Why travelers matter
Ten years ago, I set out to discover the actual size of the world. My strategy was simple: I’d circle the Earth without resorting to the use of airplanes.
During my journey (recounted, appropriately enough, in a book entitled The Size of the World) I covered nearly 30,000 miles, and visited 27 countries. By the time my travels were over, the physical scale of this world was more than an idea in my head—it was a visceral truth. The interconnectedness of the human family and our interdependence were tangible to me.
Planet Earth is filled with kind and generous people, the majority of whom transcend the stereotypes offered by the mass media. Anyone who has traveled with an open mind—with the capacity to be surprised, and have preconceptions challenged—knows this to be true.
It’s a bit shocking how vast an enterprise travel has become. Travel and tourism are now the world’s largest industries, generating hundreds of billions of dollars annually. By the year 2020, travelers will spend an estimated $5 billion per day. Many countries, such as Laos, Tanzania, Costa Rica, and Nepal, already rely on tourism for foreign exchange. Travel has become an industry as far-reaching and profitable as oil. The potential power of the travel community as a force for social good and environmental protection is staggering.
Yet, until recently, no organization has existed to attempt to unite travelers (and their providers) into a global alliance. The more one thinks about it, the more bizarre this seems. Many Americans over the age of 50 are enrolled in the AARP, with its potent political clout. Many motorists belong to the broad-based American Automobile Association (AAA), while hikers find strength in the ranks of the Sierra Club.
Ethical Traveler hopes to form a similar alliance. We’re working to build a global community of travelers, provide basic education on key travel issues, and spearhead campaigns that direct our collective might toward the service of the environment and social justice.
When we introduce this idea to denizens of the travel world—including booksellers, tour operators, youth hostel administrators, expedition leaders, or casual travelers—the response is the same: “I can’t believe no one has done this before.” Yet it’s true; though there are scattered projects focusing on ecotourism, specific boycotts, and cultural interaction, travelers lack a united voice. We believe that informed travelers, with firsthand experience of the world’s social and ecological concerns, are the planet’s natural allies.
An American in Tehran
In August of 1999, I visited Iran with a small group of Americans to witness the total eclipse of the sun. As it happened, the rest of my group (all zealous eclipse photographers) drove off to a zone of longer totality, leaving me with some 50,000 locals in Isfahan’s vast public square.
Shortly before Iran was cast into shadow, a demonstration erupted on the far side of the square. American flags were set aflame as a few dozen demonstrators shook their fists and chanted anti-US slogans. The cameras muscled in, gleefully filming the noisy rant, which was featured prominently in news reports around the world.
Here’s what those millions of television viewers did not see: the moment the demonstration began, all the Iranians in my vicinity—men, women, and teenagers—moved toward me, forming a protective ring around me. A boy took my hand, silently squeezing my wrist. An older man poked my shoulder, and sneered at the pack of demonstrators. “They should get a job,” he muttered. Within minutes, the outburst ended—and as the eclipse crept toward totality, all of us in the square were united by the spectacular event.
TV viewers’ entire impression of Iran during the eclipse was that tiny conflagration: just another eruption of rage from a land of fist-waving extremists with an undying grudge against America.
My experiences in Iran taught me a couple of things I’ll never forget. The first is that people in other countries don’t necessarily confuse the American people with the American government. They are sophisticated enough to understand that Americans don’t necessarily share the views of their leaders.
The second thing I learned—and not for the first time—is that conscious travelers are nothing less than ambassadors-at-large: a voice and presence with astonishing power, able to shatter the spiral of suspicion, and to honor the humanity of everyone they might encounter.
As an American abroad, one often faces tough questions about such issues as our gun culture, homelessness, and the status of African Americans. In my experience, the motivation behind these questions is not to get a lecture; it’s to get us to listen. People in every corner of the world honestly believe that having the ear of an American is tantamount to having the ear of America.
The truth is, they’re right. Travelers are usually vocal about their experiences. A dialogue with an Egyptian schoolteacher, a cup of chai with a Tibetan refugee—we might share these encounters with dozens of friends, who in turn pass them on. Many such anecdotes even branch out over the Internet, sometimes with astonishing impact.
In an era where communication has become almost borderless, the policies of the Bush administration are isolating America and Americans from the planetary community. Our most important challenge is to reverse this trend. Travel can shatter our isolation, and forge bridges of cultural understanding.
When people make face-to-face contact, they realize they have far more in common than they ever imagined.
Starting an organization dedicated to uniting travelers is like trying to assemble a 747 from spare parts. Our goal is big and beautiful, but the various pieces are widely scattered and hard to fit together.
Thanks to the Internet, we managed to leapfrog some basic community-building hurdles (like mailings and newsletters) and allow people from around the world to register online at www.ethicaltraveler.com.
Ethical Traveler’s Web site features campaigns that allow our members to send automated e-mails to authorities in specific countries, highlighting concern with specific issues.
This is a way for travelers to “vote with our wings,” and—if necessary—withdraw support from governments that are playing fast and loose with the environment or human rights.
Our Costa Rica/Ecuador campaign is an example of how we hope to protect the environment. In collaboration with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, we’ve launched an e-mail campaign to authorities in those countries. The letters identify the writer as a member of a global alliance of travelers, and ask that these governments provide genuine support to the park rangers charged with protecting the Galapagos and Cocos Islands. At present, these rangers are underpaid and ill-equipped, and can do little to control the Taiwanese poachers destroying the ecosystems of those islands. The letters from Ethical Traveler remind these authorities that without a pristine environment, their islands won’t be worth visiting—and that we intend to keep a close watch on the situation.
Our Cocos/Galapagos campaign is still in progress. A previous campaign, urging the Nepalese government to protect the rights of Tibetan refugees, succeeded—if only by keeping the issue alive in the media while official negotiations continued behind closed doors.
Our campaigns can help generate interest in eco-friendly destinations as well. We will offer our support to countries that are doing a good job of protecting their environments, and encourage people to direct their resources toward tourism that improves the lives of local people. We even hope to help steer some monolithic governments, such as China’s, toward the “long view” with regards to tourism.
For instance, the Chinese government is beginning to survey for a paved road around Tibet’s Mt. Kailash, the holiest mountain in the Buddhist and Hindu world. This road—if built—will destroy the mountain’s traditional pilgrimage route, and ruin the appeal of this destination for pilgrims and travelers alike. Rather than threaten a boycott of travel to China (for all the good that would do), Ethical Traveler members can write to the appropriate authorities asking them to nominate Mt. Kailash as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which will protect the area from damaging development while increasing its international profile and prestige.
Do we, as travelers, contribute to the world’s healing process, or do we bury our heads in the sand? We at Ethical Traveler firmly believe that travelers can do enormous good at this moment in history—if we have the guts to stand up together, and make our voices heard.
Jeff Greenwald is the author of five travel books, including Shopping for Buddhas and Scratching the Surface. He is also the co-founder and executive director of Ethical Traveler. Visit www.jeffgreenwald.com.
For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.