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“Tourists are ambassadors in bathing suits” – On the ethics of choosing a holiday destination

Michael Allmaier, an Austrian journalist, wrote a controversial article in the German newspaper “Die Zeit” ( It is devoted to the question, on why to pick an “ethical” holiday destination. He claims, that tourists should have a political attitude towards choosing a country to travel to. This inspired me to write this post on the ethics of selecting a holiday destination:

The metaphorical comparison between politics and travelling is quite rich: If indeed there is a political dimension to travelling, tourist agencies become polling stations, and tourists become ambassadors in bathing suits. One cannot neglect, that tourism in the „developing world“ and dictatorial countries is an important issue: Every sixth holiday booked in Germany these days goes to so called “third world countries“. One has to bear in mind that vicious dictators can be quite hospitable: They offer luxury to affordable prices, having discovered tourism as an important economic factor for mostly low-cost countries. But why do tourists choose, lets say, Libya as a destination: Probably because of the cultural sights or in order to experience the desert or to relax at the beach, not because tourists want to experience differences in socio-economic conditions in the “third world“. But can these two reasons be separated? In analogy, one could as: If I am travelling to Libya, am I being Gadhafi’s guest or am I rather the guest of the owner of the hotel I am staying in?

I think there is a weighty political and moral dimension to being a tourist and that one cannot separate between above-named reasons. If you share my view on this, the next and probably even more controversial question is: Whose moral obligation is it to choose the “ethical” destination?

On the state level, one could argue, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or its equivalents could be held responsible. But these institutions are authorities mainly concerned with security issues rather than questions of morality.

Travel agencies seem to disclaim moral responsibility too: Ury Steinweg for example, chief executive of “Gebeco“, a travel agency specialised in cultural travel, explained: “There is no simple right or wrong in deciding whether or not to travel to a non-democratic country. We, as travel agencies, are no moral authority to decide on this issue.“

So the responsibility seems to be handed over to the individual tourist. But seemingly, they do not want to be bothered either. In daily business, this moral dimension is mostly disregarded: Tour operators claim that hardly any customer changes his or her destination due to moral concerns. The only reason why they do is because of worries on security. But seemingly “price beats fear”, stated Karl Born, tourism manager, and so these worries can be overcome by lowering the price.

So – if we agree that there is at least some moral dimension to being a tourist – whom should we hold accountable?

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3 Comment on this post

  1. I think you're correct in saying that 'hardly any customer changes his or her destination due to moral concerns,' but that doesn't mean that tourists lack consciousness of a moral dimension to their travels within certain countries. For example, I visited Tibet last year, which, since 2008, has only allowed tourists to enter as part of a tour organised through an agency. A great many private operators, the vast majority being Chinese owned and operated, offer such tours, but a handful are owned by native Tibetans, and market themselves heavily on this point. They emphasise their use of Tibetan guides and drivers, their focus on tourists from international markets, rather than China, and that their profits are kept in Tibetan families and their communities. My fellow travellers and I, conscious of the effects of China's imperialist practices in Tibet, chose to give our business to a Tibetan agency, as indeed a great many of westerners going there do. It seems tokenistic, but it's enough of a selling point that a great many of the Chinese agencies go out of their way to represent themselves as Tibetan in order to garner business.

  2. I think you're right there's a moral component to the consumption decisions we make, but I find it hard to see why tourism is special. Surely the same arguments apply any time you hand over money to any company (or charity, or government). It's true that if I spend a week in country X I am spending a far higher fraction of my money on them than I would if I went to country Y, but the same argument could be made regarding any large-ish purchase (such as cars, for instance).

    And I expect reflection on this will raise the same complexities we see in the "Fair Trade" thing: the people you hurt most are poor people living under corrupt regimes/practices. It's true that you deprive corrupt governments (and other institutions) of rents, but you do so by strangling the income of the people in whose name you're protesting. Maybe in the long run it works and maybe it doesn't. [In liberal societies people can take a punt on that open question by getting behind the initiative or not.]

    Liberals would surely think that individuals are best placed to express their moral values via their consumption decisions** You may lament the fact that people go to politically dodgy places more often than you'd like them to, but perhaps they don't share your politics, your opinions about who benefits from tourism, or your threshold for deciding whether to go or not go.
    By the way, I seriously dislike the order in which you evaluate "Whose moral obligation is it to choose the “ethical” destination?" You seem to start with a very top-down approach: the idea you first explore – governments – strikes me as really objectionable. Why should some random bureaucrat decide where I can go on holiday? This idea seems to me to make individuals merely extensions of state policy, which I – perhaps naively – like to think even Europe has grown out of.

    **It's true the state does prohibit some consumption decisions, but these aren't usually particularly borderline cases – obnoxious markets (dangerously addictive drugs, slavery and other exploitation etc) aren't usually all that contestable. [Some people try, in a JCR-ish way, to defend some of these markets, but it seems to me that very few of the folks who do attempt to defend (for instance) the heroin market have close friends or family who are addicts… (which is a way of saying that defenders of obnoxious markets usually have little understanding of the true costs of those markets.)]

  3. If we look at this from a rule utilitarian perspective we will first observe that yes, as Oliver says, there is most definitely a moral dimension to choosing where you go on holiday. Actually there are lots of moral dimensions, the politics of the country being visited being only one. But we will then want to know what kind of rules the various actors mentioned – prospective tourists, travel agencies, ministries of foreign affairs – should follow.

    At first sight government and commercial operators seem to have a better excuse for not allowing these considerations to affect their policy: they would be running foul of other "rules", arguably established for good utilitarian reasons, such as free trade and duty toward clients. The individual tourist has no such constraints. On the other hand one might regard it as inefficient to expect each individual tourist to perform some kind of utilitarian calculus.

    I think the best question to ask at this stage is what kind of rules and structures are most likely to lead to a better world. There must be some good balance between, on the one hand, an outright refusal to take this kind of consideration into account at all, and the establishment of cumbersome rules and structures that will probably just get on everybody's nerves and be counter-productive. The simplest answer might be simply to say, "yes, this is an issue", but leave it to the individuals' instincts and intuition to determine what this means for them.

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