In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

Click here to explore the full "Ethical Inquiry" series

What are the ethics of tourism? Inspired by this Ethical Inquiry, Ethics Center Leadership Council member Heather Yoon '15 prepared a summary of some of the potential negative and positive impacts of tourism, along with some suggestions for more ethical tourism. View or download her one-page summary [PDF].

Voluntourism: helping or hurting? The May 2013 Ethical Inquiry dealing with the ethics of voluntourism takes some of the issues discussed in this Ethical Inquiry further, examining the balance between the well-meaning intent and the unintended consequences of the voluntourism phenomenon. Read the full inquiry here.

Ethical Inquiry: September 2011


The beach at San Juan del Sur, NIcaragua


What are the Ethics of Tourism?

The ethics of tourism is a particularly compelling issue for the developing world. For example, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua was a small fishing village before it became a popular tourist spot, world-famous as the site of two seasons of the television show Survivor. A doctor and activist from San Juan del Sur, Dr. Rosa Elena Bello, Founder and Director of Community Medical Services, was in residence at Brandeis in September 2011 as the Center's fifth Distinguished Visiting Practitioner, giving a week of talks and events about her work developing social programs, especially for women and children. [UPDATE: Dr. Bello  was elected Mayor of San Juan Del Sur in November 2012.]

What does it mean for a small fishing village to have a massive influx of tourists? Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center Scholar, one of the hosts of Bello's residency, writes:

"As inequality grew, San Juan del Sur became a resort for the rich; surfers and the retired; snowbirds; builders, contractors, and real-estate dealers; pimps, commercial sexual exploitation, drugs, and sex trafficking. Machismo was verbally attacked but remained virtually undisturbed; violence against women was endemic and tolerated but with increasing resentment on the part of women. Tourism brought some jobs but unemployment grew.”

In advance of Dr. Bello visit to campus, Brandeis alum Rachel Gillette '11 examined the ethics of tourism in the following “Ethical Inquiry.”

Introduction: What are the Ethics of Tourism?

“A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.”Moslih Eddin Saadi

For the tourist, travel can be fun, exciting, adventurous, and relaxing; it can be educational, inspiring, and thought provoking; it can also be confusing, tiring, and scary. But what are the impacts and implications of tourism, for the host country and its residents? Is there an “ethical code” that travelers should follow?

Suggested codes of ethics for tourism – such as the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s “Global Code of Ethics for Tourism” or that presented by the Global Development Research Center – address cultural respect, local empowerment, and environmental friendliness. Are there other, less obvious kinds of impact that should be considered? Does tourism help to sustain indigenous cultures, or does it obliterate them and pave the way for a global culture? Are there economic risks in utilizing the profits of tourism? Are tourist attractions such as slums an honest learning experience and economic boost to impoverished communities or exploitation? Do preservation efforts through tourism actually benefit the environment?

This “Ethical Inquiry” explores some of the cultural and social, economic, political, and environmental concerns that surround tourism.

Cultural and Social Impact

In “Tourism Ethics,” (Anthropology News, 2010 – subscription may be required) Valene L. Smith, emeritus professor at California State University–Chico states “…tourism ethics is rooted in a strong sense of social consciousness.” So what are potential social impacts of travel?

First, there is the clear draw of learning about other cultures: the more that individuals know about foreign ways of life, the more they can draw on alternative ways of looking at the world to enrich their own worldview, and the more supportive they can be in diverse settings, in their political involvement, and in supporting the emergence of a global culture

In “The Four Faces of Global Culture,” Peter Berger, professor of sociology and director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University, discusses the benefits and detriments of such a globalized world. Though globalization may result in a homogeneous world community, he suggests that a true global culture would stabilize politics and lead to greater world peace.

Samuel Huntington, an American political scientist, agrees in his book Clash of Civilizations that “a dialogue of cultures” will pave the way to a stable future.

Mark TwainThe potential benefits of travel extend beyond the vast realm of culture, and can have personal impacts as well. In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness….”

The Brandeis University Office of Study Abroad suggests “Study abroad is an excellent way for students to increase their global competence and gain a better working knowledge of the issues that will shape the next century.”

American Jewish World Service study tours are advertised as opportunities for “education” and “connection” as well as “tourism” and “sightseeing,” with the tagline “Don’t just travel. Encounter.”
However, instead of supporting and bolstering different ways of life and individual growth, travel may trivialize, stigmatize, disrespect, or distort individual culture. In “The Four Faces of Global Culture,” Berger notes that a global culture may result in the loss of specific cultures and individuality.

Tourism can overwhelm or destroy local languages or dialects. It is one of the factors cited by the North Carolina Language and Life Project as contributing to the fading from use of the traditional Ocracoke Island, North Carolina brogue.

There is also a question of responsibility: is it tour companies, or the visitors themselves, who are ultimately responsible for the impact of tourism? Tour companies and the media inevitably influence how people travel, and where people travel; amending their options would amend the way tourists tour. However, as a report by the evangelical Christian relief and development agency Tearfund mentions, some companies prefer to shift responsibility to tourists alone, refusing to examine their own practices. This delegation of responsibility, so to speak, means that whatever negative practices exist may never be examined and altered.

Economic impact

A Look into Mumbai, India

Dharavi Slum, Mumbai IndiaSlumdog Millionaire – an Oscar-winning movie about a teenager who grew up in the slums of Mumbai and went on to compete in the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” – brought much interest and attention to poverty in India. As a result, companies like Reality Tours and Travel created tours through the Dharavi slum.

Initially met with outrage (Who are these rich foreigners to come traipsing into the backyard of individuals just trying to live their lives?), there may be a literal silver lining to this industry. According to an Express India article the tours may actually show a side of the slum that is darker than its cinematic portrayal, a realistic impression that might raise awareness and garner emotion from visitors, in addition to its juxtaposition to the life, beauty, and harmony that exists behind the poverty.

As a contributor to comments, although “there is nothing noble in profiting from poverty…[the tourism company] returns most of its profits to Dharavi, helps finance several educational projects and thus is in favor of local inhabitants.”

However, Reality Tours proudly advertises a visit to a resident’s house, an activity that puts at least one family on display and, if similar to the tours through the favelas (slums) in Brazil, may only profit the drug lords and criminals that run the slum and intentionally maintain poverty to begin with.

Furthermore, they are certain to point out that the tours use air-conditioned vehicles – a clear luxury to anyone within the slum – marking a distinct boundary between “us” and “them,” “rich” and “poor,” “the observer” and “the observed.” Is this subjectification or exploitation of locals worth the gain in international awareness and possible donations to the slum?

It is also encouraged that tourists consider the intent of their visit. In the case of “poverty tours,” are individuals visiting these sites to enhance their personal knowledge, or is it a twisted awe and curiosity at the state of life in such locales, like animals in a zoo, similar to confusing fascinations with war and death? A frightening example of mixed intentions in Haiti is recounted in Tim Schwartz’s Travesty in Haiti: A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking. Schwartz describes how orphanages literally hire street children to fill ‘orphanages’ where foreigners come to gawk, cry, and donate. Though many argue that the money is at least going towards individuals who are less well off, Schwartz observes that blue-collar, wage earning Americans seem to be the individuals scraping together donations that are sent to the richest of Haiti. If the tourists did not come, this orphanage “industry” would not have been created.


Another form of tourism that is developing goes by the title “Voluntourism.” This form of travel that allows individuals to “give back” to the localities they visit through volunteer projects. For example, HandsUpHolidays claims to be “changing lives through travel…including your own.”

American Jewish World Service emphasizes the impact on the participants of its “Volunteer Summer” program for undergraduates, suggesting it will lead to further social justice work: “After the summer overseas, participants return to their communities inspired by what they have seen and accomplished, and prepared to advocate for social change at home.”

A seeming undisputedly positive form of travel, there are some interesting dichotomies to some of these trips. For example, HandsUpHolidays boasts of “luxury volunteering” in Indonesia, but only after days of trekking, touring, and relaxation. Is this actually just a way for travelers to feel better about being on the positive side of massive global inequalities in wealth distribution, pointed out by the fact that they are taking advantage of exchange rates and for several weeks a year, living in five star hotels with personal chefs and private tours? Or are the emotions experienced through exposure to such harsh lives just another attraction? HandsUpHolidays states “it is a heart-warming experience that will tug at your heartstrings.” Is this an honest call for helpers, or an appeal to people looking for a thrill?

A Millennium Development Village: Mayange, Rwanda

The Millennium Development Villages are a series of villages in Africa that focus on the UN Millennium Development Goals by working with the “poorest of the poor” to improve access to water, farming, education, and medical treatment. I visited the village of Mayange, Rwanda as a participant in SIT’s Post-Conflict Transformation: Uganda/Rwanda Program. Here, women receive vocational training in the traditional art of basket weaving. After providing for the needs of all village members, excess baskets are sold to tourists. It seemed to me, however, that the market is saturated: after I purchased two baskets, they gave away several more to me for free – clearly not need, since the baskets were overflowing from storehouses and the surrounding homes.

Even if it is legitimate to utilize resources found from tourism, what are the risks of developing solely around this industry? As the “Tourism and Corruption Index” states in its introduction, there is a “chain reaction created by the global economic crisis,” which includes a reduction in tourism. Rwanda, though currently stable, is also prone to war. If war breaks out and tourism diminishes or altogether disappears, then the years of investment in these projects is useless and the Village is back to square one. Is there any way to mitigate this risk? Or is the risk worth the gain in women’s empowerment resultant from the steady trickle of tourists?

The recent unrest in Egypt is creating such ripple effects, as reported by Global Travel Industry News. Though there are signs that Egypt will recover quickly, the hit to this “pillar” of the Egyptian economy is reducing this year’s overall GDP.

Tourism, Jobs, Capital Accumulation and the Economy

As Valene Smith relays in “Tourism Ethics,” (Anthropology News, 2010 – subscription may be required), the World Tourism organization, in its Global Code of Ethics for Tourism [PDF], calls tourism “a human right… [and] a beneficial activity for most countries and communities.”

Mumbai beach vendorBut is this universally true? According to the authors of “Tourism, Jobs, Capital Accumulation, and the Economy: A Dynamic Analysis” [PDF], tourism does enhance global terms of trade and creates jobs, but results in a decrease of capital invested in the local industries. As a result, less focus is placed upon a country’s exports, so the net gain from tourism is ambiguous. However, this ambiguity is an overall result: there are many smaller communities that are gaining from tourism that would otherwise not have a piece of the industry pie.

Rainbow Tours, an African tour company, believes that “tourism can be a powerful tool for economic and social development,” but must be sure “to support community empowerment so that the community is not destroyed by internal and external pressures.” To do so, this company intentionally promotes less-traveled destinations and books locally owned accommodations to better disperse the gains from tourism.

Similarly, the government of the Philippines is concerned with the mark that tourism might make on its economy, land and culture. Its Tourism Act [PDF] states that tourism is an “indispensable element of the national economy and an industry of national interest and importance, which must be harnessed as an engine of socio-economic growth and cultural affirmation to generate investment, foreign exchange and employment, and continue to mold an enhanced sense of national pride for all Filipinos.” In other words, the government of the Philippines identifies the political and cultural importance and potential that lies within tourism, but believes that unless they take active steps to promote its influence in specific ways, it may have negative consequences.

Political Impact

The political effects of the financial gain and awareness raising discussed above may be beneficial or may be disastrous, depending on how these impacts are utilized or controlled.


As mentioned above with regard to the slum tours, drug lords, gangsters, or corrupt politicians may benefit from and be legitimated by tourism income. According to the aforementioned “Tourism and Corruption Index,” “there is a direct link between tourism and corruption” creating an inverse relationship between the level of corruption and the widespread benefits of tourism for the population as a whole.

Awareness and Foreign Aid

Some potential political benefits are similar to those mentioned as cultural impacts. Entrance into global culture may promote common ideals such as democracy and inclusion in the political process, as well as notions of women’s empowerment that may be foreign to traditional lifestyles or cultures. (See "Tourism a Vehicle for Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment," from UN Women, and "Empowering Women through Tourism," from, the official website of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office.nations sign

Additionally, tourism increases individual – and thereby global – awareness. Though conflicts and natural disasters often stimulate massive amounts of foreign aid to “hot spots” in the short term, this can disappear just as quickly when of another conflict or disaster distracts global attention. Trips like the American Jewish World Service study tours, seek to provide travelers with the experience of “deep exploration of the challenges facing people in the developing world and the passion that drives grassroots change… [promoting] a commitment to tikkun olam (repairing the world) in its most elemental form” – possibly leading to more sustained support for those in need.

Environmental Impact

There has been increasing awareness of the environmental impacts of tourism. There is environmental harm from the act of reaching these destinations: cars, planes, buses, ships: all have clear environmental side effects. Destinations are affected directly by visitors as well. Some tourist sites such as Machu Picchu in Peru have begun to limit numbers of Machu Picchu with touristtourists to preserve the site itself from a massive influx that the fragile environment simply cannot support. In fact, the Lascaux caves in southern France have entirely closed to the public, and a carefully crafted replica stands nearby for tourists to view.

In response, “eco-tourism” is another emerging model of tourism. Defined by the International Eco-Tourism Society (TIES) as “responsive travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of the local people,” this form of tourism can foster environmentally friendly and sustainable development in a way that is economically feasible for impoverished communities.

Interestingly, the TIES site also states that responsible eco-travelers should promote ties with local communities, empower locals, and be sensitive to local politics and customs – arguably an attempt to tie all elements of the “Code of Ethics for Travelers” together.

Similarly, African tour company Rainbow Tours, believes responsible tourism to include should aim to have a positive impact upon the inhabitants and the environment of the countries that tourists visit. At the Tambopata River Lodge in Peru, for example, local expertise (with its positive economic impact) and traditional architecture (with its preservation of culture) merge to create an outdoor lodge in harmony with the surrounding rainforest.

Final Thoughts

Is there any way to continue to travel and have only a positive impact? How can tourists be sure that their best intentions actually affect the communities they visit in the best way?

There will likely continue to be mixed consequences of tourism. Perhaps by becoming better versed in global culture, better educated in the impacts of trips, and more familiar with the cultures being visited, individuals will make more responsible travel choices.

We invite you to continue exploring the ethical issues that arise in this context, and to share your thoughts with us on our Facebook page.

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This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by Rachel Gillette ’11, a member of the Spring 2011 Ethics Center Leadership Council (ECLC). Read more from Rachel on the ECLC's blog, "Exploring Ethics."