Thom Mitchell had decided to go to Jordan and Lebanon. Although some friends and acquaintances questioned his decision, on his return he had only good things to say about the trip.
“I never felt unsafe at all,” he says.
“I’m so glad I went. I’d love to go back. It’s a truly amazing part of the world.”
Thom, who’s from Melbourne, says while he never felt scared, he did have one uneasy thought: do I have a right to be here?
At the time he was in the small Lebanese city of Baalbek, which sits very close to the Syrian border.
“What am I doing here?” he wondered.
Thom makes clear his intention wasn’t war tourism. Baalbek is home to some of the most important Roman ruins in the world, and was once a huge tourist attraction with an annual music and culture festival.
Needless to say, recent events in nearby Syria have changed the city.
Refugees have flooded across the border, and Hezbollah, the militia with widespread support in this part of Lebanon, is going the other way across the border to fight.
While we may not venture so close to a war-torn country, Thom’s questions will have occurred to many of us.
When does is become unethical to visit a place, and how does our presence impact the communities we visit?
Is boycotting a country the right thing to do?
Dr Muchazondida Mkono from the University of Queensland Business School tries to understand the ethical impacts of tourism.
“I think there’s difficulty in saying the situation is so appalling in certain countries or locations that one simply should not go there at all,” she says.
The first problem is one of judgement.
Choosing where to draw the line that a country should not be travelled to is difficult. Even more difficult is casting that judgement on an entire country when, as a tourist, our own countries may not be perfect.Bar brawls and venomous platypus: Tourists to Australia put on alertAustralian destinations frequently feature in international lists of most desirable travel spots — but is it actually a safe place to visit?Read more
The second reason that boycotting certain destinations fails to do a good job of tackling our ethical challenges, according to Dr Mkono, is more practical.
“If we look at shunning destinations that have poor domestic political conditions, it’s not the people who are responsible for that situation who are going to suffer the most,” she says.
“Yes [those in charge] will lose a little money maybe, but the people who will suffer the most are the innocent people.”Is watching TV as good as travelling the world? Some of you say soA preference for armchair travel, a desire to see more of Australia, and frustrations with queues and crowds at airports: readers share why they’re staying at home.Read more
Instead, Dr Mkono suggests “a more useful question”.
“If there are inequities in a society, how can I not reinforce those inequities or exploit them while I am there? Can I be part of the solution?”
Professor Manfred Lanzen, from the University of Sydney, is an expert is sustainability and development. He says the ethics of tourism isn’t separate from our ethics as consumers.
“If you are concerned about child labour or corruption and you buy goods from companies that exploit these things, then it doesn’t matter whether you buy them as a tourist in the country of origin, or you buy them here at your local shops,” he says.
“You’re still contributing to the problem. From that perspective it doesn’t matter where you are. You’re still doing damage.”
Consider your impact on the local communities
Dr Mkono’s recent research has focused on what is called “slumming” tourism; when travellers pay tour guides to take them through areas where residents live in extreme poverty.
Examples you may have heard of include the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or the community of Dharavi in Mumbai. Dr Mkono has herself studied the experiences of Dharavi slum tourism.
“Many tourists actually came away from the experience critiquing their own behaviours and aspirations,” she says.
“Many came away with a sense of wanting to help or contribute more in their own communities.”
The tours of these slums and ghettos may involve tourists spending money in the community, or buying local goods, which provides some economic support to the community.Overtourism in the Instagram ageSome in the industry say we need to rethink how we travel, lest we love our favourite places to death.Read more
But Dr Mkono says none of that makes the practice necessarily ethical.
“Unfortunately, the local perspective is often ignored,” she says.
“We take the perspective of privilege and we try to understand the experience and footprint of the tourist… rather than the experience of those [living in the place] being travelled to.”
Dr Mkono says more research has to be done on how those living in these communities feel about the situation, how access to their personal space is negotiated, and their sentiment over the long-term as their lives become commodified as part of a tourism product.
While she says we still do not have an accurate picture, she recommends learning as much as possible about the social context of the country you’re visiting.
Even if you’ve done this research, it’s important to ask yourself whether the tourism you’re considering is respectful, and whether you would appreciate it if you were on the other side of it.
Ethical and sustainable tourism products may not be what they seem
Increasingly, the biggest ethical conundrum facing travellers is not social or political, but environmental.
An entire industry of eco-resorts and bio-tours has cropped up around the idea of offering travellers an ethical experience.
“I’m sure there are a lot of businesses who put a great deal of effort into preserving and even restoring and improving the environment in which they operate, and I wouldn’t want to criticise that work,” Professor Lazen says.
“But from a climate change perspective, that doesn’t erase the damage you’ve already done.”
He says it’s not uncommon for an Australian travelling overseas to generate 5 tonnes of carbon emissions from their flights alone.
An eco-resort might compare favourably to a traditional hotel, but the impact of this choice is negligible on your overall emissions during your holiday.
He recommends making other cuts in your carbon emissions throughout the year, to “pay” for the splurge in emissions generated by your flights.Here’s how to pack everything you need in under 7kgIs four pair of undies for a week-long holiday enough? According to travel bloggers Mark and Mim, it is. The seasoned travellers share the things you need when taking carry-on luggage only.Read more
Otherwise, he says, you can reconsider whether you need to fly at all, or where you’re going to fly.
“The tourist population is comparatively large to the permanent population, which is often not sustainable for the local environment.
“Also, the flights from the rest of the world are often long and frequent.”
Flying to a destination within the continent you’re already in, for example, could be less damaging.
Ask questions of your tour providers
At the end of the day, Dr Mkono says, ethically fraught situations are impossible to avoid. But what we can do is educate ourselves.
“Ask questions of your tour providers,” she suggests.Looking for more travel advice?You’ll find plenty more stories and information about making the most of your adventures on ABC Life’s dedicated Travel page.Read more
Some questions you could ask include whether local employees are paid legal wages, and what percentage of profits remain in the community.
Finally, she says, it is all about having a bit of humility and respecting local norms.
“Don’t assume that whatever flies in your own country is the norm in your destination,” she says.
“Show sensitivity and awareness of local culture, be generous, kind and supportive of locals.
“And for Australians, I’m sorry to say, yes, that sometimes involves tipping people.”