Ethical Travel

How can we learn to travel more mindfully?

“What have we achieved by how we have traveled until now and, most importantly, what can we do better in the future?” asks Harald Friedl in his book Ethical Travel.

One moment from my travels through Peru remains imprinted in my memory. I trekked in the Colca Canyon as a heavily laden donkey approached me. The animal was carrying the bags of two travelers up the hill, and it appeared to be very tired and listless. The tourists, by contrast, were quite happy that they did not have to carry their luggage and contentedly sprinted ahead of the donkey and a Peruvian that was guiding the animal. This was clearly not a case of ethical travel. The question is, how can we do things differently?

buro taxi donkey in peru

Many people love to travel, yet few in our world bother to reflect upon their actual travel destination, why they are even traveling, and what are the real motives and motivation for their trip. It is something of automatism that has become part of our lifestyle. We book a flight without even thinking about it.

You can discover some important facts about this topic in the online shop of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education under “magazines” (free but in German). Gabriele Habinger writes in her article Reisen und Erobern (Travel and Conquer) on the critical aspects of tourist travel to foreign countries. She stresses, among other things, that beginning of the 20th century, European travelers frequently entered the homes of native people uninvited, often with the justification of wanting to learn about the local culture and way of life. Habinger employs the expression “habit of conquering” to summarize this type of traveling. Even today, she states, western tourists still have the compulsion to ignore the boundaries of privacy of local people. As Gabriele Habinger explains, “It manifests itself in an eagerness to search behind the scenes for what is authentic, and this is motivated by a longing for true intimacy, for pristine nature, and the simple life.” According to Habinger, similar motives also characterize ‘ethno-tourism,’ which also encourages a search for the ‘authentic,’ for naturalness, wholeness, and spirituality. The underlying assumption here is that such values have long been lost in western society. More and more people are addressing these and other issues and would like to know in greater detail how they could improve traveling from an ethical standpoint.

the outdoors ethical travel tourist hot spots

Experiences from my own travels

I still remember quite clearly the time after I graduated from high school. I had just graduated high school and felt the urge to travel, but I didn’t know where to. So, I researched potential travel destinations, and I ended up focusing on Peru. I was fascinated by the various languages spoken in the country, and the different ways of life people led there. Acquaintances from South America had already told me a lot about the country, and now I finally wanted to get to know Peru myself. Within three months, I had arrived. At first, I traveled a lot and then lived for a while in the mountains of the Colca Canyon. After some time, I realized that I did not like this way of traveling. I often felt like an intruder, a European who looked different from the locals, didn’t speak their language particularly well, and shared neither their culture nor mentality. I noticed how people would talk about me and the funny looks I would get when I walked around town.

It mainly was how people looked at me that left me with a certain uneasiness. Even though most people were open toward me, they still maintained a certain distance, and it initially proved difficult to start up a conversation. I knew that I had to learn the local language to become better integrated. After a while, I realized that my feeling of being an intruder would never completely disappear, but I still wanted to find some way of dealing with it. I didn’t want to be excluded or provoke a separation between myself and the locals. Instead, I was hoping for some kind of interaction. So, I bought myself a children’s book in Spanish at a small bookshop and sat down every morning in the Plaza de Armas, the central square of Arequipa, and began to learn new words. Even back then, I was starting to ask myself if it was possible to find a different approach to traveling, and it was a concern that remained with me for quite a while. I felt very comfortable in Peru. I met many friendly and caring people, yet I would continuously ask myself if my friends and acquaintances also felt comfortable during our conversations and what a shared exchange on an equal footing would look like.

“I believe that a shared exchange on an equal footing can only occur based on respect, empathy, and sensitivity for the person in front of you. It is important to understand that the other person comes from a different world than your own, but this does not mean they are worth more or less. This person is on a different life path than your own, and it has shaped their values and character accordingly. Openness, humility, sensitivity, and empathy are also crucial to communicate on equal terms,” an acquaintance from Mexico explained.

overcrowded tourism on bridge

“We want to give people from Europe the feeling that they are welcome here. I’ve always been very interested in and curious about other people and cultures,” says A. from Peru.

Traveling to a country to only see its tourist attractions, enjoy its natural beauty, sample the food, and then return home with the impression of having gotten to know another land, its culture, and its people is genuinely problematic. Moreover, it is questionable whether this form of travel is even justifiable. According to Harald A. Friedl, ethical travel is first and foremost respectful travel, and it all comes down to being mindful. The conclusion that we should not draw here is that “the photo is only perfect when we are in the selfie.”

machu pichu in peru

In his book on ethical travel, Harald A. Friedl offers an example: “Hallstatt, a community of 800 inhabitants in Austria, has become a synonym for over-tourism (an excess of tourists). How to manage this undesired deluge of tourists has been the subject of many newspaper articles. Other tourist locations had found themselves in a similar situation to Hallstatt before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. Various places around the world, such as the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru, are now plagued by crowds and swinging selfie sticks. These examples force us to question and reflect upon our way of travel. We must consider new and different ways which are more respectful and mindful. And to suggest that we simply stop traveling is not a solution either.”

How do inhabitants of popular travel destinations regard tourists?

In this respect, it can prove very helpful to exchange views with people from other countries, to inform oneself, and, above all, speak to experts.

I’ve discussed the issue with two acquaintances who have fascinating perspectives on the subject and bring their personal experiences to the table – D. from Mexico, currently living in Berlin, and A. from Peru. All in all, they both think it is great that people travel, regardless of where they come from or where they are going.

How do you feel about tourists in your home country?

D.: I think that traveling can be one of the most beautiful experiences we can have. Sometimes, I tend to have a higher sense of morality. It is generally understood that morality is a social construct and is perceived differently all over the world. This especially applies to travelers, who go off with the idea of encountering underdeveloped, rural, and exotic locations. Typically, the feeling of superiority makes tourists and travelers think that they know the solutions to our problems. It seems to me that they believe their way of life is better, giving them the right to feel superior. For the most part, people rarely question their behavior, and little thought is given to this issue. And this is precisely what leads to neocolonialism and all the related prejudices that have permeated our society.

Just like the idea of underdeveloped people. In my view, these kinds of assertions result from colonialism and the Eurocentric education that has filled our heads with such ideas. Maybe this sounds somewhat exaggerated, but I remember how I had this feeling every time we saw a European.

How can we prepare ourselves and structure our travel ethically?

D.: I think it is essential to pose this question. On the one hand, I believe that we should travel with a sense of awareness. Of course, it is nice when this leads to memorable experiences, but I also think that preparation for such trips is very important. We should learn something about a country’s culture, history, traditions, cuisine, and customs to make the best out of our journey. On the other hand, it is essential to consider our privileges and what it means to be able to travel from one continent to another and understand the responsibility this entails. As I already mentioned, we have to deconstruct the idea of traveling to “underdeveloped countries” inhabited by “uncivilized people.”

And how do we develop a more reflective approach to this issue? What do we need to do to continue to travel?

A.: I think that beginning this discussion is an excellent first step. We often don’t realize that we sometimes treat other people with a lack of respect or condescending.

D.: We don’t notice that not everybody has the same privileges. One such privilege is the ability to fly to other countries. This starts with the purchasing power, the CO2 footprint, infrastructure, time, and resources available to individuals from certain countries. This allows those who possess such privileges to gain more experiences, but in no way does this make these persons more “valuable.” Other privileges include free education, the ability to choose one’s profession freely, and possessing the kind of passport that can open all the doors to the world, just like the privilege of choosing where you want to live. Many people have these freedoms and are unaware of them. We should be aware that we possess these privileges and therefore have a particular responsibility. At the same time, an open attitude and cordialness are always important and helpful when traveling.

tourists in crowded museum

There is also the issue of whether the hierarchies between the global South and the global North can continue or if we must find other solutions.

A.: I don’t believe that travel in itself maintains these hierarchies. For me, it’s more the system that is the cause, and that must change. Combatting the symptoms won’t eliminate these hierarchies. This is a very complex and challenging issue.

D.: The economic imbalance favors the global North and gives its people the opportunity to travel more. At the same time, many countries profit enormously from tourism. The majority of the population in Mexico is dependent on it.

Do you see a difference between tourist travel and prolonged stays abroad – not including those engaged in voluntary service?

D.: Yes, there is a difference in the appreciation of people traveling to South or Latin America. Usually, those who stay longer to work on voluntary projects and integrate into the local society are seen differently. Of course, it depends upon the project, but as a whole, they are appreciated because they have not come just to have fun. However, this can be tricky and frequently viewed critically, especially if it is an exclusively European project or deals with cultural appropriation and has neo-colonial undertones.

Many European initiatives claim to want to help Latin American society. Still, in reality, they are only concerned with taking advantage of the business opportunities offered by a country, not only from an economic but also a social perspective. For example, a company that wants to sell handicrafts in Europe. The idea of “help” is based on buying up handicraft goods at a “fair” price to sell them in another part of the world at a much higher price. This means greater profits for the company while, in many cases, exploiting the local workforce.

Further information on ethical travel

If you want to learn more about ethical travel, you can find further information at organizations such as Ethical Traveler, which promotes sustainable tourism. Their website offers many good tips and suggestions on ethical travel. Every year, the portal features travel destinations that have made progress in categories such as environmental protection, social welfare, and human rights. The aim is to encourage countries to commit themselves to these values and pursue ethical tourism.