These days, travel can be fraught with ethical and moral decisions. We all want to see the world, but we don't want to leave a negative impact on the places, people, and animals we encounter during our travels. And with climate change, mass extinction, and a global refugee crisis generating daily headlines, making ethical travel choices can feel like a slippery slope. But the good news is that the world is still a very beautiful place and, arguably, easier to explore than ever. Here are some guidelines that individual travelers can keep in mind to lessen their footprint and cause less harm. Read on for seven things you shouldn't do while traveling.
1. Don't feed the wildlife.
Yes, sharing your breakfast with a mostly-tame monkey in Bali or a raccoon at your campsite in Yellowstone will likely make for an adorable Instagram picture, but you definitely should not feed any animals you encounter on the road. For one thing, feeding animals encourages them to get used to humans and depend on us for food, but animals are still animals, and if they act erratically or violently they could be lethally terminated. Another important factor to consider is that food fit for human consumption isn’t always the healthiest choice for wildlife. If you encounter a hotel or tour guide who puts out treats to attract animals and delight tourists, speak up. In many states and countries, it’s illegal to feed wildlife, and fines can be enforced.
2. Don't take photos of people without permission.
Imagine if you were sitting at your desk, let’s say…blogging, and a tourist with a Nikon stuck a wide-angle lens in your face. You would not be thrilled. The same goes for any person (especially children) you may encounter while traveling. Just because a woman selling fruit at the market would make a beautiful subject, doesn’t mean she’s keen on being your model. So what can you do if you want to take someone’s photo? Put the camera down and talk to them. Then politely ask for their permission for a photo and be respectful if they decline. Some cultures consider photography taboo. Islamic countries do not allow photographs of religious artifacts or the faces of Islamic women. Permission is required to photograph mosques in Morocco, and many Asian countries consider it rude to photograph the bottom of a person’s foot. Before you take off your lens cap, be aware of where you are and don’t assume everyone and everything is available to photograph.
3. Don't litter.
It should go without saying, but we’re going to say it anyway. Don’t throw your trash on the ground or in the ocean, even if you see locals or other tourists doing it. Tossing your garbage on the ground is disrespectful and harmful to the environment. Developing countries often don’t have reliable trash pickup or recycling centers, so minimizing the amount of waste you produce is often key. One good prevention technique is to travel with a refillable water bottle (instead of buying disposable plastic water bottles) and a cloth tote bag (instead of accepting plastic bags at markets and stores). Campsites, national parks, and hiking trails often have strict laws about carrying out all accumulated garbage and properly disposing of it.
4. Don't fly extensively.
Air travel is one of the fastest growing contributors to carbon dioxide emissions, which is causing the earth to warm at a rapid and dangerous rate. We’re not suggesting you never board a flight again, but how many flights to take a year is now an ethical decision to make. Car, train, and boat travel may take longer but can have additional benefits like reduced costs and a more relaxing trip in general (goodbye, TSA).
5. Don't buy from abroad.
It takes a little more research, but when you visit a destination, try and put all of your money into that economy. That means booking an independently-owned hotel, eating at locally-owned restaurants, and buying souvenirs made by local craftspeople. It’s amazing how many craft markets in Asia, Europe, and the United States sell items made in China. Look for restaurants that source ingredients from nearby farms and gardens. When you spend your tourist dollars locally, you boost the local economy and help maintain the community.
6. Don't take selfies with animals.
If you’ve been on any dating app, you’ve likely seen a photo of a well-intentioned tourist smiling nervously next to a chained leopard or holding a tiger cub. And while these photos are very cute, they are also very wrong. Though there are occasional exceptions to the rule, most of these animals have been illegally poached and removed from their mothers at a young age to live in small cages and be used as photo props until they become too dangerous to interact with humans. Other animal-related tourist traps to avoid are elephant rides, crocodile farms, and parks where guests can swim with trained dolphins.
7. Don't exploit people.
Immersing yourself in a new culture and learning how people live is an exciting and important part of travel. But do so respectfully. Just because there’s a guided tour to visit the favelas in Rio or an African tribe in Kenya, doesn’t make it appropriate to do so. Remember that people are people, not an exhibit. Look for an ethical excursion that celebrates or assists people, and be sure to find out what the appropriate customs and cultural nuances are from a dedicated guide.
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