Ethical Travel for the Mindful Tourist

Travel Blog  •  Joanna Kakissis  •  12.23.08 | 1:25 PM ET

Photo by joiseyshowaa (Creative Commons).

Argentina, Bolivia and Bulgaria top the 2008 list of the top ten ethical travel destinations, according to Ethical Traveler, a project of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Earth Island Institute. Researchers studied 70 developing countries “from Albania to Zimbabwe” to see which are actively improving their natural environment and the lives of their people through tourism. Half of the countries on the list are in Latin America but none in Asia, where runaway development has wreaked havoc on the land and human rights abuses continue to worsen.

Ethical travel lives by the following concept: If you choose to visit a place, do it mindfully, because you’re “voting” on it using your vacation dollars. By this logic, places that respect the land and people should win, and those that don’t should lose. The trend-watchers sum it up as “guilt-free travel,” but it’s more complicated than that. Our current consumption patterns are straining the planet’s resources, so there’s guilt galore to go around. At the same time, globalization is shrinking our planet socially and increasing our awareness of other cultures.

If mindful tourists do some independent research on a country and learned its social, political and environmental issues, they will understand the dilemmas facing the people they will meet. But the travelers could also face some profound moral issues. Some beautiful countries, like Myanmar, are run by repressive military regimes who profit from tourism. Others, like Belize, have become so addicted to tourism profits that they’ve let large hotels and developments pollute the country’s precious coral reefs and mangroves.

I’m not surprised about many of the Ethical Traveler picks, including perennial eco-tourism favorite Costa Rica (number five, see photo) and Namibia (number eight), where the government turned a former haunt of diamond mining and smuggling into the splendid Sperrgebiet National Park. But I’m kind of shocked about Bulgaria, which, despite its admittedly beautiful rural landscape, continues to struggle with organized crime and human rights abuses. (Am I missing something?)

Green and guilt-free winter holidays are never as easy as following top-ten lists and reading the latest tomes on ethical tourism. But in the interest of mindfulness, especially during this time of spiritual cheer, it is a start.

Joanna Kakissis's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, among other publications. A contributor to the World Hum blog, she's currently a Ted Scripps fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

2 Comments for Ethical Travel for the Mindful Tourist

michael McCrystal 12.23.08 | 10:33 PM ET

Wow, where’s Guyana, where your tourism dollars help support an effort to protect one of the last remaining stands of pristine rain forest? Bharat Jagdeo, President of Guyana, has proposed his country’s rainforest is worth more standing than cut down, enlisting celebrity spokespeople from Harrison Ford to the Prince Of Wales to make the case. Guyana’s relative obscurity in the ecotourism/adventure tourism market is both its blessing and curse: so few visit, so it remains untouched; so few visit, so few pay attention to its remarkable treasures.

AL MILLER 02.11.09 | 11:50 AM ET

I cought the tail end of a story you did saturday 2/08/09 around 12p.m. pacific , about digging for diamonds or some other presius stone near San Francisco, what was the name of the diamond mine? and where did she take the diamonds in San Francisco to have them cut and cleaned? 415-235-4290 AL MILLER

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