Tips for the Ethical Traveler
How to make a positive impact—and still have a good time—while on the road
1. Brush Up. Before booking your trip, consult guidebooks to learn about a destination's history as well as its environmental, social, and political issues.
Why: Imagine if you didn't know about Hurricane Katrina and went to New Orleans, or if you went to Sri Lanka without knowing about the tsunami. An informed traveler makes for a responsible one.
2. Investigate. Contact tour operators and hotels before visiting an area and ask them about their environmental policy (if they have one)—energy-saving programs, support for local conservation, any eco-awards they've won—and the percentage of employees who are local. If the hotel staff doesn't know the answers, that doesn't necessarily mean there is no program; but it does mean that social responsibility is not being promoted within the company as an important distinction. Look for hotels that have been independently audited and certified by organizations such as Green Globe 21.
Why: You'll feel better staying at a place that is doing good. And even just asking will prompt companies to be more conscious of doing the right thing.
3. Go local. Most sustainable tourism experts say it's best to patronize locally-owned inns, restaurants, and shops. The best option is to stay at an eco-lodge that works to reduce its energy and water consumption; if that's not possible, then stay someplace that is eco-certified.
Why: You want to make sure you are supporting the local economy. That said, a multinational hotel chain that employs local people can have a positive impact on the local economy if staff is paid a fair wage, food and other items are sourced locally, and it sets a good example in environmental management, recycling, minimizing waste and conserving water. Think about scale. Is a large hotel destroying the local cultural environment?
4. Speak in tongues. Learn a bit of the language. Bring flashcards on board the plane.
Why: Just knowing phrases such as "hello," "goodbye," "thank you," "have a nice day," etc. and knowing numbers from 1-10 (or even 1-50) goes a long way in showing your respect for another culture.
5. Have an open mind. Leave home without your preconceptions. Learn how to listen to people.
Why: The world is so globalized now that they ARE your community.
6. Do Like the Romans. Learn the traditions and taboos of your host country. One country's hello gesture is another country's middle finger. For example, in Thailand, the head is considered the most spiritual part of the body, so patting a child on the head or tousling his hair is a no-no. In Tibet, throwing garbage into a fire can be insulting, since fire is sacred.
Why: You don't want to insult people. And like it or not, you are a goodwill ambassador for your country.
7. Give wisely. Never give gifts to children. Rather, find out what's really needed in a community (from schoolbooks to balloons), and give to local programs like schools (ask your concierge or tour operator for school names). Giving to local charities that can help a large number of people is the best idea of all.
Why: It may sound cruel not to give directly, but if you don't give kids money, they may stay in school rather than choosing a life of begging.
8. Pay the "gringo tax." While there's nothing wrong with bargaining—it's part of many cultures—avoid overly aggressive haggling for souvenirs, particularly in developing countries. Have some respect for the seller: pay a fair price.
Why: You probably earn at least 10 times as much as the merchant. Why shouldn't he or she earn a little profit?
9. Ask Before You Shoot. Ask locals for permission before you photograph them.
Why: You want a stranger to get your permission before snapping a photo, right?
10. Stop Drinking! Bottled water, that is. Reduce water bottle usage when you can. But be smart: don't drink the tap water in developing countries.
Why: Buying bottles is wasteful. You wouldn't leave your bottles on your best friend's lawn after a barbecue, why would you leave them at the base of a World Heritage site?
11. Save water. It may feel delicious, but don't let the shower run for half an hour.
Why: Water is precious in many countries, and tourists tend to use far more than local people. In the Mediterranean, for example, travelers use almost four times more water than locals, according to a 2004 WWF report "Freshwater and Tourism in the Mediterranean." Not long ago the Mayor of Capri blamed tourists for the fact that his city had "run out of water."
12. Conserve energy. Turn off lights, the television, and air conditioning when you're not in your hotel room. Opt out of daily washing of sheets and towels.
Why: Not washing towels may save the hotel money, but it will also save water and electricity, plus cut down on use of environmentally damaging detergent.
13. Bus It. Use public transport rather than renting a car. If you do have to drive a rental car, make sure it is well tuned and that the tires are fully inflated in order to increase your mileage and cut gas costs.
Why: Traveling on buses and trains saves gas and gives you the chance to interact with local people—plus it's better for the environment.
14. Buyer Beware. Be careful what souvenirs you buy in terms of materials used to produce them. Are they made from coral? From endangered animals? From native forests? Also, avoid souvenirs that aren't made locally.
Why: Cheap souvenirs made in China do nothing for the local economy in Mexico. And not only is it environmentally harmful to buy items made from endangered materials, it's sometimes illegal (such as in the case of ivory).
15. Pack Your Batteries. Take your batteries home; don't put them in the trash in developing countries.
Why: When batteries corrode, they leach toxic materials into the ground, contaminating groundwater often used for drinking and recreation.