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Passport, Cash and Conscience – How to Travel Ethically


When the disturbing news about forcible sterilisation of Ethiopian women in Israel emerged, Parlour set out the reasons why a trip to the Holy Land lost its previous appeal. But what about other journeys to destinations where the path isn’t so pristine? The ethics of each passport stamp can be a hard fought battle between one’s head and heart. Realistically, pressing ‘pay now’ on an airline booking can sometimes be a slow descent into moral bankruptcy. Which direction do we point our moral compass? Let’s explore.

Political Instability

Like anything, travel is full of crazy moral mathematics and the metrics can be baffling. For example, an unstable market + travel = helpful income to a tanking economy. Or an unstable market + travel = economic support for a corrupt regime. Or, unstable market + unstable travel = ain’t no one happy + my head hurts, someone get me a cocktail.

Let’s refer to Burmese political activist and leader Aung San Suu Kyi who entirely discourages travel to Burma, er, I mean supports travel to Burma. In reality, Kyi’s actually said both but why? Despite my mathematical examples, travel isn’t a zero sum game. There are no right or wrong answers. Like a high school debate, you can pick a side and argue like a bulldog for either perspective. One argument may win but the opponent still has some significant points too.

Your metrics and compass are your own. Each of us has a mental line we can’t cross or an issue close to our heart, be it gay rights or our own ethnic or religious identity. Identify your own line, then go hard or stay home. If your argument for travelling is that you are supporting trade, human rights and democracy, then put your money where your ethical mouth is. Research and ask the right questions like, which hotel is government run? Where do activist groups recommend visiting? Does that bar commercially benefit alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses? If you tour a Brazilian favela, do the profits go into social programmes or bolstering drugs trafficking? Unsurprisingly the ethical angle is a great selling point in a market awash with questionable options so it is not impossible to weed out operators offering ethical bang for your travel buck.

For some help through the minefield, take a look at Ethical Traveler and the totally under-appreciated social and political history sections of the Lonely Planet guides. I know the bar/club guides are well thumbed but focus here, people. And don’t discount gathering information on the ground because, like a British day without rain, it’s nearly impossible to find a taxi driver who won’t discuss politics until you consider walking the last two miles of your journey.

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