The world needs a conscious new breed of traveller

“Earth is what we all have in common.”

— Wendell Berry

Earth — the third planet from the Sun and the only astronomical object known to harbour life. Population 7.7 billion. A modern hunters — gatherers no longer travel for food. They travel for experiences.

According to UNWTO (The World Tourism Organization), 1.4 billion people have taken international trips in 2018. That’s a substantial impact on our planet. Regardless of the reason for travel, we can all make conscious choices how we travel and the impact we make on our home — Earth.

A recent story about a young elephant dying in relentless Sri Lankan heat whilst giving tourist rides, inspired me to ask our adventure community about ethical travel. Are these not so ‘feel good’ topics something you would like to read about? An overwhelming amount of people said yes. It turns out more people want to read about ethical travel, than your next “ultimate travel destination”.

So, what is ethical travel? There is no formal definition, but we can simply translate it as an awareness of the economic, environmental and social impact we make on the world during our travels. You don’t have to be an activist to be ethical. You just need to be aware. Maybe you are guilty of taking that elephant ride in Bali or giving money to the street children of Thailand, not realising that they are forced to beg.

Some things may not always be obvious or visible. So, let’s explore this topic together.


Not long ago a tragic news hit the headlines. A teenage elephant collapsed while giving tourist rides in Sri Lanka and never woke up. The photos of chained, battered animal are heart-breaking and eye opening at the same time.

According to World Animal Protection, there are 16,000 elephants in captivity worldwide — a quarter of the total number on the planet. These animals, which you can often visit in so-called sanctuaries are kept in chains, often abused and forced to perform tricks for tourists, followed by giving back rides until they die. Other animals suffering similar faith in captivity, are tigers in Thailand — a hot spot for tiger tourism and that infamous ‘tiger selfie’; lion cubs taken away from their mothers in South Africa, trained to pose or walk with tourists; dolphins, orcas and sea lions used in marine entertainment.

Chained Elephant in Kodanad, India
Chained Elephant in Kodanad, India
Kodanad, India. Photo by Benny Vincent on Unsplash

There are 1600 bottlenose dolphins around the world captured and kept for our entertainment. If your dream was to swim with dolphins or watch them performing, once you learn how dolphins are captured and killed for this purpose, you will likely find a new dream. They are taken out of their natural habitats, where they swim hundreds of kilometres freely, confined to living a life in concrete tanks, barely able move a few meters. Medicated and starved to perform for a dead fish reward, sometimes even self-harm due to depression. The Cove, a 2009 documentary about dolphin hunting can be quite an eye opening. Sadly, not much has changed in the slaughter of dolphins and the marine entertainment industry that profits from this multi-million dollar business, according to a Dolphin Project, a non-profit organisation set to end dolphin exploitation and slaughter.

Animals in captivity are the most obvious and tragic cases of the impact of tourism on animal welfare. Other attractions, such as gorilla trekking, swimming with sharks, wild dolphin encounters, bear spotting or taking photos with wildlife animals, can also have negative impact on wildlife.

If you think any of the five freedoms of animals have been compromised, you may want to reconsider your decision to engage:

Black dolphins swimming
Black dolphins swimming
Black dolphins, Photo by Anson Antony on Unsplash

• freedom from hunger and thirst;

• freedom from discomfort;

• freedom from pain, injury and disease;

• freedom to behave normally;

• freedom from fear and distress.

Tourism Concern — Animals in Tourism, gives a great overview of the topic of tourism impact on wildlife and what to consider, when engaging with various activities involving animals.

Most of us are conscious about the environmental issues, such as carbon footprint, pollution, global warming. We often apply common eco-friendly principles to our daily life, such as recycling, avoiding single use plastic bottles or use of eco products in our homes. When travelling, we are more conscious of not asking to get our towels changed every day, or remember to switch the lights and air conditioning off, when leaving the room.

But there are many other things, that may escape our attention. Simply, because they ‘blend’ with the holiday, the country, or the activities we are doing. I wrote about some of them in the blog There is something about Bali, during my solo trip to Bali. Because I also have been guilty of making some not so good choices.

1.4 billion people travel each year. Let’s think for a moment and let that sink in. That’s 20% of Earth’s population moving around the planet, leaving trace of their presence in the places they visit.

Not every country is equally conscious about the environment and respectively, not every human will have the same attitude towards the environment. But if you are aware and care about your trace, just be conscious about things around you and how can you minimize the impact, in the same way, as if you were at home.

A plastic bottle in the ocean
A plastic bottle in the ocean
Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Imagine you go for a massage or an excursion and are offered a plastic cup or a plastic bottle of water. Imagine you order a drink in a bar that comes with a straw. You probably wouldn’t have it at home, so don’t take it whilst on holiday. Multiply that number in your head by the number of tourists, massages, excursions, tours and the same happening every day, million times over. It’s likely that the same rubbish will reach you once you are back home. In the water you will be drinking, or the sea you will be swimming.

A plastic message in the bottle from far away…

Twenty years ago, a place in Thailand was put on the map. A pristine paradise with crystal clear blue water. That place is Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi island, off the coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea. It was a true road less travelled by, made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2000 Danny Boyle film The Beach.

Maya Beach in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
Maya Beach in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
Maya Beach, Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. Photo by Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash

Unfortunately, two decades of unchecked tourism were enough to degrade the place to the point of temporary closure, giving the nature time to recover. But not all damage can be reversed, and some may not be reversed over a long period of time. The Philippine island of Boracay, visited by two million tourists each year, have met with similar fate. The list of once breath-taking places ruined by tourism is longer. The famous Pig Beach in the Bahamas, Machu Picchu Peru, Venice in Italy.

Even the Mount Everest summit is now being claimed by amateurs and sadly, earlier this year the fatal stampede on the way to the summit, have put the mountain in the spotlight. Not only Everest is not a typical mass-tourism destination, but it’s also not accessible for a typical adventure traveller. To climb the summit, you must have climbed peaks of 6500 meters and above and present a certificate of a good health and condition. On the 22nd and 23rd of May 2019, over 250 people tried to reach the summit, the maximum number of people allowed in a day. But that short spring climbing season has claimed 11 deaths and was one of the deadlines in history. Whilst the tragedy has brought the attention to the overcrowding, inefficiencies within the expedition management teams and the process of issuing permits; it has also brought global awareness to this part of the world.

Those who don’t attempt the summit, usually stay within the merits of climbing Everest Base Camp or Camp One or Two — at the same time making it the world’s highest rubbish dump. According to the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) in the spring season of 2018, climbers left a total of a total of 17,678 kgs of garbage on Mount Everest.

Regardless if you are planning a yoga and mindfulness trip to Bali, snorkelling in Belize Blue Hole or extreme Antarctica expedition, keep in mind the impact you are having on the place. We can all make a difference, by trying not to ruin it for others. We can also make a conscious choice of a destination and give overcrowded places time to recover and for authorities to implement regulations protecting their own environments.

No, I don’t encourage alcoholism. Whatever Anthony Bourdain meant, let’s translate as — support local communities. Our travel can also make a positive impact on places we go. After all, many countries, especially emerging economies rely heavily on tourism and travel. We can all make conscious choice of supporting those who accommodate us during our adventures. From choosing locally owned accommodation provider, eating at local restaurants, hiring a local tour guide, respecting the environment to contributing to social cause or initiatives. If you do purchase from locals, haggling is expected, but consider the difference a dollar you are saving can make to someone.

Some people combine travel with volunteering, but it’s also important to be conscious which cause to support and doing more research on the program.

Be aware, that there are many fake or illegal orphanages around the world, where children are used as commodity to raise funding, but actually aren’t orphaned; or treated horribly and kept in appalling conditions, but you don’t get to see that. Of course, that is not always the case and there are amazing initiatives all over the world helping local communities, so do your research before deciding to volunteer or donate.

A woman selling fruit in the market, Guatemala
A woman selling fruit in the market, Guatemala
Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala. Photo by Jeison Higuita on Unsplash

There is so much more to write on ethical travel and explore the topic further, this post doesn’t cover all. But it’s a good start to get conscious about the choices we can make when travelling.

One seemingly insignificant ethical decision is a step in the right direction. If multiplied by 1.4 billion times even the smallest changes will have impact not only on the world we live in, but the whole travel industry. The choice is ours.

Founder of Tribd, a social networking platform connecting solo travellers and adventure sports enthusiasts for their next trip. Available on the App Store.

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