Ethics & travel — why travelling well matters

Mosque in Koh Panyee — island village built on stilts in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand.

The small fisherman community of Koh Panyee sprawls out from the edge of a sheer limestone island. Originally built on stilts due to a law restricting the ownership of land to Thai nationals, the village has now become a main stopping point on boat tours around Thailand’s popular Phang Nga Bay. Every day boat loads of tourists arrive on the island to wander its narrow alleys and peruse the stalls selling pearl jewellery and travel paraphernalia.

I visited the island with some friends in November. We were taken to see the school and its floating football pitch — built by the Thai government for the benefit of the local school. When we arrived we met children trying to sell us knick-knacks to “fund their education” instead of in their lessons, and rafts of other tourists tramping through the school with their Go-Pros filming children in their classrooms during nap time.

The second stop on the tour was James Bond island, where scenes from Man with the Golden Gun were filmed. Here we didn’t even get off the boat. While our guide was trying to entice us with promises of ice cream and coconuts, there were so many people crammed on to the small beach that it didn’t feel worth it.

The whole trip made me feel uncomfortable. The social and environmental impacts that we were responsible for were significant and for me crossed a line of acceptability. It was disruptive to the children and their education — in the UK we would not accept tourists arriving en masse to our children’s school every day and filming them.

Over exploitation of Thailand’s areas of natural beauty is also a familiar story. It has become so bad in some places that the government has even gone so far as to close some of its famous landmarks — including the famous “Beach” near Koh Phi Phi popularised by the 2000 film of the same name.

I understand that tourism is an essential industry for many of Thailand’s communities and for the country’s economic development itself. It will have certainly brought opportunities to earn a living that otherwise would have been lacking. But the visit to the school and the lack of protections afforded to the children in the name of tourism and the lack of protection afforded to James Bond island felt unsustainable, unethical and exploitative.

Tourism is the world’s biggest industry, estimated to be worth around US$4 trillion. And it will only continue to grow.

One of the major consideration our group made when organising our trip was beating the Chinese tourists. Chinese tourism is having a major impact on countries in South East Asia. While there appears to be substantial hostility towards it both from host communities and the Western traveller community to their sheer numbers amongst other issues, it is in many ways fundamentally altering the industry as a whole.

More people are travelling and want to see the world. And this means that the potential of our collective impact — both positive and negative — is greater.

So what do we do?

I’m not saying don’t travel. Seeing the world is a phenomenally enlightening experience. Not to mention relaxing. Tourism undoubtedly can have a positive impact on local communities and countries — in fact, it is a specific economic development strategy and one of the biggest economic sectors in the world. But the positive impacts are far from inevitable.

I’m hearing more and more sad stories about the negative impact of tourism. The Beach is closed. Halong Bay is overly polluted. In traditional neighbourhoods around the world like Gracia in Barcelona, Principe Real in Lisbon and Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul there is a burgeoning backlash against tourism.

Whether tourism has a positive impact or not comes down to choices — your choices. And it comes down to whether you educate yourself about your options. Travelling well really matters.

Despite the negative examples I’ve cited above, I’ve seen plenty of positive examples. I’ve been impressed with communities, restaurants, hotels and tour operators who have gone out of their way to give back to the local community, educate tourists and travellers and reduce their environmental impact.

So if you are interested in ethical consumption in other areas of your life, travel shouldn’t be any different.