The Dress Code: How Can I be a More Ethical Traveler?

Trying to be an ethical traveler with a laptop and drink overlooking a beach
Image created using Canva Pro license.

Dear Dismantlers, I just read your article on Cacao ceremonies and it got me thinking about my experiences as a traveler in the Global South. I absolutely love to travel and have been doing so since I was in college, when student loans (that I’m still paying off!) funded my first airline ticket abroad. I come from a working class background where “vacations” meant driving to the shore an hour away, so it’s incredibly freeing to be able to save, plan and enjoy a trip to a new and exciting place.

However, I know that traveling is a huge privilege and there are a ton of environmental and power issues at play. Is there a way that I can do it “better”? 

Last summer, prompted by the post-Covid growing phenomenon of “digital nomads” working abroad, there was a ton of discussion around this issue. The trend of Westerners traveling to another country to work online while living in a luxury vacation rental is relatively recent. However, it raises the same power issues that have plagued global travel for centuries: when done by privileged white people, it comes with a host of colonial power dynamics that we just can’t wish away because of our good intentions.

I live and work abroad part time and am keenly aware of the debates that surround living in a privileged position in a foreign country: Should people be called expats or immigrants? Does overtipping break the local economy? What if you don’t speak the local language? If I pay top dollar for a furnished apartment in a gentrifying area, am I really part of the problem?

The existence of these questions on discussion forums around the world shows that, like you, most people want to exist ethically outside of their home country. The solutions that I’ve seen on social media threads tend to be dualistic: either a call for total immersion or a segregationist approach; crippling concern/guilt or a complete disregard for any systemic issues at work. The former, while well-intentioned, tends to reproduce problematic notions of tradition and reify local ways of life. The latter is just…well, shitty.

More nuanced proposals argue for sensitivity and awareness. However, the problem with this as a solution is that it places the responsibility of progress on individuals. This limits what we can do as agents of change: if we think all we have to do is book a more eco-friendly hotel room, spend some time on Duolingo, or be nice to our waiter, then we’ll probably never get to the point of fighting global power structures in a systematic way.

For instance, during those conversations last summer, there was a general consensus that short term/vacation rental markets on a global scale are a huge part of the issue. This recognition is great, especially because it puts the focus on housing policy and ways to combat the issue locally. 

While driven in part by consumer desirability, ultimately the current state of tourism and digital nomadism is shaped by a system that rewards those with existing resources: most notably, small but very rich and powerful multinational networks of landowners and developers. Capitalism has basically always been about the tiniest fraction of the global population stealing and/or buying up private property and accruing wealth. What we have now is a continuation of hundreds of years of land acquisition, this time fueled by economic and technological changes that allow the bourgeoisie (and aspirers) to unmoor themselves from a physical location for their own pleasure and benefit. 

Also, power is complicated! There’s a movement for many people of color to move abroad, tired of U.S. violence and politics. The young woman who, single and educated, travels to a place where she can feel comfortable, safe and enjoy herself is using her citizenship status to push against disempowering gender dynamics. These examples show precisely why intersectionality is so important for helping us navigate the nuances of our place in the power structure.

Ultimately, the question of how to travel “better” doesn’t have a simple answer. There are certainly some straightforward things you can do (fly less, aim to contribute to local economies, be kind and respectful, etc.). But if you participate in privilege, you have to accept that you will most likely also reproduce that system in some way, no matter how unintentional. 

The fact that you’re thinking about the ethics and power issues behind your travel adventures is a very necessary first step. At the same time, it’s important, as Peggy McIntosh once so eloquently stated, not to get stuck in feelings of blame, shame or guilt. Doing so is unproductive and really, makes it more about ourselves and our feelings than the real power issues at play. 

When power is a system, and we operate through it, we can’t get outside of it. But we can push against the edges with our own behavior, and then remember that change can’t happen if we don’t pay attention to the ways economic policy is allowing our world to be eaten alive by power.

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Elise is a writer, editor and educator with 20+ years in academia and communications. When she isn’t writing web copy, editing a manuscript or putting together the next issue of Dismantle Magazine, she’s teaching. She works part time as a university instructor and recently became a certified yoga teacher. A Louisiana native, Elise enjoys spending time in Mexico with her partner and their dog, “Peligrosa.”