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

Advice on how to make the world better.
Dec. 28 2009 3:51 PM

Last Resorts

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

After a white Christmas and chilly New Year's, many travelers head to warmer climes for a winter respite. Club Med-style vacations can leave the pampered guest feeling rejuvenated but can also lead to feelings of guilt over exploitative tourism conditions in often-impoverished countries. In September, Sandy Stonesifer offered suggestions on how to catch some tropical sun while keeping a clear conscience. The original article is reprinted below.

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

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.

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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).