Ethical Travel

Something I’ve been musing about since my March trip to Viet Nam is the influence of travelers on the countries we visit, especially developing countries like Viet Nam — and how to travel ethically. Indeed, is it possible for these encounters across culture to be ethical, that is, for us to be able to encounter one another with respect and for the influx of “wealthy” Western tourists to be a predominantly positive (or neutral) inflluence on the country visited.

I don’t expect the countries visited to remain the same — though some travelers would, I’m sure, like countries like Viet Nam to remain quaint, third-world theme parks for first-world tourists. But can the changes be beneficial rather than deleterious?

Last week I learned about Ethical Traveler, an nonprofit concerned about such issues.

In Viet Nam, I was often uncomfortable about being there as a traveler, and have seriously wondered whether to continue to visit developing countries. I was uncomfortable for at least two reasons: how I felt, being there as a tourist — how I behaved and how I was treated — and tourism’s influence on the country and people, both good and bad.

Visiting the Mekong Delta with a tour, as most visitors do, felt like Disney’s jungle ride, as we motored along narrow waterways surrounded by jungle, peering at the locals, with barely enough room to pass the boatloads of tourists coming the other way. One woman held out a conical straw hat as we passed, chanting, “Money? Money?” At a rest stop we tasted (and bought) banana wine that no one really wanted and were entertained by musicians playing and singing traditional music with which the group was clearly bored.

Motoring through the floating markets of the Mekong in another boatload of tourists, I envisioned a clutch of extra-terrestrials traveling through downtown Fresno, exclaiming to one another and pointing cameras at the people on the sidewalks, visiting a grocery store and crowding the aisles without buying anything.

Greed was a strong operating force, on both sides. The Vietnamese treated us as walking ATMs. As I posted on my former blog, the selling was obnoxiously aggressive, with women often grabbing my arm as I walked by, the items on offer monotonously the same, and the fraud rampant. In Sapa, the relatively-new mandatory stop on the tourist route, the local ethnic women now spend their time making fabrics to sell and aggressively chasing the tourists, disrupting the former routines of daily life.

But of course a major reason for the pervasive selling is the presence of buyers. For Westerners, Viet Nam is a cheap country. The average daily wage is $1. A good hotel room is $30 — adequate rooms can be $15. I had a raw silk jacket tailor-made, with repeated fittings, for $65. And we buy junk. For tourists, there’s often a frenzy of buying, in the grip of a clutching greed.

Tourism and foreign trade have visibly raised the standard of living in Viet Nam, where many people, young as well as old, show the physical effects of the famines suffered as recently as the mid-80s. The government remains repressive, and the people relatively unconcerned with politics (from my limited experience, and conversations with returning overseas Vietnamese) — but the young people, despite being unable to travel, are learning English and using the internet.

At the workshop I wrote about yesterday I met Jeff Greenwald, a long-time traveler and travel writer, and executive director of Ethical Traveler, a nonprofit that seeks to both inform travelers who are concerned about ethical travel, and to leverage the economic influence of travelers in human rights and environmental campaigns. I encourage readers to visit this site and see what this group is up to.


Selling to tourists Ethnic minority women selling fabric, surrounding a rough cafe with tourists eating lunch.

Originally uploaded by NVH.

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2 responses to “Ethical Travel

  1. I mean this in all seriousness: What could the locals have been doing that would have not concerned you or kept you relatively at ease?

    That is, I can imagine with increased access to images of our quality of life, they might want to aspire to that and the way they see that happening is by getting money. And, relatively speaking, tourists are ATMs in the sense that what they consider to be “cheap” can keep the locals alive (longer than it could keep you alive here in the US).

  2. This is part of my dilemma about developing countries and whether it’s possible to NOT have this kind of gulf.

    Nevertheless — I would (naively, perhaps) hope that they would get money from us without the fraud, theft, and cookie-cutter tourist stuff. An example: twice Hanoi taxi drivers tried to charge me about 100 times the going rate, using rigged meters. One of whom also tried to convince me, after about 20 minutes of driving to the Ethnology Museum on the outskirts of Hanoi, that it was closed for lunch and he should turn around and drive me back to downtown. Which turned out not to be true.

    Another example: the markets are full of multiple stalls selling EXACTLY the same souvenirs; one would hope that we would see some creativity, entrepreneurship, SOME effort to differentiate one seller from another by means of something other than their aggressiveness.

    Finally: They could have been less physically agressive in their sales techniques. After a while I stopped trying to polite and would pull back and say firmly, “Don’t touch!” when one more person tried to grab me. I wanted them to know that this was NOT going to be a successful sales technique.

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