First, do no harm.
It’s an oath sworn by physicians and a pledge that every traveler should make as well. As guests in the places we visit the very least we can do is respect our hosts by not hurting their country or their people.
Unfortunately such pledges are easier made than kept. That’s especially true in areas of the world that lack strong regulations protecting vulnerable populations. It’s not uncommon to see plenty of exploitive activities marketed to tourists. And sometimes those activities are even cleverly disguised to prey on our very desire to do good.
Visiting and volunteering in a children’s orphanage in Cambodia, for example, sounds like a good way of directing your travel dollars to a worthwhile cause. That is until you learn about the fake orphanages that separate children from their parents for the sole purpose of separating tourists from their money.
So how do you travel ethically when unscrupulous tour operators do every thing they can to hide the truth of their operations? Here are some suggestions.
First, pledge to do no harm
The first step toward traveling ethically is recognizing that the responsibility falls on us as travelers. Too few of us do. Oftentimes travelers assume that if an activity is offered it must be okay; that surely some regulator or authority has vetted it and is monitoring things to curb abuse. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
Many places lack strong regulations or effective oversight. Some are rife with corruption while others are plagued by indifference. In those cases it is up to the travel community to impose its own regulation on the industry by supporting ethically run operations and withholding its travel dollars from those that fall short.
But doing so requires us to first recognize that we play a role in determining whether abusive practices continue. Only then can we play our part in assuring that they don’t.
Question your motives
Each of us is devilishly creative when it comes to convincing ourselves that it’s okay to do the things we want to do anyway. Behavioral scientists call it “motivated reasoning,” and we’re all guilty of it to some degree. It happens when you let your conclusion drive your analysis instead of the other way around.
You’ll see that process unfold again and again in the comments section of our post about Why we won’t travel to North Korea. The most damning arguments we raised in that article were ones we haven’t seen published anywhere else. And yet not a single critic of ours attempted to engage with those arguments. Mostly they had already decided that travel was good, and they didn’t worry themselves about things that might conflict with their preconceived notions.
That’s motivated reasoning in action. And it’s something we all have to guard against.
The problem is we don’t usually know that we’re doing it. We think we’re analyzing a situation when what we’re really doing is looking for evidence that supports our conclusions. The only way to fight against that is to be aware of our tendency toward motivated reasoning and deliberately work against it by seeking out conflicting views and possibly even defer to them in instances where the chance of causing harm is great.
Follow the money
Money is indeed the root of all evil. And like every other profession on the planet, an unregulated tourist industry will do unsavory things if it means garnering more of that filthy lucre for itself. And when there is money at stake, you can’t expect your tour operator to tell you anything other than exactly what you want to hear.
If he knows you’re concerned about child labor, he’ll tell you the children you see are on break from school and are “just playing” at picking coffee with their parents. If you’re concerned about animal mistreatment or ecological destruction, he’ll give you every assurance that none of those things are happening.
The way to see through these kinds of lies is to consider the incentives your tourist dollars create. If you’re paying to see kids in an orphanage, you’ve created a profit motive for someone to stock up on sad looking children separated from their families. If you’re paying for a selfie with a tiger, you’ve just made it worthwhile for someone to breed wild animals in captivity and either beat or drug them until they’re submissive enough to pose for you. If you’re paying to photograph communities of Kayan (or long-neck) women in Thailand, you’re contributing to a business whose sole product is disfigured women. Keeping that business going over the long-term requires inducing (or forcing) young girls into similar disfigurement.
Decide that living creatures are not tourist attractions
It’s not always easy to untangle the economic impacts of tourism. And you’re sure to encounter competing claims of offsetting benefits. The most common is that tourism revenue helps local communities, and in some cases it does. That’s especially true when you’re traveling independently and patronizing family owned businesses. But how much money filters down to local communities from more organized tours is simply not possible for travelers to know.
In such cases it’s clarifying to resort to first principals. People are not tourist attractions. Any activity that puts people on display like zoo animals is very likely exploitive.
The same actually goes for animals as well. Caging, breeding, and breaking animals for human entertainment is not something we personally choose to support, especially since there are so many ethical alternatives available. But mostly because seeing animals in the wild is far more rewarding than seeing them in captivity. Once you watch orcas swimming in the ocean, the idea of visiting a place like Sea World just makes you feel sad.
Keep your travel and charity separate
We’ve seen so many instances where travelers’ good intentions are twisted by conmen that we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s often (although certainly not always) better to keep travel and charity separate. Instead of giving to child beggars, we give to organizations like Heifer International. Instead of visiting places like North Korea, we give to the International Rescue Committee.
We try to find and support reputable aid organizations serving the countries we visit while mostly avoiding tourist attractions that purport to also be charities.
Research your options
The above recommendations, especially the last one, could end up steering you away from small local organizations that actually do good work. That would be tragic. To reduce that risk these suggestions should be read as a list of guidelines rather than a set of absolute rules.
Use your intuition to sniff out bad actors. If something looks like it uses people or animals as a means rather than treating them as an end, it’s probably not an organization you want to support. In cases where that isn’t clear, a quick internet search about the organization usually turns up any complaints people have. If the complaints seem legitimate, then maybe the best choice is to skip the activity and give that tour money to a relevant charity instead.