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  • Writer's pictureDorien Scheets

How Can We Make Travel More Ethical?

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

There is so much about the tourism industry that could change to make it more environmentally friendly, sustainable, and kind and considerate of the communities it engages. Lots of these changes really should be happening on a sector-wide level. But unfortunately, chances are that neither of us are the President or CEO of United Airlines. So instead of us personally overhauling business models or slashing ghost flights, we just have to do what we can in our own little corner of the world to make it a better place. As travelers, we luckily have lots of options and ways to do this. Here are a few key ways that we can make our adventures more ethical:

1. Recognize that travel is a privilege

If you are lucky enough to have sufficient income to be able to afford not only your necessary living expenses (a safe home, a warm bed, food to eat) but also to spend on increasingly expensive flights, hotels or hostels, and experiences abroad, you are in the minority. Around the world, millions of people are still living in abject poverty. Since the pandemic, figures have only gotten worse, with the number of people in extreme poverty rising by 70 million to more than 700 million people. Even poor Americans, who by comparison have a much more secure lifestyle than many people in other parts of the world, are struggling to travel.

Similarly, it's important to recognize that most travelers are white and from places like Europe and the US and Canada. White folks have benefitted from the history of colonialism and imperialism that has made them some of the best travelled in all of history. Although colonialism and imperialism aren't still functioning today (at least not in the same way as before), it's important to recognize that tourism is actually a not-so-distant ancestor to colonization, and can be fatal to other people's cultures, livelihoods, wellbeing, and communities.

Wielding this privilege of travel comes with necessarily recognizing that it is only afforded to a minority and where that privilege comes from.

2. Be mindful

When we venture to a new destination, the memories we make stay with us long after the trip ends and we go back home. Similarly, the things that we do when we are in other countries and communities and the places our money goes in those places has an impact that stays with that place long after we've gone. It's up to us to be mindful about what legacy we want to leave behind.

“Ethical travel really is simply mindful travel,” says Jeff Greenwald, executive director of Ethical Traveler, a California-based nonprofit organization. “It’s travel with an awareness of the places you’re visiting, your impact on those places, where your money is going, and how you can be a good representative of your own country when you travel, rather than just an example of everything that’s wrong with your own country.”

3. Identify what is most important to you

While mindfulness is certainly the first step to making travel more equitable, less harmful, and more meaningful, a truly ethical traveler should do more than just be mindful. Use mindfulness as a lilypad from which to leap toward the next objective: identifying what is most important to you.

It can be really overwhelming when first starting out on our first ethical travel journeys. There are so many things that can cause unexpected negative impacts--how can we possibly avoid all of it? While it's easy to pull our hair out worrying about this, it's not healthy or productive, nor it helping anyone in other parts of the world. Make it easier for yourself to identify what actions you want to take by identifying what matters most to you.

For example, you may decide that animal cruelty is the thing that you are most upset by. You can start by avoiding all tourist experiences that may facilitate or actively promote animal cruelty, including camel rides or circuses that include animals. You may next identify that the environmental impact of travel is the issue that is also incredibly concerning to you. You can then build upon your avoidance of experiences that encourage animal cruelty and also integrate travel practices that minimize your carbon footprint, such as limiting your travel via airplane and choosing to walk and bike where possible, rather than using transport options that emit emissions.

In other words, you don't have to do it all at once. But by identifying the 2, 3, or even 5 issues that are most important to you, you can begin building an action plan to avoid these things and make your next adventure more ethical.

4. Be proactive

You've done some amazing reflection already at this point if you've followed steps 1-3. Already, you're well on your way to making travel more equitable, less harmful, and more meaningful. But the next step is truly the most important. A truly ethical traveler should do more than just be mindful or consider what matters to them. It is important that we put thought into action. To make a difference, we need to actually be proactive in taking tangible steps to reducing our impact. You'll be pleasantly surprised to know that these tangible things are actually super easy to do. Here are a few points to help inspire you:

  • Support local businesses and individuals while on the road

  • Be aware and engaged with people in your destination country

  • Avoid unethical travel experiences such as swimming with dolphins or riding elephants--read more about this in my blog 10 of the Most Unethical Travel Experiences

  • Show up in your host community with more openness and humility

  • Consider buying only fair trade or environmentally sustainable goods

  • Consider buying less material stuff (in general!) and instead spend resources on responsible, ethical, local experiences

  • Maybe you avoid certain destinations all together for ethical reasons

5. Do your research

I was mind blown once I did a bit of digging and uncovered the imperialist, colonial history of travel. Before reading up on the topic, I'd never thought about how I might be continuing a legacy of travel by primarily white people who essentially make countries and communities belonging to people of color rather unwilling hosts to foreigners. By learning about the oppressive history of travel, I equip myself with the knowledge I need to be more conscious and kind when I do travel.

Similarly, by doing our due diligence, we learn more about how we can shift travel culture and tourism toward social justice. We can center host cultures in our travels and follow their leads on how to, and how not to, engage with them and their lands as guests. This might look like reading up on the place you're going to visit as written by people who are actually from there.


Traveling is never perfect. Its an industry fraught with a complex history and sometimes (or often) questionable impacts. But its unlikely that travel will subside any time soon, and it is possible that positive, effective work can be accomplished through it. And it starts with each and every one of us. We can do our best to be more ethical venturers by:

  1. Recognizing that travel is a privilege and understanding where that privilege comes from

  2. Being mindful

  3. Identifying what is most important to us and using that as a roadmap for how to take actionable steps to minimize our negative impacts

  4. Being proactive in putting those steps into action--in other words, putting your money where your mouth is

  5. Doing our research

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