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  • Patricia Köhring

The Impending Question: How Ethical is our Tourism

This article investigates issues of false 'sustainability' within the tourist industry and what measures individuals might take to practice more eco-conscious and empathetic travelling. 


Artwork by Kate Granholm (IG: @Katesartthings)


As our deadlines pass and the summer months approach, rejuvenated for many of us is that intense desire to travel- the need for a getaway from our daily lives and the irritatingly chilly, mundane greyness that has pervaded Edinburgh for the last few weeks. Mallorca dreams, interrailing fantasies, vague plans for Greek island hopping, or even potential post-uni gap years filled with Southeast Asian trekkings compound in our conversations with friends and leer at our wallets. But this article is not a travel advice column, nor am I interested in merely providing cheerful budgeting hacks for securing your dream holiday. Instead, I propose a question that is too seldomly considered in travel discussions: how ethical is our tourism? This inquiry involves not just factors we might have come across through concepts such as eco-tourism - i.e., how to reduce our CO2 footprint on our journeyings - but delves far deeper to uncover our very desire to travel, the attitudes we bring along to host countries, and ultimately, the implications of our often-time naive holiday affairs. 


Before I immerse myself completely in such questions, I think it imperative to address the privilege many of us might forget encompasses global travel. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), over 900 million tourists travelled internationally in 2022 and an overwhelming percentage of outbound departures and tourist expenditures derived from certain European countries (Germany, France and the UK, to name a few), the United States and China. On the inbound front, however, travel and expenditure were also high in East and South Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East. While it isn’t news that Europeans and Americans are eager voyagers, it is important to acknowledge the implications of this influx in Western tourism to periphery and semi-periphery host nations. Again, what expectations, attitudes and behaviours are we consciously or subconsciously lugging across the world? How should we ensure that international travel and tourism are mutually benefitting global endeavours rather than enterprises serving one-way interests? 


We might begin by addressing the recent phenomena of sustainable or ‘eco-tourism. As the climate crisis has risen in our socio-cultural consciousness, travel alternatives have also emerged to accommodate our environmental sensibilities. Conventional mass tourism is now commonly associated with proxy effects like ecological destruction or gentrification. For many, sustainable tourism has prevailed in favour, with its offers of economic development for host countries and emphasis on moral conscience and responsible travel experiences. However, the promise of environmental and socio-cultural protection to host countries and communities should not be bought without scepticism, for we must consider who exactly is presenting these sustainability claims and for what purpose.


Hitherto, the main problem conceived in sustainable tourism is the ambiguity surrounding its definition and the malleability of the concept itself. In other words, greenwashing - or the fabrication of a moral agenda - must be recognised as a new ploy of the ethically marketed tourism industry. Some overt examples of this misdirection include wildlife walks or sanctuaries that proclaim interest in moral practices but offer the opportunity for travellers to interact with the animals that need to be left undisturbed; tours to villages or heritage sites that advocate cultural conservation but serve only the guiding company’s monetary interests; or self-appraised eco-lodges whose only connection with the natural environment is their back garden and any positive action is solely reflected in their replacement of plastic straws with paper alternatives. It is easy to fall for such promotional initiatives when we are keen to find easy fixes to appease our conscience. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we have a responsibility to put more effort into our holiday plans if we are to genuinely engage in ethical travel habits.


As tourists, we are inherently the target consumers of the industry. The global system of organisation, that is, the capitalist order and its accumulation agenda, is primarily at fault. We are encouraged, even pressured, to appoint our funds to conglomerates or initiatives that fuel them. Still, we do have a choice. Our choice involves responsible action, scepticism, open-mindedness and, perhaps most fundamentally, research. Persevering against the confusion that can arise with this research is part of this ethical itinerary. How do we determine if the company, person, or organisation we support is legitimate about their sustainability? When it comes to air travel, the question is redundant. High pollution levels are unavoidable when we opt for highly global airline travel, no matter how consistently we pay the £3 CO2 compensation fee. However, other measures can be taken to alleviate some of tourism’s contributions to environmental damage and cultural deterioration.


A primary concern for local economies is revenue leakage, and here, we can at least partially contribute to its hindrance. Essentially, leakage refers to the distribution of expenditures and denying host countries gains from tourism. In their article on sustainable tourism, Paul Lansing and Paul De Vries contend that leakage involves imported goods and services purchased by tourists, goods and services imported by tourist establishments and hotels, and the profit repatriations to foreign owners of these hotels and services. Estimates suggest that 50% of tourism revenues seep out of host destinations, especially for periphery and semi-periphery nations. In other words, foreign business conglomerates profit while host countries rarely get their fair share of tourist expenditures.


What we can do as travellers is be more mindful of the products and services we purchase. Of course, it’s tempting to be humoured by lude shot glasses, cheap keyrings or “I Love ‘X’” T-shirts - they are fun and affordable souvenirs- but when visiting Tunisia and buying “Made in China” trinkets, one is likely supporting a dubious factory owner and not doing the local community much favour. Oftentimes, less budget-inspiring mementoes from local artisans are more responsible exchanges that will directly benefit the community. And importantly, one might remember or even cherish these keepsakes, unlike that tacky Angkor Wat snow globe with its inevitable bin-bag fate. 


More significant, of course, are our larger investments in accommodation and travel experiences. Rather than succumbing to the flashiness of the Hiltons or the Marriotts, locally owned properties tend to be more sustainable alternatives both for the environment and communities. Smaller independent accommodations are continually found to have decreased water and carbon footprints alongside more engagement with local employees, artisans and suppliers. Due to their regional affiliations, they often have a greater interest in the environment, economy and culture of the visiting destination; once again, leakage, ecological destruction, and gentrification are diluted rather than amplified. 


Though research is imperative for finding the best fit for your own travels, some successful providers of local eco-friendly accommodation are Village Ways, a tourist operator supporting homestays in the Himalayas, and KOPEL, a community-run conservation organisation in Borneo. A recent booking.com survey revealed that though 58% of travellers using the site value prioritising local communities and sustainable accommodation, less than half know how to find them. As sustainability in any industry isn’t yet the norm, dedication and research are thus far our best bet. 


To segue on to an interlinked arena, tourism's socio-cultural implications, though potentially more complicated to trace, are equally imperative to consider. Social differentiation, land grabbing, escalating prices, and changes in customs, traditions or lifestyles are all potential consequences of Western gentrification through rapid globalisation. Of course, travelling is a luxury - especially for most students - and it is not unfair to be excited or have high expectations pre-travel. Nevertheless, we must also investigate the solidity of these expectations and how they are converted to our actions during vacationing. The fundamental issue lies in taking for granted our guest status as tourists in a foreign country. We must remember that we are not superior, and we do not deserve higher treatment from locals; we are guests in someone else’s home, and we must respect that home and its people. Many tourist demographics now hold negative stereotypes linked to their behaviour on vacation, with ‘Brits abroad’ being a particularly notorious catchphrase. So, how should we engage? 


There must be a balance between the desire to enjoy our vacationing and have fun, the necessity of introspection, learning and open-mindedness, as well as readiness for new experiences when it comes to travelling. However many tourist agencies or resorts suggest this, local communities do not exist to cater for our every need or adapt to our cultural preferences and value systems. Thus, researching the destination before journeying is essential, especially if one’s travels lead to areas or communities where the culture is particularly distinct from one’s own.


Firstly, the significance of apparel is too often overlooked. While many countries are liberal in their unannounced dress code, it is important to acknowledge that exposing garments isn’t appreciated everywhere and that dressing accordingly is respectful. Sometimes heritage or religious sites will require their visitors to cover up, but even in other circumstances (cities, towns, villages), it may be wiser to save the crop top and miniskirt for the beach if it means alleviating social (and your own) discomfort. 


Secondly, communication can both make and break your relationship with locals. Communicating, needless to say, encompasses not only verbal language but body language and customs, too. Experiencing diverse cultures is one of the greatest privileges individuals can be granted, but we must expect cultural differences if this privilege is to be genuinely enjoyed. Again, if we do not research into local cultures before arrival, we may be caught off guard or, worse, risk offending our hosts. Approach people in a friendly, respectful, non-judgmental manner, and you’re off to a good start. Communicating clearly and carefully, apprehending the expected level of body contact (i.e., are you shaking hands, hugging, kissing on the cheek or none of the above), and avoiding gestures of frustration when communication is difficult is the next step. While some might be wary of foreigners, people are generally receptive to engagement, so we must stay positive and work to retain trust. At the end of the day, ethical travel is about ensuring not only that our vacations are fruitful and enjoyable but also that our hosts are happy to have us.


Finally, as we have uncovered, examining our actions on the environment, local economy and people is a vital foundation for our touristic engagements. While our means for social responsibility are limited in some respects by the frequent necessity of aeroplane travel or by fabrications of the industry, preparations and an assertion of our critical abilities in planning and travel behaviours form a solid starter pack for our move to ethical tourism. When the system of mass tourism appears to be against enhancing local communities, salvaging cultural heritage, and aiding environmental conservation, we, as the consumers and the direct determiners of demand, must make choices for change. For everyone fortunate enough to go on holiday this summer, I wish you the most wonderful time, but I also hope that this article has reaffirmed your sensibilities and encouraged further sustainability considerations for your future travels.


Written by Cia Kohring, May 2023


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