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The Future of Travel: Ethics and Responsibility in Tourism

Green tourism is responsible
The future of travel is green and responsible.

Tourism is the world's largest industry, with over 1.1 billion international tourist arrivals in 2015 with over $7.6 trillion expenditures not including the economic multiplier effect. In the face of such staggering figures the well-known saying "Leave only footprints—take only photographs" sounds naïve; our presence in a foreign country always has an impact, whether we follow the beaten path or the inside path. In addition to the ecological impact of development in environmentally sensitive areas—problems like waste disposal and pollution—there is the destruction of local traditions and traditional ways of life to accommodate tourists' needs. The increased dependency on a cash economy is in part promoted by foreign visitors; however, according to the World Bank, less than 45 percent of the money tourists spend goes to local economies.

A New Travel Ethic

Travel means discovery, challenge, and new experiences. But a journey of discovery is only successful if it does not destroy what it discovers. Travelers need to educate themselves to minimize their impact on the local environment, infrastructure, people, and culture. An ethics of travel should be concerned not only with the economic impact of travel, but also with how visitors impact the cultures of their host countries.

The World Tourism Organization (WTO), an intergovernmental global forum for tourism policy and issues, approved a "Global Code of Ethics for Tourism." While it moves in the right direction, the document's conflicting statements point to the core dilemma of mass travel: According to the WTO interpretation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to the freedom of movement and the right to leisure entitle everyone to travel for recreation wherever they please. While this sounds like a reasonable interpretation, it conflicts with the rights of the host people. According to the Human Rights Declaration, everyone is also entitled to the "realization of the economic, social, and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality" (article 22). Such social and cultural rights include the right to live unaffected by the economic, cultural, social, and ecological impacts of international tourism.

In a sense, tourism is a Pandora's box. While travel as a way to promote peace, mutual understanding, and friendship between the people of different cultures, it also promotes economic inequalities and cultural and environmental degradation.

Travel or Consumption?

Much of travel today is about consumption—the consumption of foreign places, cultures, and people. The colorful locals are often objects of curiosity and visual consumption, part of an exotic Arcadia to be admired and photographed. The interactions between the visitor and the local people often do not go beyond the exchanges of seller-buyer and provider-consumer.

We do not just visit cities, mountains, museums, and beaches. We visit the people. They have a right to privacy and to a way of life that is not shaped by outside forces such as international tourism. The best way to learn to respect the locals is to meet and get to know them. It is in the interactions and encounters between the host and the visitor that an ethics of travel begins. Traditional patterns of hospitality are based on reciprocity. Where friendship and understanding develop, the traditional relationships of seller-buyer and provider-consumer are transformed. More than consuming places and people, travel is an opportunity to break out of our patterns of familiarity and gain insights into the cultures that make up the diversity and complexity of the human race. The more travel becomes a journey of discovery and shared experiences, the less host countries will suffer from the excesses of a leisure-oriented tourism industry.

Travel Rights and Obligations

Although travelers certainly have rights in foreign countries, we have obligations as well. If we appreciate and respect the cultural, economic, and social integrity of our travel destination, we will want to help it by choosing a low-impact and non-intrusive ways of travel—to give preference to small, locally-owned operations that are sensitive to the ecosystem and local culture. It is also important to interact with the local people in their authentic cultural context and ignore the stereotypes of tourist brochures and the glossy travel press. Travelers should also look at favorite tourist activities such as picture-taking and souvenir-buying in the context of their impact on their host country and its people. The local infrastructure should be used moderately, without drastically increasing demands, and travelers should consider buying products that are characteristic of the local culture and tradition, not those that are a byproduct of the tourism industry.

Can We Make a Difference?

There is no way to turn back the clock to the days before jet travel, when only a few people ventured to foreign countries. The tourist industry will continue to grow. Distant locations and people will continue to be exploited as travel destinations. We all leave footprints in the places we travel, but we can learn to minimize them and reduce their impact. We can also set examples for others by following our own ethics of travel. An increasing number of travel businesses have recognized that responsible, ethical, and respectful travel is in fact the only solution for the preservation of our travel destinations and the future of travel.

You can see here the World Tourism Organization's "Global Code of Ethics for Tourism" for more information.

Related Topics
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