What is ethical travel?

‘There was this Kenyan guy who just walked into our office,' remembers Tricia Barnett of Tourism Concern. 'He was a Maasai but also a Christian minister who’d been invited to London on a course. He said: “I want you to help me. My community’s having real trouble. There’s all this wealth going into the Maasai Mara [Kenya's biggest wildlife park, a huge tourist attraction] and we are destitute, so we’ve decided to sell four cows to buy four tents.” Now for the Maasai to sell four cows is quite a big thing. They’d bought the tents for tourists but they didn’t know how to get anybody into them. They were reduced to standing in the road trying to flag down four-wheel drive vehicles. So I introduced him to a tour operator who wanted to be “ethical”. We included the Maasai camp in our Ethical Travel Guide and forgot all about it.

'Four years later he turns up again and we ask how things are going. “Well, we’ve got room for 32 people now and we’ve trained our people to give talks to the tourists and take them on walking tours. We’ve managed to send 20 children to secondary school and we’ve got a refuge for young women who are running away from being circumcised; we’ve got a four-wheel drive to take people to hospital; and we’ve got a dispensary.” It was completely thrilling to see what could happen.'

Examples of alternative travel options are proliferating. Around a million 'responsible holidays' were taken in 2006 and industry forecasts predict that figure will top 2.5 million by 2010. But who decides which holidays are 'responsible' and by what criteria?

This was a question I could not help but ask when I attended the World Travel Market last November – held every year in a glorified aircraft hangar in what used to be London’s Docklands. Here the world’s travel agents and tourism ministries, airlines and hoteliers come to tout their wares, advertising their luxuriousness or their exoticism to all that pass by. Every aisle displays pristine tropical beaches; here and there people wander about in exotic costumes, utterly incongruous amid the general corporate blandness.

This year the World Travel Market dedicated a whole day to 'responsible tourism'. Of course 99.9 per cent of people carried on with their selling regardless, but in the seminar rooms the concerns were suddenly much closer to those you might expect to see in the pages of this magazine. ‘Poverty Reduction: Mainstream Concern or Token Gestures?’ was the title of one workshop. ‘Carbon Neutral: Saviour or Scam?’ asked another.

At the heart of the day were awards given to hotels, tour operators and individuals considered to embody the principles of responsible tourism. The awards were sponsored by Virgin Holidays, which immediately makes you wonder, since, from the evidence of their homepage, Virgin makes no priority at all of an ethical approach ('The Great Holiday Grab Has Begun: Hurry!' 'Grab a snow holiday/city break/ beach holiday/ Disney holiday').

The awards were actually organized, though, by responsibletravel.com, a site I used when seeking out ecolodges in Indonesia in 2006. This site was launched in 2001, initially featuring just 15 holidays that had been pre-screened for their ethical content. Since then it’s mushroomed to a 'hand-picked directory of thousands of stunning ecoholidays run by 265 specialist tour operators and hundreds of accommodations'. The 'responsible' component of some of these seems distinctly dubious – a company offering classic sports car hire, for instance, is included purely on the basis that it purchases carbon offsets on your behalf, while an airport car parking firm is endorsed because it has raised $20,000 towards the purchase of Belizean rainforest.

But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater: the general principles are similar to those espoused in the ‘New Internationalist Travellers’ Code’ on page 18 – and the reasons why each company is included are laid out clearly so that you can reject them if you are not convinced.

The founder of responsibletravel.com, Justin Francis, is keen to spread the concept to the mainstream tourism industry and he has had some success. In 2004, he persuaded Thomson Holidays, Thomas Cook and MyTravel to publish policies for responsible tourism. The US Tour Operators Association, meanwhile, announced in 2007 that it had formed a Responsible Tourism Committee to 'help develop and promote best practices in promoting responsible tourism'. But even the US industry site, TravelMole, commented on this news: 'The committee's first task may be its hardest: define responsible tourism.'1

‘If even one per cent of the tourists who came to Egypt decided they wanted this kind of tourism, it would transform our lives’

While no-one wants ethical tourism to remain an alternative ghetto, the mainstream has a habit of hijacking and diluting positive initiatives. The explosive growth of 'ecotourism' is a case in point – there remain many ethical operators for whom the environment is paramount but there are now a whole lot more that see it as another marketing gimmick, simply grafting a day trip to the rainforest on to an otherwise standard package. An 'ecotourist' holiday that involves flying to Ecuador to board an outsized cruise ship bound for the endangered Galapagos Islands is not exactly going to win prizes for joined-up thinking.

Praiseworthy alternatives like 'pro-poor tourism', 'responsible travel', 'ethical travel' and 'community-based tourism' litter the field. Tourism Concern is working with the Fair Trade Foundation to develop the idea of 'fair trade travel'.

'If even one per cent of the tourists who came to Egypt decided they wanted this sort of tourism, it would transform our lives,' says Sherif Al-Ghamrawy, an Egyptian member of the Fair Trade in Tourism network.2

The Pro-Poor Tourism Partnership, meanwhile, launched an Annual Register in 2005 that aimed to showcase pro-poor tourism initiatives that 'put the rhetoric into practice'. Somewhat dispiritingly, the 2007 edition says it is likely to be the last due to a lack of firm data showing positive impacts on the livelihoods of the poor. This may be because the Partnership originally had grand ambitions to push 'pro-poor approaches' to the mainstream and to engage 'with the tourism private sector in order to have a larger impact'.3

Nevertheless, individual cases do seem to show communities benefiting. The Nam Ha Ecotourism Project in Laos has attracted 13,000 tourists to one of the country's poorest areas and the visitors have spent $320,000 on local goods and services. Nam Dee village, part of the same project, now receives 80 per cent of the entrance fees to the Nam Dee Waterfall. Ecotourism revenues account for up to 40 per cent of total income in some villages, with a large amount spent on essential medicines, rice, clothing and household items.

‘Gambia Is Good’ is another example of pro-poor tourism. The project’s founder, Adama Bah, spoke in London last November about his struggle to get hotels to buy more produce from local farmers rather than fly food in from abroad. The campaign has had some success. It’s estimated that 11 per cent of what tourists spend on food and drink in Gambia now has a 'pro-poor impact'. When I spoke to Adama he was fairly dismissive of 'alternative ventures' – as far as he was concerned, the more and bigger the hotels that bought their supplies from local farmers, the greater the community benefit. You can see his point.

'Community-based tourism' is also spreading quickly – and the principles behind it seem impeccable. For example, the Community Based Tourism Institute (CBTI) in Thailand works with around 50 local communities that offer special programmes for tourists keen to engage with life as it is really lived in rural Thailand. These programmes have their roots in the Thai Volunteer Service, which 20 years ago used to place recent Thai graduates – mostly middle-class city dwellers – for 2 years as volunteers in rural areas.

CBTI’s goals are laudable, including: 'empowering local communities to promote their cultures, ways of life, traditional wisdom and relationships with the environment'; and 'facilitating sustainable development and improved quality of life in participating communities'.

But let's face it, there are scores of tour operators who would make extravagant claims for the amount they put back into the community. How many would own up to keeping the lion's share of the money for themselves and riding roughshod over local cultural sensitivities?

So I decided to send a journalist based in Thailand to the Andaman island of Koh Yao Noi with a brief to speak to as many locals as possible and see if they really felt this influx of tourists was improving their lives (see ‘Another way’, facing page).

The conclusion seems to be that the programme is of great benefit so long as it remains under the community’s control and the numbers do not spiral out of hand. We’re back to the paradox again – identify an island paradise where you can relate to local people and get some sense of how they live their lives and, before you know it, hordes of other people are beating a path to it and destroying what was of value in the first place.

So don’t all rush to Koh Yao Noi. But do investigate the many other 'community-based' or 'ethical travel' experiences in this burgeoning field. Those of you who take up this promise of a more fulfilling, meaningful holiday are likely to learn a great deal, and can be confident that local people are seeing the benefit, both materially and in terms of community empowerment.

In this, as in most things, it seems we should tread lightly and carefully – wheresoever we go. •

  1. Tourism Concern, Fair Trade in Tourism, 2003.
  2. Pro-Poor Tourism Partnership, Annual Register 2007.

New Internationalist issue 409 magazine cover This article is from the March 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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