Written by Chelsea
Ethical traveling isn’t something I thought about before I left for my big trip. I was too busy considering the logistics of accommodations and transportation to think about how my everyday experiences could possibly affect the people, animals or places I interact with. These are some of the ethical dilemmas I have encountered so far in the Middle East, Asia and Europe that have given me pause to think. These are my personal thoughts on how to avoid or deal with them.
In every country I visited in South East Asia, I encountered children selling things at popular tourist sites. While visiting the temples in Angkor Wat we saw children at the entrances aggressively trying to sell us postcards and jewelry. My first instinct was to buy something or just give them money, but our tour guide explained that if these children continue to receive money from tourists then they will not go to school. If children can earn money for their families versus go to school then their parents won’t have incentive to educate them for better opportunities. Some children do go to school and then sell items once school lets out for the day. Inquire with a guide or attraction official about how to discern what times it is ok to purchase.
I’ve always wanted to ride an elephant in Asia. The pictures I had seen always looked like the people and the elephants were having fun. During a chill day in Bali, I started researching somewhere that I could ride one during our visit to Thailand. I came across articles that wrote of elephant abuse; turns out riding elephants is very unnatural for the body of an elephant. The form of their bodies is not made for people to ride on them. Elephants can be whipped and threatened by knife by their guide so that they comply to let people ride. Moms and babies are frequently torn apart from each other during times when moms should still be breastfeeding so that mom can provide rides. The happy news is that I found organizations that provide sanctuary for elephants that are abused and forced into hard labor or used to ride. To fund this expensive endeavor they allow people to come and interact with their elephants. We visited one of the sanctuaries that cares for retired elephants and spent the day feeding, bathing them and watching them play. It is pricey, but your money goes toward rehabbing these beautiful creatures and it is an experience of a lifetime! The particular organization we chose helps educate places that offer elephants rides. They show these operations that they can still make money from the elephants but in positive way. They also help them convert into sanctuaries.
Another popular animal attraction you will see in South East Asia are Tigers. How many times have you seen pictures of people posing with tigers? My sister in law, who works for Greenpeace in Thailand, informed me that these tigers are frequently drugged so that they are subdued enough for tourists to safely pose with them. I’d rather photoshop a tiger next to me.
In the middle east we encountered donkeys and camels you could ride through historical places. In Petra, Jordan we saw dozens of people riding up the 600 steps to Petra’s Monastery on donkeys. These animals have been used for riding for centuries, but not at the capacity they are being used at many tourist sites. I suggest checking out the animal before you ride and use your intuition. Does the animal look tired? Does the guide seem caring? If you aren’t sure then walk the distance yourself.
I’m a big believer that how we spend our money can be powerful. I choose not to spend my money on questionable animal experiences. The people who run unethical operations continue to run them because they are able to profit. I believe if more people are informed about how these animals are treated that they will not spend their money on these opportunities and we will see less of them.
Photos of locals in different cultures can be super cool. Who doesn’t want to feel like a NatGeo photographer? But the big phrase to remember is “people are not tourist attractions”. Taking photos of people without asking can make them feel like objects. There are also some religions that forbid photos. I’ve read about a South American culture that believes that a camera can steal part of your soul! I always ask if I can take a photo of someone if I am relatively close in distance and they are aware of my camera. I find when I ask people if I can take a photograph that they get very excited. Always show the person the photograph you took so it can be a shared opportunity. I met people in Bali who were tickled to have their picture taken because they rarely ever get to see photos of themselves.
While exploring the town you are visiting you will most likely see locals selling or hand crafting something. You might want to document this. My general rule is, if you want to photograph something someone is selling-you should find something small to purchase or at the very least compliment their goods and ask if you can take a picture. Many locals survive off of an artistic skill they possess and in my opinion it is rude to document this skill and not have the person benefit from it.
Everyone wants a unique shot at a famous landmark, but don’t break the rules to get it. You will encounter specific paths or barriers for attractions for many reasons: they may want vegetation to regenerate, the area might be of religious significance, it might still be under excavation or they need to refurbished the area for safety. Some places will be blocked simply because they will never be safe. I saw a guy ignoring the boundaries of Angkor Wat and jumping on top of stone to get a cool photo. This offended the locals who consider the rocks sacred. At the 12 Apostles in Australia I saw a guy jump the 100 foot rock to another rock that was blocked off across the sea. One wrong move and he would either be dead of have to be evacuated by helicopter. The photo opportunity is not worth the risk of hurting yourself or others. Making your own rules can ruin future experiences for others. If officials of a location don’t feel they can trust its patrons they will create and enforce stricter barriers and guidelines.
We tend to be tight with our money since we want to travel as long and as far as we can. South East Asia is one of the best areas in the world to go when you are on a budget and want your money to go far. Everything seems insanely cheap-you can stay at an apartment with a movie theatre built in for $40, island hop all-day with a dope seafood buffet lunch for $25 and get an hour massage for $7. You can basically live like a king. It is easy to get swept up in the low prices and be a shark about getting the cheapest deal. While island hopping in Palawan, Philippines, our charter stopped mid day at an ocean sanctuary. People were not allowed to swim at this protected site but you could rent a kayak to paddle out for $4. $4 for an hour kayak ride seemed shockingly unreasonable. Then we had to wait a beat and realize how reasonable this truly was. Here, in the middle of the ocean, is a station renting kayaks for $4.
At some point I began to look around and ask myself why and how everything is so cheap. I began to wonder, “At what cost?”. Someone is inevitably getting screwed for me to get things so cheap. The locals are living in poverty and their government is corrupt. I stopped haggling sellers in the market over a $2 difference because I want them to have the money knowing it is going to go further in their lives. I spend more than that on a cup of coffee every day while they may live on less than that a day. I also tried my best to tip even if it wasn’t expected. My hotel maid may have a 12 hour shift to earn hardly anything, but at least she’s getting a little treat when she gets to my room.
We found restaurants in Cambodia and Morocco that have in-house programs that educate and train women for a better life. The one where we dined in Cambodia houses women for a year and provides all food and clothing. During their stay they learn skills while working at the restaurant and are educated outside of the restaurant. The expectation is that after the year they are able to provide for themselves. I mentioned earlier that how we spend our money can be powerful. This is one of those ways.
9 times out of 10 the electricity in our hotel rooms is activated by our room key. I really like this concept because you don’t waste energy leaving a light on when you are out exploring. Its a small thing, but adds up if a ton of hotels are utilizing it. I also always hang my towel after using instead of leaving on the floor so the hotel doesn’t provide me with a new one. The fewer of my towels they wash the more energy saved.
In countries like Japan and Italy “To-Go” options were very slim to come by. At first I found this frustrating because I wanted a coffee or breakfast to take with me as I walk, but your personal waste is decreased and you definitely see a lot less trash on the streets. It’s also much more fun to sit and people watch at the café while I drink my coffee.
I was surprised to find that recycling access is not as common in other countries. It breaks my heart a little bit to see the mass of water bottles being trashed. We use a collapsable, refillable water bottle called Platypus and we refill it like crazy in the countries where water is potable.
The biggest carbon footprint we are creating in our travel comes from our transportation. I don’t even want to think about how many planes we have taken or how many scooters and tuk tuks leaking smog we rode in South East Asia. Spencer has been reading me articles about how flights in Europe are at a record low. This is awesome because you can travel to more places for cheap, but also bad for the environment because less people are taking trains. Now that we are on the Europe leg I’m pledging to take trains whenever possible. Who knows, it might even end up saving me more money. We’ve spent hundreds of un-budgeted dollars on rerouting flights and missed accommodations because of airline strikes, delays and blackouts. Not only are trains better for the environment, but they are often closer to the center of town you are visiting, have minimal delays (if any) and are much less stressful in my opinion.
I’m sure there’s many pointers I’m missing and I’m sure the list will grow longer the more I travel. Some things you learn along the way and other times you just have to use your gut instincts, but the important thing is that you make an effort to travel with intention.