Ethical Travel: What It Is and Why It Matters

April 17, 2020

Now more than ever before, ethical travel matters. In this collective pause, we are witnessing the Earth heal itself. Why is it able to heal itself? Because of the reduction of greenhouse emissions due to significantly less travel, there is less foot traffic in National Parks and on popular trails which helps heal the environments we frequent when getting outside, and we’ve even seen a decrease in pollution. It’s no longer at the back of our minds, the evidence is right in front of us. We can’t ignore our impact on this planet.

So, as we watch the Earth heal itself, let’s reflect on the ways we can continue to help heal her, keep her land sacred, keep her people safe after the travel restrictions are lifted and we enter a new normal.

What is Ethical Travel?

Simply put, ethical travel is mindful travel. It is the awareness of how we are affecting the earth, the groups of people we encounter, and the different environments we visit. Further, it is the willingness to recognize our impact and mitigate any negative effects or harm we might cause.

Why Ethical Travel and Responsible Tourism is Important Beyond the Environment

In this collective pause, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on trips passed and let me tell you, I have so much room for improvement.

The simple act of travel itself is harmful to the environment, the moment you step on the plane. Not only are the emissions from the plane (or any other mode of transportation for that matter) hugely harmful to the environment but the single use plastics provided when having a cup of water or coffee in flight or grabbing one to-go while on a road trip, the pre-packaged snacks, the inflight amenities like pillows, blankets and headsets (all single use items) are all thrown away after one use.

The first step of all of this though, is awareness. By simply being aware of your effects on the environment, local people and the local economy of the places you visit you create positive change. You’re reading this, so you must be aware.

As a destination begins to cater to tourists, the destinations change. Infrastructure is built where it wasn’t once before ridding natural habitats and displacing animals. Local businesses close due to chain businesses taking over. We lose languages. Communities of people. Precious, sacred land. We encourage the exploitation of cultures and people when we don’t ask for permission to take photos or photograph prayer ceremonies without consent. Though it seems like a small thing in the grand scheme of your travels, it isn’t. Through awareness and cultural competency you can travel ethically.

Over tourism is a real thing

Places around the world become over touristed due to the ‘attractions’ in the area- be it a trail, temple, natural phenomenon, etc. Travelers come and travelers go without experiencing the essence of the destination, only the place they came to take a picture of. When we take a moment to experience the culture, its people, to invest in the local community our ‘tourist dollars’ help keep these cultures and its people alive. Not only does ethical travel help maintain cultures and people of the world, it helps maintain pristine natural environments.

Responsible tourism for the environment

Here are a few ways to travel responsibly and ethically as a means for helping our environment.

In transit to/from destination

  • Opt for low emission flights (usually visible when booking! And you can search specifically for low emission flights on websites like Skyscanner)
  • Consider visiting in the off season when destinations are less crowded
  • Pack your own toiletries in reusable/refillable containers and avoid using hotel toiletries
  • Use eco-friendly toiletries (zero waste, natural ingredients)
  • Bring your reusable water bottle, mug and your own neck pillow
  • Wear layers on the plane so you don’t use the blankets
  • Bring your own headphones
  • Pack snacks for all means of travel
  • Decline the cup and sip out of the can when offered a drink
  • When offered water on the flight, request a refill for your water bottle
  • Consider donating to a Carbon Offset Program or non-profit like One Tree Planted.

In destination

  • Seek eco-friendly hotels and family run BnBs
  • Use public transportation, bike or walk in your destination
  • Minimize towels used and opt for keeping your sheets for the duration of your stay
  • Don’t use hotel slippers
  • Carry In/Carry Out + Leave no trace when spending time outdoors (hiking, camping, etc)
  • Use reef safe sunscreen and non-toxic bug spray (good for you and the environment)
  • Avoid aerosol sprays like dry shampoo when preserving your hair, opt for a paste or powder instead
  • Stay on marked trails and paths, respect no entry signs
  • AVOID any ‘attraction’ featuring animals/animal tourism (attractions where you pay to ride elephants, pet tigers or interact with other wild animals). Instead, seek legitimate sanctuaries in your destination
  • Be conscious of your waste in the country or destination you’re visiting and how it impacts the community you are visiting
  • Keep recycling if using single use plastics
  • Keep a low waste/zero waste mindset (ie. not ordering more food than you need, being mindful of takeaway containers etc.)

Responsible Cultural Tourism

Here are a few ways to preserve, protect and help the cultures you experience.

Before Arrival

  • Consider living like a local for all of or a duration of your trip
  • Learn part of the language in the destination you’re visiting, a simple ‘thank you’ in the native language goes a long way
  • Understand the cultural differences in the destination you are visiting vs. where you’re coming from (ie. covering knees or shoulders when entering a temple etc.)
  • Understand gestures
  • Get involved with non-profits like Pack For A Purpose who help the communities you visit through donating essential supplies brought with you from home.


  • Ask for consent before taking any photos of people or children
  • Respect rules at temples or other sacred places
  • Shop and support local businesses and restaurants and avoid chains
  • Hire local guides and tour operators- often these are premium services but typically means employees are paid well
  • Try local cuisine and/or take a cooking class or other workshop like a language class
  • Buy souvenirs from local artisans and don’t over bargain- in many cases selling these goods to tourists is the locals livable income
  • Shop at local markets for snacks
  • Volunteer at local non-profits
  • Visit museums and galleries that showcase local artists
  • Travel off the beaten path- don’t explore only the places you see on Instagram

Mindful travel. Ethical travel. Sustainable travel. These are more than buzzwords. These are the ways in which we must travel. The point here is not to oversimplify the very large issue at hand, it is to provide you with a means for traveling more ethically. How do you travel mindfully? Ethically? Sustainably?