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How to travel ethically

If you are travelling, try to have a positive impact on the area you are visiting

Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in life

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If you get the opportunity to travel, try to be aware of the impact your holiday has on the environment and on locals in the areas you visit. Tourism can be an amazing thing for an area or country. Look at the positive impact tourism has in Ireland.

What is ethical travel?

Ethical travel, also known as eco travel or eco tourism, is a form of travel/tourism that takes into account the ethics of travel. An ethical tourist would consider the environment, the welfare of the local people and the end point of the money they spend when they travel. The term was originally coined by Hector Ceballos-Lascurain in 1983, but the concept has really only taken off in recent years.

Overall, the aim of ethical travel is to encourage travel that has at minimum, a neutral effect on the environment. It also encourages travel that enhances the lives of those working in the tourist industry, rather than exploiting them.

How to be an ethical traveller

Before going travelling or on holiday, consider how you can be more ethical in your choices.

Think ethically about where to go

Take time to think about where you're visiting. Look at social inequality and how minority groups are treated. Look at the country's relationship with wildlife and the environment. Do some research into the political situation of the country you want to visit and its relationship with other countries.

If you find somewhere seems to be unethical but you really want to visit, you still might be able to. You may be able to volunteer or work with a charity over there. Be careful doing this though and don’t fall into the trap of becoming a “voluntourist”. “Voluntourism” is the name given to holiday packages abroad claiming to offer volunteer opportunities in poorer countries. In reality the volunteers and the companies are the ones who benefit the most. Find out about local organisations working in the area and see what skills you could offer.

Think about the impact of transport

Try to be conscious of your mode of transport when you travel. Air travel has the worst impact on the environment. If you must fly somewhere do some research and see what airlines have measures to offset their carbon footprint. Is there somewhere you could get to by boat or train instead?

Once you get to your location try to walk, cycle or use public transport as much as possible. If you are travelling to a number of countries or regions try to use trains or buses to get between them rather than flying.

If using public transport isn’t possible and you have to rent a car, see if you can rent an electric or hybrid vehicle.

Find out how people are treated

In some popular tourist areas there can be huge social inequality. Find out if this is the case in the place that you are visiting. Try to do research into the ethics of businesses in the area you are going to and avoid supporting businesses that exploit locals. Look out for information on how people are paid, what kind of hours they work and what kind of conditions they work in.

If you want to travel with a tour company find out how much they pay their local guides and how they treat their staff and other businesses they work with. Online travel forums and blogs could help you with this.

Try to find locally owned businesses

Tourism can benefit local communities hugely, but not if you are spending all your money in multinational corporations. Shop in local markets, stay in locally owned hotels or hostels or take part in locally run tours. A lot of the time these will be the cheaper option and you know the money is going into the local economy.

It might be harder to find information about local businesses online. If it is something you need to book in advance, like accommodation for example, see if you can find recommendations and contact details on a travel forum or blog.

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Learn about and respect the culture

It is important to try to understand the culture of a country you are going to. Some cultures are very different to ours and you might need to think about how you dress, eat and communicate with locals. Learn a few phrases in the local language. People won’t expect you to be fluent but might appreciate you making the effort.

Culture also goes deeper than language, clothes and table manners. Being culturally aware also includes looking out for more implicit, not so obvious, cultural differences. Observe how people communicate and treat each other, how they express emotion, what sort of values they hold. Try to be as open minded as possible when experiencing a new culture and remind yourself not to take offense or get frustrated about things.

Tip well

In some countries tipping is expected and the staff wages might reflect that. Be mindful of the tipping culture in different countries.

Pick up rubbish

A lot of popular tourist locations around the world have issues with litter. Pictures of beautiful beaches, mountains and forests littered with plastic are becoming common. It goes without saying to bring your own rubbish away with you, but if you can, pick up a few extra bits. If everyone who visited a particular area took away a few pieces of rubbish it could make a huge difference.

Bring a reusable water bottle

In some countries it isn't safe to drink the tap water. It is often cheap and convenient to buy a small bottle of water each time you need one. But it also causes a lot of waste. Bring your own bottle and refill at water fountains where they are available. If you need to buy water try to buy one big container of water and refill your reusable bottle from it as you need to, rather than loads of small ones.

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Research animal welfare when travelling

Be aware that exploitation of animals for the tourism industry in many parts of the world is also a huge issue. Wild animals are often given drugs to sedate them for photo opportunities. Elephants experience a lot of pain when they are used for elephant rides and are trained using extremely inhumane methods. Similarly a lot of performance animals are trained to fear their trainer and that is why they obey them.

Be wary of animals being kept and bred in captivity in zoos and wildlife parks too. Animals bred in captivity will most likely never make it in the wild. Some programmes are necessary and promote breeding of endangered species, or help rescued or orphaned animals. Try to find out about a wildlife park or sanctuary before visiting to find out how ethical is it.

Another thing to look out for is animal souvenirs. Ivory from elephant tusks, reptile teeth and bones, animal skins and turtle and tortoise shells are just some of the souvenirs made from animals that you might see on your travels. Souvenirs made from coral and seashells should also be avoided. It is estimated that 20% of the world’s coral reefs are already lost and harvesting of shellfish for sea shells is pushing them to extinction.

Why care about ethical travel?

It is important to remember that while on holiday in another country those working in your hotels, bars and cafes are not. By thinking about the places you visit and where you spend your money while there you can help to stop exploitation of local workers. By using eco friendly methods of transport you can help to reduce environmental damage.

Remember, if you are not contributing to environmental damage and are spending your tourist euro in a safe and healthy manner, then you can enjoy your travel time without any guilt.

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Ethical transport modes

Do your research when it comes to getting to your destination and getting around as you explore the area.


You can easily get to the UK with any of the Irish ferry companies, such as Stena Line and Irish Ferries. These companies also offer bus and boat packages, which can work out to be cheaper than flying.


There is an extensive network of trains all over the globe. Whether you fly into a destination or take the boat to get there, you can then use a train to get to your destination in a safe and timely manner. Or, you could even spend some time InterRailing around Europe.


Bus Éireann runs fares to all over the UK, in partnership with Euro Lines. Then if you want to go on to Europe, it’s very easy to take a boat or a train from there. If you are travelling between countries or cities buses are often the cheapest way to do so.

Trams and metros

Many cities throughout the world have trams and metros, and they are cheap and environmentally friendly. Most are also extremely easy to get around too, even if you’re not great at reading maps.

Walking or cycling

Obviously, you can’t walk from country to country or city to city, but you can use your feet to explore a city itself, rather than taking taxis or using public transport. Or rent a bike for a few days. A lot of European cities are very bike friendly.

Fore more information, check out our Travel section.

Need more information?

We are here to answer your questions and talk through your options. Our online chat service is for 16 to 25 year olds and is available Monday to Friday, 4pm to 8pm. Chat to us now about your situation.

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Published Novem­ber 27th2012
Tags travel wellbeing activism ethics
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