Ethical Travel Mistakes: 5 Things We Wouldn’t Do Again and Their Responsible Alternatives

A whale shark swimming under water

All travelers would like to think our trips are harmless, that tourism is an industry void of ethical issues. Unfortunately, the reality is often quite the opposite. Many aspects of the tourism industry leave the places we visit in worse shape than we left them, whether the impact be on the environment, the wildlife, or the locals themselves. It’s likely that most of us have made “ethical travel mistakes” however, and participated in types of tourism that are harmful and less than ethical through the course of our world adventures. I’m a firm believer in the power of knowledge though, and changing your ways when you learn the facts. We can’t beat ourselves up over making  mistakes but we can commit to do better in the future and become more eco-friendly travelers

These five accounts are written by women who have made such mistakes in their own travels but since learned how to do better. Luckily, they’ve decided to share their stories so that we can learn from their experiences and avoid the same practices in the future. From animal tourism, to protecting the environment, to respecting the locals, these female travelers are here to share their ethical travel mistakes they wouldn’t do again and some more responsible alternatives to consider instead.

Animal Encounters 


Animal Safaris Done Right and Wrong   

an elephant sticking its trunk into a jeep on a safari

Photo of what NOT to do on an animal safari. Connect with Ellis on Instagram.


I am passionate about wildlife conservation and I think that tourism can help in preserving nature and wildlife. However, if it is done in a sustainable manner. Tourism in South Asia’s wildlife parks is increasing, bringing in lots of money and an incentive for local authorities and the government to protect its national parks.

Two years ago I went on safari at Yala National Park in Sri Lanka. We woke up at 3 am to reach as early as possible at the entrance of the park. Once we arrived, there must have been at least 100 jeeps waiting in line. The jeeps dispersed throughout the park trying to avoid each other as much as possible, but at the same time informing each other about the whereabouts of the animals. As soon as one jeep spotted some elephants other jeeps followed. We joined a group of jeeps that had surrounded a mother elephant with her child.

The child was very curious and approached one of the jeeps. It went with his trunk inside the jeep looking for food and when it didn’t find any the elephant broke one of the side mirrors. Not sure what to do with the mirror, the elephant threw it on the floor and started kicking around with it as if it was a football. I had mixed feelings about this situation. Even though the elephants didn’t seem to mind us coming so close, we were clearly disturbing their natural behaviours.

In hindsight I think we have a responsibility to tell the jeep drivers to act in the best interest of the animals rather than the tourists. We could have told our jeep driver to stay at a distance of the animals as not to disturb them and ask them not to gather in groups of jeeps around the animals.

Written By: Ellis Veen at Backpack Adventures


The Issue with Riding Elephants


Amy at the Elephant Nature Park observing from a distance. Connect with Amy on Instagram.


Do you ever have a feeling which haunts you? The feeling of knowing that you took part in something which contributes to the suffering of others? I have. You see, over 5 years  ago, I went to Thailand. I arrived as most people do; unprepared for the heat but hella-excited about all that lay waiting.

I was excited because I had wanted to see an elephant since I was five years old. The day finally came when I visited a water market and noticed elephants giving rides in a nearby field. I was so excited I almost ran over to see them. It was only fear of looking like a lunatic which kept me at a casual pace. I looked around for signs of chains, damaged skin and hooks but couldn’t see any. I thought this was the only element of torture they faced so I (naively) booked a ride.

How wrong I was.

Something didn’t sit right with me that day. I couldn’t understand how such a strong-willed animal could be so meek.  Which is when I discovered the horrors which create elephant tourism. I discovered that animals are stolen away from their families as calves and chained up. I discovered that elephants endure starvation, water deprivation and torture until they submit and obey. I discovered that the process is painful and causes these free-spirited animals to transform into mere shadows of their former selves. It’s called the training crush and when you learn about it, it will break your heart.

But there are places such as Elephant Nature Park, which are ethical and don’t subject the creatures to cruelty of any kind. The owner, Lek, has dedicated her days to rehabilitating animals with a focus on elephants, and enables them to live peaceful lives. She’s even begun reintroducing them to the wild and is teaching them how to forage for themselves! 

The feeling of participating in something which contributed to the pain of another still haunts me, and now I spend my days shouting about seeing animals ethically so that other people don’t make the same mistake that I did.

Written By: Amy Morgan at Toothbrush Travels 


Read More:

For another account of elephant riding before we knew better, Jasmine from Make You Wander tells her story and some better ways you can get involved to save the elephants


Whale Shark Watching in Oslob

A whale shark swimming under water

A whale shark swimming underwater. Connect with Katherine on Facebook.


Oslob is almost synonymous to the whale shark tourism. This municipality in Cebu City, Philippines, offers lots of attractions such as beaches and waterfalls, but most people go here to see the whale sharks up close. The activity is pretty simple: in the morning, the tourists will attend a short orientation about dos and donts and then a boat will drop them off in the part of the ocean where the whale sharks are. Here they can swim with and take pictures with the whale sharks in the background.

We’d participated in this activity a few years back, but after our trip, I’d read about it online and learned that it’s not an ethical animal tourism. Because the whale sharks are fed by humans, they have learned to stay in Oslob rather than follow their natural migration route, which is essential for breeding. They also suffer from malnutrition and are frequently harmed by tourists. I’d experienced this myself – at least 3 of us in the group accidentally hit a whaleshark by accident. My friend and I were paddling when a whale shark passed behind us, so our feet caught the animal. My other friend freedived and when he came up for air, he bumped against the tail of the whale shark. As you can see, even with the orientation it’s very hard to stay a good distance away from the animals in a small setting, especially since there are groups of people cramped in there as well.

A good alternative to whale shark activity in Oslob is the one in Donsol, Sorsogon. In Donsol, whale sharks are not fed but rather left alone in the wild. As such, the activity is seasonal – only in months when whale sharks visit the area. The tour guides are also trained well and see to it that tourists stay a good distance from the whale sharks.

Written By: Katherine Cortes at Tara Lets Anywhere


Respecting Locals


Understanding Voluntourism 

My first trip abroad was a “mission trip” in Jamaica with my youth group at the time. We spent a week exploring Jamaica, under the guise of helping the locals through “construction work” at a church, visiting a few of the ill and elderly locals and a girls school, and a trip to an orphanage. At the time I didn’t see much wrong with it, heartbroken at the sad situations I’d encountered and motivated to come back and make a change. But when I first came across the definition of “voluntourism” (volunteer tourism,) I had a pit in my stomach knowing that was EXACTLY what I’d been a part of that week.

I may have been changed by that experience; I’d certainly like to think so. But I never went back to help. Never followed through with my goals of raising money to support the church we helped “build” without an ounce of construction experience among the group of us youth. I went back to my regularly scheduled life as we so often do. It’s hard to measure the impact the trip had on me personally but it’s pretty clear I did nothing to truly help the people we encountered. Unfortunately, I may have only exacerbated the struggles they were already facing. 

I’ve learned a lot since then about the difference between truly volunteering services you’re qualified to offer, and voluntourism. Thankfully, there’s a lot of information on how to distinguish the difference between a mission trip that actually helps, and a mission trip that only helps the missionary. Kate breaks down some of the differences and better alternatives here so we can make sure our volunteer work makes a difference in the positive way we hope for, rather than the destructive ways that too often actually occurs.


Kate standing on a tan jeep at an elephant sanctuary with several people posing out of the vehicle for the camera

Kate working at an elephant sanctuary in Namibia. Connect with Kate on Instagram.


Volunteer tourism continues to grow in popularity and it’s not hard to see why. You get to enjoy a new destination, immerse yourself into local life and make a difference at the same time. It’s seen as less damaging than mass tourism as travellers tend to visit more remote places off the beaten track, and so money spent there can boost the local economy. Staying and working in an area can also help a greater understanding of the inequality in the world and the complex problems that people face. Travellers may spend time working towards conserving beautiful landscapes or rare species in an industry that in chronically underfunded and otherwise might not be invested in. Organisations working with local communities may put money into local skill development, helping improve education and skill levels of people, and projects that travellers assist can be proven to be successful.


But there’s a murky side to volunteer tourism. It’s not a silver bullet, and can be detrimental to host communities. At a minor level, it tends to reinforce the view that development is something that is done to the poor. The developed western world gives aid to the poor developing world. At the other end of the scale are untrained teenagers giving medical assistance in hospitals and the report of child sex abuse at an orphanage that hosted volunteers. 


The volunteer tourism industry is currently unregulated, which means the sector has become predominately a profit-driven industry. What sells is put ahead of what a community or region needs. Host communities are often not involved in project development, management or evaluation. Volunteers generally need no particular skill-set or pledge to stay a minimum amount of time. Money from the volunteer goes to the organisation and minimal funds will find their way to the local host. 


Fortunately, there are a few codes of practice available from the Year Out Group (, Ecotourism Society ( and Tourism Concern ( which are worth a read, but, in a nutshell if you want to volunteer overseas, then remember these pointers:-


  • Ask the project organisation for a breakdown of where your funds go to. If they won’t tell you, don’t sign up. Ideally, you want to see some funds invested into long-term development within the host community.


  • Find out how involved your host is and has been in the set-up, management and development of the project.


  • Request to see some results and evidence of what the project or organisation has achieved so far. 


  • Consider what you are good at, and where you could offer most useful help. 


  • Try to stay for a few months as a minimum. Anything less than this is probably not going to be much help. Time spent on conservation projects matters slightly less, but generally anything less than a month is not going to be helpful. 


Written By: Kate Lewis at The Smaller Explorer


Environmental Issues


Protecting the Trails

A sign saying do not enter with people standing behind it in Yosemite

What NOT to do – ignore the safety signs and go off-trail on a hike! Connect with Katy on Instagram.


A few years ago my husband (then fiancé) and I road tripped to the Grand Canyon. I was amazed at the jaw dropping sights, and of course wanted to get some amazing photos of the dramatic landscapes. We took some photos from the observation points along the main trail lining the canyon, but we couldn’t help but notice there were some amazing photo opps just a little off the trail. There were no barriers that were meant to gate the area off, so we figured it couldn’t hurt if we just wandered off a bit.  My husband found an amazing rocky point and climbed out to it to snap a few shots.  Other visitors noticed and started veering off the trails to get out to that photo opp. But right as my husband joined me back on the trail, a park ranger came up and started yelling at the people who had started hiking out there. “Get back on the trail! One misstep or gust of wind and you’ll fall to your death! You cannot leave the trail areas!” I immediately felt so bad. I had purposefully broken the rules for my own selfish desire of the “perfect ‘gram.” We’d not only endangered ourselves, but we’d disrespected the National Park.

Nowadays I’m a real stickler for staying on trails. While it may be tempting to venture off the trail into areas less traveled, in many places when you do this, you could disrupt and destroy delicate root systems, wildlife habitats, and plants. Hiking off an established trail may also compress the topsoil and compact the earth underneath, which can change how water flows during a rain and wash out previously safe areas and habitats. To protect cherished natural areas, you should always stay on the trail. If not out of consideration for the land, flora, and fauna, then for your own protection.

Written By: Katy Grable at Around the World in Katy Days

Thanks for reading this collaborative post on Ethical Travel Mistakes. 

I hope you’ve found these stories helpful! I don’t want people to be guilt-ridden over things we’ve done in the past. Guilt alone does not beget progress or change. But self-reflection and more knowledge absolutely can make a difference.

I do hope that we can all learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others to travel more ethically going forward. We owe it to the environment, the animals, the locals, and our fellow travelers to treat the places we visit with the respect they deserve. With a little research and a little compassion, we can avoid these ethical travel mistakes and make the tourism industry much more sustainable.

Have a story you’d like to share about your own ethical travel mistake? Send me an email at and let’s have a chat about it!


Looking for more on sustainable travel? Try these next:

20 Tips for Sustainable Travel

8 Eco-Friendly Adventures to Discover Around the World

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Ethical Travel Mistakes: 5 Things We Wouldn\'t Do Again and Their Responsible Alternatives