The Ethics of Tourism: An Exploration

Article by Eva Augst, Claremont McKenna ‘23
Artwork by Ruth Mueller, Harvey Mudd ‘23

    Before 2020, the international tourism industry was booming. Tens of millions of Americans traveled internationally every year, new resorts were always under construction, and travel corporations’ investments were thriving. The industry took a hit due to the pandemic, but it is expected to return with renewed vigor as Western countries work to vaccinate their populations. As participating in tourism once again becomes a possibility, the time has come to begin to examine the question: is the tourism industry ethical?

    Dennison Nash’s anthropological thesis explores the industry of tourism as an institution of modern imperialism. He argues that imperialism, in its most general form, strives to expand a country’s influence abroad, economically, politically, militarily, or otherwise, and is facilitated through societal interactions. As Nash describes it, imperialism need not be an unwanted imposition of outside interest on another society. Instead, it is characterized by the imbalanced interactions and transactions between nations—even if these are voluntary on the part of the less powerful nation. Tourism constitutes imperialism in the sense that it involves a clear expansion of developed nations’ interests and facilitates power imbalances regardless of visited nations’ willingness to host tourists. With Nash’s thesis as an informative lens, this article explores the ethics behind the tourism industry.

    From both an ecological and a cultural perspective, it is necessary to interrogate the ethics of tourism on individual and structural levels. From an individual standpoint, tourism is often pursued with pleasure-motivated, even hedonistic, intentions that are centered on individual consumption. Consumerist, instant-gratification-based tendencies are encouraged in this context. Whether based on rest and relaxation, personal exploration, or area-specific forms of leisure, tourism is often undertaken by visitors seeking individual fulfillment. Whether this fulfillment comes at the expense of detrimental cultural or ecological effects to the visited nation is not often considered by tourists, and even in the cases when tourists do reflect about these effects, they must weigh their individual fulfillment against broader social responsibility, which is a daunting task.

    Traveling tourists seeking leisure are generally self-focused, looking primarily for rest or mental enrichment, and unlikely to spend much energy attempting to assimilate to the cultures of the visited nations. The burden of accommodation and adaptation, thus, falls on the hosts, who work for the comfort of the visitor and, at times, neglect the maintenance of their own cultural identities in order to sustain the flow of cash.

    More structural approaches to the marketing of tourist industries may involve the commercialization, sometimes referred to as “Disneyfication,” of culture. This process is comprised of cultural oversimplifications that aim to create palatable, surface-level, bite-sized versions of native cultures for tourists to enjoy. Governments are typically more concerned with their country’s marketability on the global stage and its tourism revenue than with the needs of local communities. The privileging of financial outcomes and the neglect of local cultures are, thus, inherent to the tourism industry. Peoples, cultures, and practices are treated as monetizable commodities or attractions in order to bolster a country’s position within this industry. As a consequence, human values and livelihoods are overlooked.

    In addition to the demoralizing commercialization of culture, tourism often involves the proliferation of service-based economies. As Nash writes, “In the tourist area the consequences of tourism derive from the introduction from outside of a new sociocultural reality. This reality, to which the native people and their social system must adapt, amounts to a transiently populated, externally based leisure class and its accompanying goals or expectations.”As the host nation works to accommodate the “externally based leisure class,” priority is placed on the visitors’ wellbeing and comfort. The development of infrastructures such as metropolitan industries and a service-based economy is inherently outwardly oriented, with the primary goal of providing for and accommodating tourists’ needs—once again creating an expansion of the visiting nations’ interests, as described by Nash.

    Although the development of tourist areas can indeed offer economic boons to the host nations, they also necessitate the creation of metropolitan, often Western-centric infrastructure and marketing. Local businesses and markets are eliminated in favor of larger, often Western, corporate enterprises. Local populations are frequently displaced from their homes and workplaces, particularly in the agricultural sector, to make way for the construction of resorts and golf courses. Though these infrastructural enterprises may stimulate brief job creation or GDP boosts, they come at the cost of a clear interest expansion and power imbalance, favoring the visiting nation. Due to the phenomenon of economic leakage, the presumed economic benefits of the industry also turn out to be greatly exaggerated: 60-70% of the revenue from tourist enterprises will leave the economy of the host country and return to that of the visiting nation.2

    Tourism constitutes expansion in the physical sense because it entails the construction of infrastructure and leisure areas in the host country, and it constitutes economic expansion because it fosters the profit-driven interest of the visiting nation. The infrastructural developments are often justified through the rationale of improving the land that was theoretically being insufficiently used by the less-developed countries. This attempt to justify the practices of the tourism industry fails for two reasons. First, those who were already living on and cultivating the land often assert that it was already being used in a productive manner. Land that was previously used for agriculture could adequately support local families in terms of revenue, food, and housing, and the construction of leisure infrastructure in these areas resulted in the displacement of those families and in the destabilization of their forms of subsistence. Additionally, the jobs created by the tourism industry are problematic in their own way, given that the revenues generated by locals’ labor efforts primarily benefit the visiting nation due to economic leakage, and locals are forced into service jobs as employees, in contrast to their previous condition of being self-employed, which allowed them more economic mobility and independence.

    From an ecological standpoint, infrastructural expansion often has detrimental impacts on the host nation. Golf courses, for example, are often constructed on previously productive agricultural land, generating a significant loss of biodiversity. Resorts in general are notorious for siphoning disproportionate amounts of natural resources from the areas in which they are built, particularly water. Mega-resorts often take up thousands of gallons of water for tourist use, grounds upkeep, sanitation, and more—water that could have instead been used by thousands of local residents.

    Tourism additionally constitutes clear unequal expansion and imbalance in the cultural sense that it involves the imposition of Western ideologies and interests. It creates a power dynamic in which the host country must assimilate the values of the visiting nation, to the benefit of the latter. Western culture, markets, and ideals are prioritized, whereas the culture of the host nation is neglected or commodified to best fit the visitors’ conceptions and standards.

    So, what can be a possible takeaway or remedy for these cultural and economic harms? Clearly, some of the existing problems with tourism as an industry are structural. The governmental relations and financial motivations that propel the industry are largely outside of individuals’ control. Although it is imperative that these structural issues be addressed, that seems like a far-fetched task for the average tourist looking to enjoy time abroad in an ethical manner. Recently, new avenues for pursuing ethical tourism on an individual scale have been developed. The alternatives include ecotourism, pro-poor tourism, social tourism, and political activism tourism. This recent trend demonstrates that the tourism industry can be developed through a more sensitive approach, which is generically referred to as “alternative tourism.” The endeavors of alternative tourism enterprises involve legitimate efforts to accommodate locals’ needs; they aim to not overwhelm communities with infrastructure construction and they promote cultural authenticity rather than commodification. Further, alternative tourism promotes economic diversity to avoid dependence on service economies. It generates a vast array of jobs and works to ensure that the developed infrastructure will be beneficial to locals on a broad level.

    When engaging in these more ethical forms of tourism, it is key to consider their possible ramifications and motivations. Mission trips, for example, are often criticized as paternalistic, culturally insensitive, or incorrectly motivated, and sometimes are found not to be in the best interest of the host nations. Additionally, it is important to remember the structural harms of tourism and to be aware that ethical tourism largely addresses the outcomes, rather than the root causes, of tourism as a generally detrimental industry. Deferring the burden of ethical responsibility to individuals rather than institutions also has its flaws in the long run. However, for the average individual looking to travel, addressing these structural issues is an unfeasible task. It is important to note, nonetheless, that individuals can still take steps to avoid contributing to the structural problems. For example, by supporting local businesses, hotels, and restaurants rather than staying in large resorts, and being conscious of local cultural values rather than imposing Western viewpoints. Participating in alternative forms of tourism, where available, may also be a more ethical option. In taking small steps toward ethical tourism as individuals, we can, at the very least, work to alleviate the detrimental cultural and ecological effects of tourism as an industry.


1.   Nash, Dennison, Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism, 2. ed., [Nachdr.], Philadelphia, Pa: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1997, 47.
2.  UN Environment Program, as cited in “Leap Local - Where Does the Money Go from Tourism?”