“I have…seen for myself how much potential travel has to be a force for good.”
Tell us about yourself and your most memorable travel experiences. How have these experiences influenced your life and work?
I am a native Londoner but since becoming a travel writer 8 years ago, I have been lucky enough to have experiences ranging from the beautiful to bizarre. These include riding the Trans-Mongolian railway, sailing to Indonesia’s Spice Islands, couch-surfing around Scandinavia and living on a Thai island for six months.
However, the trip that influenced me the most was my first ever solo experience. I was 18 and spent five months in Nepal, mostly living with a family in a small Himalayan village and volunteering at the local school. No one spoke much English and I learnt that there are many ways to communicate without words: holding eye contact, sharing food, smiling, playing with animals and through music.
As I mentioned I had only just left school and got myself into numerous scrapes (including fracturing my elbow) but kind strangers came to my aid again and again. Since then, I’ve had a belief in the fundamental goodness of people regardless of their age, nationality or language and this has been a key factor in the many amazing travel experiences I have had since—although of course following recommended safety protocol and having a healthy regard for gut instinct is a must.
It was in Nepal that I also learnt the benefit of slow travel. That really connecting with one place can teach you more about a culture than trying to see the whole country. It also taught me that truly meaningful travel experiences are based on exchange. Of course, it’s great to contribute to the economy of the culture you are visiting but it’s also key to share stories, art, recipes and ideas from your own culture.
When I can, I always try to arrange free writing workshops, host women’s circles or volunteer and in this way have enjoyed deep connections with people from all over the world.
We must make sure that as much money as possible is staying in the pockets of local people, which is why supporting small, locally owned businesses is so important.
What inspired and/or motivated you to write The Ethical Traveller?
I have been travelling on and off for 12 years now and gradually become more and more aware of the environmental impact of my lifestyle. Recently I have been exploring alternatives to flying, such as sailing, hitchhiking and train travel.
However, I have also seen for myself how much potential travel has to be a force for good. I have met so many people in remote places who rely on income from tourism, many of whom have been excluded from education because of their gender or ethnicity and don’t have any other opportunities to earn money.
For example, I recently met a cooperative of female weavers called Vida Nueva in Oaxaca, Mexico who run hand dying workshops for tourists. They are domestic abuse survivors and come from a traditional Zapotec society where single women are seen as second class citizens—tourism is providing them with a vital income to supplement their weaving business.
What do you hope readers gain and/or takeaway from your book?
The fact that ethical travel is in everyone’s interests. Sure, it’s better for the planet and locals in the host country but it also makes for a far more authentic experience for travellers themselves.
I want people to realise that small changes really add up and make us feel empowered in the face of what can sometimes seem like an overwhelming crisis.
As primatologist and activist Jane Goodall says, hope is one of the greatest tools we have for fighting the climate emergency. Without hope, we’ve already lost.
What piece of advice would you give your pre-travel self?
Don’t forget to pack your probiotics, pillow and scarf! I swear by these three bits of basic kit. Taking probiotics consistently before, during and after a trip wards off stomach upsets pretty effectively; everything seems more magical and manageable on a good night’s sleep; and a scarf has to be one of the most efficient items out there in terms of weight to usefulness ratio. A head cover, shawl, towel, eye mask, skirt, blanket, grocery bag and mosquito shield are just a few of the ways I use mine.
Are there prerequisites for traveling ethically? If so, what are they?
I feel the overall message is to remember that every penny of your travel spend is essentially a vote for the experience you want to have—and ultimately the kind of world you want to live in. We must make sure that as much money as possible is staying in the pockets of local people, which is why supporting small, locally owned businesses is so important.
We live in a world crippled by inequality and travel is a rare opportunity for the average person to do something about that. If we fly with an international airline, stay in a hotel owned by wealthy foreigners and patronise chain restaurants, local people and the environment essentially become an unconsenting product without benefitting from our trip.
Travel can be one of many pathways to making our planet a safer, fairer and kinder place—somewhere people and nature thrive in harmony.
What would you say to someone who wants to learn more about how to travel ethically?
Wanting to learn more means you’re already halfway there. I think intention is very important in every aspect of life and particularly when it comes to travelling ethically. There are many great books and podcasts out there (I like Unpacked by AFAR and and Funny Old World by Juliet Kinsman) to educate yourself on some of the issues surrounding travel—unequal distribution of resources, carbon emissions, gentrification, waste disposal, water usage by hotel laundries and lands seized from Indigenous people, to name just a few.
Once you have a greater sense of what these are, much of it is common sense. Keep as much money as possible in the pockets of small, locally owned businesses with ethics that resonate with you, be aware of cutting carbon emissions by travelling slowly and ask yourself in what ways you can contribute while you’re there and you won’t go far wrong. Oh and read my book, naturally. 😉
Are there any mainstream trends or norms in the travel industry that you believe actively hurt or go against ethical travel? What changes do you hope to see?
I think choosing WHERE we travel is an important factor. Overtourism turns certain destinations into parodies of themselves, a little like a famous actor being typecast over and over again. Just look at central Venice pre-Covid, where bumper-to-bumper gondolas and restaurants serving frozen bolognaise for €30 a pop came as standard.
As well as leading to inauthentic experiences for travellers, too much tourism decimates local ecosystems and makes daily life nigh on impossible for locals. It’s far better to pick a region’s second, third or even fourth city instead. Think skiing in Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains instead of the Swiss Alps, browsing Rotterdam’s galleries instead of joining the crush in Amsterdam, or strolling along Treviso’s canals instead of Venice’s.
Disaster Tourism may sound gross but the aftermath of a natural disaster or terrorist attack is when your dollars are needed the most. It’s also important to engage with destinations that are dealing with negative publicity and tell your friends the real story—if it is safe to do so, of course. A great pick for 2023 would be Puerto Rico, which has suffered numerous hurricanes in the last few years but is working hard to rebuild its tourism industry in a more sustainable way. Ditto Sri Lanka.
Some say that the only type of truly ethical travel is to not travel at all. How would you respond to this?
Yes, travel and flying in particular does cause carbon emissions (although there are tips to mitigate this in my book). However, tourism also creates one out of every ten jobs globally. Many of these are in remote corners where communities play a crucial role in protecting delicate ecosystems and ways of life. Others allow those on the margins to gain independence in societies where that is far from a given. Travel can be one of many pathways to making our planet a safer, fairer and kinder place—somewhere people and nature thrive in harmony.