| travel light | What the Heck is Ethical Travel & Tips to Get You Started


Summer is here, and that can only mean one thing — travel season is upon us. That is why starting today (and continuing until who knows when), I will be starting a series on ethical travel — trying to answer your (and my) questions on how to be a better traveler.

I could blame it on my parents (and their parents for that matter) for taking me on countless road trips as a child, but I think the fact of the matter is that I was probably born with a sense of wanderlust — always yearning to visit (and re-visit, if we’re being honest) places both near and far and soaking in everything it had to offer.

From the annual road trips from Colorado to Michigan with my grandparents, to the annual road trips from Colorado to California with my friends that quickly replaced them as soon as I turned 18; from the frequent family trips to Florida and Disney World when I was a kid to the frequent family trips to Mexico (or Disney World for adults, if you will) that replaced them as my brother and I grew older; from a semester abroad in Australia, to a girl’s trip to Greece; from an epic road trip down Mexico’s baja with my future husband, to an epic road trip through the American West with that same guy as my husband — I never really could get enough.


But unfortunately, I never really gave a huge amount of thought to the impact or ethics of all of that travel. I mean, sure, I occasionally thought about the carbon footprint of every flight and how it would be nice to offset that, or about how it would be cool to go on a volunteer trip, but that was kind of where the ethical travel train stopped.
That is, until now.

Now, as I’m attempting to live a more ethical, sustainable, mindful life, I cannot think of a place where this is more applicable than my travels. First stop on this new ethical travel train — so many questions!

When it comes to ethical travel, I’m sure there are tons of questions like, “Where do I begin?” “What should be considered?” and “What the heck is ethical travel?”
Let’s start with the most glaringly obvious of those — “What the heck is ethical travel?”


Travel is one of the world’s largest industries, with a trillion-dollar annual footprint — which means that travelers have enormous amount of influence when they travel. So, call it what you will — ethical travel, eco-travel, green travel, responsible travel, sustainable travel, I could go on and on — the objective really is to be more mindful as you travel, since wherever you put that proverbial footprint can have consequences that reach far beyond your personal experience.

In the broad sense of the term, ethical travel is a concept in which travelers are aware of their potential impact on a destination and thus they look for ways to reduce said impact. But really, ethical or responsible travel can encompass quite a bit. In an ideal world, ethical travel would include it all, but because nothing is perfect, I’m writing about what it can include — you should be the one who decides what it means to you.

For one, there’s no denying that there is an extremely high energy cost and hefty carbon footprint when it comes to travel. So one way to view ethical travel is in a sustainability sense — and how can you lessen your environmental impact as you travel.


On a similar note, there are eco-tours and eco-tourism which seemed to be all the rage a few years back. Ecotourism typically involved travelling to destinations where the natural environments are the main attraction, and is intended to offer tourists an insight into the impact that human beings have on that environment, as well as leave the smallest impact possible on that environment.

Another aspect of ethical travel relates to the local people, cultures and economies and how traveler can either alleviate any negative impacts, or (an probably more common) have a positive impact.

In this bucket, you can lump in “voluntourism,” in which travelers spend a portion of their trip volunteering. And whether it’s distributing water filters on a surf trip, spending your trip volunteering at an orphanage in Africa or helping to build houses Central America — wherever you want to go and whatever you want to do, there’s probably a trip for it.


So, like I said, ethical tourism kind of runs the gamut, but ideally you are 1) travelling with the lightest environmental and socio-cultural impact possible, and 2) improving conditions in the communities you visit to ensure their health and prosperity in the future.

And yes, ethical travel is a little bit overwhelming. And yes, ethical travel requires a little bit more effort. But it can also be surprisingly easy and involve really simple things like opting for the train or bus when you get wherever you’re going, not visiting cruel animal attractions or eating at local restaurants. All it really comes down to is a little bit of education and awareness combined with a little bit of research and planning and you’ll be well on your way.


Do Your Research

As I said, ethical travel does require a little more research than your average trip planning. But putting in some effort before your travels to seek out destinations, hotels and local business that are either implementing green policies and initiatives or helping the local community (or both), can have significant impacts. Below are a few:

  • Rainforest Alliance is a great resource for information on sustainable tourism.
  • SustainableTrip.org, lists all hotels, tour operators, and other businesses in the Caribbean and Central/South America that are certified as sustainable.
  • Ethical Travel Guide provides travelers with fantastic ideas for authentic and guilt free holidays. For each country they list ethical travel considerations, ethical places to stay, ethical tour operators and volunteering organizations that can help make your stay better for local people and better for you.
  • The Global Sustainable Tourism Council establishes and manages global sustainable standards, known as the GSTC Criteria. There are two sets: Destination Criteria for public policy-makers and destination managers, and Industry Criteria for hotels and tour operators. These are the guiding principles and minimum requirements that any tourism business or destination should aspire to reach in order to protect and sustain the world’s natural and cultural resources, while ensuring tourism meets its potential as a tool for conservation and poverty alleviation. Their guide, What can you do to travel responsibly? gives good tips on planning, destinations and accommodations, among other things.
  • The Green Pick is a 100% sustainable travel blog. As “green” travelers, they wanted to help others by giving them details on hotels, countries and cities that they’ve visited to help make the green choice easier.
  • Sustainable Travel International is working to improve lives and protecting places through travel and tourism by working with governments, companies, NGOs and local communities so they can unite and use tourism to achieve the right balance between economic development, green growth, and protection of their natural and cultural assets.
  • Eco Traveller is your essential guide to the Green Travel Scene. They write recommendations on where to stay, where to go, where to eat, what to do and much, much more to help you plan your trip.
  • Intrepid Travel will plan your ethical trip for you. They offer 1,000 small group trips in 100 countries that are led by locals and incorporate real-life experiences and responsible travel practices (like using public transport when possible, staying in locally owned accommodation, etc.) for you.



Location, Location, Location

Probably the most important aspect of your trip is the destination. And there’s a lot to consider. Whatever you’re looking for, it can probably be done in a sustainable fashion, just some more than others. You can check out the GSTC’s Destination Criteria, but below are a few biggies to take into consideration.

Obviously the further you travel and the more connections you make, the bigger your carbon footprint. If you can, and if it will satisfy that travel bug, try a more local destination. If that’s just not in the cards, you can buy the equivalent of carbon credits in donations. Climate Footprint Calculator and Green Seat will help you calculate your footprint and help you purchase a donation to offset it.

Another thing to try to avoid? Tourist hotspots. A lot of these places come with big carbon emissions and encourage a culture that is addicted to travelers’ spending. The goal should be to foster a sustainable economy for the places you visit, not an addicted one.


The Ethical Traveler also encourages travelers to “vote with your wings,” as “[Travel] is one of the world’s most powerful economic engines, and can drive the way countries treat their citizens, indigenous peoples, wildlife and the environment. Their thought is that by choosing your destination well you can help change the world for the better.

To that end, every year they release a list (Ethical Traveler’s Top 10 Ethical Travel Destinations for 2017) of ten developing nations that it believes are the most ethical places for the socially conscious traveler to visit. Ethical Traveler reviews the policies and practices of over one hundred developing countries and then selects the ten that are doing the most impressive job of promoting human rights, preserving the environment and supporting social welfare. For each category, they look at information past and present to understand both the current state of the country and how it has changed over time. The goal of the report is to give tourism a boost in countries behaving responsibly.

This year’s winners (in alphabetical order):

  • Belize
  • Cabo Verde
  • Chile
  • Costa Rica
  • Dominica
  • Mongolia
  • Palau
  • Tonga
  • Uruguay
  • Vanuatu




Typically the longer the trip the less the environmental impact…or at least you’ll get more bang for your buck for the environmental impact of the trip. Obviously making fewer trips back and forth from a destination will have a smaller carbon footprint, but also staying in one place while you’re (instead of trying to cram multiple destinations into a single trip) will help significantly, too. You’ll also get to know your destination on a much more intimate level.


Support Local

Rather than supporting big corporations when you’re travelling, do what you can do support the local economy. Seek out restaurants and hang out spots that are popular with the locals instead of the ones that cater only to tourists.


Pick a Carbon Offset Adventure

If all else fails, or in addition to an already well-planned ethical trip, you can pick a carbon offset adventure. Carbon offset adventures not only take into account everything you need to have a great adventure, but also supplement the spending with giving back.



Later in this serious I will be covering things like what to pack, transportation, how to be more responsible at the airport and on the road, where to stay, how to be more responsible once you get to your destination and volunteer trips. If there’s anything specific you would like to learn about ethical travel, please let me know — I’d be happy to dig in! But in the meantime, happy travelling.

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