Whether the holiday season takes us to the Caribbean or Croatia, Spain or the Seychelles, tourism can have a potentially devastating effect on the culture, economy and environment of our destination. Air transport, which has been recognised as a significant contributor to climate change, is perhaps the worst culprit. However, by choosing carefully what resort you stay in and by avoiding developments that impact on the local area, it is possible to plan a guilt-free, ethical holiday.

The ethical cost of flying

As more planes do frequent short-haul flights, staying in the air most of the working day, the cost of flying is coming down. Yet the cost is not just to our own pockets: it’s a heavy price for the environment to pay as well. A London-New York return flight releases more carbon dioxide per passenger than the average British motorist produces in 12 months. Crucially, fuel emissions in the upper atmosphere hurt the ozone layer more directly than those on the ground. Scientists predict that by 2015 half the annual destruction of the ozone layer may be caused by aircraft.

Some tourists now ‘carbon offset’ their flights, by donating money to organisations that work towards reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This removes an equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere through other means, such as planting trees.

Package holidays that include the cost of the flight, hotel and meals may seem to be a great bargain, but there are hidden problems associated with this type of travel. The money paid for a package holiday benefits the tour operator much more than it does the people who provide the services when we arrive.

More than half the foreign holidays taken by British people every year are sold as packages by the few big companies that dominate the trade. Packages leave less chance for holidaymakers to engage directly with the places they visit.

A Western pastime

Tourism is predominantly a Western pastime. It can encourage us to respect different cultures, but it can also add to the difficulties of the faraway communities with which we interact.

Images of local and indigenous people are used in tourist marketing to sell different destinations. Brochures for Kenya nearly always feature Masai warriors, but what they don’t tell you is that Masai communities have been evicted from their land to make way for some of Kenya’s famous national parks, including Amboseli.

In Goa, developers of a five-star hotel forced farmers to hand over their farms for a golf course by shutting off irrigation for their fields. In Peru, communities of Yagua Indians have been coerced to move nearer the tourist lodges so that they can be photographed more conveniently. In Burma, the government forcibly moved local people so as to develop the site around the temples at Pagan.

In general, the poorer the local people are, the easier it is for the tourism developers to push them aside or employ them in a new way of life, catering for international visitors.


It is easy to see how tourism can encourage begging and hustling. It transforms traditions of hospitality into commercial transactions. Tourism can also reduce cultural traditions into meaningless sights and attractions, as when sacred dances are performed as after-dinner shows in luxury hotels.

The expansion of international travel is also a big factor in the growth of international prostitution, contributing to the negative images of great cities like Bangkok, but also occurring in much smaller and more vulnerable societies than Thailand, with distorting cultural and economic effects.

When tourism becomes a big factor in a small economy, it can shift the traditional economic balance away from farming or hunting, and lure away the brightest people in the community, who would otherwise be able to play a productive part in educating the next generation. The hustle of the tourist trade has come to have more importance than the survival of the old traditions and their positive development for the 21st century. If this goes on, there could soon be no ‘exotic’ people left.

Hints for a greener traveller

  • The ‘darkest green’ travellers may choose to take their holidays in the UK or close to home
  • Air travellers with a green conscience can make donations to environmental organisations such as The Carbon Neutral Company, Climate Care ( and The Carbon Trust ( You pay a levy based on the length of each flight, and they plant trees or find other ways to absorb carbon dioxide. Otherwise you can make back the cost by switching your electricity to a 100 per cent renewable electricity supplier
  • Become better informed about the effects of air travel (see
  • When arriving in a strange country, be sure to learn at least some of the language
  • Visit local cafés and restaurants and talk to local people away from the main tourist centres
  • Choose an eco-friendly holiday company
  • Find out more about these and other issues at, who we thank for helping with this section
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