How can I take an ethical vacation and still have a good time?

Advice on how to make the world better.
Sept. 23 2009 7:07 AM

Last Resorts

How can I take an ethical vacation and still have a good time?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Sandy,

What's the best way to research whether a particular resort or country is a "good" place to take a vacation? I have the opportunity to go to an all-expenses-paid resort in the Dominican Republic in February, and while it looks lovely and luxurious, I can't shake from my mind the terrible poverty that will be present all around. I've heard arguments both ways: Some say the resorts are exploitive; others say that the countries would be even worse-off without the tourism. How can I figure out the right thing to do?

—Amanda

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Sandy:

You're right to worry. If you travel internationally (or even in certain parts of the United States), you will undoubtedly end up in a community where people are depending on tourism to support, or even sustain, the economy. But is terrible poverty really a good reason to stay away? Shouldn't we be happy to pour money into a failing economy? We can all agree that trying to minimize our environmental impact when traveling is a good thing (why not use a hotel towel a second day?), but identifying and weighing the socioeconomic impact of tourism is trickier.

The uneasy rift between the visitor and the visited has always existed. But the rise in international and adventure travel means that travelers are increasingly seeking trips to low-income countries where the impact of tourism is magnified. And, as such, tourism has turned into a "key driver for socio-economic progress," says the U.N. World Tourism Organization.

Argentino Hotel.
How can one travel ethically?

By 2020, 1.5 billion people are expected to travel internationally. And when people travel, people spend money. Money can either benefit the entire community or dramatically widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Ethical, or responsible, or sustainable travel is simply a way to describe travel that tries to minimize the negative impacts and maximize the benefits of tourism.

Unsurprisingly, responsible traveling groups generally frown on trips to countries with oppressive regimes or particularly egregious human rights records. Tourism Concern, a British group that advocates against exploitation and for ethical forms of tourism, for example, endorses a tourism boycott of Burma.

But perhaps not traveling to Burma is an easy choice. So where should you go? A few groups are working to standardize sustainable tourism principles and help consumers to identify "good" tourism businesses. The Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism Criteria is one, as is the U.N. World Tourism Organization. Unfortunately, all they have so far are principles you can apply to travel you're planning—not a clearinghouse of all "good" travel spots.

For such a clearinghouse, I recommend you check out the British Responsible Tourism Awards. While the 2009 winners won't be announced until November, you can take a look at the 2008 nominees and winners. Additionally, the recently updated Ethical Travel Guide (by folks at Tourism Concern) has 400-plus listings for more than 70 countries, as well as straightforward advice on how to travel responsibly.

And, once you're there, try to follow these basic tenets of responsible tourism:

Spend money within the local economy. Try to find locally run hotels, restaurants, and tour guides. If possible, avoid businesses that are run by overseas companies (that includes the local McDonald's). Buy locally made souvenirs and handicrafts (but make sure they aren't made from endangered plants or animals).

Negotiate fair prices for goods and services. This goes both ways: Don't haggle just so you can tell your friends that you bought a trinket for a penny, and don't pay $10 for a cab ride that should cost $1 just because it seems like too low a price. When tourists overpay for basic services, it changes the economy and locals can't afford them anymore.

Don't give handouts, especially to children. Unfortunately, children are often pulled out of school to beg, and giving them money directly will only make it more likely to continue in the future. If you want to give money to help the individuals you meet while traveling, consider making a donation to a trustworthy nongovernmental organization or charity in the community.

As for your upcoming trip, unfortunately all-inclusive resorts are probably the least likely to follow responsible tourism guidelines. Most of the money you pay probably bypasses the local economy and goes to an overseas conglomerate. The food is probably shipped in. And the higher-paid employees may not even be locals.

But if you decide to go anyway, don't just throw up your hands. Do what you can to follow the tenets and ask the resort what its practices are. Does it buy food from local farmers? Does it pay employees a living wage? Does it have a policy aimed at minimizing its environmental impact? Tell them that these things are important to you as a consumer. That way you can try to make sure your vacation has a positive impact—on both you and those you're visiting.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Sandy will try to answer it.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.