Smart Travel

Unethical Tourism Practices (And How To Avoid Them)

As travelers, our goal is to disrupt our destinations as little as possible. As a child, I was told to leave the wildflowers along the trail alone, and to pick up my trash after a picnic. “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints,” is a good motto for ethical traveling. This is a simple rule to follow when it comes to hiking.

This rule of thumb is trickier to navigate when it comes to other aspects of travel, including: photography, tourist attractions and souvenirs. When is it unethical to take a photo of an animal? Should I boycott popular tourist attractions? Should I haggle for goods? Below are a few tips for becoming a conscious traveller.

Haggling

Haggling is the act of negotiating the price of a product or service. While traveling, it is not uncommon to haggle over items being sold at markets or in small shops. If you are unclear whether or not haggling is appropriate, mention to the shop owner that the product is nice, but out of your price range. If they suggest a counter offer, the price is negotiable.

Haggling can feel uncomfortable, especially when it comes down to a few American dollars. Here are a few suggestions for haggling ethically:

  • Pay with cash when possible; this prevents small businesses from paying credit card fees for each transaction
  • If you aren’t interested in the item, don’t waste the merchants time by lingering; they won’t be offended if you walk away
  • Consider how many US dollars you are haggling over; a few dollars may not mean much to you, but it could make or break the merchant’s day
  • If you offer a price and the merchant accepts, you must pay that price for the item; don’t try to get a lower price or walk away from the deal
  • Remember, there’s a fine line between haggling and being a cheap jerk.

In many countries, people assume that American tourists are rich and will charge them more than they would charge locals. Do your research. Ask around to see what the locals are paying for the same items. Don’t show too much enthusiasm while shopping, as it can also drive up the price.

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Cultural Photography

Cultural photography is the art of taking photos to tell the story of a group of people or their culture. Taking photos of people and their customs must be handled with extreme sensitivity; while you may not mean any harm, taking a photo of someone going about their daily lives can come across as very rude.

For example: Imagine if you are on your lunch break at McDonald’s and you notice a tourist from another country taking photos of you eating your quarter pounder with cheese. You ask them what they’re doing and they say, “I’m taking a photo of an American in their natural habitat.” Yikes. How would you feel? You certainly don’t want that photo circulating the internet.

If the subject of your photo is a person, you must get their permission before using that photo for any purposes. Here are a few guidelines to follow when taking photos of people around the world:

  • Talk with the locals, become their friend, ask them what they’re working on; then, you may ask if you can take a photo
  • It is never ok to ask children if you can take their photo; the only instance in which children can be the subject of your photo is with their parents consent
  • Do not hand people cash to compensate them for being in your photo; if you feel like you should pay them, consider purchasing goods from them.

Receiving permission before taking a photo will result in a much better quality picture and prevent the subject from looking confused or uncomfortable in the shot. Do your research beforehand. In some cultures, people avoid saying no in order to “save face” and will say yes to having their photos taken, even if they are uncomfortable.

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Tourist Attractions

Unfortunately, beautiful places around the world come with large crowds of people just hoping to get a glimpse of it. This brings in pollution, and is damaging many of these natural wonders. While you may not have power to prevent these tourist attractions from being spoiled, you can take steps to ensure that you leave only your footprints behind:

  • Consider what your “perfect photo opportunity” may be doing to the land; avoid climbing on rocks, buildings and sculptures to help preserve the site
  • If the tourist attraction involves swimming, wear only biodegradable sunscreen and makeup products to avoid harming the land and sea
  • Opt out of purchasing goods from vendors in popular tourist destinations; not only are the goods often overpriced, vendors should be discouraged from setting up shop outside of historical sites
  • Leave nothing behind; do not litter 
  • Take nothing with you; don’t take flowers, rocks, etc.

As tourists, we have a responsibility to do as little harm as possible to natural wonders and historic attractions.

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Wildlife Tourism

Thankfully, times are changing and organizations are stepping in to stop animal cruelty. However, tourist attractions that abuse animals for monetary gain still exist, and many have changed their names to include words like, “sanctuary,” “rescue,” and “refuge,” to stay open.

First and foremost, do your research before visiting any place that allows you to view, pet, play with, or swim with an animal. Be especially wary of any opportunity to come close to an animal that you could not approach in the wild. Many times, these animals are drugged so there’s no chance that they will act out while with visitors. Below are a few warning signs that you may be supporting an unethical wildlife tourism organization:

  • If an animal can perform tricks that seem remarkable, they may have gone through painful training rituals for hours on end to master the odd skill
  • If a baby animal is in captivity and no mother is in sight, it is possible that the baby was plucked from their environment; baby animals are far easier to manipulate than adults
  • Many times, unethical organizations will opt for putting an animal down rather than paying for veterinarian care, if an animal looks injured, inquire about a plan for rehabilitation; if the organization is legitimate, they should have a specific timeline and plan of action for the animal. 

Ethical wildlife tourism is difficult to find. Always opt for viewing wildlife in their natural habitat from afar and be wary of safaris or boat tours that drop you right in the middle of their natural habitat. Often times these tours lead to wildlife fleeing their homes, disrupting their feeding, mating and nursing rituals.

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Wildlife Photography

A prime place to capture photos of wildlife is Yellowstone National Park. We went on many road trips through Yellowstone when I was a child, and I vividly remember shouting, “It’s a thing!” when we would approach a line of cars stopped to get a photo of an animal. Alternatively, we would say, “It’s not a thing,” if a car was stopped and there was no animal in sight.

The tricky thing about wildlife photography is that usually the closer you are, the better the photo is. However, approaching wildlife is dangerous and unethical. Here are some tips when taking photos of animals in nature:

  • Do not take photos of or with animals that have been plucked from the wild to be used as a photo prop; we came across this in Louisiana during a swamp tour and I regret that I did take a photo of the young crocodile with its mouth taped shut
  • Do not track animals to capture a photo of them; this distracts them from their routine and makes them an easier target for predators
  • Avoid taking photos of nocturnal animals at night; a flash can temporarily blind them
  • Baiting animals with food is illegal in many places; do not offer animals food to get them to come closer to your camera.

Remember to use the zoom function on your camera to safely get a better shot of wildlife. Use common sense. If it feels like you are putting an animal or yourself in harms way, don’t take the photo. 

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Traveling ethically is easier when you travel mindfully. Be aware of what is going on around you and what effect you are having on the people, places and animals you come across. Do not do something for the benefit of your Instagram at the expense of others.

What do you think of this list? Is there anything I missed?

Thanks for reading,
Emma

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