You might be here because you are wondering what ethical tourism is all about. Perhaps you are worried about being a responsible traveler. I am too.

I worked with a sustainable field research school in Costa Rica for a year, took a course on environmental sustainability while studying abroad in the country years before, and have volunteered with conservation organizations ever since.

One thing I have learned is that making ethical travel decisions is not a cut-and-dry topic. 

There are so many ways we can travel ethically, and every decision helps. I don’t want you to walk away from this guide feeling discouraged if any of the tips feel inaccessible to you at the moment. Traveling responsibly is not all-or-nothing.

Instead, I hope that you will use this guide to launch your own path into ethical tourism. Use it as a base point to start thinking through your decisions as a global citizen. Implement what you can, one small step at a time. If certain advice stops working for you in a season, that is ok. Do what you can, and try to reconsider later on if there might be additional sustainable actions you could add to your travel style.

In this guide, we will discuss what ethical tourism is, and how to make ethical travel decisions that benefit people in the communities we visit and the environment.

What is Ethical Tourism?

Ethical tourism involves traveling in a sustainable and responsible way that protects the environment, sustains and respects the communities and culture being visited, and protects the local economy.

Artist Samuel Lind shows his art that draws from his Afro-Caribbean heritage in Puerto Rico. It's important to learn about the places you visit as a part of participating in ethical tourism.
Artist Samuel Lind shows his art that draws from his Afro-Caribbean heritage in Puerto Rico. It’s important to learn about the places you visit as a part of participating in ethical tourism.

How to be an ethical tourist

Responsible tourism

As we covered in our Sustainable Travel Guide, responsible tourism focuses on how travel impacts local communities and their economy. In order to travel responsibly, you should support small businesses that are based locally. Also, patron businesses that benefit the local community. Finally, consider how your visit could impact the area, and if the trip is ethical or should be postponed.

Education

The reality for many of us is that we simply do not know what we don’t know. You need to learn better so that you can do better. Education is the first step to becoming a responsible tourist who participates in ethical tourism.

In order to become educated about interacting with other cultures and exploring the world, you can read books, listen to podcasts, and follow ethical bloggers from around the world. Doing this allows you to gain a deeper appreciation for the people and places you are interacting with.

Some of our favorite ethics-focused travel accounts are Two Dusty Travelers, Lola Mendez, and April Vera-Lynn Travels.

When researching a destination to visit, try to find informational sites that will teach you about the cultural traditions and history of a place. For example, when planning our road trip around the Big Island in Hawai’i, we found Love Big Island, written by a local and their partner, to be a great resource!

Indigenous Wisdom

A great resource for the Americas is this Native Lands Map. The interactive map tells you which tribes originally lived on the land of any location you search.

Indigenous people were the original stewards of the land and often passed down the best practices for protecting the environment and living in harmony with the land. Concepts like permaculture which seem new and innovative are long-passed-down in these communities.

For example, controlled burning in the West was a standard practice that died out with the colonization of the area, and consequently, now wildfires are an ever-growing problem. Native people have long used controlled burning to shape the land. After years of incredibly damaging wildfires, California is turning back to indigenous wisdom to help remedy the problem.

We can find the history of an area by connecting with the native people. These are the people who lived there before being forced out. By using this map you can learn more about the history and connect with their tribal center.

Another way to gain an understanding from a local perspective is to hire a local guide when you arrive. These tours are always full of interesting and educational facts about the area and will make your trip that much more memorable as well

An example of ethical tourism: carved wooden beams in Hawaii represent the culture of the people who lived here before modern day colonization.
Hawai’i national historic site Pu’uhonua Honaunau is a relic of Hawai’i cultural past. If you are visiting Hawai’i be a responsible travelers by respecting the people whose home you are visiting.

Have Respect and Be Curious

Listen to the locals. Official tourism offices do a lot of great work, and travel bloggers like myself are excited to share about the many places we visit. However, there is still a responsibility for travelers to listen to the residents who are speaking about their own home. 

Hawaii, for example, struggles with an influx of tourists that sometimes causes a huge strain on resources and housing. It’s important to take their voice into consideration when making ethical travel decisions about visiting a destination.

Show effort to learn the language. Did you know that learning a language also helps you learn about the culture of a place? The concept of time, relationships with each other, and the importance of food are just a few examples of things you can learn about when learning a language.

Of course, it is impossible to completely learn a new language every time you travel, but it can be helpful (not to mention respectful) to make an effort to learn some useful phrases. Learning popular slang in Costa Rica, for example, will help you not only learn a few unique words in Costa Rican Spanish but also teach you about the laid-back pace of life in the country.

Tips for Ethical Tourism: How to be a respectful traveler

Photograph respectfully. While it may be tempting to take photos of unique and unfamiliar experiences when you travel, it is important to always photograph respectfully. Ask before taking pictures of an individual, and make it clear if the photo is being used for a big audience so that they can have informed consent. It is also a good rule of thumb to not take pictures of minors.

Don’t over-haggle. Unlike in the US, it is more common to negotiate on the price of goods and services in other countries. However, it is important to be respectful and not over-haggle just because you can. Unfortunately, there can be a bit of a power dynamic in these situations, especially with American travelers.

Follow the rules. Even if you see many tourists (or locals) participating in an activity, it’s a better decision for an ethical traveler to follow the rules.

For example, on the Big Island of Hawai’i, there is a popular natural water slide that many tourists love to visit. 

Despite its popularity, it’s actually illegal

The “slide” is actually located on private property and the owners are constantly requesting for them to stop trespassing because it is used for irrigation and not regulated for human use.

Try to live like the locals. A great way to show respect and curiosity is to adopt the local way of life. Dressing modestly, conserving water use, and even addressing a shopkeeper upon entering their shop are just a few examples.

 Of course, in order to learn about the customs, you cannot simply show up without doing any research. This is why we recommend doing a bit of research and learning about a place before visiting.

Infographic: 5 quick tips for responsible and ethical travel. Images are accompanied by text: Learn about the place and people who live where you plan to travel. Be curious and try new things instead of being judgemental. Shop small and support local businesses and look for certifications. Get outside - experiencing nature will inspire you to protect it. Protect people, animals, and the environment. Images beside each text are: a white and purple flower cluster blooming up close, gray stone ruins of Tulum in Mexico with the turquoise ocean behind them, three tacos with salsa, people hiking through thick brush with a rocky upcrop in the background, and red rocky cliffs of Smith Rock in Oregon with a bright blue river running through them.
5 quick tips for making ethical travel decisions. Being a responsible traveler is important to help protect the beautiful places we love to visit around the world. Use these tips as a quick reference on ethical tourism.

Supporting local and small businesses rather than foreign or corporate

While staying in a beautiful resort and having a huge, well-known tour company may be a little easier to book, supporting small businesses is a much better way to travel ethically. It’s good to support the local community you are traveling in. 

Book your accommodations with a local business or family, rather than a conglomerate or foreign investor (such as hotel chains, resorts, etc). The closer you are to the local community, the more you will learn as well. Cultural exchange is an excellent way to enhance your experiences while traveling.

Hiring a local tour guide is a great way to learn more about the area you are visiting. Get in contact with the local tourism board, find recommendations via your accommodations, or use GetYourGuide to hire a local tour guide. 

Some examples of reputable ethical tour companies we have read about:

Puerto Rico Ethical Tours
Three flags displayed on a building in the old town district of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Taking a tour hosted by a local guide can teach you about the significance of things you might not learn just from exploring on your own! Local tours are a great way to be a responsible traveler.

Support Ethical Wages

We recently went on a trip to Puerto Rico. In the same store we saw hand sanitizer for $7, and a help wanted sign for $9/ hour. Rideshare apps pay local wages there, where tourists can get a ride for $5 across town. Is it ethical for tourists to support this disparity with their dollars?

One way destinations are addressing this gap is by offering tiered pricing for activities based on residency. Tourists pay a premium while locals have a more affordable option. As a responsible traveler, you can support companies that pay a fair wage and support ethical tourism.

Shop with Small Businesses that Give Back

Does the business you are supporting give back or benefit the community? This is another great way to make decisions on where to go as an ethical tourist. Some ways that a business can be supportive of its local community are certifications like Fair Trade or B Corp, supporting a local charity or social programs, or hiring a specific demographic.

A great example is Bitty and Beau’s – a coffee shop in Charleston, South Carolina with 23 other locations around the US that specifically hires people with disabilities. Their website says they are a “human rights movement disguised as a coffee shop,” summing up their mission to advocate for people with disabilities well.

What is a B Corp?

We reached out to B Lab for the full scoop.

“Certified B Corporations™ (B Corps™) are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit.” according to their global communications team.

“B Corps are companies verified by B Lab to meet high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. This is a community of leaders, driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good.”

According to B Lab’s website, in order to achieve certification, a company must:

  • Demonstrate high social and environmental performance by achieving a B Impact Assessment™ score of 80 or above and passing our risk review. Multinational corporations must also meet baseline requirement standards.
  • Make a legal commitment by changing their corporate governance structure to be accountable to all stakeholders, not just shareholders, and achieve benefit corporation status if available in their jurisdiction.
  • Exhibit transparency by allowing information about their performance measured against B Lab’s standards to be publicly available on their B Corp profile on B Lab’s website.
This example of a B Corp mark is a large capitol B inside of a circle, with a copywrite symbol in the bottom right. Below the symbol is a thick black line and the word Corporation. This logo will appear on brands who are awarded a B Corp certification - a great marker for ethical tourism decisions.
This is an example of the B Corp mark.

This means if you see a company certified with the B Corp logo, you can be sure they are committed to accountability, transparency, and continuous improvement on meeting high standards of social and environmental impact.

Looking for certifications, such as B Corp or Fair Trade, is a great first step in confirming that you are making ethical travel decisions when choosing who to support on your travels.

Travel to destinations that are sustainable

Another way of looking at the problem of ethical travel could be to visit destinations because of their commitment to sustainability. Stuttgart, Germany’s most sustainable city, is making a huge effort to be carbon neutral, or even negative, through efficient building construction, for example.

Seattle, Washington is the US has over 400 city parks and a city-wide composting program, plus one of the best public transport systems in the country. Costa Rica is also an incredible example of environmental sustainability and eco-tourism, protecting a whopping 25% of their natural areas.

Ethical Tourism: What Not To Do

We’ve talked about some key things to think through when making travel decisions, but are there any things you should avoid? Below we go over a few travel tips of things not to do.

Should you avoid traveling to a specific place?

Sometimes, traveling to a place may not be the best ethical decision. However, ethical, sustainable, and responsible tourism exists on a scale and is not black and white. It is important to consider if you should avoid traveling to a destination, or possibly postpone your trip.

It could be that the timing of your visit would be better later on. For example in places where tourism benefits the local economy, canceling a trip completely could have the opposite desired effect. Locals rely on tourism dollars to keep their economy afloat, which is why choosing to travel sustainably as an ethical tourist can be beneficial without causing more harm. Delaying your trip can allow the support needed without causing more damage during sensitive times.

Consider if the destination is in a fragile state. For example, during the pandemic, some nations had easier access to health care and vaccines while others did not. Ethical travelers might decide to delay or postpone a trip until the risk is lower for the residents there.

Crowding and Cruises

As another example, national parks can be crowded during busy seasons. Consider a nearby state park or national forest instead. There are many state parks that are lesser known and still have incredibly impactful scenery compared to their nationally protected neighbors.

As an illustration, I avoid cruises because they don’t support local economies and produce a lot of waste they dump in the small fragile towns they visit. According to a report by Nebu, a single cruise ship emits as much pollution as a million cars

Does this mean you shouldn’t travel by cruise at all? The reality is that every traveler has to make decisions about how to travel ethically in a way that makes sense for them. If you want to take a cruise but in a more sustainable way, you might consider other options. Can you take a local cruise instead, like those from Seattle to Alaska, for example?

Consider if visiting a place could be harmful or helpful

Case Study: Hawai’i

As we mentioned above, Hawai’i has struggled with an influx of tourists in the past few years which has put a strain on an already difficult balance between tourists and locals. Native Hawaiians share mixed opinions on the subject – knowing that while tourism helps the economy it can also cause a myriad of other issues.

With the island importing 90% of goods, and limited water resources, there isn’t always enough to go around. Rising costs of living and housing displacement are also huge issues with resorts and home rental companies catering to more and more tourists. 

So, should you delay or cancel your trip to Hawai’i altogether? The answer is a bit more nuanced than a simple black-and-white answer. While tourism can cause a strain on Hawaii’s limited resources, the state also relies on its income from the travel industry. For this reason, traveling ethically can make a huge difference in delicate destinations such as this one.

A pink and white flower lei hangs from a tree branch in front of a beach. In the background, the sun is setting creating pink and orange hues along the sky in Hawaii.
Consider the case of Hawai’i when making decisions about responsible tourism. With tourism putting a strain on limited resources, some locals are calling for visitor’s to rethink their trip.
An orange dirt road runs through the farmland that provides access to Papakōlea Green Sand Beach in Hawai'i. Choosing to follow local laws like avoiding hiring 4x4's to illegally drive to the beach is an important choice as a responsible traveler.
Papakōlea Green Sand Beach in Hawai’i is accessed by a 5.5 mile round trip hike through adjacent farmland. While many tourists choose to hire the 4×4 trucks driving the trail, it’s actually illegal. Here you can see the deep erosion these trucks cause to the land.

Don’t give children money

When traveling, you may see young children out and about, asking for money or selling small fares. While this may tug on your heartstrings, you should know that it is more beneficial to not give in to supporting this practice. Uncornered Market does an excellent job of explaining this in-depth, so we encourage you to read their piece on whether travelers should give to children who beg.

Environmental Ethics

Another side to being a responsible traveler is ensuring that your travels do not cause detriment to the environment. Ethical tourism includes environmental protection. This includes carbon emission mitigation, ethical animal experiences, and sustainable eating.

Reducing or limiting emissions

Supporting emission offset programs like algae or tree planting are a great step towards reversing the damage of climate change that carbon emissions can have. Many programs offer to calculate the amount of emissions and offset them by supporting a way to reduce carbon in the air such as planting trees. 

Tree Card is also a great organization for this – with every 10,000 steps you take, they plant a tree. Your steps can create change without costing you anything, and you will be more motivated to walk over taking transportation to keep making a difference.

Modes of traveling sustainably

If walking or biking are not viable options, taking public transportation over private options, such as bus, train, or subway, vs driving, car rental, or ride-shares can be another, more sustainable travel option. 

We love to use public transportation in cities that offer it. In New Orleans, there is an air-conditioned trolley that costs only $3 for a day pass. Larger cities like Paris, New York, and Mexico City also have underground travel by metro that can also save you time! 

In addition to using public transportation within your destination, you can also reduce emissions by staying closer to home. Traveling locally and shorter distances, by car, bus, or train rather than flying produces fewer emissions, and can often be more economical as well.

There is an ongoing debate regarding whether traveling by car or plane can be more fuel efficient and less detrimental to the climate crisis. Cars are becoming more fuel-efficient, but passengers often travel by car alone. Air travel is becoming increasingly more common, but planes often travel at less than half of their capacity. 

There is so much math involved that several websites have cropped up to help travelers calculate the most environmentally friendly way to travel.

Road tripping

Road trips are a fun way to explore closer to home while still having an adventure. Personal vehicles emit less carbon and use less gas than airplanes, so choosing to take a road trip can be a great option for those looking to make ethical travel decisions to benefit the environment and reduce air travel.

What are some of your favorite things to do when you travel? Stopping over in unknown, small towns or even just heading out on the road without a plan can be just as much of an adventure, if not more!

Train Travel

If traveling by car is not an option, you can also travel by train. Sojourner, the creator behind the website Soujournies is a great travel writer to follow for all things train travel

Amtrak often offers deals on passes that will allow you to travel all summer for a discounted rate. Take advantage of their scenic views as you travel across the US without having to worry about driving yourself. 

LEED Certification

Look for certifications with businesses you want to support, as stated above. In addition to supporting the communities, you can also find environmental certifications. LEED certification, for example, is awarded to buildings that meet rigorous environmental standards.

The US Green Building Council awards LEED certification to qualified buildings. The award is based on construction and operation that improves the efficiency and environment for its users while lowering carbon emissions, using less energy, and sustainably handling waste, transportation, and materials.

A fiery-throated hummingbird sits on a branch in the mountains of Costa Rica. As an ethical tourist, you can choose to protect wildlife rather than exploit it.
A fiery-throated hummingbird sits on a branch in the mountains of Costa Rica. Protecting wild animals by not feeding them ensured their survival for generations to come.

Ethical Animal Tourism

In addition to the transportation and organizations that you visit being sustainable, another way to travel more sustainably is through interacting with nature ethically. 

It can be fun and eye-opening to connect with nature. Ensuring that we are protecting what we connect with allows it to continue providing joy and awe to future generations.

It’s common to want to interact with exotic and wild animals when visiting a destination. How do you determine if the animal encounters are ethical?

Zoos & Aquariums

Despite what you may have heard, zoos and aquariums exist on a spectrum of ethical operations. They can be anywhere from sad to look at, to conservation organizations in their own right.

Therefore, it is going to take a bit of research about each individual zoo or aquarium to determine if you should be comfortable visiting. But what are you looking for?

Mainly, a qualified certification can confirm the quality and ethics as a whole. The zoo should take good care of the animals and ideally hold them in habitats resembling their natural home setting. 

Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle does an excellent job of operating as a conservation organization. By using their animal exhibits to connect visitors with many projects benefitting natural habitats around the world, their work goes beyond just the zoo itself.

Animals are either born in captivity or brought in to help protect the species in some way, either through rehabilitation or reproduction efforts.

Zoos and aquariums also have the opportunity to teach visitors not only through the exhibits themselves but also through their own operations. Water recycling, LEED-certified sustainable buildings, and even on-site composting are just a few examples.

Ethical Animal Encounters

Animal Rescues are a common answer to the “unethical” reputation of zoos. However, it’s important to research the rescue to confirm they are really being responsible. At a minimum, make sure the animal rescue is truly rescuing animals, rehabilitating them back to the wild whenever possible, and not causing undue stress for the sake of tourists.

For example, the Jaguar Center in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica focuses on “rescue – rehabilitation – and release” for the various animals in their care. They offer guided tours but do not allow touching or feeding the wild animals.

Wild Scarlet Macaws with colorful feathers hide in an almond tree on the coast of Costa Rica.
Wild Scarlet Macaws hide in an almond tree on the coast of Costa Rica. Enjoying animals in their natural habitat instead of in captivity is important in ethical tourism.

In contrast, tiger encounters might seem fun but generally, these animals are drugged for the safety of the tourists. 

Looking for ethical animal tours can be a more solid choice if researching animal rescues seems daunting.  Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya is a great example, as the leading organization in orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation. They offer eco-lodges and bespoke safari experiences that allow tourists to experience the wildlife while supporting conservation in the area.

Where is the line between hunting and poaching?

Many avid outdoorsmen will know that hunting can be healthy for the environment, though animal enthusiasts may disagree.  The reality is that as with many travel ethics, this can be a gray area but there are certain aspects to help you decide.

If you would like to go hunting, be sure to procure all necessary licenses and permits. Often these help fund the conservation efforts of the population. If going with a guided hunting company, confirm they have the correct licenses and permits as well.

We would also encourage you to consider the type and reason for hunting. Going out for a few quail for dinner is a lot more ethical than trophy hunting.

Regardless, do not ever participate in hunting protected species, poaching, or anything illegal. Follow the local rules and laws and respect the community.

Protect the Environment

Here are a few key guidelines you can follow to protect the local flora and fauna when traveling:

  • Stay on the designated path.
  • Don’t touch or pet wildlife.
  • Don’t touch coral reefs or sea stars. Be careful with fins when snorkeling.
  • Always use reef-safe sunscreen, and rinse off any bug spray before swimming in natural waters.
  • Don’t feed wild animals, even if everyone else is doing it.

Ethical Dining

Finally, as an ethical tourist, you might choose to eat sustainably.

Responsibly sourced food, such as produce from local farms, is a great way to eat more sustainably as a responsible traveler. Transporting food longer distances will inevitably create more carbon emissions, so the closer to home the better.

In addition to the emissions, eating locally sourced food is such a great way to learn more about the culture you are visiting. Take a food tour of local restaurants or taste your way through the farmers market.

Vegan and vegetarian dining can also be a great sustainable option due to the environmental effects associated with meat consumption. We had a great time eating vegetarian when traveling through Colombia, which was surprising given how integral meat is to Latin American cuisine!

A plate of mofongo topped with lobster and garlic sauce in Puerto Rico.
Be curious about trying local cuisine when traveling.
A plate of steak and sweet plantains.
Eating local both supports the community and has a lower impact on the environment.

Is the source you get your travel info from reliably sustainable?

When researching a destination, be aware of where your information is coming from. If you are considering another blog, website, or news source, are they local to the area? It’s ok to get information from a non-local, but be sure to combine that with local perspectives as well.

When reading articles or watching videos from an influencer or website, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Did they visit for a weekend, or do they have a deeper knowledge of the area?

Obviously, people local to the destination will have better on-the-ground information, so this is the best source. Supplemental research can be done with visitors who can provide an outside perspective. To be an ethical tourist, any outsider information should be balanced by seeking a local perspective.

However, it is also important to remember that people and cultures are not a monolith, and one individual’s perspective is not necessarily representative of the whole. Unfortunately, the entire subject of traveling ethically and making ethical travel decisions is full of balancing decisions based on the information you can gather. There is rarely ever a simple black-and-white answer.

  • Was their trip sponsored? Are they only highlighting businesses that sponsored them? Were they sponsored by a brand or by the local tourism board? 

Of course, this isn’t a bad thing, but we offer these examples as something to consider. 

Often local tourism boards will hire influencers and journalists to help get the word out about their destination. We can share their stories with a broader audience and help attract visitors to the destination.

  • How might these factors influence their recommendations and the travel guide you are researching with?

As with any ethics, it is important to consider many sides before coming to a conclusion.

Colorful buildings line a square in Guatape, Colombia.
A colorful plaza in Guatape, Colombia.

Final Thoughts on Ethical Tourism

As you can tell, there is more than we can possibly cover here on the topic of ethical travel, but hopefully, this guide has helped start the conversation. Whether making more sustainable travel decisions, being a responsible traveler, or somewhere in-between, your decisions help make a difference in the communities you are traveling to.

Stay tuned for our next article in this series on traveling sustainably!

What else would you add to this guide on ethical tourism?

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