The Art of Ethical Travel

For the last ten days I have been steeped in the beautiful culture and landscape of Ubud, where I am doing my best to observe the art of ethical travel. I have long avoided Bali, for the reputation of rowdy Australian tourists drinking vast amounts of beer, and generally paying little attention to cultural etiquette and respect. Of course, Aussie tourists are not the only ones that do this, but that is what I hear about back in Australia. But I heard Ubud is different, attracting a crowd that is much more interested in the spirituality of the place.

My time in Ubud had been largely free from rowdy tourists, who tend to stick to the beaches. But I have noticed some behaviour that makes me cringe. Western men and women bathing in a holy waterfall skimpy swimwear, when cultural protocol asks that both women and men cover their legs and shoulders, including to bath in this holy place. Men walking the streets without a shirt on, or women wearing denim shorts that are so short they bare their butts as they browse the markets. Usually I am not one to police what people wear. But when we travel it is so important to show respect for the culture and people of the land that we visit. Balinese staff in hotels and resorts are not offended or concerned when we wear the usual western swimwear in the grounds of the hotel. But on the streets, and especially in holy places, this is the different matter entirely.

Less than ethical travellers in Ubud


In some ways, being a ethical traveller can take some of the fun out of travel. I used to love haggling for the biggest bargain I could get. After living in China for two years, I am an expert. But these days I am reluctant, because I don’t what is a fair price is. I don’t want to rip people off, but neither to I want to be taken advantage of. I prefer to go to places with a set price, even if this means I am paying more.

But my new aversion to bargaining barely matters, because there are so few ethical and sustainable options to buy when travelling. Being an conscious consumer means that I can’t really buy lots of souvenirs. It takes away some of the fun. But on the otherhand, this can add to the fun because now I need to go on a treasure hunt to find if there are ethical and sustainable things I can buy. It is also very freeing, because I no longer come home with things that I don’t really need. My house has been carefully curated with homewares that I collected on my travels. And I will continue to add to that collection. But with each trip, I only come home with one or two special items that have a story, rather than dozens.

So how can we be more mindful of ethics when we travel? Here are my tips on the art of ethical travel:

  1. Try to choose local home-stays or family-owned guest houses if you can. Many now list themselves on Air BnB or similar services, or you can often find these easily when you are in country. This puts money directly into the local economy, instead of in foreign owned corporations.
  2. If staying in a resort or hotel, try to choose ones that are also used by reputable ethical travel companies, such as Interpid or G Adventures, or book through a travel website with an focus on ethics. These companies put thought into the accommodation that they use because they want ensure that the travel has a positive impact on the communities they visit. This isn’t always easy to figure out before you travel either, but I was happy to see that the resort I had chosen has a sign up showing that it was used by G Adventures.
  3. Many hotels are implicated in prostitution or trafficking, so if  the hotel has a strict policy on not allowing non-guests into rooms, this can be a positive sign they they don’t tolerate sex work on site. If you notice the establishment allowing it, you might want to move, or have a conversations with the staff about your objections.
  4. You can also book your hotel or resort through social enterprise booking service such as such as Wander. This will allow you to make a contribution to important charity work with your booking.
  5. If you are looking for a massage or facial, try to choose places where the women look happy to be there. In the past- in China and Cambodia- I have accidentally bought a massage from places that were just a front for prostitution. They have me a terrible back massage that they clearly weren’t trained to do and the pictures on the walls of the massage were dubious to say the least. Happy faces can sometimes be faked. But I find it helpful to look for joyous women when I am looking for a massage now.
  6. Go on a treasure hunt for ethical and sustainable options for souvenirs or clothing. These are cropping up more and more. Sometimes you can find boutiques that are fair trade and eco focused.
  7. When buying local crafts, try to buy directly from the artisan. Don’t treat bargaining too much like a sport. Think about the impact of your purchase on the artisans family.
  8. A a general rule, look for ceramics, wooden, bamboo, natural fibres and naturally-dyed when shopping for local artisanal crafts. These are the most sustainable. In Indonesia, I am aware that deforestation is a huge issue, so I am reluctant to buy wood in this case. But there is no perfect choice for this, and you have to weigh up with the benefit of preserving traditional crafts too, so go with your gut when you are making a decision.
  9. When it comes to dress, take your cue from the locals. If they wear mini skirts and go around shirtless in public places, it is probably fine for you to do so too. But keep in mind that dress codes will change as you leave more urbanised and cosmopolitan places.
  10. Flights make a huge contribution to carbon pollution. If you can avoid them, especially for local travel in your destination, then do so. This doesn’t mean giving up international travel. But when you do fly, set aside some of your total travel budget for a donation to a charity that replants trees or fights deforestation. I aim for to donate at least 5% of my flight costs to reforestation efforts. (Cheap international flights are very rare for Australians. If you have a very cheap flight, you might consider donating a much larger proportion of your flight costs to offset your carbon impact). Carbon offset schemes can be flawed, because the carbon saved will be over the life of a project, rather than immediate. This is why I choose to donate larger amounts to reforestation charities directly, rather than choosing carbon offset services.

Travel is a wonderful privilege for us. It also offers powerful economic development and poverty alleviation opportunities for communities that we visit. So I would never suggest we give it up. But being mindful of these suggestions can ensure that we all have a more ethical impact when we travel.

Do you have any ethical travel tips that I’ve forgotten? Add yours to the comments below