit people, I engage in conversation. I learn about them. I listen to their stories. I try to understand their unique perspective, which is influenced by their unique history. Why would it be any different in another country? It isn’t always comfortable, especially for a U.S. citizen in certain parts of the world. I know plenty of Americans who make a habit of saying that they are from Canada when they travel. They tell me it makes things easier and I don’t doubt this, but I never do it. If someone asks where I am from, I tell them. Yes, it can be uncomfortable (although much of the time that has not been my experience), but if I said I was from Canada, we’d never have the conversation that follows. And when we do have that conversation, being respectful of an opposing viewpoint is of paramount importance. For some people, talking to an American is the same as talking to America — a phrase I adapted from the Ethical Traveler website, but a phenomenon that I have experienced myself.

All of this goes back to my larger point about cultural exchanges. We can learn so much from each other and travel gives us that opportunity, but cultural exchanges are only valuable if they are honest.

After the trip.

Staying connected. With as much as I travel, it would be impossible to stay connected in any meaningful way to every place I have visited. But for those places and people who have had a lasting impact, who have changed me in the most significant ways, it is both a delight and my responsibility to stay connected and to spread the word.

Every time I look at my passport, flip through a travel magazine, or search for plane tickets I am reminded that traveling isn’t just something I get to do, it is something that I am fortunate enough to be able to do. This is my rebellion. And for everyone out there who shares that fortune, it is their rebellion, too, whether they want the responsibility or not.

So, go. Travel. See the world. Be a rebel. But be the good kind of rebel — the mindful kind.

–posted by Siv

10 Small Suggestions for More Ethical Travel

  1. Have some idea of the historical, political, and environmental context of your destination. Most major guidebooks have a political/historical section. Read it.
  2. Use a locally owned tour operator or hire a local guide.
  3. Stay at a locally owned hotel or at least a national chain. If you’re feeling particularly extroverted, consider a homestay.
  4. Forgo the trinkets and instead consider a gift to a local school or to a reputable NGO that does work in an area that you feel is important. Plan ahead by asking your tour operator or hotel if the community or school needs something specific that you might be able to bring from home. The answer could be as simple and as important as pencils.
  5. If you really want a souvenir, consider a piece of art bought directly from the artist or a local gallery.
  6. Learn basic greetings and courtesies in the language of your destination. It doesn’t take much to begin a dialogue. “Hello,” “please,” and “thank you” said in the native tongue will open more doors than you might expect.
  7. Have conversations with locals and ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask locals for help. It’s part of being an open and humble traveler and chances are, they will help.
  8. Respect local customs.
  9. Diffuse bad situations with good humor. Reacting with anger when things go wrong is counterproductive. Reacting with humor instead can not only diffuse a bad situation, it can set the minds of locals at ease and promote a more open dialogue.
  10. When you return, continue to support and promote the local businesses that provided you with good service in any way you can. A good TripAdvisor rating, a written testimonial for a tour operator’s website, and simple word of mouth can all go a long way.

Article Resources

General Resources

  • Should I Really Go There? A destination worksheet and flowchart to provide some guidance on whether or not you should really go there. (Wherever “there” may be.)
  • Ethical Traveler. Suggestions for ethical traveling, Ethical Journeys (small group tours that promote ethical traveling), and its annual list of the 10 Best Ethical Destinations means that at least some of the research has been done for you.
  • Responsible Travel. Lots of tips on traveling responsibly, including how to tell if your eco-lodge is really eco. Plus the ability to book “responsible” tours directly through the organization, with plenty of reviews to peruse before booking.

Research Resources

Searchable News Sources

Nongovernmental Organizations

United States Government Reports

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Sivani Babu

Sivani Babu

Federal public defender turned ethical traveler and lifelong lover of all things outdoors.

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