Saturday, January 19, 2008

Give ethics a break

One of the things that is bound to put me off anything is if I find out it's the 'ethical alternative' to something or other. At a visceral level I seem to react against all those things I'm *meant to do* - the books I *should* read, the places I *can't* shop in, those activities that find themselves on the *proscribed* list. It's not a great position for a green to be in but there you have it - I just don't like being moralised at I suppose.

Don't get me wrong - it doesn't mean I don't do ethics, it's just when I do I feel terribly, terribly ashamed of myself. It's an Essex thing I guess and something I feel perversely proud of. This probably makes me a despicable person, sorry.

Ethical tourism comes under the heading "things I have a gut reaction against". Branding itself as the right-on way to spend your hard earned cash you can fly to poor places, have an "authentic" experience and come home with the healthy glow of the ethically pure.

Yuk. No. Scrub that, double yuk with cream on top.

Alright, I'm not saying that organisations like tourism concern don't have interesting things to say, nor that they are necessarily the demon child of Clarkson. I wouldn't go that far. What I will say is that not only is Ethical Tourism creepy it is also a bad thing for the places that the relatively rich Westerners end up going to visit.

For instance, the distortion of the local economy can be considerable. If people in the local area see that they can, potentially, make five times as much engaging in tourism rather than, say, agriculture or manufacturing the simple truth is that you are encouraging that area to develop the least sustainable, least useful part of their economy. Your friendly tour guide has made a very rational choice to try to groom tourists rather than doing something that might actually help build up long term resources.

A less frequent criticism of ethical tourism is flying, but it's one I do think we should consider for a moment. It is without exception an industry that relies upon aviation in order to exist. Taking tourists thousands of miles to spend their pocket money seems a frivolous use of greenhouse gas emissions to me. By giving an ethical slant to flying it allows the very people who are most likely to understand the arguments about climate change to salve their conscience about their personal contributions to it.

Climate change disproportionately effects those who live in the poorest nations, despite the fact that these are the very people who have done the least to contribute to its existence. I think there is an irony in the idea that we can be nice to someone today whilst contributing to their demise tomorrow.

It seems to me that ethical tourism isn't actually that ethical. In fact it is an ethical veneer to something quite, quite wrong. To affirm the rights of the prosperous Westerners to cheap holidays over the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable peoples of the world to a safe and clean environment seems to me to be an odd sort of internationalism.

Until the ethical tourism industry attempts to address the fact that their very existence relies upon dirty aviation and does something to address this I think we'd all be justified in putting the word ethical in inverted commas, and certainly avoiding the alternative term "ecotourism" altogether, no matter what pleasant things are occuring at our holiday destinations.


John Angliss said...

"Your friendly tour guide has made a very rational choice to try to groom tourists rather than doing something that might actually help build up long term resources."

Y'what? Not everyone can be a farmer, you know... And people in poorer countries need foreign exchange coming in in order to buy tractors, mobile phones, fertiliser etc. even if they are farmers. Making a whole community a bit richer by visiting it is not necessarily unethical, though I am personally a self-flagellating anti-marketeer like you and find it distasteful in the sense that I think it would be more efficient and less yuk to just give money to WaterAid.

Jim Jay said...

I'm not saying everyone should be a farmer - I'm saying that because a pound to me is not the same as a pound to a small boy growing up in Peru my tourist money can have a disproprtionate effect on the economy.

There are tourist destinations in every country but in some parts of the world the *entire* economy of a local area can be turned to servicing a tourist economy - in both legitimate and less savoury ways.

I'm saying that for the individual person in that country this is a totally rational and reasonable choice but they all end up worse off because it over the long term

Renegade Eye said...

Business travel is unethical in this time of video, messaging, email etc. Now you'll go on a business trip.


Good post.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Good post, as far as I'm concerned there are so many wonderful holiday destinations in the Uk and Europe that why insist on travelling so far anyway?