Monday, March 22, 2010

I'm ethical. And I love London. So sue me.

Please review this list and get ready for today’s quiz:









South Africa


What do these ten places have in common? No, they’re not the latest countries to host American celebrities who are adopting children or the places bidding on the 2028 Olympics.

They are the developing world’s top ten ethical destinations in the world, according to Ethical Traveler. Wondering what the heck it means to be an ethical traveler? I was, too, so here you go, and it isn’t exactly intuitive. Forget about being polite, tipping appropriately and not taking the hotel shampoo. Ethical travel is mindful travel: an awareness of our impact and responsibilities as we explore the world. That certainly is mindful. Because I have to admit that when I think “vacation travel,” the words awareness, impact and responsibilities are almost never found among my “must haves” when choosing where to go and how to get there.

I get the feeling this makes me ‘the ugly American.’ The kind of person who runs around the globe, wreaking havoc and ignoring the cultural differences that exist from place to place and nationality to nationality. The kind of person who tries to find a McDonald’s in Rome or visits Eurodisney.

Not true. But it feels true.

Let’s get back to the list. How is the list determined? Three general categories get considered and scored: environmental protection, social welfare and human rights. If that sounds kind of dry and almost grim, that’s because it is. The list also considers more light-hearted categories like experiencing nature, and interacting with “local people and cultures in a meaningful mutually enlightening way.”

For God’s sake. Let’s consider just a couple of things here, okay? If you’re planning trips to Seychelles or Namibia or Suriname or Ghana, you’re a traveler. Developing nations don’t generally attract novice travelers. If you fly to Lithuania, it’s probably because you’ve already visited Sweden and Germany. If you land in the Seychelles, you’ve already been to Madagascar, Kenya and Mozambique.

You starting to see a pattern here?

Let’s also consider this. Because of the land mass and other considerations, about 90% of the earth’s population lives in the northern hemisphere. Ninety percent! And even that 90% is concentrated in about 20% of the earth’s land mass. Can we agree that most travelers flying to at least half of these locations (found in the southern hemisphere) will leave quite a significant carbon footprint?

I hate the sanctimonious nature of lists like this. You like to travel but enjoy such pedestrian destinations as Western Europe, the Caribbean or Asia? Poor, unenlightened you. Your ethics are obviously lacking.

Then again, even this year’s report acknowledges some anomalies and seems to look the other way under certain circumstances. In Belize, Seychelles and Namibia, homosexuality is a crime, although it’s not “zealously enforced.” South Africa has a wide gap of rich vs. poor and a high crime rate. And some of last year’s most ethical destinations have been removed from the list entirely because they are leading the world in sex tourism or in trafficking children in to the sex trade: Costa Rica, Bolivia and Bulgaria. Nicaragua was removed because of fraudulent elections and both Croatia and Estonia basically outgrew the list by virtue of their economic success and classification as High Income Economies.

So in 2008, Costa Rica was on the list and travel there was encouraged. Now it's off because it rivals only Thailand and the Phillippines when it comes to prostitution and sex trade. Did this happen in basically two years? Really? That’s quite an accomplishment.

This is why lists like this are specious and pointless. How about this instead? Travel honestly. Don’t make a mess or cause any mayhem. Obey the rules. Respect the people around you, their surroundings and their traditions while you’re in their midst. Be kind. Don’t be judgmental while visiting another culture. There. My suggested rules around ethical travel. So go where you will - that’s entirely up to you - and enjoy.


Reka Rubin said...

Hear, hear! We're taking our girls to another country for the first time this summer and hope to teach them to follow all the rules that you've laid out, which are much more important than a list of countries that someone says is "ethical". And I love London, too :-)

renee said...

Thanks Reka - so exciting for you and the girls! It will be a wonderful trip for everyone I'm sure. And I have zero doubts about your ethical behavior while visiting.

: )