My 5 Rules for Ethical Travel

Tea in Old Istanbul
Tea in Old Istanbul

These are my rules.  Let me know what you think!


As a boy I was told that when camping I should leave things at least as clean as when I arrived.  That certainly sounds easy…just pick up after yourself, right?

When Star Trek first appeared on TV there was the “prime directive” that stated that you should not interfere with the development of indigenous civilizations.  Now this was a bit more challenging.  Is it possible to go somewhere without having an impact?  Probably not.  And physicists tell us that even by observing we impact what we observe.

With the advent of environmental science, we have become fully aware of the devastating impact humans have had on the world around us.  And that certainly includes tourists.  Not only do tourists impact the natural environment, but also the cultural environment.  Stolen cultural artifacts are only the most obvious tragedy.  Thousands of flashbulbs wash out the colors in classic paintings.  Demand for McDonald’s hamburgers encourages the importation of non-native cuisine and commercial architecture.  The more popular the destination the greater the unfortunate changes.

Taken to its logical conclusion, you might conclude that travel is inherently destructive and unethical, but there are strongly positive impacts that have to be considered as well.

Nassau's Junkanoo Beach
Nassau’s Junkanoo Beach


Americans are isolated and insular in our culture.  Many of us rarely hear other languages, get to know to proud citizens of other countries or learn about other belief systems and religious faiths.  It is natural and understandable that we are proud of our culture, but it has a few unfortunate consequences.

American tourists are not known for culturally sensitivity.  Here are the adjectives sometimes used to describe American tourists:

  • demanding (we want American style hotel rooms, services and food),
  • uninformed (unable to speak even a few words of the local language),
  • arrogant (unwilling to adapt to local customs),
  • loud (maybe if I speak louder they will understand), and
  • condescending (if you don’t speak English, you must be stupid).

Fortunately we make up for these perceived flaws with our generosity (good tips).  Of course, this description of the clueless tourist could be of a tourist from anywhere.

All travelers experience culture shock, no matter how seasoned.  That is why we go to distant lands in the first place – to discover how we are different.  We need to move beyond that moment of discomfort and join the parade of varied experience.  We need to take a breath and accept what we do not understand and cannot control.  After all, differences are what makes  journeys worthwhile.

Nesebur Musician
Nesebur Musician


It doesn’t mean you have to eat rodents, lie naked on the beach, attend pagan rites or bathe in the Ganges.  However, it may mean that you can’t wear sandals, sleeveless shirts or shorts.  And you might have to wear a hat or scarf over your head.  Respecting our hosts is a rule we were taught by our parents.

Beyond obeying laws and norms, you can show your respect and begin to understand the wider world by sampling the cuisine, the activities and the places that are important to the locals.  Openness to new experiences is what my wife calls SOA, Sense of Adventure. We should make an effort to stretch the limits of our experiences and move beyond the superstitions of our own ethnicity.

We can either give ourselves over to cultural chauvinism or we can respect other peoples enough to experience what they have to offer.  When you travel don’t forget to bring some SOA!

Young Couple in a Sevastopol Park
Young Couple in a Sevastopol Park


The most fascinating part of any journey is the people you meet.  And yet we often pay less attention to the people than to their buildings.  Travel interactions are mostly superficial and commercial.  Perhaps we just remember the struggle to find a way to describe that certain pastry we love.  And in each interaction we leave an impression that adds to the myriad of other impressions our host has of US.

Do we have a responsibility to make a good impression?  Am I in any way responsible for what others think of US?  I know that many believe the answer to these questions is “no.”  But I think otherwise.  Perhaps its pride in my country and culture, that makes me think this.  Maybe I’m naive enough to think that my behavior can impact the cultural divide.  Still I would feel myself less than human if I did not make the most of each interaction and find ways to make it personal more than mechanical.

Beyond those common commercial conversations, we ought to seek opportunities to deepen our contact with the local people.  I certainly fall short in this area and find myself looking at buildings rather than having conversations.  But in those moments when I find it possible to meet and talk to the locals, it is always a highlight of the trip.


A family member of mine (who is not in the travel business) told me a few years ago that she was taking her last flight overseas because of the environmental impact of flying.  Honestly, that was an issue I had never considered.  And it shocked me into evaluating the impact of travel on our world.  Can you be a tourist and a responsible citizen of this earth.  What are the costs of flying or cruising or driving?

In looking at the pros and cons of travel we certainly should think about the environment.  But what about the political and economic affects?  In balance what are the costs and benefits of travel to the world?  Clearly there are no simple answers to these questions, so we must let our values be our guide.

Lenin and McDonalds in Yalta
Lenin and McDonalds in Yalta

Examining the costs and benefits of my journeys, I had to conclude that the benefits are mostly selfish.  Travel is fun, exciting and adventurous.  Maybe for me it is an addiction.  Nonetheless, there are some global positives.  By traveling to other places I compensate the locals for maintaining the beauty and history of their home.  By visiting somewhere else I help those from other places understand US and I do what I can to make that a positive understanding.  I also bring home an understanding of THEM and share it with others.

Still I feel a certain responsibility for my travel.  While I benefit greatly, I do not think that it makes up for the environmental and social negatives.  Looking at the balance sheet of my life, I must admit that travel is in the debts column.

I believe we travelers need to pay our debts.  How you elect to do that is your call.  I have decided to make charitable contributions to Action Against Hunger, a global charity that contribute to the hunger emergencies and to the efforts to fight the systemic issues that create famines.  This is not directly connected to the places I visit.  I have a wonderful aunt and uncle who have participated in tours that include assisting those in need in different parts of the world.  I suppose I’m a little too selfish for that, but it is a wonderful option.

How do you give back to the world for the pleasure you get from traveling?


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