A slight rant about the rhetoric of “ethical travel”

Not long ago, my friend and colleague Lauren Grodstein contacted me for a story she was writing about ethical travel. In the process of answering her email questions, I realized that I have misgivings about the rhetorical level at which we generally discuss ethical travel issues. Hence, my answer turned into a rant of sorts about the traps progressive-minded people can fall into when they discuss the ethics of travel.

Here’s an outtake from our Q&A:

What is it like to be a privileged white American traveling through the second or third world? What sort of pangs do you feel – if you feel any pangs at all? How do you combat them?

Anywhere you travel — even in poorer parts of the industrialized world — I think you’re occasionally going to feel a bit of guilt at the relative wealth you have in relation to the people around you. But I think it can be paternalistic to over-think or over-examine this guilt, since this guilt tends to be internal dialogue among privileged travelers themselves. People in some parts of the world might be poor, but they’re not stupid — and your “pangs” and pity aren’t going to help them.

So the easiest way to combat the guilt of third-world travel is to travel mindfully. This means breaking out of the bubble of mass tourism and traveling within the local economy — taking local transportation, staying at mom-n-pop guesthouses, patronizing neighborhood eateries.

By the way, “privileged white American” is a reductive and somewhat political term that doesn’t really help in the analysis. “Privileged” is the key factor here, and it’s condescending to think that people of other races and nationalities are somehow exempt from the ethical equation.

In general, I prickle when emotional or overtly political language is applied to ethical travel, because that can skew your perspective of reality. That Nicaraguan kid who looks heartbreaklingly impoverished might consider himself lucky because he has shoes and goes to school, and his father never had those privileges growing up. He might enjoy a game of soccer with you in the town square, and he might think it’s cool if you go and eat at his aunt’s sandwich shop, but he doesn’t need your pity and he doesn’t give a crap about how your familiarity with post-colonial theory has given you an arsenal of technical terms to describe his social situation.

“Ethical travel” tends to be a dialogue among fairly earnest, liberal-minded travelers — not the package-tour meatheads who constitute the worst stereotypes of un-ethical travel. The thing is, package-tour meatheads tend to be “ghettoized” by their handlers, and — from the isolation of an all-inclusive resort, or an all-night pub-crawl, or a five-cities-in-six-days tour bus — they rarely come into contact with locals who aren’t already jaded to (and profiting from) their presence.

Thus, as ethical travelers, we have a more difficult task as we seek out more authentic corners of our host culture. Reveling in our superiority to the package-tour meatheads isn’t enough; we also need to be critical of the clichés within our own milieu — and for the most part I think these are political clichés that trap us into patterns of reductive thinking. As I say in my book, “regardless of whether your sympathies lean to the left or the right, you aren’t going to learn anything new if you continually use politics as a lens to view the world. At home, political convictions are a tool for getting things done within your community; on the road, political convictions are a clumsy set of experiential blinders, compelling you to seek evidence for conclusions you’ve already drawn.”

Thus, in addition to patronizing the local economy and avoiding the condescension that comes with pity, a central goal of the ethical traveler should be to listen to people in the host culture. This sounds simple enough, but I’ve lost count of the well-meaning travelers who chatter mindless odes of goodwill on the assumption that their hosts share their liberal-minded middle-class post-traditional values. Asking questions and listening to the answers is always better than spouting platitudes and preaching opinions.

Elsewhere in my book I point out that “politics are naturally reductive, and the world is infinitely complex. Cling too fiercely to your ideologies and you’ll miss the subtle realities that politics can’t address. You’ll also miss the chance to learn from people who don’t share your worldview. If a Japanese college student tells you that finding a good husband more important than feminist independence, she is not contradicting your world so much as giving you an opportunity to see hers. If a Paraguayan barber insists that dictatorship is superior to democracy, you might just learn something by putting yourself in his shoes and hearing him out. In this way, open-mindedness is a process of listening and considering — of muting your compulsion to judge what is right and wrong, good and bad, proper and improper, and having the tolerance and patience to try and see things for what they are.”

On a final note, I think ethical travelers should try to travel slowly, since it’s hard to understand your host culture if you’re always rushing around from place to place.

Can you tell me any stories of traveling through an impoverished region and using your privilege (money, passport, etc.) to make your experience better?

An entire network of global independent travel operates on this very assumption. And this is most always a good thing for travelers and hosts alike, if approached mindfully.

I strongly object to the notion that the best way to deal with global poverty is to sit at home and feel guilty about it. I also object to travelers who wallow in their guilt when they visit poor regions. If you feel convicted to do something about it, do it, preferably on a person-to-person level (but do it humbly and keep your expectations realistic — just ask any returned Peace Corps volunteer). Otherwise, your guilt is just an empty exercise in middle-class self-identity.

One more thing — and I don’t mean to be a sourpuss about everything — is that even global volunteerism is not a fail-safe method of ethical travel. I am often perplexed by, say, church groups who build community centers in Mexico when it would have been much more economically healthy to pay Mexicans to build those community centers. Or the professional NGO community, which would be much better served by a small number of volunteers making lifelong commitments to specific communities instead of shunting huge numbers of volunteers to brief assignments in cultures they barely understand.

You’re a professional traveler, but what do you think of the casual tourist boozing it up in, say, Jamaica, while poverty simmers around him? Do you pass judgments?

I don’t pass judgments, because as I said the meathead tourist will likely never take an interest in ethical travel. And Jamaica is a prime example of what is called “plantation tourism”, where the tourist is utterly isolated from the culture, and is mainly there to have “fun” and be separated from his money. As I said before, this tourist is ghettoized and relatively harmless (though an inherent danger here is the corporate over-development of indigenous beach areas).

[I might point out that the best way to ensure ethical practices within corporate “plantation tourism” is to support enforced international laws for fair compensation of local workers, as well as supporting transparently regulated tax schemes to ensure that corporate money goes into health, education and development projects outside of the tourist resorts.]

So it’s easy to judge the meatheads, but it’s harder as independent travelers to fine-tune our own travel ethics.

Do you think there are things the casual tourist can or should do to be an “ethical traveler?”

Far and away the best thing the casual tourist can do is to spend money at a local level. Cut out the middleman travel-fixers, cut out the international franchise resort hotels and familiar chain-restaurants. Patronize the mom-n-pop economy. Go slow. Respect people. Practice humility, and don’t condescend with your good intentions. Make friends. Ask questions. Listen. Know that you are visitor. Keep promises, even if that just means mailing a photograph a few weeks later. Be a personal ambassador of your home culture, and take your new perspectives home so that you can share them with your neighbors.

Posted by | Comments (6)  | January 14, 2008
Category: Ethical Travel

6 Responses to “A slight rant about the rhetoric of “ethical travel””

  1. Michael Pugh Says:

    Fantastic insights here. If your final paragraph were an oath that all conscious travelers took before leaving their countries, the world would be a better place.

    I’m also skeptical of NGO projects or volunteer vacations where Westerners travel to developing countries to do physical labor. In many cases, those developing countries have nothing but physical labor.

    Instead, people in the West could donate their unique talents. If you’re a designer, find a small shop or organization who’s doing good work and donate a logo, identity, brochure, whatever. If you’re a lawyer, help someone get a deed to their land. We all have talents to give. The last thing developing nations need is for Westerners to come and dig ditches.

  2. Tim Patterson Says:

    Right on, Rolf. Thanks for laying it out there so articulately.

  3. Maya Frost Says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Rolf. You said it all so simply and eloquently.

    I especially like your credo at the end and appreciate your use of the word “mindful” to describe the way we can pay attention more fully in order to avoid being inadvertently condescending, wasteful or just plain obnoxious.

    A great reminder!

  4. Gary Arndt Says:

    Excellent. You echo many of my views.

  5. Boris Says:

    Nicely put, Rolf! I totally agree.