Your vacation is unethical

Pay attention to a few simple things, however, and your money and travel can do a lot of good

Published March 26, 2013 3:45PM (EDT)

Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Cynthia Nixon vacation in Abu Dhabi in "Sex and the City 2"
Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Cynthia Nixon vacation in Abu Dhabi in "Sex and the City 2"

This is the fifth installment in a new series called Working Ahead, which will examine key issues facing the modern American worker, and how we can use our everyday spending habits to help save and create good jobs. The series is brought to you by the AFL-CIO. To read the other stories in this series, click here.

Spring break is almost upon us, and you know what that means: It's easy to feel guilty.

To begin with, any time you fly anywhere for the fun of it, the resultant carbon spillage pollutes your friendship with the environment. As somebody who has been writing about travel for most of the last 20 years, I’m more guilty in this area than most. And the idea of buying offsets doesn't make me feel any less responsible. Instead, I tell myself that by traveling we widen our minds, and as Americans abroad, we might be helping spread wealth and perhaps bringing home a lesson or two.

But that means paying attention when you plan a trip, and understanding where your money is going, what the local labor laws are, and how American tourism dollars might do some good. Some trips make me feel less guilty than others, and that's usually because I've done some easy homework before leaving home.

Let's start right here: If you’re sleeping in a hotel, any hotel, and not tipping the maid $2 a night or more, you’re not entitled to complain about anybody’s exploitation of anybody anywhere. Wherever you are in the world, Detroit to Djibouti, you can be sure that generously tipping the maid is going to help the working poor get richer. There are no political complications, no middle man, just you, your wallet, the top of the dresser, and the person who will be dusting that dresser-top in an hour or two.

If you apply the same thinking more broadly, you run into some interesting ideas. A lot of thoughtful people out there are eager to steer us toward destinations they find worthy, many of them in the developing world.

Ethical Traveler, for instance. Ethical Traveler, founded by travel writer Jeff Greenwald about seven years ago, operates as part of the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute and contends that "mindful travel" can transform the planet. To publicize its aims, Ethical Traveler compiles an annual Best Ethical Destinations list, rewarding developing nations that it believes are "promoting human rights, preserving their environment, and upholding civil society -- all while creating a sustainable, community-based tourism industry."

This year's winners? I'm guessing they don't match the stamps in your passport. In alphabetical order: Barbados, Cape Verde, Costa Rica, Ghana, Latvia, Lithuania, Mauritius, Palau, Samoa and Uruguay.

Another good source, closer to the beaten path (and in the for-profit mode), is Rick Steves, who has been writing books, making videos and leading tours of Europe for decades. (One of his titles is "Travel as a Political Act.") He's eager for Americans to stray from the route followed by those 50-seat tour buses that crisscross the continent every summer, and instead find their way to businesses with more local roots. (In many European cities, this can be as simple as finding a lodging in the medieval city center, where streets are too narrow for those tour buses.)

This approach not only gives you a more intimate, less predictable view of your destination, it often puts more of your euros in the hands of independent entrepreneurs. Every time I hand over my credit card to a lodging that isn't a global brand, I feel like I'm doing my little bit to encourage variety in the world. And of course, if you find your bed via or or, you may be doing even more.

If you want to get more ambitious in applying ideals to your itineraries, you can plan your next trip through a nonprofit organization that sidesteps global corporations where possible and strives to put revenue in the hands of local communities. These trips will almost surely cost you more than a Carnival cruise (more about that in a minute), and they may be less comfortable, and many take more time, but they probably won't be dull. You can browse for these sorts of trips at websites like A few examples:

In the Bolivian jungle near the Amazon, Chalalan Ecolodge is a local village's effort to bring in travelers and create a sustainable economy and landscape.

In Cambodia, Journeys Within runs tours and operates a B&B in Siem Reap with a swimming pool and garden. (In facts, the organization runs tours in several Asian countries.

In Uganda, Wildlife Experience offers safaris. The group, run by Beverly Critcher since 1999, is a nonprofit organization that runs educational programs in California. On the Uganda trips (three are planned this summer), the main attractions are mountain gorillas and other primates.

Some countries, of course, are instant argument-starters. Americans have been wringing their hands over this country's Cuban economic embargo for decades now, and in the last few years, a similar division has opened up regarding Burma (or, if you prefer, Myanmar). Should we stay away from abhorrent governments, or should we spend a few dollars to get in and engage, person to person? I make these choices case by case (and so far, those choices have taken me to Burma, Cuba and Iran).

I'm guessing, by the way, you've already made up your mind about cruising. I think most people do, one way or another, before ever boarding a ship. But you may still wonder how the cruise industry has come to carry about 20 million passengers every year, often at remarkably low prices.

The answer is that most major cruise lines (including the industry giant, Carnival) operate outside many U.S. labor laws and have built their businesses on the cheap labor of foreign workers (often from the Philippines, Indonesia or Eastern Europe) who might otherwise be earning even less in their home countries.

The industry's prevailing minimum wage, set by a pact between the International Labour Organization's Joint Maritime Commission and ship-owners, works out to roughly $3 per hour for a 48-hour work week. (But most cruise-ship workers earn more and work far more hours, often with contracts of a year or less. The luckiest ones are those who come in contact with passengers and collect tips.)

As for the environmental side of cruising, in a "cruise ship report card" last year, Friends of the Earth looked at sewage treatment, air pollution reduction and water-quality compliance for 15 major lines and concluded that Disney deserved an A-. Carnival got a D+. And Crystal Cruise, a high-end line that perennially ranks way up there in customer satisfaction, got an F, along with Costa Cruises and P&O Cruises.

About now, you may be throwing up your hands. Don't. You were never an ethically pure traveler and you will never be one. But we can all pay better attention to the size of our footprints and where our travel dollars go. And we can all look a little harder for the flaws in our own assumptions, which brings me to a last little story from the road.

In 1988, when I visited Machu Picchu for the first time, I was charmed by the bus ride up the mountain. Why? Because as the bus began its climb, a kid from the Peruvian jungle town at the foot of the mountain, then known as Aguas Calientes (now often known as El Pueblo de Machu Picchu), waved hello, then set off running up the slope. As the bus huffed and puffed its way up the switchback road, this kid sprinted straight up a footpath. Remarkably, when we reached the top, he arrived just in time win applause from the whole bus, then he stood at the exit, collecting big tips. It seemed like a magical moment.

Seven years later, I visited again. That time I learned that this was a local industry. The boys and drivers team up. The drivers take care not to go too fast, and once the tourists have scattered to look at ruins, each boy-driver team would split the take. Now I wasn’t so enchanted, but I was fascinated.

Then in 2011, I found myself at Machu Picchu again. (Yes, I have a great job.) The town at the foot of the hill is about five times as big now, with souvenir stands everywhere. I heard a lot of backpackers complaining about the commercial nature of the place. But the buses still climb that same switchback road, so I was all ready to see a kid race my bus to the top. Didn’t happen. At the top, I asked a veteran guide what had changed.

The guide, Jafeth Paz, told me that the town's increasingly prosperous parents – the people who own and work those touristy eateries, hostels and souvenir stands -- had put an end to the custom about a year ago. Instead of risking their limbs and scrambling for tips, Paz told me, those boys are now in school. So now, thanks to the businesses that strike many hikers and backpackers as a regrettable blight, those kids get to go to school and face a future with more options.

So has Aguas Calientes become more ethical, or become a tourist trap? It’s a very tricky business, doing right in the jungle.

By Christopher Reynolds

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